Defra's 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP) was published in 2018 with ambitious targets for first halting biodiversity loss, prior to reversing the trend and seeing a long term increase in biodiversity. The 25YEP set ten goals to achieve this aim that were reflected within six policies. The different elements of each of these policies was not prioritised, with the general enhancement of all environmental elements (including air quality, biodiversity and health and social wellbeing) receiving equal weighting. The 25YEP was adopted by the UK Government as the first Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP), with an undertaking to review and update this plan after 5 years. In January 2023, the latest EIP (EIP23) was published (for more information, see our original news story here). This plan both reports on the achievements of the first 5 years post publication of the 25YEP, as well as providing more detail on how the original aims will be achieved. This includes an overhaul of the original strategy to enable the setting of more specific targets and commitments that can be measured against a range of detailed indicators.
The EIP23 has set an overall 'apex goal' for improving nature (known as 'Goal 1 - Thriving plants and wildlife'), reframing the strategy outlined in 2018. This goal seeks to halt the decline in biodiversity, with all sub-ordinate aims (such as improving environmental quality, use of resources, mitigating climate change and improving biosecurity) all feeding improvements that can be reflected within the apex goal. The UK Government has adopted this approach to more closely relate the commitment made to the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed at the UN Nature Summit COP15. EIP23 is an ambitious plan, with a timetable that seeks tangible and recordable improvements to the environment, although there is much detail on approach and funding that is yet to come to enable delivery.
The EIP23 reports the key achievements made since 2018 in delivering thriving plants and wildlife. Those focused on delivery within the UK are:
The launching of the Nature Recovery Network (NRN), including initiation of six large-scale projects including the Somerset Wetlands (a new 6,140 ha super National Nature Reserve) and Purple Horizons, West Midlands (restoring and connecting heathlands across 10,000 ha)
The almost doubling of the number of agreements with farmers and other land managers to enhance the natural environment through the Countryside Stewardship Scheme
The establishment of 22 Landscape Recovery projects to support 263 species and restore over 400 miles of rivers
Improvement of the conservation status of 96 species through the Species Recovery and Back from the Brink programmes
The launching of the England Peat and Trees Action Plans to create and restore peatlands and woodlands, backed by £750 million Nature for Climate Fund
In addition, achievements on the international stage, including the expansion of the UK's international nature investments, are detailed.
To build upon these successes and deliver the apex goal, seven targets and commitments are set within the EIP23. These targets and commitments include halting the decline in species abundance by 2030, followed by an increase of at least 10% (based on 2022 levels) by 2042, restoration or creation of over half a million hectares of wildlife rich habitat by 2042 and to increase tree canopy and woodland cover from 14.4% to 16.5% in England by 2050 (including an interim target to deliver an additional 34,000ha of woodland by 2028). To deliver these targets and commitments the EIP23 contains a delivery plan that focuses on eight actions (six of which are domestically focused), that will have their success measured using 15 indicators.
The eight action areas cover a range of themes that overlap and are largely complementary. On a national scale the focus on protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030 (known as ’30 by 30’) provides a broad target that can be measured in a straightforward manner. Currently what constitutes ‘protected’ is not known, but the Government will publish criteria by the end of 2023. The scope of what constitutes a protected area will be key to its effectiveness in halting and reversing biodiversity decline. In 2020, when the Government committed to 30 by 30 it was announced that 26% of land in England was already receiving protection. This total included, amongst other things, Areas of Outstanding Beauty and National Parks that are not specifically focused on maintaining or enhancing biodiversity. Many commentators have suggested that the current area protected for the purposes of nature conservation is less than 10%, with a large portion of this being in unfavourable condition. The opportunity to meet the apex goal will therefore only be realised if the parameters of the targets are of equal ambition to the EIP23.
There is a drive to deliver additional woodland cover and manage woodland more sustainably to deliver biodiversity, sequester carbon and improve water quality. Within England, the drive to deliver more woodland and enhance existing resource is through the England Trees Action Plan. There is a focus on planting the right trees in the right place to deliver maximum benefits, and a focus on tree health including resilience to disease and control of pests including deer and grey squirrel. There is also emphasis on enhancing existing ancient woodland sites and consulting on protections within the planning system for ‘long established woodland’ (woodlands that have been present since at least 1893). Key to the success of woodland creation and enhancement will be aftercare and the success of the expected deer management strategy.
As well as creating and protecting further areas of habitat, there is emphasis on improving the condition of existing designated sites through provision of advice and funding to landowners and enforcement where management agreements are not being met. It is emphasised that this is reliant on greater levels of monitoring to ensure that the current baseline conditions are understood. Delivery of this commitment is likely to require much more direct input from statutory nature conservation bodies, which is likely to require additional funding to increase staffing levels.
The delivery of funding is crucial to achieving the apex goal of the EIP23. The plan highlights some of the Government funding initiatives that are aimed at meeting the targets, but acknowledges that private finance will be required to ensure successful delivery. The focus for private finance will be on building confidence and market integrity for natural capital assets and through the delivery of mandatory biodiversity net gain for development.
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