Colin Beale, A Rocha UK Trustee and Reader at the University of York comments on the Prime Minister’s recent promise to protect 30% of UK’s land by 2030.
On 28 September, Prime Minister Boris Johnson took a temporary break from Covid responses to announce a commitment to protect 30% of the UK’s land to support the recovery of nature. This adds to existing commitments to protect 30% of our seas, becoming the ‘30 by 30’ pledge: promising to protect 30% of land and sea as a commitment to put nature on a path to recovery by 2030. It is easy to suspect this is the latest of a long line of empty commitments to improve nature; afterall, this new target replaces the 2010 commitment to halt biodiversity loss by 2020 that we have so spectacularly failed to enact. But it is undeniable that this could be good news if the flashy headline is underpinned by sound policies.
During his statement, the Prime Minister claimed that 26% of the UK is already protected for nature. His calculations assumed National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) are protections that benefit nature. This is wrong: these are recognitions of landscape value and do not confer additional legal protection on wildlife. Adding 4% more land to our National Park network will certainly not put nature on a path to recovery: we must ensure the 30% of our land covered under this pledge holds nature conservation as a primary management objective. Upgrading National Parks and AONBs in this way would be an exciting step, but it is unclear if the government has this plan.
Also ignored during the PM’s statement was any commitment to improve the status of our existing natural protected areas. Exactly how much of the UK is protected for nature is surprisingly difficult to compute, but legal protection is probably given to nature on approximately 14% of land, mostly protected as biological Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs, or ASSIs in Northern Ireland). Unfortunately, even this protection does not seem to mean much, with more than 60% of English and Welsh sites currently in an ‘unfavourable conservation status’ according to the government’s own data. If additional protected areas are to result in benefits for nature we must ensure protection means beneficial management in all areas.
Despite these potential issues, the PM’s ‘30 by 30’ commitment is a positive step for conservation. If it is to provide the breakthrough for nature that is so desperately needed, we must all ensure the government’s promise is followed by meaningful actions: to benefit nature the new areas need to be in the right places, must adequately protect the features they seek to cover, and all our protected areas must be restored to their full potential.