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Why habitat matters more than before, Adam Cane, Sustainability Lead, ACO Water Management

13 August 2021

An opinion piece by Adam Cane, Suatainability Lead, ACO

Biodiversity in the UK is under threat. A report earlier this year by the RSPB found that the UK had lost the most amount of natural wildlife and wild spaces due to human activity when compared to the other G7 countries. Globally, the UK had the twelfth worst record of the 240 countries and territories.

Concerns around wildlife do not end in the UK, either. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent landmark report on climate change has highlighted critical levels of concern over the loss of wildlife habitat, where rising temperatures are set to have alarming and irreversible consequences. It serves a stark reminder that action is needed across the world to combat the damaging impact of climate change.

In the UK, there are a number of planning regulations and protective measures in place for endangered species which the construction industry must adhere to. However, the IPCC report has shown the need to ramp up the conversation, in order to identify solutions which can protect biodiversity and habitats moving forward.

Troubling statistics from the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) State of Nature report in 2019 found that Britain’s terrestrial and freshwater species are declining at a rapid rate. According to the report, more species are decreasing (41%) than increasing (26%) in the last 50 years.

Hedgehogs, for example, are suffering from a steep population decline. Since 2000, the number of hedgehogs has halved, according to a report in 2019, with rough estimates suggesting the population has dropped from 30 million to one million since the 1950s. As such, MPs have started to lead the case for hedgehogs to be added to Britain’s list of protected animals.

Tree coverage is also declining. According to a 2017 report, only 13% of the UK’s total land area is covered in trees. In comparison, the EU’s coverage is 35%, indicating the issues facing the UK and the impact the built environment has on wildlife. The UK has also seen a 90% drop in lowland ponds on farmland since the 20th century. This reduction not only has negative consequences on animals, but it can also impact physical and mental wellbeing in humans.

It’s clear, therefore, that we must alter the way we live, and how we approach the built environment is key.

The Impact of the Built Environment

The built environment has had a significant impact on biodiversity loss. Land use and construction practices contribute to the removal of natural habitats, causing fragmentation. Subsequently, this affects the diversity of individual species, genetic diversity and prevents migration and the occupation of a wider range of habitats. As such, there are ways in which the construction industry can help mitigate climate change and benefit biodiversity in the built environment. Nature-based solutions include:

  • SuDS (sustainable drainage systems): Designed to manage surface water to mimic natural drainage processes, SuDS are critical in the natural prevention of flooding. Incorporating green roofs, living green walls and water sensitive urban design principles, SuDS can play an integral role in creating sustainable and climate-resilient buildings. Designed in the right way, a variety of vegetated species and habitat types can inter-connect to support an abundance of biodiversity.
  • Urban trees: Increasing tree cover can offer biodiversity benefits, including reduced carbon levels. However, the potential loss of species-rich grassland in place of tree planting could have an overall negative impact on biodiversity, so thorough planning is required to ensure this is avoided and diversity of habitats is maintained.
  • Well-designed Blue and green infrastructure: Street trees, pocket parks, public and private gardens, green roofs and urban greening can play a crucial role in creating recovery networks across urban areas. They can create resilient systems for biodiversity that mitigates the impact of rising temperatures, by creating a cooling effect through shading and evaporation.

Legislative updates

Changes in legislation are coming, but there are some arguments that they do not go far enough to protect biodiversity. The UK’s long-awaited Environment Bill, which is due to come into force in the coming months, will put environmental principles into law. The Bill will set a legally binding target on species abundance to boost biodiversity, protect peatlands and create new woodlands. As part of the proposed Bill, biodiversity net gain (BNG) must be measured using a recognised biodiversity metric.

Implementing BNGs could help deliver measurable improvements, by creating or enhancing habitats in association with built environment assets. To support planners understand potential BNGs, Natural England launched its Biodiversity Metric 3.0 in July. The toolkit can be used by any development project, consenting body or landowner that needs to calculate biodiversity net gain in England.

Sufficient accountability measures are needed to ensure long-term planning is in place. To achieve this, planning expertise must be sought, particularly when maintenance and management of the built environment is considered. In addition, ‘built habitat’ mapping should be recorded in the same way in which species are record. This information – overlayed with observation of biodiversity data – will help to outline the effectiveness of the ‘built habitat# over time. 

The Biodiversity Metric 3.0 should be welcomed by industry, and planners should be encouraged to use it at all times. BNGs should not be watered down, as they ensure biodiversity initiatives are having the intended positive impact.

The Environment Bill isn’t the only important update in the UK. COP15, which is the Convention on Biological Diversity’s latest meeting, will take place in October. Here, the first detailed draft of the new post-2020 global diversity framework will be presented.

COP26, the UN’s climate change conference taking place in Glasgow between 31 October and 12 November, is another significant event coming up. Bringing together almost all of the countries across the world, the conference will show how nations are updating plans to reduce their emissions. As such, we can expect added pressure on the construction industry to ensure biodiversity protection is implemented during the design phase of future projects. Whether it’s planting trees in urban developments, or diverting roads away from natural habitats, there will be more expectation for planners to consider biodiversity.

Moving forward

With the changes expected to take centre stage over the coming months, it’s important for the sector to take proactive steps into an environmentally-sustainable future. To support the construction industry, ACO has collaborated with 60 partners and supporters to launch a new campaign which aims to explore the challenges we face.

Habitat Matters is a series of webinars and podcasts which looks at how we can create, maintain and improve natural habitat in the built environment. The series will discuss the way in which the construction industry can better protect biodiversity and habitats in the UK, highlighting how we can integrate habitats within the built environment.

The series of webinars run up to COP26, and will all be made available on-demand. They are hosted by a number of industry leaders, government representatives and partner organisations to discuss a variety of projects, including environmental policies and guidance, natural solutions and how the UK population can engage in biodiversity conversations.

The webinars are also free to attend, with the next scheduled event taking place on Thursday 26 August. The full schedule – alongside details on how to book a place on the webinars – can be found on the Habitat Matters website.

Final thoughts

We all have an important role to play in the future of our habitats. Whether it’s changing our own habits, or participating in initiatives which embrace nature (such as data collection, or volunteering), we can all play a part in influencing a sustainable future.

If you are interested in learning more about how we can better protect biodiversity, you can register for the free Habitat Matters webinars by visiting: www.habitat-matters.com.

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