“We’re calling on UK Governments to turn leaving the European Union into an opportunity to create a countryside richer in nature.”
Martin Harper for the RSPB
Earlier this year science proved, as it so often does, something we already instinctively knew: spending time in nature is good for our health, and for our happiness.
The ’30 days of random wildness’ study conducted by Derby Uni and the Wildlife Trusts invited 18,500 people to get hiking, biking or whatever they had a yen for, out in the countryside, imagination the limit.
The results? Measurably significant improvements for them in “life satisfaction, vitality, meaningfulness, happiness, mindfulness, and [lowered] anxiety.”
Taking the kids out into Nature is even better. If we get them climbing trees, bug hunting, or just sploshing through muddy puddles, it helps raise their self-esteem and gives their creativity free rein. Fresh air, exercise and rosy cheeks are to be had in the park too. Even green spaces in cities do the business for us it seems, whatever age we’re at.
Our Nature, the ecosystems and the wildlife in them, are something we absolutely need to cherish, even if we’re only thinking of their benefits to ourselves.
But, and it’s a big but, barely a month ago the State of Nature 2016 report delivered its damning indictment – the UK is now one of the most nature-impoverished countries in the world. One in seven of our British species face extinction, and more than half are in decline.
And it doesn’t stop there. We “worryingly face losing much more if we don’t take action today and step up our efforts in the years ahead.” Martin Harper
Right now, the future fate of our wildlife and environment all rests on two moves we are awaiting from Prime Minister May which will be truly pivotal for them. These are the post-Brexit Great Repeal Act, and the 25 Year Plan for the Environment. At this moment, we are standing on the threshold of history in the making.
But before you yawn and mumble that history is not your bag, just pause a minute to cast a quick eye over what this means for us, for our animals, and for our iconic British countryside. It matters. Those two enactments could be the making or breaking, environmentally speaking, of the UK as we know it.
First, a quick look at the Great Repeal Act
The Great Repeal Act will revoke the act that took us into Europe in the first place, the European Communities Act 1972. At the same time, the GRA will incorporate into British law all the laws passed since 1972 by the European Parliament.
When the European Communities Act was passed, all subsequent legislation from Brussels, obviously, became binding on us here in the UK too. (The press at the time was full of hysteria about Brussels bureaucracy – the EU will force straight cucumbers and bananas on us, and other such nonsense.)
From that entire 44 years of EU law, the Environmental Chapter which concerns us here, contains more than 200 provisions. It’s almost entirely these we have to thank for our cleaner beaches, cleaner air, cleaner countryside and cities, and protection for our wildlife. Before 1972, we could boast here in the UK only 27 beaches not polluted with sewage. Now in 2016 we can swim without fear of encountering something gross at more than 600 beautiful clean beaches around the land – courtesy of EU environmental law.
Some of those 200 provisions, for instance the EU-wide ban on the use of neonicotinoids, so deadly to our bees and butterflies, were actually opposed in Brussels by the Tories. It’s a fact that under EU law we benefit from some environmental protections our government did not want us to have.
You might be wondering, if all 200 provisions are going to be incorporated into British law anyway after the Great Repeal Bill, why should we be worried about the ‘Brexit Effect’ on Nature here in the UK?
The problem is that there are multiple ways the Tories will be able to simply ‘lose’ EU provisions they don’t like. :
- The Awkward Bits Minister for Energy & Climate Change Andrea Leadsom says that there is between a quarter and a third of EU law it would be ‘impractical’ to move into UK law. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of laws. Considering the Tories’ opposition to some of the EU environmental laws, there’s every chance those will find themselves on the ‘Impractical’ List.
- Bits to Unpick The Tory cabinet is keen on deregulation. Minister for Defra George Eustice described the EU Nature Directives as ‘spirit-crushing’, and has already declared, “The birds and habitats directives would go.” There will undoubtedly be other bits they want to unpick, such as planning restrictions in protected areas, to give business more of a free run.
- Parliamentary Scrutiny In “the largest scale legislation process ever carried out”, to have Parliament deliberate on every detail would just not be do-able. In consequence many decisions will be left to individual Ministers, bypassing Parliament altogether. Very convenient for the Tories.
- Updates Things change fast. The government may just not bother keeping pace with post-Brexit updates from Brussels to existing environmental law.
- Money Funding for environmental protections gets a high priority in the EU budget. Who knows what our government will do with the money it no longer contributes to Europe. If its track record is anything to go by, environmental and animal issues may soon be taking a back seat.
That’s the bad news. Let’s shine the light of hope into the picture and take a look at the 25 Year Plan for the Environment – “a chance to imagine a wildlife-rich natural world in the future.”
Catherine Weller for ClientEarth.
We don’t actually know yet what is going to be in the Plan. After Mrs May’s election to PM in July, publication of the Plan was put back until the end of the year. But we hope it will reference the Red List of Ecosystems, and the Green List of Protected Areas drawn up by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Closer to home, the UK’s biggest Nature organisations – the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust and WWF-UK – have been working together to lobby the government with their ideas for a post-Brexit environment, farming and wildlife plan.
They think it should look something like this:
- Replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy with codes that give high priority to environmental standards in land management
- Setting up an Independent Policy Commission for the environment that would encourage open debate and public input
- Joined-up working for farming and environment in the government, with all future proposals measured against the 25 Year Plan
- Keeping existing EU schemes that reward farmers for environmental work on their land
What we need at this turning point for our country, is the government to take a good hard look beyond its blinkers. To change its mindset. Protecting wildlife, the countryside and the environment is not an expensive nuisance, a luxury to be trimmed off the budget, or unpicked to free industry of ‘unnecessary’ constraints.
It’s tragic if money really is the only thing this government understands. Let’s at least hope they pick up on that health and happiness study, and that when drawing up the 25 Year Plan, the study results remind them to factor in Nature’s huge savings to the NHS.
No-one puts the value of Nature better than David Attenborough.
But true as that is, and wonderful as Sir David is, he is still presenting there the human-centred view of Nature – its benefits to us.
Even more than making our lives worth living, and in fact providing for our lives, Nature is something that does not belong to us. It exists for its own sake, and we have a duty to honour that, and protect its rights. My hope would be that our government might see beyond money, beyond even the UK population’s health and well-being, beyond what Nature gives to us. To see “that our ecosystems – including trees, oceans, animals, mountains – have rights just as human beings have rights.”
We could not do better than emulate Ecuador: “By recognizing rights of nature in its constitution, Ecuador – and a growing number of communities in the United States – are basing their environmental protection systems on the premise that nature has inalienable rights, just as humans do.” Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature
It’s time to stop regarding Nature as human property. Time to redress the balance – a balance which has placed far too much weight on human interests, especially monetary ones, and nothing like enough on the best interests of other species and the land we share, habitats, ecosystems, the Nature we hold in common.
Petition the government:
Protect UK Environment & Wildlife – adopt EU legislation here
Keep the EU’s environmental protection laws for the UK here
Keep the EU laws that protect our environment here
As EU law is still binding on the UK until Article 50 is triggered, tell the EU to prevent a ‘Silent Spring’ here
Petition the UN:
Sign The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth here
5th December 2016 New petition to Sir Julian King, UK Commissioner attending meeting of the European Commissioners on Wednesday 7th December. Save our nature laws. Click here
4th January 2017 Brexit legal changes ‘could put countryside and wildlife at risk’ – itv NEWS
Environmental law endangered – Wildlife and Countryside Link
How nature is good for our health and happiness – BBC Earth
*The UK’s 25-year plan for nature – all eyes on wildlife – ClientEarthBlog, Catherine Weller
The Rights of Nature – Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature