Sussex could soon join the Amazon rainforest and the High Atlas mountains in Morocco if a UN committee declares it as a new “biosphere” reserve on Wednesday.
It would be the first completely new biosphere in the UK for 40 years and the first ever in the south-east.
The biospheres, of which there are 621 selected by Unesco in 117 countries, are meant to bring communities and nature closer together, and make people more aware of their local environment and its value to the local economy and wellbeing.
Chris Todd, chair of the Biosphere Partnership, which put together and submitted the bid for the Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere Project, said it would be as much about people as it is flora and fauna.
“More and more people are living in cities, so we need to create sustainable lifestyles within them and high-quality environments that sustain people and don’t poison them with air pollution or restrict their access to green spaces,” he said.
“A healthy natural environment is good for us, not just in terms of being nice to look at but also in terms of our physical and mental health and a creating a strong economy. We hope that if we become a biosphere it will inspire people to take more control over their lives and the of areas they live in.”
Sussex is rich in biodiversity. Extending from the shore, up to two nautical miles out to sea, is a chalk reef and outcrops, home to numerous marine species including cuttlefish, sea squirts and the rare short-snouted seahorse.
Two areas, the Mount Caburn block, near Lewes, and Castle Hill are rare, internationally designated chalk grassland habitats, with other examples strung across the north scarp of the South Downs.
The chalk performs a vital role for the population, filtering much of the area’s drinking water and naturally purifying it as it passes through the rock. Without this essential “ecosystem service”, the county would need to build additional water treatment facilities.
Biospheres, by definition, are not statutory protected areas, in the way that national parks are, and therefore cannot impose conditions on anyone, including planners or developers. This has led some critics to describe them as little more than talking shops or marketing exercises.
But the Biosphere Partnership hopes that through its biosphere education programme and the business partnerships it is forging, it can build a body of opinion with which to influence statutory processes.
Keith Taylor, Green MEP for SE England, who was critical of the bid when it was announced six years ago, said that gaining biosphere status would show “real recognition” for the area’s support of sustainability projects but said that work to enhance the environment must be ongoing.