Facing ecological meltdown

Eddie Ford is not surprised to learn that Britain is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries

Would you believe it? Far from being a green and pleasant land, a new study shows that Britain is one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, having an average of about half its biodiversity left - far below the global average of 75%. Indeed, when it comes to diversity, the UK is the worst among the G7 group of nations and in the bottom 10% globally, with some 56% species in decline and 15% threatened with extinction. Once again, Britain is a world-beater.

For anyone with a passing knowledge of ecology and history, this is hardly surprising news - plus you can see it for yourself everywhere. The steady and relentless despoliation of nature, which is more than something beautiful to look at: it is an integral part of who we are as human beings and ultimately provides our basic needs - or at least, it should do. By this criterion, Britain is failing on all fronts, especially when you consider that a figure of 90% remaining biodiversity is considered the “safe limit” to prevent the world from tipping into an “ecological meltdown” - in the words of professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London, which conducted this latest research.

His team have used a new tool called the Biodiversity Intactness Index to estimate the percentage of natural biodiversity (animals, plants, fungi and soil micro-organisms) that remains across the world and in individual countries. This index revealed that throughout the developing world biodiversity tends to be at a high level, but is often falling rapidly. By contrast, biodiversity has been stable in much of the developed world for the past 20 years, but has been at a low level throughout that period - with the UK, of course, right near the bottom of this list. Nowadays, over two-thirds of Britain is used (or misused) for agriculture and 8% has been built on, leaving little room for what passes for nature. Also unsurprisingly, in the remoter areas of northern England, Scotland and Wales, biodiversity is less reduced than in areas such as south-east England, which is more built-up and farming methods have tended to be more intense.

Having said that, all you need to know is that Britain - unlike a lot of Europe - has an unprecedented record of chopping down trees and establishing agriculture. This is something that started about 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic period, with the transition from hunter-gathering to cattle and to crop production. Then, to make things even more toxic, add industrial capitalism that began with a combination of water and wood power (before moving on to coal and steam). The iron industry needed fast moving streams and rivers to turn water mills and wood was the fuel used to smelt iron ore - a process leading to the coppicing of large swathes of woodland. Then there is ‘normal’ agriculture. With the enclosures, the growth of meat-culture and the aggressive pursuit of monoculture - sustained, especially since the 1950s and 60s, by a regime of artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides (ie, insecticides). This combination brought death to much of the countryside along with streams, rivers and aquifers. Not only were insects wiped out: so were birds, mammals, fish and invertebrates. If they were not poisoned, they starved.

Some readers might remember well the awe-inspiring, seasonal murmurations of starlings when the sky used to go dark - not just for a few seconds, but for minute after minute, as they flew south, deep into Africa. Sadly, we no longer see such a magnificent sight nowadays.


In that context, it is worth noting the call by Chris Packham, the popular conservationist and TV presenter, for the royal family to “step up” by committing to the rewilding of their own estates. At the weekend he delivered a petition signed by more than 100,000 people to the gates of Buckingham Palace, accompanied by more than 100 school strikers. It need hardly be said that the monarchy is still one of the UK’s biggest landowners. According to calculations by the rewilding campaign group, Wild Card, it owns more than 323,748 hectares (800,000 acres) of land - including the crown estate, which is equivalent to double the area of Greater London or 1.4% of the UK.

However, it appears that Packham’s activism is not popular with everyone: he was the victim of an arson attack just before his march on Buckingham Palace - the latest in a campaign of harassment over a number of years. This is hardly surprising, given his constant battles against the great and good - and others, like the National Trust, Forestry Commission, landowners, developers, foxhunters, grouse-shooters, etc.

Packham is the mildest of mildest reformers. His rewilding proposals amount to the merest tinkering - wildwashing. Not only does he steer clear of calling for abolishing the monarchy as an inherently undemocratic institution: he fails to squarely address how the patterns of land ownership in the UK, not least the Crown Estates, resulted from hundreds of years of robbery, terrorism and violent expropriation of peasant farmers. Indeed he appears to blame overpopulation for the ecological crisis.

