“While the conventional, political dangers—the threat of global annihilation, the fact of regional war—appear to be receding, we have all recently become aware of another insidious danger.
It is as menacing in its way as those more accustomed perils with which international diplomacy has concerned itself for centuries.
It is the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself.”
- Margaret Thatcher, Speech to United Nations General Assembly, 1989 Nov 8
The threats posed to our natural world have become increasingly clear since Margaret Thatcher became the first world leader to raise climate change at the UN. Last week the IPCC’s latest report warned of the millions more who would be driven from their homes by rising sea levels, the increasing flood damage both in the UK and abroad, and the economic growth lost in a world in which we fail to limit global warming to 1.5C.
The report also highlighted the threat climate change poses to some of the planets most beautiful flora and fauna. The science is clear: every fraction of a degree matters. Unless we limit global warming to 1.5C we could lose virtually all of the world’s coral reefs by 2100 and expose our marine environments to even greater risks than those covered by Blue Planet II. As a diver, and a marine conservation society member, I’m therefore delighted that the Government has formally asked the Committee on Climate Change for their advice on bringing our climate targets in line with the Paris Agreement, and limiting global warming to 1.5C by going net zero. This will not be easy, but with political will and investment in new technologies like electric vehicles and cheap renewable energy, we can protect our planet from the worst effects of climate change.
Last week’s Illegal Wildlife Trade conference highlighted another threat posed to the natural world. Serious organised crime on a huge scale is hastening a mass annihilation of species. The figures are stark. Africa’s elephant population has declined by 70% since 1979. There are only 3,800 tigers left in the wild. Four rhinos, one of the most endangered species on the planet, are killed every day for their horns. Thanks to poaching and habitat loss, our children could soon be growing up in a world without rhinos, elephants and tigers - a world robbed of some of the planet’s most magnificent and majestic species.
We can be proud of the work the UK did last week in bringing together countries to fight back against this evil trade - and in leading the way with our own ivory ban. We must now encourage other countries - not least in the main markets for ivory in the Far East, to do the same.
Here in the UK, the Government has taken a big step towards protecting and enhancing our natural inheritance with a new Agriculture Bill.
The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has decimated British wildlife, while failing to properly support farmers to invest in their businesses. Since 1970 there has been a significant decline in the numbers of British woodland and farmland birds. Pollinating insects have declined by 13 per cent since 1980. CAP payments are regressive and poor value for money for taxpayers - the largest landowners get the bulk of the money with little to no strings attached. Perversely, CAP often penalises those farmers looking to improve our natural environment - for example farmers lose direct payments if they plant trees on their land, because they are taking it out of agricultural production.
The Government’s new scheme will be based on the principle of public money for public goods. Farmers and land managers will be rewarded for the work they do to enhance our precious natural environment. Public goods will include the enriching of wildlife habitats and improving the quality of air, water and soil – natural assets upon which our wellbeing and economic prosperity depend.
We will continue to champion farmers in their core business of producing world-class food and help them to make their businesses more resilient, productive and internationally competitive. However, there is an argument that production of food, for which there is already a flourishing private market - does not require public subsidy - instead public money will be used to support those ecological goods for which there is no market.
This new system will also contribute to reducing flood risk, and help us to prevent and mitigate the effects of climate change. As we move to a net zero society, emissions from agriculture will have to fall. Through the restoration of the British countryside, the Government’s Agriculture Bill will help us protect British nature, while reducing the emissions that threaten wildlife around the world.
As Margaret Thatcher said we are in a struggle to preserve our oceans, our atmosphere, and even the earth itself. Yet with a clear trajectory to reduce our emission to net zero, policies to make that a reality, action to protect our most beautiful species and investment in innovative new technologies, it is a struggle I am confident we can win.