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The UK’s nature restoration plans have some big holes – here’s how to fill them

Have you heard anything about nature as a political priority in the upcoming UK general election? We haven’t. And as biodiversity researchers, that troubles us.

The UK is already one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries. Any further loss is a major risk to wellbeing and prosperity, would make climate change worse, and would remove options for adapting to a warming world. The UK public cares deeply about nature, yet it is not a major topic in this election.

That’s why we recently sent a letter to all UK political parties asking them to make the loss of nature at home and overseas a priority both in this election and in the years to come. The letter was signed by over 180 UK scientists with expertise in biodiversity and conservation, including Fellows of the Royal Society and government advisers.

You might think that the country’s nature recovery needs had been taken care of. After all, in England and Northern Ireland, better environmental protection has been enshrined into law through the 2021 Environment Act.

A 25-year environment plan, which sets out how the environment in England will be improved within a generation, aims to halt and reverse declines in species abundance. Also in England, environmental actions are now built into payments to farmers and under “biodiversity net gain” provisions, most developers will be required to create habitats for wildlife.

Wales’s nature recovery plan explicitly aims to reverse the decline in biodiversity, while Scotland’s devolved administration has also recognised the importance of reversing biodiversity loss and recovering nature. A new national biodiversity strategy and action plan for the whole of the UK has just been published. This is all very positive, but it is only part of the story.

Gaps in legislation

In December 2022, the UK, along with 195 other countries, agreed to a bold global target to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2030. It may seem that the UK is well placed to play its part in fulfilling this target. Unfortunately, there are major gaps in legislation and critical implementation issues.

To date, Westminster and the devolved administrations have not enshrined the global biodiversity target in law: current legally binding targets focus just on species (rather than both species and ecosystems), and only ask for declines to be halted (as opposed to reversed) by 2030. The UK biodiversity framework was recently launched as a platform to facilitate cooperation between Westminster and the devolved administrations, but details are still lacking.

Most importantly, the UK’s impact on nature is not just within its own borders. In our globalised world, consumption is underpinned by international supply chains and associated financial investments.

deforested land
Illegal deforestation in Brazil is driven by demand from wealthier countries like the UK. Tarcisio Schnaider / shutterstock

Between 2016 and 2018, the UK demand for deforestation-linked agricultural commodities such as beef, soy and palm oil required an area equivalent to 88% of the UK, while UK-based financiers provided over £40 billion to companies at risk of causing deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia alone.

We need to take responsibility for the impacts we cause to nature overseas. At the moment, these overseas impacts are not systematically tracked by the UK’s governments or considered in environmental legislation.

Biodiversity recovery within the UK has to be a national priority. But recognising responsibilities towards biodiversity loss overseas is equally important.

As a wealthy country, the UK can and should work with the countries where its effects are felt, to conserve and restore biodiversity, to green its supply chains, and take leadership in ensuring financial flows act to recover nature rather than deplete it.

This is an issue of international and intergenerational equity, and bold commitments in this area would realise the country’s ambitions for global leadership in international conservation and development policy.

Reversing the loss of nature

To make this happen, the UK needs to legislate a legally binding requirement on the government to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, at home and with respect to the UK’s overseas footprint. It should also set up a platform for implementing this biodiversity commitment across all different levels of government and their departments and agencies.

Nature is not just a nice-to-have. Investing in nature recovery brings so many opportunities for building a resilient, sustainable, fairer future, at home and abroad. Nature underpins our health, our economy, our wellbeing and is key to getting out of the climate emergency we found ourselves in. The UK’s next government needs to recognise this and act upon it.


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