Biodiversity is now a frontline climate change issue for everyone15 February 2023 0
The world has finally woken up to the fact that the natural world is in crisis – and major new international and national conservation targets are expected soon. What does this mean for developers and local projects in England? I would like to look at the potential obligations and responsibilities … but also opportunities.
Perhaps the most obvious question to ask is why has biodiversity suddenly become so important?
The answer is that this has always been important. However, just before Christmas 2022, 196 nations finally agreed on far-reaching new measures to protect biodiversity, safeguard endangered species, and conserve roughly a third of the planet’s land water surface.
As I hope to explain, this absolutely essential move is long overdue.
But what comes next?
However, signing agreements is one thing. Implementing them across the planet is quite another. Previous attempts have ended in failure. However, this time the solidarity between nations makes it almost certain that something will happen.
And when it does, the changes will have important implications for everybody at a local level. Our job as ecologists at Enzygo is to identify what is involved and guide our developer clients.
The case of the missing twin?
At the UN COP26 conference in Glasgow in November 2021, the same 196 nations tried to agree how to cut their greenhouse gas emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. They had limited success and will try again at COP27 in Dubai in December 2023.
Less well known is that COP15 is COP26’s natural world twin. The hope is that together they will limit, and even potentially reverse, the worst impacts of global warming and climate change.
Last minute success in Canada
COP15’s lower profile was in part caused by four postponements during the Covid pandemic. However, in December 2022, the ‘world’ finally got its act together in Montreal.
The result was the ground-breaking “30 by 30” agreement to protect 30% of the Earth’s surface by 2030. This will radically redefine our relationship with the living world. Or as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it, “We are finally starting to forge a peace pact with nature.”
However, another seasoned observer commented, “Now it’s done, governments, companies and communities need to figure out how they’ll help make these commitments a reality.”
And that is where I believe we at Enzygo can add an important small piece to the global jig-saw.
Why Enzygo? (www.enzygo.com)
Our licensed team provides a full range of ecological surveys and assessments. We negotiate with statutory consultees and understand planning policy in detail. By tailoring mitigation to specific circumstances, we keep costs low and secure planning permissions with minimal conditions.
However, there is some confusion with existing legislation, even before more is added from COP15.
Policy changes in England and Wales (the Environment Act 2021 which I detail later) created some uncertainty for developers about where they stand, and what information is required of them. Local authorities must also get used to new expectations, and need additional expertise.
But because we understand the Defra Metric (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/biodiversity-metric-calculate-the-biodiversity-net-gain-of-a-project-or-development) – and combine in-house disciplines such as hydrology, landscape and planning – we can help clients meet net gain requirements, and turn site restrictions into opportunities with the greatest benefits for biodiversity.
As a footnote here ahead of the case studies later, I should add that our services typically include Preliminary Ecological Appraisal, Protected Species Survey, European Protected Species Licence, Water Framework Directive, and Biodiversity Mitigation Design & Implementation.
Ready for change
I am confident that with this approach we will be ready for everything COP15 throws at us.
In fact, one of my key tasks is to monitor how the Government interprets and implements the results from Canada.
What COP15 means
It is important to understand what happened at COP15, why earlier attempts failed, and why we can perhaps be more optimistic this time.
The summit brought together governments, scientists, academics, stakeholders from business and finance sectors, representatives for indigenous groups, and other observers, to discuss, negotiate and formalised new plans, strategies, and targets to tackle global biodiversity loss.
Thanks to the scientific community, we know more than ever about the underlying drivers and causes of biodiversity losses, and have never been better placed to design effective solutions.
What the agreement proposes
Central to the COP15 agreement is the first draft of ‘The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) (https://www.cbd.int/doc/c/e6d3/cd1d/daf663719a03902a9b116c34/cop-15-l-25-en.pdf).
This addresses key drivers of the current trend towards biodiversity losses; it includes four long-term goals and 23 action-oriented global targets leading up to 2030.
Many targets were reportedly watered down slightly through negotiations, including the removal of some bolder quantitative aspects. However, the following points stand out: –
– “Bring the loss of areas of high biodiversity importance, including ecosystems of high ecological integrity, close to zero by 2030”
– “Ensure that by 2030 at least 30% of areas of degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems are under effective restoration, in order to enhance biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, ecological integrity and connectivity”
– “Ensure and enable that by 2030 at least 30% of terrestrial, inland water, and of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem functions and services, are effectively conserved”
Greater chances of success?
Anyone could be forgiven for doubting this optimism, particularly as there have been similar targets before.
