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Spotlighting nature and biodiversity in party manifestos

Posted on 19 June 2024

According to the 2023 State of Nature report, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted nations in the world.1 On average, the abundance of terrestrial and freshwater species has declined by 19% since 1970, with 16% of species at threat of extinction.

The Office of Environmental Protection’s finding, this May, of “deeply concerning failures to properly implement regulations designed to protect rivers, lakes and coastal waters in England” reflects the ongoing decline of our natural environments and systems, evident to anyone who lives and works in the countryside. 

Against this backdrop, it should be no surprise that restoring nature and biodiversity features prominently in most manifestos. This includes explicit nods to the Global Biodiversity Framework's headline '30 by 30' target – i.e., ensuring that at least 30% of terrestrial, inland water, marine and coastal areas are effectively conserved and managed by 2030. 

Amid this general consensus, the most radical policy proposal is that of the Green Party to introduce a Rights of Nature Act, "giving legal rights to nature herself."3    

As unconventional as that idea may sound (how would a river or forest initiate legal proceedings?), the principle of granting legal personality to non-human entities, such as corporations, isn't new. It also has precedent elsewhere in the world, notably in countries such as Ecuador and New Zealand where, respectively, the rights of nature have been enshrined in the nation's constitution, and the Whanganui River and Te Urewera ecosystems have each been designated as legal entities. 

The essential purpose of such moves is to modify our framing of the natural world – from a worldview that recognises nature only for her instrumental value (the provision of resources and ecosystem services that satisfy human needs) to one that recognises her intrinsic value and her inherent rights to exist, regenerate and evolve. 

Such a radical reframing of our relationship with nature, by recognising its own rights, would have many implications. Perhaps most importantly, it would change the perspectives of policy makers and regulators. For a specific practical example, consider current planning law and the recent requirement for developments to deliver a biodiversity net gain (BNG). 

This rule requires most developments to deliver a minimum 10% uplift in biodiversity value, through land management obligations to be secured on-site, off-site, or through a statutory credits scheme as a last resort. Among critics' greatest concerns with this approach are the risk of creating a 'licence to trash' mentality, and questions over whether habitat creation or enhancement elsewhere can ever truly justify – or replace – the loss of established ecosystems. 

A Rights of Nature Act would sit uneasily alongside an approach like BNG, focusing attention exclusively at the top end of the mitigation hierarchy (i.e., avoid/refuse/rethink, rather than replace/rectify/restore). This philosophy would necessarily reject the idea of utilitarian net gain in favour of the absolute rights of the nature to be destroyed.   

The battlelines on planning are carefully explored in Daniel Farrand’s note of 13 June. With Labour and Conservative manifestos promising 1.5 million and 1.6 million new homes respectively – and willing to relax rules on nutrient neutrality to achieve these objectives – perhaps it's time for a rethink on how we balance the rights of nature with ours, whether for our own sake or not. 

1 State of Nature Partnership, 2023. State of Nature. [online] Available at: https://stateofnature.org.uk 

2 Ibid. 

3 Green Party, 2024. Bringing Nature Back to Life. [online] Available at: https://greenparty.org.uk 

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