England's green and pleasant land threatened

| 26th October 2020 |
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Natural Capital Committee finds five of seven areas examined - freshwater, marine, soils, plants and wildlife and land - are deteriorating.

Our report highlights the limited evidence of progress and some worrying declines.

England’s "natural assets" including soils, land and wildlife are in serious decline despite targets to improve the environment, an expert committee has warned.

The final report by the Natural Capital Committee, set up to advise the government on how to deliver on the pledge to improve the environment in a generation, found no area was making progress.

In five of the seven areas it examined under a new framework it has developed, freshwater, marine, soils, plants and wildlife and land, England’s natural environment is deteriorating, the committee said.

Recycling

The report flagged a range of failings, including data that shows just 14 percent of rivers are in a good ecological condition and none are in good condition when it comes to chemical pollution.

There have also been declines of 30 percent in bees and hoverfly species between 1980 and 2016, while protected, rare and notable species have seen populations fall by up to 60 percent since 1970, the report warned.

Only half of national nature reserves are in a favourable condition and the government is off track to meet targets for 90 percent of priority habitats to be in a favourable or an unfavourable but recovering condition.

When it comes to the condition of soils, erosion, intensive farming and development is resulting in losses of at least £900 million a year for England and Wales, it said.

In the remaining two areas, atmosphere and minerals, which includes household waste and recycling, there was no change in progress.

Pledge

Household recycling rates have plateaued at around 44 percent since 2013, and airborne ammonia levels, most of which comes from agriculture, are not on track to meet reduction targets.

The committee, chaired by Professor Dieter Helm, called for urgent action to reverse declines and flagged concerns over a lack of data to show how the natural environment was faring.

The public can play a vital role in helping fill the data gap, by taking part in environmental monitoring such as nationwide insect surveys, the committee added.

Natural capital, the part of nature that directly or indirectly delivers value to people, underpins the economy including manufacturing, finances and society.

The Natural Capital Committee was set up in the wake of a pledge in 2011 by the government to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it was found.

Assets

This latest, and last, report before the committee’s second term finishes at the end of 2020, is part of work to help the Government implement the 25-year environment plan published in 2018.

Professor Helm said: “Nearly a decade has passed since the government committed to leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation.

“Our report highlights the limited evidence of progress and some worrying declines.

“With the Environment Bill to return imminently return to Parliament, the government has a once in a generation opportunity to transform our environment.

“It is vital that we measure the state of our natural assets and then target interventions to improve the environment in a coherent way. 

Ecosystems

“We can be green and prosperous, but it will not happen by default.”

He also said the Office for Environmental Protection, set to be established as the green watchdog after Brexit, “must be properly resourced to take forward the framework the committee has developed to deliver and monitor the changes needed to urgently restore England’s environment”.

An Environment Department spokesperson said the government had made “significant progress” implementing the 25-year environment plan, and that in the last year ministers had introduced the Environment Bill which sets out the vision to protect the natural environment for future generations.

“As we rebuild our economy in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we are committed to shaping a cleaner, greener and more resilient society to protect and restore our natural environment and diverse ecosystems,” the spokesperson said.

This Author

Emily Beament is the PA environment correspondent.

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