Beams of sunlight seen in a dense forest

University of Exeter researchers have commented on what the new UK government should do in response to the biodiversity crisis.

Biodiversity has declined dramatically in recent decades, with almost one in six species now at risk of becoming extinct in Great Britain, and 12% in Northern Ireland.

The Labour manifesto said: “The Conservatives have left Britain one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Labour will deliver for nature.”

Here are the comments from Exeter researchers from a range of academic fields:

Professor Brendan Godley, who leads the Exeter Marine research group, said: “The UK is a world leader in supporting the Global South in biodiversity conservation through funding such as the Darwin Initiative and Global Challenge Research Fund. As a nation, we need to enhance and strengthen these efforts. Additionally, we must remember that we host a wealth of biodiversity in our UK Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic, Caribbean and Indopacific – far more than in the metropolitan UK. These small territories also need our support.”

Dr Ellen Wiles, novelist and Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing, said: “David Attenborough puts it bluntly: ‘If we damage the natural world, we damage ourselves.’ The biodiversity crisis is now one of the biggest threats to life on this planet. It is inextricably entangled with climate change; one exacerbates the other. The UK has suffered more biodiversity loss than anywhere else in Europe under the last government, and is now one of most nature-depleted places on Earth. Stark evidence is set out in the recent State of Nature report. This loss doesn’t only affect our precious ‘wild’ and green spaces; it affects human health and the economy. Pollinating insects, for instance, are worth millions to British agriculture. Labour’s manifesto mentions promoting biodiversity as part of its important focus on clean energy – but I hope that the new government will prioritize both with a view to a more sustainable and resilient future. In doing so, it can draw upon the copious expertise that exists, not only in the conservation sector, the regenerative farming community, and the sciences, but also in the arts. Young people are calling for urgent action and for reasons to hope. The arts have the power to move people, to spark imagination, and to inspire real change.”

Professor Stuart Bearhop said: “While there is no doubt we need to be ambitious in our drive towards net zero, it may not always be easy to piggyback biodiversity targets on the back of this. Many ecological systems operate over much longer timescales than those we have set for net zero, and the subsequent move away from carbon offsetting is not well aligned with some of the plans we might have for mitigating the biodiversity crisis (such as habitat restoration and rewilding). We need to think about ways in which we can combine our mitigation approaches and recognise that some of our biodiversity offsetting initiatives may not contribute to net zero until much further down the line.”

Dr Kelly Thornber, Co-Director of the Pharma Pollution Hub, said “We need the new government to start looking at the big picture because then we can identify win-win situations, where taking action to address environmental challenges also brings human health and economic benefits. Take pharmaceutical pollution as an example. One of the main sources of pharmaceutical pollution is us – up to 90% of the medicines we consume are excreted into our wastewater systems, and they aren’t completely removed by wastewater treatment. If the government invested more in disease prevention and health promotion, then as a society we would need less pharmaceutical treatment, meaning less pollution. And at the same time we would have a healthier and more equitable population, requiring fewer NHS resources and creating greater economic productivity. Everyone’s a winner! But to make this happen we need a government that isn’t afraid to act boldly and invest in the long term.”

Professor Dave Hodgson, head of department in the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, said: “The global biodiversity crisis rivals the climate crisis for its dangerous risks to human health and wealth. Achieving net zero and preventing further loss of biodiversity should not and need not be considered in isolation. The UK government should be investing in research, policy and action that delivers on the dual goal of regenerative environmental management for both biodiversity and carbon sequestration.”

Professor Callum Roberts, chief scientist of the Convex Seascape Survey, said: “Stemming biodiversity loss and rebuilding the variety and abundance of life are critical to maintaining the habitability and productivity of the planet, and the quality of life of its inhabitants. Protecting the environment is therefore fundamental to national economic prosperity and should be as high on the government’s list of priorities as healthcare or education.”

Dr Daniel Moore, a lecturer in marine biology who previously worked for Natural England and Ocean Census (which focusses on tackling the biodiversity crisis by discovering new species and establishing exactly what we have to lose), set out three priorities:

  • Appointment of a dedicated Oceans Minister (within DEFRA) – this point came up before with the previous government but we got a very much reduced portfolio covering only coastal communities sitting within MHCLG. An Oceans Minister could oversee the appropriate balance of fisheries, conservation, offshore industry and balancing these with the needs of coastal communities. As a maritime nation, the lack of representation for the ocean within our government in very disappointing. 
  • Full and complete funding for Natural England (and the other devolved equivalents), the Environment Agency and the Inshore Fishery and Conservation Agencies. These bodies have been hollowed out by Tory austerity but are absolutely vital to regulate and preserve our Marine Protected Areas as well as manage and enforce measures to improve water quality.
  • Support for all levels of local government to pass an Ocean Recovery Declaration in the form of the Motion for the Ocean. This motion, when passed, helps local governments consider ocean health in all of their duties and actions. Currently 30 local governments have passed the motion but many more are needed.

Will Gaze, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Exeter Medical School’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health, said: “Climate change is likely to impact the risks posed by bacterial pathogens in coastal environments. Warming is associated with increasing vibrio infections, and heavy rainfall events result in raw sewage discharge to rivers and the sea – increasing the probability of environmental transmission to humans, including of antibiotic-resistant pathogens which are an increasing global health risk. We have a longstanding research programme on the environmental dimension of antibiotic resistance, including a ~£9 m Horizon Europe grant led by Tim Taylor (Associate Professor in Environmental Economics at Exeter) with partners from across Europe. A primary aim is to provide evidence to inform policy on reducing health risks associated with environmental pollution and conserve our natural environments. We are currently recruiting participants to help us understand the risks of swimming in fresh and coastal waters.”