Theresa May pledged to lead the world in environmental protection
Spending to protect nature has hit its lowest level since the Conservatives came to power, even as threatened species continue to decline.
The government has cut biodiversity spending by a third since 2008-9, new figures show, while progress on key conservation measures has stalled or gone into reverse.
Nearly three quarters of the UK’s monitored species declined since 1970, data from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) find. Nearly three fifths declined since 2010.
Spending on biodiversity abroad almost halved under the coalition. The international budget, covering conservation programmes and policing of wildlife crime, fell from nearly £80m to around £40m.
The government cut UK biodiversity spending a further six percent last year, the data show. The total - covering nature reserves, land management, National Park conservation programmes, green farm schemes, sites of special scientific interest and the Forestry Commission - now amounts to 0.024 percent of GDP.
Invasive species have caused more and more damage in every class of habitat over decades, Defra’s figures show. Pollinating insects have suffered long-term decline, and all major groups of rural and sea birds declined, most over the long term. Threatened pig breeds did worse and horse breeds continued to decline.
Fewer poor-condition habitats were found to be on the mend: the share “improving” fell by a third, and the proportion showing no improvement more than trebled. Sustainable forestry, protected areas and sites of special scientific interest stopped improving, and green farm schemes covered a much smaller area.
Surface water quality dipped, with only a third rated “high” or “good”, and air quality stopped improving. In November, a Commons committee found the Treasury was ignoring long-term environmental needs, and called for a “systematic “green-check”” when allotting funding.
The exchequer has “ridden roughshod over other departments’ objectives,” the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) reported, “changing and cancelling long-established environmental policies and projects at short notice with little or no consultation”.
Greenest government ever
The latest figures flout government pledges to protect nature and fund conservation.
The UK’s Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework pledged to “address the underlying causes” of species loss and “reduce the direct pressures” on the natural world. The plan promised “mobilisation of financial resources” and boasted of providing “essential financial resources for important biodiversity work”.
In May 2010, David Cameron said he was “absolutely committed” to leading “the greenest government ever”. The coalition’s 2011 Environment White Paper hoped for “the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited”. May’s Conservative manifesto repeated this ambition and pledged to “lead the world in environmental protection”.
Yet in late 2014 the EAC gave the government a “red card” on biodiversity and demanded urgent action.
The new figures follow repeated warnings on biodiversity loss. WWF calculate that up to 100,000 species become extinct every year. The world lost nearly 60% of its fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles between 1970 and 2012, the group estimate, and could see a two-thirds decline by 2020.
2016’s State of Nature report, published by over fifty green groups, found the UK is “among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”. More than one in ten monitored species face extinction, the authors concluded.
While cutting biodiversity spending, the government has continued to subsidise fossil fuels.
Defra figures show the UK spent £44 million on nature abroad and £453 million at home last year. By contrast, leaked figures show it spent over a billion pounds backing international fossil fuel projects. The Overseas Development Institute find Britain subsidises coal to the tune of £356 million a year.
Intensive farming has done most harm to UK species, according to a 2016 study in PLoS One. Habitat destruction, intensive grazing, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides have devastated biodiversity, researchers found. Climate change, growth of cities, river drainage and decreasing forest management also played a role.
Globally, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) lists farming, fishing, hunting, logging and harvesting among the main drivers of biodiversity loss, alongside invasive species, pollution and climate change.
Brexit could harm Britain’s biodiversity even further, the EAC warned in December, as up to a third of the UK’s environmental safeguards could become unenforceable “zombie legislation”.
Tim Holmes is an 'active bystander' and also researcher, writer and editor. He tweets at @timbird84.