A view on post-Brexit 2021 – a crucial year for action on pandemics, nature and the climate.

A Happy New Year to all our supporters after a truly awful year many of us will be happy to leave behind! Brexit, the coronavirus pandemic and even the ripples of the American elections have all dominated the news agenda over the last 12 months. But as an eternal optimist, I am hopeful that the upheaval created by the events of 2020 will provide important lessons and warnings which will finally prompt global leaders to take the immediate urgent climate and wildlife action we so desperately need.

Coronavirus and a Green Recovery

Who would have imagined 12 months ago that we would now be in the grip of a pandemic which has eclipsed Brexit in terms of media attention and impact? Zoonotic diseases such as the coronavirus have been increasing in recent years and scientists have long recognised the growing risk of a pandemic. Significantly, this increased prevalence has a direct link to climate change and habitat loss as we squeeze the space available for wildlife.

The terrible experience of this pandemic must be a wake-up call for global leaders to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises and ensure that any economic recovery is a truly green recovery. Returning to how things were will be a return to the failed approach which has created the problems we face today, so the Government’s pledge to provide £80m towards the Green Recovery Challenge Fund is a welcome start. Alas, this figure is eclipsed by the eye-watering £27 billion pledged for roads which indicates we have a long way to go before we have a genuine green recovery with the commitment and resources focused in the right areas.

Brexit: Our Conservation Shopping List

The UK has now left the European Union. The deep divisions over Brexit have polarised society in recent years, but we must address the challenges and opportunities which lie ahead.

As we struggle to overcome the impacts of the terrible pandemic, it will be vital for nature that we do this well. This is more complex given the fact that the key issues of agriculture, land-use planning, environment and forestry are all devolved matters, decided by the governments in each of the four countries of the UK.

However, the nature of Brexit means that the headline issues are the same, albeit with different country contexts, so here is our Brexit shopping list of the top three issues to be addressed across the four countries of the UK

1. Continue to Protect Wildlife

The EU has strong laws protecting wildlife and the environment such as the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. Not only do our own new replacement laws need to be just as strong, but we also need strong and effective environmental watchdogs in each country with the political independence, teeth and capability of holding governments to account (this role replaces the European Court).

Environmental standards are not confined to the laws we make. They will also need to be protected in any trade deals we strike so that UK farmers are not put at a competitive disadvantage by cheaper imported food which is produced more intensively and at a lower standard (eg US beef produced from cows which are fed with growth-promoting hormones).

2. A brighter future for wildlife-friendly farming

The biggest environmental opportunity of Brexit is the ability to set a completely new agriculture policy which rewards farmers for protecting and enhancing the environment rather than as a direct subsidy linked to the size of the farm. Although much reformed in recent years, the EU Common Agriculture Policy has undoubtedly been a major contributor to wildlife decline. There are early signs, particularly in England, of a shift in funding from direct subsidies to paying farmers to maintain and enhance wildlife and the environment. The scale of funding available (approximately £3bn across the UK), dwarfs other environmental funding streams and could be pivotal in tackling climate change and wildlife declines.

3. Funding for nature

European grants have funded large multi-million-pound projects which have made a real difference for threatened species and habitats on the ground.  As these will no longer be available, replacement funding is essential given the scale of biodiversity loss means we will need more not less money to have the impact required.

What Next?

Brexit has been the great polarising issue in UK society in recent years. Coronavirus is a timely reminder that in the face of this terrible tragedy our post-Brexit policies need to address the bigger long-term crises of species extinction and climate change, both of which are linked to the likelihood of further pandemics.

On a global stage, 2020 was supposed to be a “Super Year” for the environment with important international conferences on climate change and biodiversity. Coronavirus put paid to all this but perhaps (and tragically for those who have lost loved ones) it might just be the crisis which finally galvanises global leaders into the scale of action needed. Decisive action on the climate and biodiversity crises is urgently needed as only this will guarantee a world which is safe and fit for future generations. What bigger priority can there be than this?

Chris Corrigan
Policy Coordinator, Butterfly Conservation

Twitter: @ChrisCorrigan3