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How ministers can strengthen our hand at COP15 biodiversity conference

After Cop27, you could be forgiven for thinking we’d had our fill of UN environmental conferences this year. But another summit on nature, arguably of even greater significance but less well known, is taking place in Montreal this week, where UK leadership is needed more than ever.

At this UN Biodiversity Conference (Cop15), countries will seek agreement on a new set of global targets and action plans for halting the decline in our wildlife by the end of the decade. Similar goals have been set previously, and few have been met. But the cost of failure has never been higher. For the sake of our security and our prosperity, we must succeed this time.

Evidence of biodiversity decline is as stark as it is depressing. Global wildlife populations have declined by more than two-thirds on average, and extinction rates are between 100 and 1,000 times higher than would occur naturally. This has economic consequences, as it reduces the capacity of nature to provide the basic elements of life — such as the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Biodiversity ranks alongside climate change for good reason as one of the UK’s top foreign policy priorities. These twin environmental threats will worsen water and food insecurity, exacerbating regional instability and driving migration, threatening to cause conflict around the world. The impacts of this will inevitably, and in no short order, be felt on our shores too, from economic turbulence to illegal immigration.

An ambitious deal in Montreal is in my constituents’ and our country’s best interests. And just as it was in Glasgow with Cop26, UK leadership will be critical. We have already put in place a world-leading framework for restoring nature in the Environment Act, which I campaigned to strengthen further by adding a duty on water companies to reduce harmful pollution. We’re leading the world by pioneering new farm subsidies that reward farmers for managing nature as well as producing food. We also have a legally binding deadline to halt the decline in wildlife populations by 2030, an independent watchdog to hold the government’s feet to the fire, and a duty on housing developers to improve biodiversity.

Despite our impressive record, political upheaval in recent months has sent confusing signals about the UK’s environmental leadership. To dispel any remaining doubts and lead by example, this Conservative government should reaffirm its commitment by pressing ahead with new nature targets, designating more land specifically for nature restoration, and unlocking private finance to boost biodiversity.

Firstly, the government should set its long-term targets for improving nature as promised in the Environment Act. It will focus the minds of civil servants and give businesses certainty. Recent political events mean ministers missed the deadline for setting these targets - but we can’t afford a prolonged delay. Setting the UK’s targets for reducing waste, improving air and water quality, and repairing nature must be set as soon as possible. We should also ensure the update to our 25-year environment plan next year includes step-by-step actions to deliver on these new ambitions.

Secondly, ministers should back David Simmonds’s amendment, which I am proud to support, to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to create a new “wildbelt” status. This new legal designation would protect land in local plans for nature’s recovery. It would also support the creation of habitats near where people live, so more can enjoy the wonders of their local wildlife and the health benefits of spending time with nature. Creating this designation is key to the UK reaching its commitment to protecting and effectively managing 30 per cent of land by 2030 for nature, strengthening ministers’ position in Montreal as we push others to do the same.

Finally, we need greater action to unlock “green finance”, so businesses contribute to reviving our environment. A report by the esteemed economist Sir Partha Dasgupta found that firms have not historically factored nature into their decision-making because it doesn’t have a recognised economic value. But over half of the world’s GDP is reliant on nature. The government needs to ask companies to include their natural assets in financial accounts, bringing home the economic importance of our natural environment to unlock private investment in protecting and restoring biodiversity.

We are sending a brilliant team of ministers to Montreal to represent the UK in this vital summit. We should send them with the strongest hand possible because we all have a stake in the outcome. Much that we rely on — including food, energy and water — depends on nature thriving. I urge ministers to take these steps to continue the UK’s environmental leadership at home and overseas.

First published by The Times. Tracey Crouch MP (Chatham and Aylesford) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.

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