Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:15 pm on 2nd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 1:15 pm, 2nd May 2019

My Lords, in February 2004, I introduced a debate on climate change in your Lordships’ House. It was prompted by the stark warning of the then Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, who said that,

“climate change is the most severe problem we are facing today, more serious even than the threat of terrorism”.

The Blair Government took Sir David King’s advice seriously and worked up a consensus on the way forward, a point powerfully made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in his excellent introduction. That Government established a Joint Committee of both Houses—of which I was fortunate to be a member—to work on a draft Bill. It took evidence and advice. It proved a worthwhile way forward and the resulting Climate Change Act was a world first. I believe that everything the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said needs to be a lesson learned today.

The noble Lord, Lord Deben, was a little upset by the remarks of my noble friend Lady Featherstone, who criticised this Government for squandering four years and the progress made until 2015. Consensus does not mean we should not be able to criticise lack of action where it happens. That is important too. I hope we will build a consensus today, but at the same time we must expect critical friends, or even critical opposition, to move us forward.

I will spend most of my speech on an issue that was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Rooker, Lord Deben and Lord Whitty, the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and possibly others, and that is soil. Soil has such a critical role to play in both mitigating and adapting to climate change, so it is a good thing that Defra is working on a new strategy, but I must say to the Minister that the call for research does not explicitly mention carbon storage or climate change. Perhaps it is implicit.

Much worse was an issue I discovered from my recent Written Question: there is a chronic shortage of soil scientists. The answer to this Question on 5 April was that there are five professors of soil science in England and Wales, and 25 academic staff in total. That is certainly not enough to action Defra’s requirements for an innovative approach to monitoring soil health in England and Wales. I ask the Minister what urgent action the Government will take to resolve that issue, if we are going to develop appropriate soil metrics and a new environmental land management scheme, as the Government have set out in their future farming Command Paper and the 25-year environment plan. We must resolve this lack of soil scientists.

There is an interesting international soil initiative. I declare an interest here as a part-owner of a vineyard in France. After the Paris climate change accords of 2015, an initiative was launched by the French called 4 per 1000. Basically, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere increases by 4.3 billion tonnes a year and the world’s soils contain some 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon as organic matter. If we increased that organic matter by just 0.4% a year, primarily by improving and restoring degraded agricultural land, it would go a long way towards halting the annual increase in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. At the same time, it would improve a lot of other things such as soil fertility, which would help food production, water and biodiversity. Those are all worthwhile efforts.

Changing attitudes to soil involves farming very differently. No-till farming is now gaining hold. There is also more mixed farming, with fewer monocultures. Perhaps the plan will look forward to taxing the bad—that is, nitrogen-based fertiliser—and we have already had a lot of discussion about rewarding the good by helping farmers who increase natural capital and farm ecologically. In that regard, I should perhaps declare my co-chairmanship of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology.

Equally important is clear labelling for consumers, because they need to know that they are buying something that is the best. That brings me to my last point. In the last century, we had labelling of what miles per gallon a car would do; in this century, we need much clearer labelling about carbon footprints. Perhaps we even need to move to a system of personal carbon allowances, with labelling telling us just how much of our personal carbon allowance we are using up. I hope that some think tank will return to personal carbon allowances. Even since 2012, when the last substantial work was done on this issue, all sorts of mechanisms such as phone apps have been developed that make it much easier for a person to know exactly how much carbon they consume. There are those who, like me, want to combine climate change issues with social justice issues. Of course, those with the biggest incomes are often the biggest emitters of carbon, through flying more and having two cars, bigger houses, et cetera. The UK is in a great position technologically to enable us to maintain our lifestyles but to reduce our emissions.