PODCAST: Environment Journal talks to Craig Bennett, Wildlife Trust

In this month’s podcast we turn to an area that we have not previously covered: nature and biodiversity. This featured strongly in the crucial COP 26 conference held in Glasgow a few weeks ago and is gaining further presence in the triumvirate of climate change, air quality and biodiversity.

Craig Bennett is the Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts and well positioned to discuss the importance of nature in the UK.

The Wildlife Trusts are a collection of 46 independent charities formed from local people getting together locally to make a positive difference to wildlife, climate and future generations. They look after nature reserves and operate visitor and educations centres across the country. But more importantly the Wildlife Trusts engage with Government and lobby nationally and internationally, hence their presence at COP 26.

In an early exchange, Craig notes the irony that fossil fuels actually are a part of biodiversity of course – just organic matter from millions of years ago that has rotted into the earth to form coal, gas and oil.

Inevitably, the discussion turned to COP 26. Here, Craig presents an interesting review of the event. He mentions the three levels that comprise any COP meeting and how different things can be gained from each level: 

  • The rhetoric – given by the world leaders appearing during the first couple of days;
  • The bilateral agreements – the deals forged by those countries present, such as on coal, cars and forests;
  • Then there is the formal text – always painfully slow due to the need for consensus between all of the states.

Christina Figueres (former Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC) recently declared in an article that “the success of COP 26 lies in the eye of the beholder.” In Craig’s view the was outcome was positive, but tinged with disappointment, summarised by the phrase ‘baby steps forward, but when large strides are needed.’

The Wildlife Trusts press their case, namely that restoring our natural systems could provide 37% of the CO2 mitigation needed by 2030 under the Paris Agreement. In the UK, it is pressing for a target of 30% of land and seas being protected by 2030. The Government claims that 26% has already been reached but the Wildlife Trusts consider the real figure to be nearer 3%, indicating how much is still left to be done.

Craig was also insightful on the new Environment Act 2021. Talking of painfully slow, this Bill took a full 2 years to reach the statute book (largely due to Covid-19) but is finally law. Again, it is positive but not enough. The inclusion of the Environmental Land Management Scheme is progress in the right direction, but we have still to see the detail of this. He also echoed widescale concern about the independence of the new Office for Environmental Protection (where Ministers have reserved the power to intervene).

Town and Country Planning is another law of interest to the Wildlife Trusts and an area where they have high expectations. The previous White Paper did not meet with their approval and they press for a new Planning Bill which prioritises people and wildlife, restores nature, tackles the climate crisis and supports health and wellbeing. It will be interesting to see now that Michael Gove is the Secretary of State, whether this is delivered.

On my favourite area of the interface of climate change, air quality and biodiversity (where climate change gets the majority of the publicity), Craig reminds us that there is an equivalent to the UNFCCC on biodiversity. This is the Convention of Biological Diversity – passed at the very same Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1993 that led to the current movement on climate change.

The Convention has three aims: the conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity; and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. The fact I was unaware of this merely proves the point about how the focus is not as sharp on biodiversity as it is on climate change more generally.

Still, Craig points out whilst he is never satisfied, there is much to be positive about and he recognises that the need to protect nature is gaining widespread greater support. What it really needs now is a legal target on nature protection, similar to the 1.5 degrees C target agreed on global warming. But that might be some way off yet.



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