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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:47 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam 3:47 pm, 26th February 2020

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on such an important issue. It is right that we legislate to protect the environment, our water and the air we breathe. It is also vital that we preserve the biodiversity of our countryside and woodlands and conserve our areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as the Peak district in my constituency, for the enjoyment of everyone.

I am pleased that, after pressure on the Government, the Bill now includes a reference to climate change enforcement. If the rising sea levels, fires and floods do not constitute a threat to our environment, I am not sure what does. The fires in Australia have affected 1.25 billion animals and, according to WWF estimates, have harmed 30% of the koala population. There is abundant scientific research to demonstrate that global heating will result in the extinction of thousands of plants and animal species, and the UK is not immune. It is nonsense to say that we are in favour of biodiversity but not lift a finger to stop the carbon emissions that have led to the destruction of ecosystems and fragile ecologies, making the 10% increase in biodiversity almost impossible to deliver. It is not meaningful to talk about protecting the environment without also talking about how we end the climate catastrophe that is currently wreaking havoc across the globe.

The only way to secure our environment and defend the diversity of our wildlife in the long term is to halt rising temperatures and reach zero emissions by the 2030s. That means fundamentally reshaping our economy and infrastructure by handing power to the people with the greatest interest in stopping climate catastrophe—not the bankers, as we heard earlier, or big businesses, but working people.

Despite the changes to the Bill, the truth is that it falls well short of the protections we need to secure our natural environment for the years to come. The EFRA Committee charged with scrutinising the proposals was right to call them a missed opportunity. This was an opportunity to enshrine environmental protections in all aspects of our public institutions. Instead, the proposals only oblige Ministers to act and only with mealy-mouthed “'due regard to” the principles in the Bill. It was an opportunity to make Britain a beacon of environmental standards for the whole world to follow. Instead, there is no provision in the Bill to prevent our own standards from slipping and falling below those of the European Union; in fact, the environmental principles outlined in it represent a significant downgrading of the principles behind our existing environmental protections. It was an opportunity to create a world-leading, independent institution for environmental auditing. Instead, the Government are proposing to establish an organisation with nowhere near the level of independence that is required to hold Ministers and public bodies to account.

At a time when No. 10 can sack a Chancellor for refusing to fire his staff, are we really to have any confidence that the Government will not seek to interfere in the decisions made by the proposed Office for Environmental Protection? I wonder whether the intention is to create a Cassandra-esque body so that those in power can wrongly ignore the truth that it speaks. To tackle climate change and protect our environment, we need democratic and independent institutions that have the power to enforce action on climate chaos in a meaningful way.

We can either face up to the reality of the climate crisis and transform our institutions, our economy and our infrastructure, or consign our planet and our wildlife to environmental catastrophe. That is the decision we face. It is a historic opportunity and a historic responsibility. I am sorry to say that it is an opportunity that the Bill squanders and a responsibility that it shirks.