Wednesday 19 November 2008

We have failed to halt the loss of wildlife - a government committee says so!

The Sussex Wildlife Trust, along with most conservation organisations, has been concerned for a long time that wildlife is still going down hill. Our experience is of reducing habitats, species under threat and slow degradation of the environment. This is not to say that there are no good news stories out there. A lot of good things are happening and it is not all doom and gloom, but we have not yet turned the corner when it comes to maintaining our rich biodiversity.

It is therefore interesting to read that this is also the view coming out of the thirteenth report of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee – entitled “Halting Biodiversity Loss” . The Committee concludes that despite some good work by Government many species and habitats continue to face severe declines and local extinctions across England. As a result it warns that the Government will miss a key international target to halt biodiversity loss by 2010.

The Committee said that there is a compelling economic case for the protection and enhancement of biodiversity. This is helpful because so often in our discussions we are arguing against people who merely consider wildlife as a “nice to have” rather than a key asset that we should value and look after.

While the Committee recognized that protected area arrangements (such as the designation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest) are largely adequate it believes the Government will have to go beyond traditional nature conservation policies to reverse the decline and enable growth in biodiversity into the future. Furthermore the Committee stated that government now needs to adopt an “ecosystems approach” - a much larger scale approach to ensure that wildlife survives, even thrives, throughout the whole landscape not just in special sites.

This agrees very well with the points that the SWT have been making for years. Looking after the best of what we have is the vital first step, but it is not enough by itself. We need a large scale agenda conserving wildlife in the entire landscape and maintaining quality in our whole environment.

This is further re-enforced by the Committees welcoming of government plans to conduct an ecosystem assessment for England. Hopefully this will follow the lead given by the UN when it published the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005. . This set the scene, providing a method for assessing the wide range of benefits provided to people from a healthy functioning environment. These range from the essentials for life, including clean air and water, food and fuel, to things that improve quality of life and wellbeing, such as recreation and beautiful landscapes, and include natural processes, such as climate and flood regulation.

It will be interesting to see how government carries out such an assessment and whether in practice it will give proper recognition to the value of a healthy wildlife rich environment. A first step will be to improve cross-departmental working so that all government departments understand the value of biodiversity and take proper measures to conserve and enhance it. At present the Committee is concerned about a continued failure of departments, such as DCLG and DBERR, to consider biodiversity impacts.

So – there we have it! It’s official. There is a compelling economic case to conserve biodiversity and yet the ongoing loss of our wildlife has not been halted. I agree with the Committee in calling for an ecosystem assessment and will be pushing to make sure that any assessment makes reasonable consideration of all the benefits provided to us by a healthy environment. Perhaps it will be a good idea to do an ecosystem assessment for Sussex!