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Rishi Sunak’s lack of leadership on nature is failing businesses

The UK’s stop-start approach to the climate and biodiversity crises makes it hard for industry to act.

By Beverley Cornaby

Quickly following the Cop27 climate conference in Egypt in November another UN environmental conference has begun in chilly Montreal, Canada. The 15th meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, Cop15, has brought countries together to set targets to solve the increasingly urgent biodiversity crisis.

With nature key to addressing the climate crisis and to economies globally – World Economic Forum research has shown that more than half of global GDP is dependent on nature in some way – leadership on this issue is vital.  

As of a week ago, only the host leader, the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was in attendance at the nature summit. This is not unusual for previous biodiversity Cops, but the level of urgency has changed. As others have argued, reversing the dramatic decline in nature needs a “Paris moment’, setting targets for nature with a global biodiversity framework. This is impossible to do if heads of government are all looking elsewhere.  

The glacial pace of the talks, with a weekend stocktake showing how little progress had been made so far at the conference, is a sign that the political will to push harder isn’t sufficiently present inside the Palais de Congres conference centre. However, on the streets of Montreal, the bitterly cold temperatures didn’t deter hundreds of protesters from demonstrating. Led by indigenous delegations from around the world, the demonstrators are demanding protection for biodiversity and human rights. 

Just as we heard calls for the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, to attend Cop27, his own MPs have demanded he go to Cop15 to demonstrate the UK’s environmental leadership. His decision to stay away has been disappointing. It has come at a time when the UK’s reputation as a global climate and environmental leader has been damaged by its recent approval of a coal mine, a decision which reflects a culture of short-term decision making, and a lack of focus and follow through. All of this is denting the confidence of businesses to invest in solutions that will help the climate and nature crises. 

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Millions of species worldwide face extinction. This will have knock-on effects on all parts of our economy and society. Businesses are increasingly aware of their impact and reliance on nature, from the ability to produce food to nature’s role in helping prevent climate change and adapt to its impacts. UK government rhetoric on the environment in recent years has often been ambitious and supported by some significant progress, including signing into law the aim to be net zero by 2050 and passing the Environment Act. However, goals and frameworks can only get you so far. The devil is always in the detail.  

[See also: Rishi Sunak Pledge Tracker: Is the PM regretting his promises?]

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The world may be dealing with geopolitical and economic turmoil, but leaders can’t afford to avoid the difficult decisions that need to be made on nature. Thought-through policies that demonstrate strategic thinking can encourage businesses and financial institutions to redirect investment and increase funds. Sunak’s government recently missed a deadline to set targets to improve water, air and wildlife. This stop-start approach makes it difficult for businesses to ascertain what is a priority in regards to the environment. 

A case in point is agriculture. The industry is highly dependent on nature, while also being responsible for major destruction. The post-Brexit opportunity to replace harmful EU farming subsidies with something that could sustainably produce food, while improving the UK’s natural environment, has been subject to delays, confusion and waning ambition. At the same time, we can see a looming UK food supply crisis caused by inflation, disrupted labour and complex supply chains that are subject to increasing threats from the climate and nature crises.  

Just as elsewhere, the UK government has fallen back on treating the symptoms and not the disease itself – reinstating short-term, well-trodden processes even if they are no longer fit for purpose. This form of governance is a catastrophe for progress on complex issues such as biodiversity and climate change. And they are a nightmare for businesses and finance institutions who are feeling the impacts of the changing context in which they operate, while understanding that they hold many of the solutions. To make changes at the necessary scale and pace requires leadership from the top to signal the problem, the implications of solving it, strategic long-term thinking, and robust campaigns to engage all parts of society.

As the senior UK team arrives in Montreal, led by Environment Secretary Therese Coffey, they need a clear mandate and strong support from the Prime Minister, so the UK’s leadership on negotiating a successful global biodiversity framework is felt in the halls of the Palais de Congres. This Cop has to be the last biodiversity summit ignored by a British prime minister – and it must be the last set of negotiations for the future of our economies and natural life support systems that isn’t at the top of global political priorities.

[See also: Coal power has rebounded in Europe

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