Deadly air and vanishing birds - is this election the environment's last chance?

Leading green groups list their fears for the environment if present policy continues unchanged.

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The sun will rise and the birds will sing: these things you can always rely on, even the morning after a general election. Or can you?

The population of our farmland birds has almost halved since the 1970s. Skylarks, turtle doves, corn buntings, linnets and goldfinches have all declined. Seabirds too - their numbers may fall 40 per cent from 1986 levels within the next ten years.

If current trends continue we could lose a quarter of all UK wildlife populations by 2025 from 1970 levels, says the RSPB’s Richard Gregory. These shifts are linked to wider global changes in agriculture and climate. But one factor is undeniably homegrown - between 2008 and 2015, public sector expenditure on biodiversity fell by over a third.

So is this election the last chance for nature? Endangered species like the curlew may not make it to 2022. And neither may some of us. Friend’s of the Earth’s election website warns of 200,000 premature UK deaths linked to air pollution in the next five years.

Brexit increases these risks. The proposed Great Repeal Bill will ensure all existing EU environmental law is transferred to the UK, but offers no guaranteed replacement for the institutions that enforce these laws, nor for the funding streams that support them. Plus there is no certainty these regulations won’t be rewritten in future, perhaps without scrutiny by parliament.

“Brexit must not be used as an excuse for inaction,” says Sam Lowe from Friends of the Earth. So what have politicians proposed to do?

All the major party manifestos agree that the environment is important. “The United Kingdom will lead the world in environmental protection,” boasts the Conservative’s 2017 offering. “Investing in our environment is investing in our future,” says Labour’s. The Lib Dems propose a "Nature Act" to set binding natural capital targets. And the Greens, of course, have put their commitment in their very name.

But given the Tories' failure to support clean energy subsidies, to address air pollution, or stem biodiversity decline, Green groups and charities are unsurprisingly anxious. I asked them what we can expect the British environment to look like if present policy continues unchanged. Here are five of their top concerns for the next five years:

1. Deadly deregulation

In recent years, the Conservative government has failed to address the UK’s air pollution crisis. Present levels of NO2 are in breach of EU limits – not just in London, but in 37 out of 43 zones across the UK. Lawyers at Client Earth have repeatedly taken the government to court for these failings, and CEO James Thornton is concerned that their record here is a worrying sign of further deregulation to come.

“When we won our air pollution case against the UK, the government immediately ran to Brussels to try and relax the air pollution standards, so that they could come back and comply with the Supreme Court injunction without ever having to do anything,” he explains, “But they failed because they had to go through the democratic process in Brussels.”

His fear now is that the Great Repeal Bill may not offer the new, UK-based laws the same degree of democratic oversight. The key will be ensuring all law is brought over as primary, not secondary, legislation. “You want all the laws to come over as primary legislation and then they can only be amended democratically in parliament. Otherwise there is the danger of back-room deals, in which ministers reduce standards, and harm citizens and the environment, without any oversight by parliament.”

2. A dangerous soil

In 2014, scientists warned that the UK only had 100 harvests left due over intensive farming. One solution is agroforestry, which both improves and protects the soil as well as helping tackle climate change. “We want the next government to aim for half of farms to practice agroforestry by 2030, inspired by France’s goal to achieve the same by 2025,” says Laura Mackenzie, Soil Association's head of policy. “On climate change, the UK is way off track. Having declined for much of the past two decades, agricultural emissions are now increasing.”

3. A silent Spring

Kate Jennings from the RSPB is worried that “we’re not doing enough” for nature. While the State of Nature report shows that our wildlife is demonstrably better off because of EU laws and money, nature is still in trouble. One in 10 species in the UK are threatened with extinction. And we are on course to miss the next lot of international commitments on biodiversity in 2020.

4. An ocean at risk

“Over the next five years, the government has a unique opportunity to reform our fisheries in a fair and sustainable way,” says Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK. “It needs to follow the science when setting fishing quota, and work with our European neighbours to avoid a tragedy of the commons: not pursue a policy which could see fish stocks in UK waters collapse.”  There is also an urgent need to ensure that the UK’s global leadership on ocean conservation continues and to tackle the build up of plastic, adds McCallum. Last year the government pushed back its target for plastic recycling, to 57 per cent by the end of 2020, not 2017.

5. An outdated energy supply

Shane Tomlinson, a director at E3G, an independent climate change think tank, is concerned that the Conservatives' proposed policies privilege short-term fixes, like the energy price cap, over long term investment in a modern, smart and decentralised energy infrastructure. Take both Labour and the Tories' continuing support for nuclear energy. “This is really a centralised energy system from the last century, not the energy system we need to be building,” he says.

Then there’s the Conservatives' “shocking” new proposal to change the planning laws on fracking. Nationalising control of the system and putting responsibility for health and safety in the hands of a new shale regulator, with a mandate to promote the industry, raises “some real concerns about citizens rights and democracy”.

 

There is still time, however, to change the direction of the UK’s policy on the environment. Friends of the Earth have scored all the major parties’ manifestos and you can see their results here.

 

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.