For peat’s sake, let’s make Brexit work for nature

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

For peat’s sake, let’s make Brexit work for nature

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I was delighted to be able to make a small contribution to the IUCN Peatland conference today.  Twenty years ago (with the help of some people at today’s conference) I compiled a report called “The Great SAC Race” – which included a shadow list of sites (especially peatlands) which we believed were worthy of protection under the EU Habitats and Species Directive - many of which were subsequently designated.  So, it was a little ironic that I had been asked to speak today about the implications of Brexit for peatlands.

This is what I said...

We live in a period of political, constitutional and economic uncertainty but some things remain constant...

...climate change remains the greatest threat to life on earth with an estimated 10% of the world’s species pushed to the brink of extinction with every degree centigrade rise in global temperatures (compared to pre-industrial averages)  BUT since the Paris climate agreement, we have the beginnings of a plan to prevent catastrophic climate change and an aspiration to stabilise temperatures at 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial averages.  What's more, the UK Government remains legally committed (through its UK Climate Change Act) to reflect this ambition and decarbonise the economy by 2050...

...nature remains in trouble as demonstrated by the recent State of Nature report and WWF's Living Planet Index.  Degradation of our natural 'assets' means we are eroding the services that nature gives to us for free BUT the nations of the world have agreed a plan to halt biodiversity loss through the Convention on Biological Diversity with 20 measurable targets to be achieved by 2020 (which are also reflected in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals)...

... governments across the UK have made their own political commitments to save nature, for example the Conservative Party won the Westminster General Election with a manifesto commitment to restore UK biodiversity within 25 years BUT there is a growing gap between political ambition and the measures available to restore nature...

AND

... we remain a nation of nature-lovers as demonstrated by the millions of people who watch programmes like Autumnwatch, Springwatch and Planet Earth, and we continue to be inspired by the wonders of wildlife.

All of this applies to our peatlands – the habitat for which the UK has global responsibility...

...80% of our peatlands remain damaged or modified, only 13% of blanket bog SSSIs and just 5% of lowland raised bog SSSIs in England are in favourable condition

...greenhouse gas emissions from degraded peatlands in the UK is approximately to 16m tonnes of CO₂e which is more than the emissions that the UK has reduced since 1990

...successive assessments from government reports (such as the UK National Ecosystem Assessment) and committees (Natural Capital Committee and the Climate Change Adaptation Sub-Committee) have highlighted the importance of increasing efforts to restore our peatland assets

...for many, getting up close and personal with our peatlands is the best wildlife experience you can get. 

RSPB Forsinard reserve, bog pool with Cotton grass, Sphagnum etc (Andy Hay, rspb-images.com)

It is clear that it will not be possible to... 

...stay within the 1.5⁰C global temperature threshold without reducing emissions from land use and especially high carbon habitats like peatlands (which contribute c5% of global greenhouse gas emissions - equivalent to all emissions from air travel)

...meet Aichi target 11 (which obliges 17% of land to be well managed for wildlife by 2020) within the UK without an active programme of peatland restoration

...restore peatlands without a change a change in land management steered by the right mix of strong legal powers for protection and incentives for recovery

And this is where the jeopardy and opportunity associated with Brexit comes in.

In the run up to the referendum, we said that it would be safer for nature for the UK to remain part of the European Union.  We reached this conclusion by...

... interrogating the evidence which demonstrated the environmental benefits that EU laws had provided particularly through the EU Birds and Habitats & Species Directives yet also highlighted sectoral problems associated with agriculture and fisheries

...and asking (then assessing) both sides of the debate to say how they would honour their biodiversity commitments after the vote

Yet, as we all know, just after 4 o'clock in the morning of Friday 24 June, it was announced that the UK had voted to leave the EU.  This triggered a changing of the guard at Westminster with a new Prime Minister and new Cabinet to oversee Brexit. 

This is now our political reality.  Yet there remains great uncertainty about what it means for nature and this affects our response for peatlands.  To bring this to life, I shall channel my inner Donald Rumsfeld.

There are some knowns...

...nothing changes until it changes which means that all EU laws apply until we leave

...article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will (subject to a parliamentary vote, probably) be triggered by the end of March 2017

...the UK will leave the EU two years later in 2019

...the proposed Great Repeal Bill will ‘save’ all EU laws (both those EU laws already transposed to domestic legislation, but also those EU regulations which do not require transposition into domestic law)

...EU funding agreements will be guaranteed (by the HMT) up to 2020, but

...the UK will not be able to access EU funds (such as Life, the only dedicated fund for wildlife) once it has left the EU

...manifesto commitments (including to biodiversity) and international obligations remain in place

But there are also some known unknowns...

...we still have no clear idea of the future relationship between the UK and EU following Brexit

...we do not know how the UK will deal with EU legislation that is intimately linked to EU processes or institutions

...we do not know how or whether the UK will replace the enforcement powers and arbitration role provided by the EU

...we do not know what sort of settlement the UK Government and devolved nations will strike regarding future legal and policy regimes

In the face of this uncertainty, environmental NGOs have joined forces to make the case that a vote to leave the EU was not a vote to weaken environmental protection, rather it is now a once in a generation opportunity to raise environmental standards UK.

We are focusing on three main areas...

...maintaining or bolstering current levels of environmental protection whilst ensuring that the strong institutional arrangements for driving action are in place.  For peatlands, we would hope and expect that our statutory nature conservation agencies continue to work with landowners to improve the condition of peatlands and clamp down on unsustainable practices such as burning on deep peat soils

...ensuring new policies for agriculture and land use and for fisheries improve the environment alongside thriving farming and fisheries communities.  For peatlands, we would hope that more public money (perhaps by redirecting more of the current £3 billion annual public subsidy for agriculture) is available to drive restoration.

...consolidating the UK’s international leadership role in tackling global environmental challenges like climate change and global biodiversity loss.  For peatlands, as we are one of the 25 nation’s which are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions from peatlands, renewed vigour is needed to drive down emissions from degraded peat soils.  This is why I was delighted to hear Biodiversity Minister Thérèse Coffey announce that that some of the new Defra £100m available for capital projects will be applied to peatland restoration.

The good news is, that we know from our own experience, that it is possible to turn things around and restore habitats like peatlands.  From the Flow Country to the Caingorms, and Peak District to the Pennines, peatland partnership projects have shown what can be achieved. 

These examples, coupled with the drive provided by the excellent IUCN UK Peatlands Programme, give us confidence that we can create a different future, where peatlands come back to life for wildlife and for people.  Yet, for this to happen, we must make Brexit work for nature.

  • A thought provoking and important piece.

    What is obvious is that peatland restoration must be one of the easiest ways to reduce - and hopefully even reverse - carbon emissions. There's an assumption (perhaps hinted at in your comment on Defra money) that conservation always costs - ruthlessly and inaccurately exploited by many Conservative MPs in recent years. The Natural Capital Committee's view is that restoring 140,000 ha of peatland would generate economic benefit to the UK to the tune of £560m over 40 years - and they make it clear that that is only for carbon, not wildlife or water. It is also worth remembering that the damage to peatland is often (as in the case of both sheep and grouse, and formerly forestry) already subsidised - meaning that a switch of public money from damage to conservation need not necessarily cost much - or even anything.