It feels, at last, as though we are into the final straight of what has seemed like a very long General Election campaign. The horses – perhaps a broader field than we might have expected at the beginning of this Parliament – are approaching the finishing line, though only the rashest of pundits would risk a flutter on who might cross it first.
Everything is still to play for and, in this tightest of elections, every vote matters. That means that environmental organisations – and more importantly our millions of members and supporters across the UK – have a collective voice that all of those aspiring to government should listen to.
So it’s great that senior politicians from the main UK parties will come together on a platform in London on 23 March to answer questions from an audience of environmentally-minded members of the public about what they’d do if they end up with the ministerial red boxes in May. The party leaders may still be quarreling about if, when and how many of them will appear next to each other in a debate, but we can at least be confident that the big green questions will be asked (and hopefully answered) in a week and a half’s time.
But what are those questions?
Last September, a coalition of the UK’s leading environmental and conservation groups – including WWF – published Greener Britain, setting out practical proposals for the parties’ manifestos. In a matter of weeks we’ll know how much those parties listened – we expect the manifestos to be published in the first half of April.
There are many questions that might be asked of the parties about how they will act to tackle climate change, address environmental degradation and restore habitats and species. The challenge in the UK is a stiff one, as underlined by 2013’s State of Nature report; 60% of UK species assessed had declined during the last 50 years. Greener Britain sets out measures that the next government should take to begin to turn around those declines.
But the challenge internationally is every bit as great, and the statistics just as shocking. Our 2014 Living Planet Report showed that global populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish have declined by an average of 52% in just 40 years. We all know about – and are rightly angered by – the retreat of iconic species like rhinos and tigers, but they are just the most obvious manifestation of declines that are affecting the whole of the natural world.
So the next government needs to be influential internationally, giving strong leadership on both climate change and biodiversity loss.
What does that mean for wildlife?
Well it should include robust action to protect the world’s forests – pulsing with an astonishing variety of life, but still being erased at an alarming rate. The new government can start by leading the charge for reform of the EU Timber Regulation later this year, closing loopholes so that it covers all timber and timber products, and then build on this legal foundation by putting in place mechanisms to ensure we move towards a 100% sustainable market by 2020.
Ministers should also champion the fight against poaching and the illegal wildlife trade – something they have done in the parliament that is now ending, and which must continue in the next. That means working with international allies to ensure these activities are treated as the serious crimes they are. And in the world’s oceans, the UK should work for the effective stewardship of the polar regions, including the establishment of marine protected areas and co-operation with allies to ensure that economic interests operating in these areas do not damage their unique environments.
Of course, international leadership is both easier and more credible if you have your own house in order first. So whether it’s pressing forward with designating an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas around the UK, ensuring that its own timber procurement policies are in order or standing up for the laws that have protected Europe’s wildlife sites and species for a generation, rather than seeking to weaken them, the next government will need to be environmentally strong at home in order to have maximum influence abroad.
So my question to our politicians if they want to build a greener Britain? What will you do to ensure that Britain leads the world in protecting the global environment – and is seen to do so?