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COP15 is an opportunity for the UK to champion nature on a global stage

Nature is in long term decline, with one million animal and plant species currently facing extinction. This breakdown of ecosystems is a risk to our food security. It could also worsen the impacts of flooding and undermine public health and wellbeing. That is why we must rally our international partners to protect and restore nature.

I am passionate about conserving our wildlife. It is a fundamental part of our heritage but nature is also an economic asset. As we have stripped ourselves of nature, bit by bit, we have begun to lose the services that nature once provided for free. The loss of these ecosystem services, such as carbon storage, food provision, and air and water purification, costs more than 10 percent of annual global GDP.

It is costing British taxpayers money too. If everyone had good access to nature, we could save the NHS as estimated £2.1 billion every year, according to Natural England. But access to nature remains unequal. This goes to the heart of levelling up and is yet another lesson that we must learn from the Covid-19 lockdowns. Spending time in nature was an essential lifeline for those of us fortunate enough to access it but too many needed to travel too far to reach more than a sorry patch of grass.

Nature is not in a good state in the world-famous English countryside either. Our once green and pleasant land is increasingly devoid of biodiversity. If left to fester, the insects and creatures that farming depends on for pollination, natural pest control, and soil health will decline further. Combined with the increase in extreme weather events due to climate change, this will have serious consequences for our food security.

Nature’s decline is not a problem that has been forgotten about by this Conservative government. Our landmark Environment Act set the world’s first legal deadline to halt nature’s decline by 2030, along with a multitude of other targets for water and air quality, waste, and habitats. We have also made an ambitious commitment to protect 30 per cent of UK land and seas for nature by 2030. The UK is leading the way for nature’s recovery.

Free from the EU's stifling Common Agricultural Policy, this government has harnessed its new post-Brexit freedoms to instigate world-leading changes to farm payments, known as Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS). By paying farmers for environmental public goods, such as clean air and water, the schemes will enable farmers to diversify their income, bolster the biodiversity of our countryside and champion soil health to support the production of nutritious food. ELMS could be a triple win for food security, farmers and nature.

We now have the chance to showcase these efforts to protect and restore nature on the world stage at the upcoming United Nations biodiversity conference (COP15) in Kunming, China. We must now do what Global Britain does best: inspire and encourage other countries to follow our lead, just as we did at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last year and as we have been doing with support for Ukraine following Russian’s invasion.

Last year, the government published a review of our security and foreign policy. This highlighted the risks posed by nature loss, such as poor harvests, which could exacerbate poverty, instability and migration - with a projected cumulative cost of $10 trillion by 2050. This makes the nature summit this year a strategic priority for Britain.

Our task at COP15, therefore, is to go global with our domestic nature targets to halt and reverse nature’s decline and protect 30 per cent of land and sea for nature by 2030. We must make these into global, binding commitments using our diplomatic might.

Only through shared, ambitious goals such as these can we put international nature into recovery. This is a lesson we have learnt from tackling climate change. The 2015 Paris climate change agreement set a headline target to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, underpinned by regularly updated national plans. We must accept nothing less than this for nature. Where Alok Sharma rallies to keep “1.5 alive”, we must call to halt and reverse nature loss.

We need nature; it is essential for our health, wealth and heritage. And yet, we have neglected it and are beginning to experience the repercussions. The UK is firmly committed to protecting and restoring nature. With Kunming in our sights, it is our duty and responsibility to inspire and encourage other nations to follow suit.

First published by BusinessGreen. Henry Smith MP (Crawley) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.


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