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Sam Hall: How the UK can deliver COP15's ambitious global targets

Sam Hall (CEN Director)

It has been a busy end to 2022 for nature policy. The government's direction of travel on the natural environment has come under criticism this year due to fears about environmental protections being weakened in pursuit of economic growth. Relationships between conservatives and the environmental sector will take time to heal, but there are encouraging signs that the new Environment Secretary is getting this crucial agenda back on track.

Last week, Defra managed to secure a cross-government agreement on a broad suite of targets to turn around environmental decline. Targets are vital environmental policymaking tools, as they increase confidence about government policy direction and unlock private sector investment.

The final targets are very similar to those consulted on earlier this year, although there is now a clearer legal goal to ensure nature will be more abundant in 2042 than now. These targets are a strong start and will not be straightforward to deliver. As they develop new policies for improving water quality and reforming protected site designations, ministers should consider using powers in the Environment Act to set further targets for the overall condition of protected sites and rivers.

The publication of these targets coincided with almost 200 nations agreeing a historic new Global Biodiversity Framework at the UN nature convention in Montreal, Canada, which the UK government played a critical role in securing. The leadership from Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey and her team of ministers was crucial to getting a deal over the line. This includes an international commitment to halt the decline in biodiversity and protect 30% of the planet for nature by the end of this decade, just as we are doing in the UK.

Delivering these new targets and the global biodiversity deal will require strong domestic policy - in particular ambitious Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs). The review of these schemes, which began under the Liz Truss government, has now concluded. Early applications for the Sustainable Farming Incentive have been slow, so it was right to look at the scheme's attractiveness to farmers. But the core principles - that we should target limited public money on buying public goods, such as biodiversity enhancement - should never have been in doubt.

There have, rightly, been concerns about food security and farmer profitability, given the sky-rocketing input prices and global supply chain problems. But ELMs have the potential to enhance food security by rewarding good soil management, increased pollinator populations, better flood risk management, and natural pest management. It can also help farmers diversify their businesses, creating a reliable second income stream to complement their revenue from food production and making them more resilient.

It was very welcome that the Environment Secretary confirmed earlier this month that all three ELM schemes would proceed. Incentivising nature restoration on less productive farmland through Countryside Stewardship and Landscape Recovery will also be critical for meeting our targets. We look forward to further detail in the new year. We also hope there will be further information on the creation of a regulatory framework to unlock private markets for nature recovery, including clearly defined standards and strong accreditation and enforcement mechanisms.

The other key delivery challenge for nature recovery is meeting the ambitious 30x30 commitment to protect 30% of land for nature recovery by 2030. The government has already designated around 26% of England's land, but most of that lacks a specific nature duty. That's why the government should take forward two CEN MP amendments to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which has now moved to the Lords.

The first, tabled by CEN MP Gary Streeter, would give our national parks a renewed statutory purpose to recover nature so they contribute fully to our 30x30 commitment, as Julian Glover's Landscapes Review recommended. This should be complemented by an equivalent duty for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The second, which David Simmons MP tabled, would create a new designation, a wildbelt, specifically for land where nature is being restored. Wildbelts can help protect land that is receiving government nature funding (for instance, through Countryside Stewardship or Landscape Recovery) and can boost access to nature by restoring nature near to large population centres. To avoid further restrictions on housebuilding, wildbelts should be targeted in areas with existing designations, such as greenbelts, and improve their environmental quality.

Defra deserves credit for the positive steps taken in recent weeks and months, especially given the large in-tray the new Secretary of State faced. The department has a busy 2023 ahead, not least the publication of the Environmental Improvement Plan - the first update to the pioneering 25-year Environment Plan. CEN looks forward to working with ministers on the next stages of the rollout of the Environmental Land Management schemes, creating frameworks to unlock more private finance for nature recovery, taking further action to clean up our rivers, and improving resource efficiency.


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