Biodiversity decline and nature conservation are higher up the agenda in this year’s general election than in any previous campaign. This is Buglife’s review of the commitments made by the British political parties as they relate to conserving bees, bugs and biodiversity.
Although the public debate on the environment has largely focussed on climate change measures and tree planting, there is a wealth of proposals in the manifestos. Insect declines get a high profile, particularly in the Labour Party literature, although there are fewer direct mentions of bees than in the 2015 and 2017 elections, this is probably because neonicotinoid pesticides, the then prevalent issue, have since been banned. However, pesticides are only one of the issues that have been preventing bee populations from thriving, and many of those issues are relevant throughout our ecosystems. This year’s crop of commitments include many more thorough policies on restoring habitats and indeed improving pesticide regulation than in previous elections, as well as mentions and commitments covering a wider range of other issues that if addressed could help to halt the massive declines in bees and other invertebrate species.
A 2014 survey showed that bee decline was the number one environmental concern of the UK public. The loss of pollinators remains one of the gravest threats to food security and environmental health. Reversing this decline will be a key test of our ability to live alongside other species.
Bees and other pollinators are suffering due to wild flower loss, air pollution, development pressures, climate change, disease and other issues. The actions needed are set out in Buglife’s Pollinator Manifesto.
In this summary we look at the 2019 election manifestos and commitments and give you a visual digest of their extensive, and perhaps, to the uninitiated, bewildering, wildlife content. For more information on the detail of the commitments, with some interpretation from us of why they are important for invertebrates and biodiversity, please click here.
Society at an environmental crossroads
We stand at a point of renewal where we face options of huge significance to the future of the planet and humanity; we can either dedicate society to addressing the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, or keep our heads firmly in the sand about the severity of continuing to delay taking action.
There is now general acknowledgement that business as usual with respect to the environment has become untenable and recognition of this is apparent in the headline language used by the parties to describe the current situation:
· “The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, “climate and environmental emergency”, “climate emergency”, “climate crisis” and “global plastics crisis” – Labour
· “rapid decline in the numbers of insects”, “environmental crisis”, “climate emergency”, “climate crisis” and “clean air crisis”– Liberal Democrats
· “climate and ecological breakdown”, “climate and nature emergency “, “ecological crisis” and “climate emergency” – Greens
· “climate and biodiversity crisis”, “global collapse of biodiversity” and “climate crisis”– Plaid Cymru
· “climate emergency” – Conservatives
· “climate emergency” – SNP
· “the environment” – Brexit Party
We have reviewed the manifestos and accompanying environmental commitment documents of all the main British political parties and have grouped all the relevant components into 44 categories. For each category we have compared the strength of each party’s expressed commitments and policies and scored them according to the probability that, if implemented, the measures would contribute to halting the decline and extinction of bees, bugs and biodiversity and restoring sustainable populations to the planet. See end of this paper for the full scoring table.
Table 1. Number of best and worst/ least best, policy positions and commitments on environmental issues relevant to bees, bugs and biodiversity for each party.
Note: Issues where there was no clear difference between any party were not counted either way, where there are several roughly equally good policies all those parties got a point, policy silences are often the worst policy, but parties were given the benefit of the doubt and they were only counted against them if related policies expressed by the party give cause for concern. As nature conservation is devolved in Wales and Scotland the UK manifestos of parties only standing in those countries are inherently likely to include fewer biodiversity related commitments, and parties campaigning not to Brexit are less likely to score well on post-Brexit commitments – these factors should be considered when comparing the figures in the above table.
It is worth reiterating that the quality of proposals to halt and reverse biodiversity loss are the best we have seen at any general election to-date, and while some of the manifestos are more comprehensive and determined than others in addressing the problems, if implemented all, other than the Brexit Party manifesto, would clearly provide some significant improvements to biodiversity and the state of the environment. There are however some policies that are particularly good to see in the manifestos, some we wish were not there and some that we wish were there.
