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At a time when we needed a strong environmental Bill, this one regrettably goes backwards, not forwards, in a great number of areas. For example, on non-regression, as many other hon. Members have said, we have had countless promises that leaving the EU will not lead to backsliding on environmental protections, including from the Prime Minister just last week, but if those promises are genuine let us make it official, with a straightforward commitment to non-regression within this Bill.
The environmental principles need serious strengthening, including an unambiguous duty on all public bodies to apply them to policy and funding decisions. Crucially, that duty must be in the Bill, not relegated to a policy statement that we have not even seen, much less had an input into. We need stronger powers and real independence for the Office for Environmental Protection, for example, by giving Parliament a greater role in appointments. The setting of targets must be based on independent, expert scientific advice. The fact that the Bill currently would allow the Secretary of State unilaterally to weaken a target on a whim is completely unacceptable.
We also need legally binding interim milestones. We face an ecological emergency, and it is utterly unacceptable that the Bill could give the Government almost two decades before they are legally required to meet any new targets.
The Bill must also cover the enormous overseas environmental footprint of the UK’s domestic consumption and economic activities. Just last week, statistics from the Office for National Statistics revealed that Britain has become the biggest net importer of carbon dioxide emissions per capita in the G7 group of wealthy nations, outstripping the United States and Japan, as a result of buying goods manufactured abroad. So that has to be part of this Bill.
There is, however, an even more fundamental problem with the Bill—a glaring omission. I refer to the economy, because if we are to truly turn around our relationship with nature, we must confront this elephant in the room: the current economic system, where the environment is too often just an afterthought, and the wellbeing of people and nature comes second to the pursuit of economic growth. Too often we see that at the national level, especially in Treasury decisions, yet the Bill exempts
“taxation, spending and the allocation of resources within government” from the environmental principles and from the scrutiny of the Office for Environmental Protection. We see the results of this already at a local level, where the prioritisation of economic growth means that projects such as the Oxford-Cambridge expressway are strongly supported, even though they mean the destruction of stunning wildflower meadows, ancient woodlands, hedgerows and so forth.
The Government clearly believe in the infinite ability to decouple economic growth from environmental impacts, but if we look at the evidence, we see that there is no case in respect of absolute decoupling at the scale and speed we need, and it is simply fanciful to assume that that is going to be possible. The UN report on the declining state of world nature from IPBES—the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services—which was published earlier this year explicitly identified the growth of the global economy and, specifically, the growth of material consumption in affluent nations as one of the major driving forces behind these trends. It is unambiguous about the need to move away from endless consumption and GDP as a key measure of economic success, stating that we must steer
“away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth” to include other indicators that are better able to capture more holistic, long-term views of economics and quality of life. It means that we have to shift beyond standard economic indicators such as GDP.
Although there are some things in the Bill to welcome, overall it is going in the wrong direction. Crucially, it is not accepting that an economy based on infinite economic growth is never going to be sustainable. We have to change the way our economy works, as well as the way our environment works.