Certainly when it comes to rewilding, a good place to start are the grouse moors and upland sheep runs. We say, let it go, stop vandalising the countryside, whether that means planting trees or just letting nature take its course. For an object lesson in what not to do, look at the supposedly beautiful Lake District - what an obscenity. The virtual total lack of trees is a direct result of human action, either because of the constant grazing of sheep or deliberate burning - which you have to do in order to make the place fit for shooting stupid game birds. Horrendously, more than three-quarters of a million acres of Britain’s national parks are covered by intensively-managed grouse moors, which leave nature utterly impoverished.1

The Natural History Museum’s bleak assessment was released just before the virtual UN Biodiversity Conference, or Cop15, that began this week and was hosted by none other than China. The Convention on Biological Diversity was originally signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and later ratified by 195 countries - not including the United States, it almost goes without saying - plus the European Union as a body. It has two supplementary agreements - the Cartagena Protocol and Nagoya Protocol - and its first ‘Conference of the Parties’ was held in the Bahamas in 1994, with the last taking place in Egypt in 2018.2

The CBD wants to protect the diversity of plant and animal species and ensure natural resources are used sustainably - also aiming to achieve “fair and equitable sharing” of benefits from natural genetic material used in everything from medicines to new crop species. In practice, that means aspiring to make sure various indigenous communities and countries that are home to biological riches actually benefit from their use. The overall aim is to establish firm goals that would halt the loss of wildlife and the degradation of habitats that threatens to reach crisis levels across the entire planet in the near future. Over the past three decades, countries have agreed a series of plans under the CBD to protect nature at the global level. More than a decade ago negotiators agreed goals to preserve plants and species in the decade from 2010 to 2020.

But, with depressing predictability, the ‘international community’ failed to fully meet any of the 20 targets, which included protecting coral reefs and tackling pollution - definitely a bad start.

President Xi Jinping himself attended the online Cop15 meeting via a video link, where he pledged $232 million for a new fund to protect world biodiversity - saying that China “will take the lead” on this matter. He announced that the country would establish a number of national parks as part of growing efforts to protect the country’s biodiversity and natural treasures. Xi also talked about “accelerating” the development of wind and solar power in China.


There is, of course, much speculation about whether he will actually turn up at Cop26, though in some ways you could hardly blame him for not bothering, if all he gets is hypocritical western fingers pointing at him. But the backdrop to the Glasgow conference is distinctly gloomy. In its annual World energy outlook, the International Energy Agency has said that the current plans to cut global carbon emissions will fall 60% short of their 2050 net zero target. The organisation argues that the changes necessary to reach that target require up to $4 trillion in investment over the next decade alone. Meanwhile, China seems to have plans to build more coal-fired power plants - meaning that Beijing might rethink its timetable to slash emissions, perhaps invalidating Xi’s fine words at Cop15.3

After a meeting of the National Energy Commission, the Chinese premier of the State Council, Li Keqiang, issued a statement stressing the importance of “energy security” and the enhancement of “the capacity for energy self-supply”. He went on to say that, “given the predominant place of coal in the country’s energy”, it is “important to optimise the layout for the coal production capacity, build advanced coal-fired power plants as appropriate in line with development needs and continue to phase out outdated coal plants in an orderly fashion”. This was said after large swathes of the country were plunged into darkness by rolling blackouts that hit factories and homes, with as many as 20 provinces experiencing the crisis to some degree. According to the South China Morning Post, stocks of coal used to generate electricity stood at a record low of just 11.31 million tonnes as of September 21.

Hence Li’s rhetoric about a new “phased timetable and roadmap for peaking carbon emissions”, following reports that China has ordered its two top coal-producing regions, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia, to “combat” the country’s power supply crisis. In other words, step up production by any means necessary. Beijing had previously set out plans to be carbon-neutral by 2060, with emissions peaking by 2030 - a goal experts say would involve shutting 600 coal-fired power plants. But that seems unlikely unfortunately, given the escalating energy crisis, which has been exacerbated in recent days by major flooding in northern Shanxi, one of China’s top coal-producing regions - forcing at least 60 mines to suspend production and the evacuation of more than 120,000 people.

President Xi Jinping has promised to stop building coal plants abroad. But, when it comes to home, it is a very different picture.

  1. rewildingbritain.org.uk/news-and-views/press-releases-and-media-statements/nature-impoverished-intensively-managed-grouse-moors.↩︎

  2. wikipedia.org/wiki/Convention_on_Biological_Diversity.↩︎

  3. theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/12/china-coal-fired-plants-uk-cop26-climate-summit-global-phase-out.↩︎