1. Wildlife corridors
Developing a network of wildlife corridors, particularly of wildflower meadows is an essential step to halting and reversing the decline of bees and other wildlife. Recent research has confirmed that insect species are failing to keep track with climate change because their habitats are too fragmented. Given how much climate change is already locked into the next 30 years it is urgently important that a network of wildflower meadows is established to give the stuck species a fighting chance. All four UK Governments and administrations have supported the mapping of B-Lines, but implementation programmes to deliver a full nature recovery network have been slow to be implemented. The Green Party commits to “bee corridors” and Labour promises to develop “nature-friendly corridors”, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats also mention wildlife corridors.
2. Strengthen Environment Principles
The Precautionary Principle, Polluter Pays and other environmental principles are part of the existing bedrock of decision making, but are currently only enshrined in EU level law, while the Conservatives started to enshrine the principles into UK law, their proposed legislation would have weakened them, the Green Party promises to strengthen them.
3. Meet our Aarhus Convention obligations
The UK is currently failing to meet the tests for transparency, democracy and access to environmental justice that are enshrined in the Aarhus Convention, Labour commit to ensure that we finally meet these international obligations.
4. Implement corporate responsibility
Much harm to biodiversity is caused by the actions of private companies and corporations, regulation can help to address this, but it would be more satisfactory if companies themselves took responsibility for the environmental effects of their operations, the Liberal Democrats have put forward a convincing raft of proposals that would change the legal duties of companies and make them report on their environmental performance.
5. Environmental education and awareness
Fixing the biodiversity crisis is going to take a society wide effort, this will need much better engagement and understanding from the public, which means starting at schools and building knowledge and skills about the environment and nature through life – the Green Party proposals hit the nail on the head, and the Labour policy is also excellent.
6. Planning reform to protect the environment
Too many sites are being destroyed by inappropriate development – floodplains getting covered in houses and brownfield sites heaving in endangered species being turned over to warehouses and car parks. The Labour Party proposes to undertake a full review of how environmental impact assessment is carried out; having this process in the hands of the developer is not working. Labour would also overhaul the planning guidance documents to ensure that they are fully addressing the climate and biodiversity emergency.
7. Pesticide regulations that protect bugs
Insecticides have caused massive harm to bees and biodiversity, but despite this EU Member States, including the UK, have been refusing to bring in new scientific tests to protect bees. The EU Parliament recently voted overwhelmingly to ask the EC to put bee protection in place. The Green Party proposals would not only extend proposed tests to also cover butterflies as well as bees and make the Member States voting stance on pesticides public, they would also reduce pesticide use by 50%; actions that would make the countryside safer for wildlife.
8. Review of protected wildlife areas
The protection of wildlife sites has been woefully neglected with huge gaps in the series, many endangered species are not protected at all, and even when on protected sites the quality of their habitats is not being monitored and their condition is all too often deteriorating. Our protected site series needs a shot in the arm and the Labour Party proposals to review the designations, strengthen management requirements and introduce rigorous targets, sound just the boost that SSSIs and wildlife are overdue.
9. Increased funding for biodiversity
Visions of the future in which biodiversity declines are halted will only be realised if they are adequately resourced. The Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Labour all promise to restore funding to the Government agencies – Natural England and the Environment Agency. In addition Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives promise to establish large funding programmes that would in part fund the restoration of biodiversity.
1. Politicised Supreme Court
The Brexit Party propose making the Supreme Court subject to political scrutiny. The politicisation of the justice system, would inevitably make holding government to account on environmental protections much less likely to be successful
2. Review of Judicial Review
The Conservatives say they would “ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays”. There is no reassurance that judicial review would continue to be available to protect the environment, indeed in the last five years legislation has been passed that makes it harder to use judicial review to hold government to account on environmental issues. A continuation of this trend would be counter to achieving a healthy environment.
3. Planting millions of trees
While the Brexit Party commitment to plant “millions of trees” sounds superficially positive, in practice the destruction of woodland and harvesting of forests means that over 15 million trees have to be planted every year just to stand still. Commitments by all parties would increase the cover of trees, particularly the Labour party proposal, which could increase the area of woodland cover by 830 thousand hectares by 2030. As long as this activity includes the right trees in the right places, and avoids importing yet more invasive species, then the increase in woodland cover would help lots of wildlife; although it might be even more beneficial if there was a big role for natural regeneration alongside planting. The Brexit Party policy represents a reduction from current planting rates that could actually result in 100,000 hectare less woodland that the ‘business as usual’ model by 2030.
