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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:18 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 3:18 pm, 26th February 2020

It is a pleasure to follow Dr Spencer, who certainly has big shoes to fill. The way he talked about how his experiences in his previous professional life led him to want to make change in this place was particularly poignant. We may find that we could have a conversation about music at some point, although I maintain that I was never a goth. There is a local satirical magazine in Bristol that has nicknames for all the local politicians, and I am invariably referred to as “pint-sized goth MP Kerry and ‘the Banshees’ McCarthy”.

This Bill concerns the technical and mechanical arrangements for putting these measures into law. However, a real lack of vision surrounds not only this hefty piece of legislation but the Government’s general approach. I am increasingly concerned that we are not showing leadership in the run-up to COP26. We have not had a statement from the Government since the election or since the COP president was replaced by the Business Secretary, and there is so much more that could be done in showing global leadership on the climate and ecological emergencies.

On the Bill specifically, the four principal concerns raised on Second Reading last October, as well as by the Environmental Audit Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee during pre-legislative scrutiny, have not changed. There is still no substantive commitment to non-regression in environment law, and until that is included the Government’s verbal commitments on maintaining standards are, frankly, difficult to believe. The Secretary of State spoke at the National Farmers Union conference today, and he knows that the farming community is very much of that mind when it comes to the Agriculture Bill, but the concern spreads much wider among environmental groups as well.

The clause on environmental principles—clause 16 —needs to be strengthened. It is not good enough that Ministers must simply have only due regard to them. It is also a significant step backwards compared with the arrangement we had within the EU.

The lack of urgency on targets is deeply worrying. The interim targets are not legally binding. The long-term targets do not need to be set until 2022, and potentially cannot be enforced for almost two decades. We do have to have short-term milestones; otherwise, we will just see action delayed again and again, and there will be no mechanism for holding the Government to account. As has been mentioned, it is also quite worrying that the Secretary of State has the power to revoke or lower a target with very little scrutiny.

I would like to see much stronger action on land use in this country, particularly urgent action on natural climate solutions. There tends to be an awful lot of talk about planting trees, but that in itself is not enough to compensate for the damage that is being done to our environment. I was at a very interesting event with the all-party group on net zero yesterday, when I think it was said that natural climate solutions could account for 0.25 °C of trying to limit the rise in global warming to 1.5 °C or 2 °C.

We need to look at protecting and restoring our peatlands, salt marshes and other carbon sinks. This was mentioned in the Agriculture Public Bill Committee yesterday. Apparently, there are various strategies around, and it all seems quite piecemeal. My concern is how we hold the Government to account if there is a certain amount of provision in legislation, but also lots of other documents that are not legally binding and cannot necessarily be challenged in Parliament. In some ways, that could muddy the water in relation to what we are trying to achieve.

I will not go into detail about the Office for Environmental Protection, other than to say that I hope it is still coming to Bristol. It does need more independence and more power. It needs to be properly resourced, because there is no point in its having the power to conduct its own investigations unless it is actually given the resources to carry out those investigations properly. It must also be given the power then to impose fines. I hope the Government will consider this in Committee.

Alarmingly—this was mentioned in passing in an intervention—in the year we are set to host COP26 and there is also the international biodiversity conference in China, the Bill is completely silent on the UK’s global environment footprint. We cannot just try to put our own house in order when we are a global nation—we are trading, we are importing and exporting—and having a considerable impact often on countries that are contributing very little to climate change themselves.

We need a target to reduce our overseas impact, including specific action on deforestation. It is a sad reality that economic activity by the UK, whether via finance or imports, has played a significant role in the destruction of the world’s forests to produce food. Last year, Global Witness identified that UK-based financial institutions have been the single biggest source of international finance for six of the most harmful agribusiness companies involved in deforestation in Brazil, the Congo basin and Papua New Guinea, providing a staggering £5 billion in finance over the last six years. Meanwhile, UK imports of commodities such as beef, leather, soy, palm oil and timber have been shown by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to take up an area of land—land associated with deforestation—more than half the size of the UK.

That is why I completely support the calls by the WWF and Global Witness to amend the Bill to include a mandatory due diligence obligation, which would require a business to identify and assess the nature of the actual and potential adverse impact of its activities on the environment and human rights, both domestically and internationally, as well as throughout its supply chains and investment chains. It would also require a business to take appropriate action to avoid, mitigate and remediate the negative impacts identified and assessed; to cease operations and investments where impacts cannot be adequately mitigated; and to report on implementation of the due diligence plan, including the actions taken and the effectiveness of those actions. I hope to serve on the Public Bill Committee, and if so, I will be seeking to put forward amendments that tackle this.

To conclude, it is not enough just to be planting trees in our own backyard if we are contributing to the deforestation of vast swathes of the Amazon abroad.