Sarah Olney MP: The government must approach the biodiversity emergency with the urgency it deserves

'The protection of a biodiverse environment has been plagued by ill-management and the government’s failure to understand the tangible consequences of poor biodiversity'


Sarah Olney is the Lib Dem MP for Richmond Park

The protection of a biodiverse environment has been plagued by ill-management and the government’s failure to understand the tangible consequences of poor biodiversity. A quick glance at the headlines from over the last twelve months makes it plain to see that the state of biodiversity in the UK has become deeply concerning. The Government has missed its 2020 target for 50% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest to be in ‘favorable’ condition with just 38% in favorable condition in England. This figure has barely improved in the last decade.

As the UK enters the COP-15 UN conference on biodiversity this week in Montreal, it does so with a terrible track record in the arena. The UK has lost nearly half of its biodiversity since the Industrial Revolution and is ranked in the bottom 10% in the world and the worst among G7 nations for biodiversity. This of course comes in quick succession to the Prime Minister’s own initial decision not to attend the COP-27 Climate Change conference in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Time and time again this government has demonstrated that it is neither committed to meeting the ambitious targets promised to other leading nations to improve the global environment, nor appreciative of the drastic and real consequences of climate change and poor biodiversity across the world. It is painfully clear that the UK is underperforming considerably on the world stage of environmental emergency.

This conference must be a catalyst for change in the UK’s performance on improving biodiversity.

The impact of poor biodiversity is depressing. There were 403,171 sewage overflows recorded in 2020. Overflows are meant to occur only during heavy rainfall events, but now it appears that some overflows have been in regular operation, releasing contaminants into the water in all weather. DEFRA have estimated that the number of public bathing sites estimated to be in ‘poor’ condition has increased three-fold in the last 12 months. This is something I notice in my own constituency, with the river Thames being a substantial part of many of my constituents’ daily lives for recreational purposes such as water sports.

The risk of potential health impacts of unsafe public water looms ever greater.

Too often, environmental issues are treated in isolation. Our environment is a complex, interdependent system and it is the foundation of our economic and social prosperity. The government must use this conference to re-address how biodiversity is treated as a national and global crisis.

A lack of biodiversity in the UK has real consequences for the economy. A lack of biodiversity means soils that sustain our agriculture are degraded, the seas that maintain our fisheries are plundered, and our natural defenses against flooding are failing, to sum up, a direct impact of these three consequences is a greater risk to the UK’s long-term food-security. In 2020 UK wheat yields dropped by 40% as a result of heavy rainfall and droughts. With the inflation of food prices hitting a record of 12.4% at the end of November this year, the government must do more to protect the availability and price of food in the UK.

Biodiversity has long been neglected in economic Tory policy, which has led to decades of under-investment. The water regulator, Ofwat, has focused on keeping bills low and maintaining supply at the expense of investment in a reliable sewerage system, and in tandem, regulators have failed to take sufficient enforcement action when pollution has occurred, or even to keep reliable track of the problem. Indeed, on my recent visit to Mogden sewage works in Isleworth to view their treatment for raw sewage spills, I was fascinated by the effect this can have, yet concerned by the frequency with which such operations have to occur because of a lack of investment, and of joined-up thinking between investors.

The Liberal Democrats plan to create a cabinet-level Chief Secretary for Sustainability in the Treasury and a new Department for Climate and Natural Resources, reversing the Conservative’s disastrous downgrading of climate change at the ministerial level in 2016. This would give nature the voice it deserves not only in government but also with the public, increase funding to the relevant areas, and ensure that the plans in place to prevent sewage spills are made coherently.

Of course, biodiversity is above all a health-related matter. While the Environment Bill was in the House of Lords, the Liberal Democrats won a number of votes against the government including that a biodiversity emergency was declared both nationally and globally. We need to emerge with learned lessons from the COVID health crisis, especially given the on-going threats to public health such as the recent rise of Avian Influenza and Strep A infection. In short, far more should be done to tackle the biodiversity crisis which too has serious complications for public health.

There are proven mental and physical health benefits of living in a greener area, with cleaner air. Air pollution alone is the cause of over 40,000 premature deaths each year in the UK, which disproportionately harm poorer and marginalised communities. If the government considered the decline of biodiversity as a genuine emergency, billions of pounds could be saved for the NHS, taking pressure off the system.

Throughout the stages of the Environment Bill, the Liberal Democrats pushed for it to go further. For example, to strengthen the independence of the Office for Environmental Protection and give it further enforcement powers. This week The Times reported that the Environment Agency inspects only around 2% of England’s farms a year to check compliance with pollution rules. However along with the proposal to ensure that the harm caused to the environment and public health by the elimination of discharge of untreated sewage into rivers, these calls were defeated by the government.

As the UK takes its place at COP-15, the government must not only accept accountability for its failings to meet targets set previously towards greater biodiversity, but also commit to plans which mitigate the real economic and health complications of poor biodiversity and strengthen the protection of biodiversity in the future.

The government should now approach the biodiversity emergency with the urgency it deserves.

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