Note: assumes 1) 1,000 trees per Ha, 2) commitments continue linearly until 2030 when not otherwise stated, 3) 15.12 thousand Ha of restocking and 0.36 thousand Ha of woodland loss every year, and 4) no increase in woodland loss. Plaid Cymru commitment relates to Wales only.
4. More roads
Roads impact bees and other insects in four main ways. Firstly, pollinators locate flowers by following small quantities of volatile chemicals released by the flowers, but these are destroyed by engine fumes, disrupting plant-insect communication, and reducing pollinator foraging efficiency. Secondly, nitrate pollution emitted by cars fertilises roadside verges and nearby habitats making them less rich in flowers, bees and biodiversity. Thirdly, road verges can be great habitats for insects, but where traffic is high and verges narrow the proportion of the pollinator population that ends up being killed by passing vehicles is worryingly high. Fourthly, roads can destroy invertebrate habitat when built and then become a block to dispersal, preventing invertebrates, particularly small and flightless ones from moving around the countryside. The Conservative manifesto commits to “a £28.8 billion investment in strategic and local roads”, which contrasts with the Green Party promise to stop building roads.
1. Invasive species
Invasive species are causing an increasing amount of damage to wildlife, gardens and agriculture, this is because the pathways have not been addressed. Invasive freshwater species are introduced and spread on recreational equipment, ballast water jettisons new arrivals into our coastal waters and hundreds of species stream in in soil and live pot plants. This issue has been under consideration by Government, including developing the concept of a new Biosecurity Border Force; however none of the manifestos acknowledge the scale of the problem or propose any measures.
2. Light pollution
There is growing evidence that levels of light pollution are having an increasingly profound effect on our ecosystems, including damaging aquatic life and stopping nocturnal pollination services. A recent summary of the scientific evidence makes it clear that urgent action is needed. Bright white LED street-lighting has been rolled out in many areas with little consideration for the other animals who have to live there. Only one party mentions the problem, the Labour Party recognises that “artificial light pollution [is among the] significant drivers of the insect population collapses”. This is an issue to watch for future elections, if we are serious about halting the biodiversity crisis then it has to come up the agenda and light pollution reduction targets will need to be set.
3. Protected species
Species listed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and parallel laws in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland can be protected from the destruction of their places of shelter, from taking and from killing, while species listed under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 and related biodiversity legislation in Wales and Scotland have to be taken into consideration when public bodies take decisions and undertake their functions (the biodiversity duties). The process for listing species to protect them from having their habitat damaged and being killed is currently in crisis as the UK governments failed to respond to the last set of listing recommendations made by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee in 2014, meaning that several species that are being driven to extinction are not receiving the protection for which they qualify. Meanwhile many species on the biodiversity lists are not being actively or sufficiently conserved and former recovery targets have all been dropped. None of the manifestos address protected species which is a concerning omission.
It is undeniably true that we must “do everything in our power to save our planet for future generations” (Liberal Democrat manifesto) and if we were to implement all the best bits of the 2019 crop of manifestos there would be no doubt that the UK would have “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth” (Conservative manifesto).
Table 2 – Full summary of analysis of manifestos and commitments
Added note – 11 December 2019 – Please note that in addition to the quoted policy on agriculture in the main report, the Green Party policy also contains the following commitment to “A ten-year transition to agroecological farming will include the transfer of subsidies to farming methods and food systems that create jobs and restore ecosystem health, including the quality of our soils and rivers.” It remains our view that this and the other farming commitments from the Green party do not go as far as a commitment to funding “public goods” or “the environment” as these both go beyond the “farmed area” and would open the door for payments to conserve biodiversity for its own sake, not because it is affected by farming methods or contributes to food production – for instance clearing invasive species from a river bank or undertaking managed retreat. We thank the Green Party for flagging up this omission.