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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:46 pm on 17th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Stone of Blackheath Lord Stone of Blackheath Labour 2:46 pm, 17th October 2019

My Lords, we are all connected. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, was principal of Newnham College when my daughter Jessica studied there. So I note with pleasure that the gracious Speech included a section on improving the environment for future generations. I know that my noble friend Lord Bird is developing a Bill specifically to consider future generations.

Experts say that the best response to the climate emergency would be to stop deforestation, in combination with reforestation and permaculture-based soil regeneration. Trees have existed on earth for much longer than us—for hundreds of millions of years—and each lives for about 1,000 years. Yet trees share similar traits with us. In his book The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben describes how, by living in woods together and linking through the fungal network, trees help their neighbours through sharing nutrients and information, rear their young and care for old and dying trees.

Trees are important in our own lives, too. They aid our physical, mental and social well-being and abate respiratory conditions by absorbing pollution. Studies have found that people living closer to green spaces are more active, have lower rates of obesity and heart disease, and engage less in criminal activity. If every household were provided with good access to quality green spaces, it could save £2.1 billion in healthcare costs. The overall cost to the economy of physical inactivity is £8.2 billion a year—an issue that trees, along with walking, could resolve. An Exeter University study found that 72% of participants noticed positive changes in their health when prescribed nature-assisted therapies.

Trees are responsible for cleaning our water, protecting our communities from floods, preventing drought and desertification, sequestering carbon into organic matter and fostering healthy soil. A study at the University of Manchester showed that a 10% increase in tree cover in urban areas resulted in a 4% drop in surface temperature. Even when dead, trees support life, with their decaying leaves and bark forming mulch that feeds millions of micro-organisms and keeps soil moist and healthy. Trees also power rural economies and create jobs, from tree surgery to fruit harvesting, landscaping and green waste management. Forestry in Scotland alone is a £1 billion sector employing 25,000 people.

Despite all this, last year in the Amazon rainforest half a billion trees were torn down, destroying crucial habitats for mammals, birds, insects, bacteria and fungi. To save the life of this planet and its human population from extinction, we must cure the growing ills of trees so that they can cure the growing ills of humanity. Here in the United Kingdom, it is our duty to help our native trees in their resistance to pests, diseases and deforestation, in return for the abundance of physical and mental health rewards they provide for us. But this must be part of a far greater and more ambitious plan for the United Kingdom to become a light to other nations and spread this maintenance of trees across the globe.

Good people who are already doing this need governmental support. TreeSisters is a women-led UK charity halting the destruction of forests throughout the tropics through empowering ethical reforestation. It hopes to increase global tree numbers over the next five years by 1 trillion, thus preserving the tropical band that cools the essential global weather cycle. Friends of the Earth wants to double tree cover in the UK, with far more ambitious government targets for replanting, alongside agricultural techniques such as silvopasture—the practice of integrating trees, forage, and the grazing of domesticated animals in a mutually beneficial way.

The Findhorn Foundation is a community of 500 people in the UK, who, as an example to be followed, support and live the vision of creating a better world, starting with love between themselves and respect and love for their land. The charity Trees for Cities addresses London’s poor air quality by enriching school grounds through tree planting and greening. Its Perivale Park woodland creation project will transform 18 hectares, helping to connect natural habitats, promote biodiversity, reduce the frequency and intensity of floods, and increase green corridors for wildlife.

So I ask the Minister to suggest to Her Majesty’s Government that they might support reforestation projects, regenerative agriculture and permaculture-based soil regeneration on a global scale; educate the public on the value of trees and offer to fund a scheme for every UK citizen to plant one native tree; increase public awareness of “green prescriptions”; heavily scrutinise deforestation projects such as HS2—the largest deforestation programme since World War I—and develop ecological and ethical principles to cover the post-Brexit gap with an environmental standards sanctioning body.

In healthcare, we are already evolving preventive holistic projects to prolong healthy life. This must now be our priority for the health of trees, and hence the longevity of Gaia. To rise to these challenges, I ask the Minister to meet with a group of experts and leaders in the field so that we can create a national and international plan for trees, and with the recently created Peers’ group Peers for the Planet, which is concerned about the climate crisis and threats to biodiversity and the environment globally. It is meeting in October and seeks action through your Lordships’ House.

If we in the UK act as I have suggested and share our experience with our friendly 54 countries in the Commonwealth, where one-third of humanity lives, we will have the power to save the trees and save our planet.