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Long-term outcomes for the natural environment – the climate change challenge

The independent Natural Capital Committee has just published its advice to the government on what long-term goals are needed for the UK’s natural environment over the coming 25 years. Climate change will exacerbate existing pressures on wildlife, water, soil health and habitats – so working out how this affects long-term goals (and how to measure success) is a huge challenge, says Kathryn Brown of the Adaptation Sub-Committee (ASC) secretariat.

I love my garden. It’s a tiny plot on the edge of a 1960s new town, which my husband and I manage in our own small way for the benefit of our local wildlife. As a result of our efforts, we see over 20 different species of birds, plus frogs, bats, lizards and (my favourite) hedgehogs on a regular basis. We make specific choices with our garden to do our bit for local biodiversity and because the benefit we get – pure joy – far outweighs the effort we put in.

The whole of the English landscape is similarly managed – on a much larger scale of course – for one set of benefits or another; food, timber, clean water, biodiversity, recreational value; or in most cases, multiple purposes. The English landscape is a result of centuries of individual choices, which is why it’s referred to as ‘semi-natural’. Given that we have no ‘purely natural state’ in England to aim for, what should our goals be for the natural environment, and how does climate change affect our ability to achieve them?

The first point is that the natural environment is under severe pressure and has been for some time, and as a result our natural capital is being depleted:

  • While the global human population has doubled, global wildlife abundance has declined by over 50% since 1970, according to the Living Planet Index. That is a huge and distressing loss in my lifetime, and seems set to continue.
  • In England, thanks to concerted effort, there have been some positive changes in recent years such as an increase in numbers of farmland bats and some species of birds, such as red kites. Even the small choices we make in our gardens can make a difference, for example to the country’s declining hedgehog population.
  • But at the same time there are sustained and severe decreases in many species – such as farmland birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Only a quarter of terrestrial Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are in good condition. The number of water bodies achieving ‘good’ or ‘high’ ecological status has dropped from 24% in 2011 to just 16% in 2015.

Secondly, climate change will complicate the situation further. The 2017 UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report produced by the ASC highlighted risks from climate change to water availability and quality, soil health, species abundance and habitat condition. There are also some potential opportunities. We know that certain things can help to reduce the natural environment’s vulnerability to the negative impacts of climate change, such as ensuring healthy water courses, healthy deep peat soils, and high quality, large, connected ‘habitat spaces’ to allow species to thrive where they are or move to keep within their ideal climatic zones.  All of these things would also enhance the country’s stock of natural capital, but require long-term programmes of concerted action.

The Conservative Party’s 2017 election manifesto recognised the need for more long-term thinking, and repeated an earlier pledge to be “the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it”. The government plans to publish a 25-year environment plan in the next few months to set out how this will be achieved. Articulating a goal is a necessary and welcome first step, but defining what this means in terms of specific outcomes, and working out how to measure progress towards them, are also critical.

For example, when just looking at the statement above, questions immediately arise. Who is this “generation”? How do we measure the “state of the environment”? How might attempts to meet the goal tally or conflict with other government commitments? Is such a goal even possible in a changing climate?

The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) has just published its advice to the government on these very questions. It suggests 12 specific outcomes that would represent success in 25 years’ time, for example: “wild species and habitats are thriving and populations are … sustainable into the future despite the challenges from climate change and increasing pressures from built infrastructure”. The NCC’s advice goes on to suggest what sorts of measures would be needed to achieve each outcome, such as restoring all peatland systems to favourable condition.

The ASC wrote to the Natural Capital Committee in August to inform its advice. We focussed on four key areas for improvement given the risks from climate change, as set out in our latest report to Parliament:

  • Resilience of habitats and biodiversity. Species will only be able to keep pace with climate change if their habitats are in good condition, of sufficient size, and joined up. The condition and extent of most habitats is not improving at a rate that is in line with current government targets, and species’ populations continue to decline in many cases.
  • Soil health. Peat soils are one of our most precious resources for carbon storage and water regulation, but their condition is degrading. The percentage of blanket bog (upland peat) Sites of Special Scientific Interest in good condition has declined from 19% to 10% between 2003 and 2016. There is no plan in place to achieve the ambition for all soils to be managed sustainably by 2030.
  • Flood hazard protection. Risks from surface water, river and coastal floods are increasing. Meeting this challenge requires a strategic approach that combines catchment management, flood alleviation schemes, development control, and property-level flood resilience.
  • Marine environment and fisheries. Exposure to climate risks within the marine food chain is increasing due to causes such as rising sea temperatures, deoxygenation and ocean acidification. There are no current government policies that aim to increase the resilience of marine fisheries and aquaculture to climate change.

Each of these four key areas is highlighted in the NCC’s advice, and we hope will be reflected equally in the resulting 25-year Plan.

Over the next year the ASC is planning further work to assess long-term natural environment outcomes with climate change in mind. At the very least, we should be able to better define the questions that we should all be asking, so that a more informed conversation can be had on what is possible and desirable at the local, as well as the national, scale.  These will help to inform the government’s new National Adaptation Programme due next year. In the meantime, we eagerly await the publication of the 25-year plan….