I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rooker for introducing this debate at a time when we are coming to understand that the timetable for dealing with carbon emissions is much shorter than our generation had hoped. The science underpinning our understanding of carbon emissions and the consequences for the planet is not in doubt. Like my noble friend, in preparation for the debate I read Mrs Thatcher’s speech to the 1989 United Nations conference. She was of course one of our very few Prime Ministers with a scientific background. She spoke then of the,
“vast … amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere”,
and the destruction at the same time,
“on a vast scale of tropical forests which are uniquely able to remove carbon dioxide from the air”.
It caused surprise at the time but everything she was concerned about in that speech has been borne out by accurate measurement and the evidence of our own eyes.
It is also now clear that we are not moving fast enough to check the growth of carbon gas emissions and that our faith in our ability to find solutions quickly is misplaced. It was nearly 20 years after that speech that a Labour Government were able to bring forward the Climate Change Act 2008, which provided a target of reducing emissions by at least 80% below the 1990 figures by 2050. That target now looks much too leisurely, and the IPCC report of 2018, commissioned by the 195 signatories to the Paris climate agreement, tells us that we simply do not have until 2050.
Despite much good work by the Committee on Climate Change and much effort to reduce emissions from transport and power generation, not enough has happened. There have been welcome efforts to reduce demand for water and heating, but the hoped-for technological solutions to avert or swiftly mitigate the increase in emissions have not been successful. Nuclear power generation has brought with it unsolved problems of disposal of nuclear waste. Wind and hydrogeneration are making a useful contribution, but neither can be rapidly accelerated, and wave power is not proven. Neither have technological efforts to mitigate emissions been successful. There is at the moment no effective method of carbon-emission storage. The proposed investment of £1 billion in 2015 in finding a solution was cancelled a year after it was proposed.
One approach has, however, been a success, and ironically does not depend on technological innovation. Nearly 30 years ago, the Prime Minister spoke of using tropical forests as carbon sinks to mitigate the growth of emissions. In the intervening years, we have realised that we can enlist nature, both as a global community and, significantly, within our own borders. I speak with the benefit of being briefed by my daughter, who works for the Cambridge Conservation Initiative. The combined expertise at CCI, a collaboration of conservation academics and biodiversity organisations, continues to prove that the restoration and recovery of nature—forests, yes, but also peatlands, wetlands, coastal systems and uplands—creates effective carbon sinks, as well as contributing amenities for us all.
One of the most measurable projects recently undertaken is the Great Fen, a large area of the Fens in Cambridgeshire, which used to be increasingly exhausted low-productivity farming land, but has now been rewatered. The process just involved turning off the pumps that have kept that land as farmland since the Dutch engineers installed them in the 17th and 18th centuries. A lot of careful water engineering created the Great Fen. This is now both a lovely park, which provides a wild place to visit for the growing populations of Peterborough and Cambridge, and, critically, a substantial carbon sink. My noble friend Lady Young, alas, is not here today, but she chaired the organisation that brought this about, and I wish she were here.
Several working projects are now managed by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, including Summit to Sea in mid-Wales and the Cairngorms Connect project in Scotland. The primary focus of these projects is the restoration and recovery of critical ecosystems, but we can expect carbon sequestration, hydroecological changes including flood management, air quality changes and collateral community renewal as added value. Nature-based solutions, in short, are the low-hanging fruit in efforts to counter damaging carbon emissions and mitigate the effects we are already experiencing from climate change.
A report published in 2018 by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that it is possible, using natural solutions, to contribute 37% of the reduction in emissions necessary to keep the increase in global warming below 2% by 2030. It would not be difficult to expand this work; it can be done largely as a matter of water engineering. But the Great Fen was partly funded by philanthropy, and Summit to Sea and the Cairngorms projects are largely funded by private individuals and the Arcadia Fund set up by Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. However, enabling more developments of this sort to contribute to alleviating emissions cannot be achieved by even the most generous private philanthropy. Government money and the will to push through development will be needed to use to the full our natural assets of wetlands and land exhausted by intensive farming and deforestation. This is an area that cannot be left to the market.
Money for measurement and cost-benefit analysis of this area would also be well spent. Good work is happening in several places on researching the precise costs and measuring the benefits of this sort of expansion. Centralising this research could present the Government with a wide choice of projects, with the costs and benefits set out, so that decisions could be made and action taken quickly on which proposals to support. I hope that, in winding up the debate, the Minister will agree on the importance of developing projects that use nature and our land, and can be developed quickly.