Force of Nature: Conservation authority boss Gemma Harper on the urgent need for collaboration

In the battle against climate change and the biodiversity crisis, government-wide collaboration is a must. CSW talks to Dr Gemma Harper, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee chief executive tasked with keeping UK public bodies on track for a sustainable, nature-first future
Gemma Harper, chief executive of the JNCC

By Jonathan Owen

21 Sep 2023

To say that Dr Gemma Harper has a tough job on her hands would be an understatement. As chief executive of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee,  she heads up a non-departmental public body with a vast remit.

The JNCC, which is sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved governments, is effectively the brains behind the UK’s approach to caring for the natural world, at home and abroad. As the UK’s scientific authority on nature conservation and recovery, its remit extends to the UK overseas territories and Crown dependencies, as well as marine conservation.

Established under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, it also advises on the UK’s implementation of international treaties relating to biodiversity, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. The JNCC has a raft of statutory duties and responsibilities relating to nature conservation, environmental protection, planning and economic development on land and sea, and acts as the glue that unites the nature conservation bodies for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Harper, who has been its CEO since 2021, has had a lifelong passion for nature. “I was really curious, from an early age, about our relationship to other species and nature,” she says. Her curiosity evolved into a quest to understand “humanity’s place in the wider scheme of things” and “what the consequences of those beliefs and behaviours were”. Harper, is all about the big picture. Given the magnitude of the JNCC’s remit, it’s probably just as well.

The role is a big change for the scientist, who studied social psychology at the London School of Economics, and started her civil service career as a principal research officer in criminal justice at the Home Office. Harper then spent more than a decade at Defra, where she held roles such as chief social scientist before ending up as the department’s deputy director for marine policy. During her tenure, she picked up an OBE for services to the marine environment.

Harper left Defra to take charge of the JNCC, an arm’s-length organisation, where there is a degree of “autonomy and freedom”. She plays down the seismic shift of switching from being an employee – albeit a senior one – to becoming the boss. “It feels like a natural transition and progression,” she says. It’s taken a long time for her to marry her personal passion for nature with her career but at JNCC, she has found her tribe.

Her passion burns bright – with a zeal that would put a Mormon missionary to shame – when talking about the need to tackle climate change, which she describes as “climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, which really is ecological collapse”.

Nature underpins humanity, Harper explains. “The diversity, complexity and abundance of species, and the habitats they live in, produce the air that we breathe, the food that we eat, the water we drink and the materials we use.”

She states: “Historically, we’ve looked at biodiversity as something completely separate to our economic, social and environmental development. And that failure has resulted in the UK being one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.”

Harper says a major shift is needed to change things for the better. “I strongly believe there is hope that we will have the ingenuity and creativity to solve these problems,” she explains. “But they are going to require a whole-of-society approach to stop thinking of nature as something cute and fluffy, and nice to have ‘over there’.

“We are part of nature, and our economic prosperity, our societal wellbeing and our survival depends on what nature does for us. We are depleting nature at an unprecedented rate. So, we won’t tackle the climate crisis without tackling the biodiversity crisis, and vice versa. We need to encourage a better integrated understanding of why biodiversity matters.” Harper is clear on the consequences of not facing these challenges: “We’re not going to reach net zero without nature recovery.”

Greater collaboration and the removal of barriers such as the rivalry and snobbery that persists within the scientific community are also needed.

“There are pretty significant differences in investment between the social and natural sciences globally and in the UK, and there is still a challenge to do truly interdisciplinary work because of that difference in investment and influence,” Harper explains. In her opinion, different scientific disciplines need to work “much more closely together within government, but also through our research councils, through academia and through our institutions”.

Collaboration is essential, she argues. “Technological solutions to the climate and nature crises are going to be necessary, but insufficient,” she says. “We are going to need to transform societies, structures and cultures, in order to get a much more integrated and balanced relationship with the rest of nature.”

An “interdisciplinary approach to evidence” is needed, Harper says, where different scientific disciplines are “brought to bear on defining the problem as well as co-creating the solution”.

JNCC has partnership working in its DNA: it is dependent on good working relationships with the myriad of individuals and agencies it works with. How does this work in practice? “It is about common purpose,” Harper explains. The committee reaches out to potential partners who share a similar vision of a sustainable future in which nature thrives. The aim is to foster genuine partnerships, enabling both parties to deliver evidence and advice to decision-makers. 

