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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:56 pm on 4th November 2019.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 5:56 pm, 4th November 2019

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, for her excellent introduction to this debate and for standing in so ably. At Oral Questions today, my noble friend raised the issue of the evidence of this Government’s commitment to biodiversity and the challenges we face. She cited the example of Natural England having its funding cut by half and its staffing cut. The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, responded quite strongly, even referring to the Government’s international commitment to support for development. He talked about aspirations, which are important, be we also have to lead by example. We need to evidence the change that we are making in this country. As my noble friend Lord Judd highlighted, last May the House of Commons called on the Government to lay before the House, within the next six months, urgent proposals to restore the UK’s natural environment and to deliver a circular, zero-waste economy.

Since then, this Government have failed to pursue policies adequate to the scale of the crisis. According to the Committee on Climate Change, the UK is way off target to meet its fourth carbon budget in 2023-27 and its fifth carbon budget in 2028-32. Last year, the committee set out 25 headline policy actions for the year ahead. Twelve months later, only one has been delivered in full, and 10 have not shown even partial progress. As noble Lords have also heard in this debate, this Government have also continued to pursue policies that are damaging to the natural environment abroad, including the use of UK Export Finance to subsidise fracking and fossil fuel extraction.

Between 2014 and 2018, 96% of UK Export Finance’s support to the energy sector—£2.5 billion—went to fossil fuel exports. The CDC has also continued to invest in fossil fuel energy. I acknowledge what the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, said about developing countries; their economies are in transition and need time, but the pace of action is far too slow. We need to quicken that pace.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, reminded us, last May saw representatives in Paris from 130 countries approve a report containing the most comprehensive assessment of global biodiversity ever undertaken. The report found that nature is being eroded at rates unprecedented in human history. One million species are currently threatened with extinction and we are undermining the entire natural infrastructure on which our modern world depends.

We cannot solve climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We solve both or neither. Governments and businesses are nowhere close to doing enough. The world is on track to miss the targets of the Paris agreement and 80% of the UN sustainable development goals—on food, water and energy security. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, highlighted, unsustainable agricultural practices will undermine future food production. Today 815 million people go to bed hungry, 38 million more than in 2015. Yet, if food waste were a country, its emissions would rank third in the world after China and the US, producing 8% of manmade emissions.

The loss of biodiversity and human-induced climate change are not only environmental issues, as we have heard in this debate. They are developmental, economic, social, security, equity and moral issues as well. Poorer countries have felt the impact of climate change first and worst, yet they have done the least to cause it. Climate change has mainly been caused by rich, developed, industrialised countries that have developed their economies while burning fossil fuels.

The UK has announced, as we have heard from all noble Lords, a doubling of its overseas aid funding to tackle climate change. This includes increasing its international climate finance support to nearly £12 billion at least over the next five years. Zac Goldsmith, the Minister, said in the IDC inquiry last week that this will be spent on “nature-based solutions”. How do the Government define nature-based solutions? Definitions are important. Some in the forestry industry, as we heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, argue that monoculture plantations are acceptable as a nature-based solution, but the priority has to be protecting and restoring existing, mature, biodiverse forest, as this draws down much more carbon. It is completely false to suggest that, if these disappear, monoculture plantations can replace them. I would like to hear from the Minister about that definition.

The Government have also announced aid funding for the new Ayrton Fund, which will give British scientists and innovators access to up to £1 billion of aid funding to create new technology to help developing countries reduce their emissions. This is very welcome, and we have heard about the importance of research in tackling this issue. But I am concerned that instead of building capacity in developing countries, much of the cash will be spent with British universities and private firms. What is DfID doing to ensure that we build expertise in developing countries so that the technology is developed there as well, and we have far more sustainable solutions? It is essential that we understand the linkages between the threats of climate change and biodiversity and implement actions to address both.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, ended her contribution to today’s debate by referring to her party’s commitments. I shall do the same; this is the opportunity to do that. Labour in government will reclaim the UK’s leading role in tackling climate change and work hard to preserve the Paris Agreement and deliver on our international commitments to reduce emissions, while mitigating the impacts of climate change on global south countries. Within DfID, we will act to: ensure that UK aid does not support fossil fuel projects; divest DfID from fossil fuels as soon as practical and possible; reinvest in renewable energy infrastructure; develop an alternative measure of well-being and economic success instead of GDP growth; and reduce the importance of GDP growth as an objective of UK-funded development programmes. We will act with other government departments and international partners to ensure that the UK gets back on track with meeting its commitments under the Paris climate agreement, and we will use our position on multinational development banks around the world to work with them to reduce investment in fossil fuels and increase investment in renewable energy.

I conclude with the words from the contribution of the right reverend Prelate: we need to be kind to our environment and take care of our natural resources. I am sure that is what we have heard from every noble Lord in this debate; I just want the Government to make the same sort of commitment.