However, the climate and biodiversity emergencies are now mainstream news at a level never seen before – piling the pressure on governments to act and make meaningful decisions.
A unified approach and diplomatic cooperation will be needed to tackle geopolitical issues.
But I am optimistic. The UK appears to be leading the way with the landmark Environment Act 2021 which commits us to halting the loss of species abundance in England by 2030, and longer-term targets including species abundance in 2042 10% higher than 2030.
This Act makes us the first country in the world to set legally-binding biodiversity targets, which is something we should be proud of.
The fact that Government could be taken challenged in Court if targets are not met creates a level of jeopardy that could be a game-changer at a time when trusting politicians seems difficult.
Importantly, these targets are also specific, measurable, evidence-based and unambiguous. With increasing public pressure for government to act, there is justifiable hope that this time we might succeed.
Perhaps because of the legal aspects, the targets set out by the Government could be viewed as not going far enough. Yet they are perhaps realistic and achievable; making governments accountable is something previous targets lacked.
If we do meet these goals, species abundance will be higher in 2042 than today, which would be a great success in the context of the decades of continued decline and failed objectives.
Following the Environment Bill’s Royal Ascent in November 2021, which then made it an Act of Parliament (i.e. The Environment Act 2021), the Town and Countryside Act is due to be amended in November 2023 after a two-year transition period.
This will legally mandate developments in England to demonstrate a measurable 10% biodiversity net gain (BNG), which in theory should contribute significantly to government targets to reverse declines.
A key focus for our ecological services is to help developers and local planning authorities – plus concerned local communities – determine whether there is a net biodiversity loss risk. Put more positively, everyone wants BNG.
The first case study below is a straightforward example of a school site development. The second involves a known protected species population.
However, the third shows how with imagination and experience, it is possible to turn problems worrying local residents and planning authorities into positives that satisfy everyone – including the commercial and financial interests of the developer.
Above all, this third example highlights the importance of talking to people!
– Case study 1 – urban school development site: –
Project – The aim was to prove there would be no biodiversity net loss, but rather a BNG. This was important to avoid planning objections.
What we did – our starting point was a Preliminary Ecological Assessment of habitats, plus a basic check for protected species evidence via a desk study of local records, online sources, and the UK Habitat Survey.
Challenges and achievements – We identified several potential ecological constraints, and recommended further surveys, plus a seasonal schedule based on anticipated site work and its impacts. A follow-on programme of ecological mitigation and enhancements was agreed.
Many aspects of this project are common to many others and Enzygo gained valuable experience to apply to similar school sites.
– Case study 2 – mixed-use development with retail and retirement living: –
Project – This study was needed to inform a planning application for a development with a Lidl retail store, retirement accommodation, car parking, and sports pitches.
What we did – Again, our first step was a Preliminary Ecological Assessment, followed by a Preliminary Bird Roost Assessment, Create Crested Newt Surveys, and Biodiversity Offsetting Calculations.
Challenges – Surveys showed the site had a Create Crested Newt breeding population, plus challenges for an overall BNG.
What we achieved – Through negotiations with the local planning authority Ecologist, and using the Biodiversity Offsetting process, provisions were made for the newt population without reducing the proposed development area. This also avoided costs, delays and uncertainty associated with the traditional Natural England licencing approach.
Working with the Landscape Architect, areas of land that could not be developed were used for extensive biodiversity enhancements. The result was an overall BNG without costly offsite compensation or development area reduction.
This satisfied the client and County Ecologist, and used the newly-developed District Licensing Scheme. It also highlighted the importance of exploring opportunities outside traditional problem-solving approaches.
– Case study 3 – proposed development of a Lidl retail store on a brownfield site
Project – Again, this case involved ecological advice and services to support a planning application. However, this time site conditions were more complex.
In addition to a Preliminary Ecological Assessment, we undertook a River Corridor Survey and associated protected species assessments. As part of our work we meet with the Environment Agency (EA) and took part in public consultation events for our client. We advised on an invasive species management plan, and designed a Biodiversity Enhancement scheme.
Challenges – this was a problem site between two watercourses of notable ecological value which also supported numerous trees with Tree Preservation Orders. It had extensive invasive flora.
These factors created significant development constraints. The EA raised objections; there was also considerable public scrutiny.
What we achieved – working closely with the design team, and liaising with stakeholders, a final site layout was produced which allowed the watercourse to be protected and enhanced. As a result, the development area met all proposed scheme requirements.
A major bonus was being able to ease the concerns of the public and elected officials.
Please contact me directly if you would like more information, or want to discuss other ecological issues in confidence.
Chris Scofield, Senior Ecologist, Enzygo Ltd.