Harper admits that Brexit “undoubtedly” had an impact on the JNCC’s overseas partnerships, but adds: “It hasn’t had an impact on our ambition. We work very closely with partners across the EU, and across the world. In fact, we have just rejoined the European network of conservation agencies to make sure that we are continuing to share our knowledge, build our understanding and develop the evidence needed for nature recovery.”

The JNCC has around 270 staff and approximately £25m in running costs. Given the sheer scale of what the committee is tasked with doing, does Harper feel she has the resources needed? “Our asset is the scientific knowledge delivered by our people and that is based on partnership working,” she replies. “You could always be bigger, and you could always do more. But we’ve got to stay focused on our statutory mandate, our expert capability, and our mission to turn that science into action for nature recovery.”

By the JNCC’s own estimates, just £624m of UK public sector funding was allocated to biodiversity between 2020 and 2021 – amounting to 0.023% of UK GDP. Harper says that “if there was a fuller understanding of the importance of ecological systems, there would be more investment in them”.

But investment alone is not enough. Currently, institutions and governance are siloed. Harper believes a transformation is needed to bring them together.

“We’ve undertaken huge social transformation in the past, and it’s been successful,” she says, citing the creation of the NHS as a case in point. “That was a principle-based structural investment in the health of the country. I think we need an equivalent principle-based structural investment in the health of the ecosystems that support humanity and all species.”

For all her vision of how things could be, she works in a role where good news is in short supply. Recent months have seen a slew of reports about nature that make for grim reading. In January this year, the Office for Environmental Protection warned that the government’s attempts to improve the natural environment in England have “fallen far short” of what is required and warned of a “chronic decline in species abundance”. Of 23 environmental targets assessed by the OEP, none showed the government’s progress was demonstrably on track.

A report released in March by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland showed that 53% of Britain and Ireland’s native plant species have declined over the last 20 years. In May, the JNCC itself was the bearer of bad news, releasing new data that highlighted a sharp decline in “priority species”. Its index used to measure population trends for species of “conservation concern” fell from 100 in 1970 to 37 in 2021.  During this period, just 19% of species showed an increase, while 58% went into decline.

Mounting concern over the state of the environment, whether it be over sewage spillages and chemical contamination of rivers, or the tens of thousands of deaths attributed to polluted air each year, has prompted more than 80 charities to form a coalition demanding change. Led by Wildlife and Countryside Link, the coalition is calling on political parties to commit to an environmental rights bill that would provide a legal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Asked if things are getting better or worse, Harper responds: “We are not getting better. By any index, by any calculation, by any set of metrics, we are destroying natural systems and processes at an unprecedented rate.

“Although there have been some successes with species and habitat protection, and in rethinking environmental policy in terms of sustainability, it still requires further integration, further mainstreaming across all policy areas.”

While not criticising the government, she is clearly impatient with the pace of change. One of the single biggest pieces of work that the JNCC does is a recurring review of species in the UK every five years. The latest involved scientific assessments of more than 1,000 species, in a “phenomenal partnership effort” with national nature conservation bodies. The JNCC submitted the review to ministers more than a year ago, but the government has yet to publish its response, along with the JNCC’s advice and recommendations.

“Is it frustrating that it’s over a year later?” she remarks. “Well, yes. But an awful lot happens, as you know, in a year in politics. We continue to request updates on when government will formally respond.”

Another important aspect of the JNCC’s work is the biodiversity indicators it produces to provide the scientific version of a running commentary on how things are going. The indicators are “essential for assessing the state and change of nature across the UK”, according to Harper. Right now, the indicators are being reviewed and revised in light of a global framework on biodiversity adopted by governments at last year’s Convention on Biological Diversity. The new biodiversity indicators “take into account how we’re going to define those targets”, according to Harper, as well as outlining what data needs to be collected and analysed to assess if the targets have been met.

Civil servants who give advice to policymakers need to be clear where their caveats and red lines are, Harper says. “Government doesn’t have to take advice in terms of its decision-making, but what it absolutely can’t do is say that it has if it hasn’t,” she says. “Being clear about that is really important.” She adds that those providing scientific advice should “recognise that evidence is just part of the information package that policymakers use to advise ministers”. It’s up to the recipients of that advice to make the final decisions.

Promoting the JNCC’s agenda is easier said than done. In Harper’s eyes, issues around nature and biodiversity are overshadowed by climate change and the net zero agenda and do not get enough attention in their own right. “It’s partly a lack of understanding about the importance of ecological systems,” she explains. “And it’s also a lack of understanding of the time it’s taken to evolve those systems and processes. But they are absolutely vital for all life on Earth.” 

Read the most recent articles written by Jonathan Owen - FCDO appoints first ever blind ambassador

Share this page