Earlier this week, I gave a speech setting out my vision for how we can recover from the Coronavirus Pandemic. There is no doubt that the impacts of this pandemic will be felt deeply for many years, but the experiences that many have had, have led us to appreciate the difference that nature makes to our lives in a new way. Now more than ever we are reminded that it is in our best interests to look after nature.
When we destroy nature, we undermine our very foundations. Every country faces a choice as they map out their recovery - store up problems by sticking with the status quo, or get back on our feet by building back better and greener. We require a long term approach and political commitment to tackling the environmental challenges, and so we will be publishing a paper that sets out our approach to setting long-term targets on biodiversity, waste, water, and air quality through the new Environment Bill, so they are established in time by October 2022.
Long before the EU, the UK was a driving force in establishing other international conventions to help our natural environment, and now that we are leaving the EU, an opportunity awaits to adapt our approach to the environment. We can borrow approaches that worked in the EU in the past, but we must challenge ourselves to think creatively, to innovate and to consciously avoid clinging to processes and procedures just because they are familiar.
So, as we chart a new course for our approach to protecting the environment, we should recognise that the environment and our ecosystems are a complex web of interactions that mankind will never fully understand let alone manage. We should re-balance the way we approach policy development with more focus on science and technical knowledge and less time fretting about legal risks of doing something new or innovative. We should have fewer reports that say nothing new – but more new ideas that we should actually try. If we are to protect species and habitats and also deliver biodiversity net gain, we need to properly understand the science to inform these crucial decisions. And we should ask ourselves whether the current processes are as effective or efficient as they could be.
At the heart of our approach is a simple premise. If we can improve the baseline understanding of habitats and species abundance across the country in every planning authority, then we can make better decisions towards achieving our vision to leave the environment in a better state than we found it. We can reduce process while simultaneously improving the quality of the data that informs our decisions. We can move quickly to rule out issues that we know don’t exist leaving us time to focus on the protections that matter most for the species and habitats most affected – so we ensure that new developments really do mean a net gain for people and for nature.
In recent decades, our approach to environmental regulation , has been to protect what is left and to stem the tide of decline. However, if we really want to realise the aspirations that the public have for nature then we need policies that will not only protect but that will build back – with more diverse habitats that lead to a greater abundance of those species currently in decline.