Labour says UK nature under threat and pledges to halt decline | Green politics

Labour has pledged to halt the decline of British species and protect at least 30% of the land and sea by 2030 if it is elected.

Steve Reed, the shadow environment secretary, also vowed to set a new land use framework that would prioritise the protection of nature, and to deliver on targets to improve the UK’s environment.

“Nature is under threat in Britain,” Reed said. “The Conservatives have left it one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Almost half of our bird species and a quarter of our mammal species are at risk of extinction. Precious landscapes in our national parks are in decline. And our rivers, lakes and seas are awash with record levels of toxic sewage.”

The commitments mark the first time the Labour leadership has explicitly agreed to uphold the nature and biodiversity targets. It is the party’s first major intervention on nature issues as the UK prepares for a general election this year in which environmental concerns – sewage in rivers, air pollution and the net zero target – will play a leading role.

Reed said the protection of the natural environment was a top priority for Keir Starmer, the Labour leader. Nature would be essential in meeting Starmer’s mission on the economy, health, education, crime and energy. Improving access to nature and air and water quality would improve health, help to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and lift the quality of life for millions of people, Reed said.

The Conservatives have been criticised for setting ambitious environmental goals without putting in place the policies and regulations required to meet them. Instead, many regulations have in effect gone unenforced as government bodies, including the Environment Agency and Natural England, have had their budgets reduced and had to cut staff.

The Office for Environmental Protection, the public watchdog, has found that the government is off track on its nature targets.

Reed said this was endangering the UK’s natural environment for future generations. “Parents worry their children and grandchildren may never experience the beauty of the natural world as every previous generation has,” he said.

Upholding the targets of halting biodiversity decline and protecting 30% of the UK’s land and seas by 2030 will mean almost all of this taking place in Labour’s first term of government, as the next parliament is likely to run from this year or early next year until 2029.

That will be a massive task given that the targets are currently off track and the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, is reluctant to make any new spending commitments. A potential commitment of £28bn to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and kickstart a green economy was watered down earlier this year.

Reed is understood to believe the targets can be reached if the government works in partnership with civil society organisations and business.

He said a Labour government would seek to reduce flood damage by increasing natural defences, such as trees and wetlands, as well as building up carbon sinks in peatlands. Stopping illegal sewage dumping and attracting new investment into water companies would help clean up the landscape, and better public transport would improve air quality, he said.

Nature campaigners welcomed the pledges but called for more detail on how they would be implemented.

Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said Labour was right to recognise that prioritising nature was “political gold dust” as these were areas of huge public concern, and he predicted that the stark difference in approach to these issues compared with that of the Conservatives would resonate with the public.

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“The Conservatives have pretended nature is opposed to farming, which is just stoking a culture war,” he said. “Reed is talking about working in partnership with nature organisations. This is a complete contrast in substance and in tone.”

However, he said Reed should go further and set out a fully fledged “nature manifesto” before the election, which Reed had indicated he would do.

Mark Spencer, the farming minister, said: “Labour’s eco schemes in Wales have already cost more than 5,000 jobs and would close more than 20,000 farms if rolled out across England. This shows Keir Starmer has no plan for supporting our rural economy and protecting our natural heritage. A Labour government would take the countryside back to square one.”

A spokesperson for the NFU said: “Our ask of the next government is that any proposals to boost nature recovery simply sit alongside equally ambitious plans for food production. This should really matter to everyone to protect and enhance the UK’s food security. We can and must do more, supported by the right policy framework that values both quality, sustainable food and the environment in which it is produced.”

Richard Benwell, the chief executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “There’s a test of real ambition from Labour to halt the decline of nature, and a clear recognition that even the most enterprising missions for growth and prosperity would be meaningless if the natural riches that support us continue to be squandered.

“Starmer will need bold policies to meet public demand for nature recovery. Now we have the statement of ambition – next, the public deserve to know how Labour would deliver.”

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