Humanity 'closer than ever to irreversible climate breakdown'

Head of Environment Agency says biodiversity crisis poses threat to human survival

Among the mammals, birds, butterflies and moths designated as priority species, numbers have plunged by 61 per cent since 1970, the Environment Agency says. PA
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Humanity is closer than ever to an irreversible climate breakdown, the head of the Environment Agency warned on Tuesday.

In his speech to the Green Alliance in London, the agency’s chief executive Sir James Bevan said the biodiversity crisis is an existential threat to human survival.

A new report by the Environment Agency found 41 per cent of native fauna and flora species have decreased in abundance since 1970, with 15 per cent facing extinction.

Sir James made reference to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which catalogues the destruction of entire ecosystems in the US through indiscriminate spraying of synthetic pesticides on crops.

The novel has been credited with sparking today's green movement, leading to a US-wide ban on the use of insecticide DDT and precipitating the founding of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Quoting some of the opening lines of Silent Spring, Sir James said: “On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

“Sixty years on we are closer than ever to that silent spring happening.

“Since we humans and everything we cherish depends on nature, we have the strongest possible interest in avoiding that outcome.”

The speech marks the launch of a new report by the Environment Agency, setting out the scale of the threat to England’s wildlife.

Among the mammals, birds, butterflies and moths designated as priority species, numbers have plunged by 61 per cent since 1970.

A quarter of England’s mammals are facing extinction, the research found.

“If that doesn’t make you angry, you haven’t been paying attention,” Sir James said.

He has set out the link between a thriving natural environment and the clean water, good soil, flood management and carbon storage fundamental to human survival.

“The biodiversity crisis is a crisis because it won’t just kill the plants and animals it is killing, it will kill us too,” Sir James said.

“That’s because nature is indivisible and interdependent — nature provides us with a host of things we depend upon, such as clean water, clean air and food.”

Sir James also emphasised the challenge a warming climate poses to conservation, such as the damage algae blooms caused by warmer waters do to wildlife.

But he said England, and the world as a whole, still has a chance to turn the situation around, citing successful Environment Agency-led projects to restore natural habitats.

He used the example of Steart Marshes on the Severn Estuary, the UK’s biggest coastal realignment scheme, which protects 100,000 nearby properties from flooding.

It has also created 250 hectares of new habitat for marshland species to thrive.

The Environment Agency has created or restored more than 1,100 hectares of habitat in 2021 and 2022.

Where climate change-induced problems, such as flooding, arise in England, he has urged the government, businesses and the public to adopt nature-based solutions as the default approach to finding solutions.

Sir James also called on the international community to agree to tougher targets for the next decade at the UN Biodiversity Conference, known as Cop15, in Montreal this year.

Updated: July 12, 2022, 10:58 AM