Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

International Sustainability: Natural Resources and Biodiversity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 4th November 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 5:45 pm, 4th November 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington, for ensuring that this really important topic was not overlooked as we move towards the Dissolution of Parliament.

I would like to start with the work of the Bayelsa State Oil & Environmental Commission, chaired by the right reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu. The commission has spent the last seven months investigating the impact of oil company activity and oil pollution in this Nigerian state, and it released its interim report last Friday 1 November. It does not make comfortable reading. In 1956, Shell drilled Nigeria’s first oil well in Bayelsa state. Today, it is one of Nigeria’s largest oil-producing states. It is also home to the world’s most diverse ecological zones, made up of fragile riparian wetlands and mangrove swamps. Despite its vast oil wealth, Bayelsa has the lowest human development index score of all of the nine Niger Delta states. Currently, the life expectancy there is just 50 years.

All related environment pollution, particularly oil spills and waste disposal into land, rivers, and creeks, and systematic flaring of associated gas, has destroyed lives and livelihoods in the developing world. Roughly 40 million litres of oil wind up in the Niger Delta annually—eight times more than is spilled in the whole of America, the world’s biggest producer and consumer. The ensuing loss of habitat and biodiversity, including mangrove swamps, has been enormous. Huge swathes of fragile wetlands have been destroyed. Watercourses that local people rely on for fishing have been contaminated and farmlands have been tainted. The resulting damage to human health includes higher incidences of cancer, respiratory illnesses, fertility issues and neonatal death. Surely it is unacceptable that international oil companies apply different environmental standards in Nigeria from, for example, Aberdeen. Will the Government undertake to exert pressure on international oil companies, through either legislation or regulation, to ensure that they uphold the same environmental standards, regardless of the location of their operations? That is the major ask of the commission.

I echo the concern of other noble Lords, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Bruce, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough, about the Prime Minister’s announcement on the Ayrton Fund, which could divert much-needed aid to the UK from parts of the developing world which, as we have heard, suffer from extreme environmental degradation. Frankly, I do not think that making this announcement was the Prime Minister’s finest hour. Raiding the ODA budget in this way only adds insult to injury.

There is an African-led project called the Great Green Wall. Its aim is to plant a forest of trees, stretching 8,000 kilometres across the Sahel from Senegal to Djibouti. This will create a natural barrier to the desertification and land and soil degradation taking place in the region. It will provide livelihoods for millions and create habitats for biodiversity to flourish in. This is a visionary concept; I hope that it will also go quite some way in helping to improve on the soil degradation that we have heard so much about this afternoon. Why is it that DfID is not investing in this African-led initiative when France, Italy and Germany are? Perhaps the Minister could write to me and put her response in the Library. This is really important because it is a visionary investment in the natural capital which the noble Lord, Lord Rees, spoke about.

Leveraging in money from the private sector will be necessary if we are to move from the billions to the trillions of dollars needed to realise the sustainable development goals, but the focus of all new projects must remain pro-poor. We must avoid falling back into the bad decision-making that led to the Pergau dam scandal, to name the most notorious example—although many others exist. This is especially important in the context of the recently announced infrastructure commission. I applaud the aims of that commission, as we will need to leverage in the vast sums needed, but it has to be absolutely focused on delivering for the poorest countries in the world if ODA money is used to seed it.

One recommendation in the House of Commons International Development Committee’s report of this year on UK aid and climate change was that,

“the Government should adopt the model of the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014 for climate change, to ensure that all”,

climate assistance,

“is screened for a contribution towards a … low carbon world.”.

This would of course also embrace the activities of the CDC. Is there any intention on the part of the Government to take this suggestion forward?

In the five years from 2013 to 2018, UK Export Finance gave £2.6 billion to support fossil-fuel projects in low and middle-income countries. I believe that this completely undermines the Government’s international climate finance spend, and that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, would agree 100% about that. However, as we move into the decade of delivery for the sustainable development goals there is only one place for fossil fuels: in the ground. My expectation is that the Minister will argue that supporting gas infrastructure in developing countries aids the transition from oil and coal, but that argument is a complete red herring. I accept what my noble friend Lord Bruce of Bennachie said; however, I do not agree with him. I agree that there is a huge challenge, but it is a challenge that must be met. There is no other option.

The fact is that the developing world itself is moving towards the decarbonisation of gas, so why are we promoting soon-to-be-defunct infrastructure to the developing world? This proposed infrastructure will last well beyond 2050 but what we really need to turn to is leapfrog technology. We need to use our initiative and imagination to harness what is already available to us. Stranded assets will help no one. We need to make sure that there is a just transition of skills and jobs from the oil industry to renewables, but we need a plan. Do the Government have a plan for a just transition? Will the Government undertake to address this policy incoherence?

Finally, if we are to realise the ambition of the sustainable development goals by 2030, we must accelerate leadership of ambition and the UK, with its expertise in development, must use its voice and influence. A number of noble Lords have mentioned the soft power that we still retain on the global stage. DfID’s voice and influence is respected throughout the world. It has the leverage referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rees. As we approach the “decade of delivery” it would be a reckless move to expunge the department’s influence by subsuming it into other government departments. I ask the Minister to make an unequivocal undertaking that DfID will survive intact should the Conservative party—heaven forbid—win an outright majority on 12 December. My party, the Liberal Democrats, will make that firm commitment. In addition, Liberal Democrats will make sure that every penny of the 0.7% of GNI is invested to help the poorest people in the poorest countries of the world, and that ODA spending by other government departments is held to the same level of transparency and accountability as DfID’s.