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The natural environments of the UK’s 14 Overseas Territories (OTs) are of global significance. Ranging from Antarctica to the Caribbean, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic, they contain around 94% of all the unique species that the UK is responsible for and have marine areas that extend over 2% of the world’s ocean surface.

While the 14 territories are negligible contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, their small size, unique environments, and their economic reliance on their natural environments, makes them particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, rising sea levels, and biodiversity loss. The protection of the OT’s environments is expected to be discussed when the UK hosts the COP26 Climate Conference in November 2021.

This briefing sets out the responsibilities of the UK and Territory governments to conserve and protect their environments. It also looks at the importance of their ecosystems and the challenges they face, and UK programmes to protect their biodiversity and help them adapt to climate change.

The environmental importance of the OTS

The 14 OTs vary in size, population, and their environmental significance.

The marine area of the UK’s OTs dwarfs that of the UK, being nine times larger than the exclusive economic zone around the UK (6.8 million km2 in the OTs, excluding the Antarctic OT, compared to 756,000km2 of the UK mainland). Around 4,700km2 of their marine area is coral, making the UK responsible for the twelfth largest area of coral reefs.

The OTs contain around 3,300 species that occur nowhere else, and there are potentially 1,800 to 2,100 such species yet to be discovered.

Impact of climate change and threats to biodiversity

OTs are currently experiencing variable rises in ocean temperatures but most are expected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to have average temperature rises of 2 to 3⁰c by 2100.

Scientific research has blamed rising temperatures for the loss of corals in OTs such as the British Indian Ocean Territory. The retreat of glaciers in the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands would also remove a natural barrier to invasive species.

Because their infrastructure and economies tend to be concentrated in coastal zones, many OTs are vulnerable to sea level rise. Analysis by researchers suggests that this will lead to land loss and migration, including in the Pitcairn Islands.

Natural disasters have had severe impacts on the Caribbean OTs. In 2017, two hurricanes caused more than US $4.3 billion of damage in the Turks and Caicos, British Virgin Islands and Anguilla. Analysis for the Commonwealth Marine Economies Programme suggests storms in the area are now lasting longer with more precipitation.

The UK OT Conservation Forum has said that natural habitats in the OTs are particularly vulnerable to invasive species, as many have evolved without competition and disease. Rats, for example, are known to have caused negative effects in all fourteen OTs. There have been some successful elimination programmes; in 2018 South Georgia was declared free from rats and mice for the first time since 1775.

Devolved responsibility

While the UK Parliament has an unlimited power to legislate for the OTs, responsibility for the environment is devolved to inhabited OT Governments.

The UK Government has published several strategies for the OTs, which set out the need to provide financial and technical assistance to them. While some Territories have requested that international climate and biodiversity conventions are extended to them, all remain outside the 2015 Paris Agreement. OTs are currently in discussions with the UK Government on the forthcoming climate conference, COP26.

UK environmental programmes in the OTs

UK financial support to the territories comes primarily through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). Via the Blue Belt Programme, the UK has supported the creation of Marine Protected Areas, one of the largest environment schemes in the OTs. These protected areas now cover 1% of the world’s oceans, and most include a ban on commercial fishing and extraction from the seabed.

Three OTs are eligible for Official Development Assistance (ODA) from the UK, as part of the UK’s aid budget. Aid spending on the environment has focused on controlling invasive species, clean energy, and environmental management.

The UK Government also runs the Darwin Initiative and Darwin Plus scheme, some of which is counted as ODA. From 2012 to 2021, £22 million was spent on 122 projects in the OTs. In 2020, the Government announced that funding to Darwin Plus would be doubled to £10 million a year from 2022.

Reforms and future needs

In 2019, the Foreign Affairs Committee said that funding for OTs is too fragmented, and that the Government should instead consider a dedicated fund for the Territories.

While the Government committed to consider this in the Autumn 2020 Comprehensive Spending Review, the Review was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government has said it notes concerns from OT Governments and NGOs that funding often lacks longevity and more help is needed to provide technical expertise. In January 2021, the Government said it was continuing to consider its offer to the OTs.

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