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My Lords, climate change is the greatest threat that humanity faces. Scientists have been warning us for years that disasters of all kinds—wildfires, floods, droughts and storms—will become increasingly common as the planet heats up. Alongside this climate emergency, we face a nature emergency. Last year’s State of Nature report found that one-quarter of UK mammals and nearly half the birds assessed are now at risk of extinction. On a global scale, the latest report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services concluded that nature is being eroded at rates unprecedented in human history. This is not only a tragedy for the wildlife and wild areas that humanity is destroying, but another threat to the economic prosperity, health and well-being of human societies.
If we are to respond effectively to both these emergencies, our whole economy must be re-engineered to a green economy. UK low-carbon businesses already directly employ 400,000 people, but the green economy must move beyond being a subset of the economy at large. This does not mean shrinking the economy. As the Government themselves argue in their Clean Growth Strategy, we can grow the economy while improving environmental standards and meeting our international obligations to reduce carbon emissions. But it does mean accepting that the environment places limits on sustainable economic activity.
To embrace a green economy, we need targets. I am pleased the Government’s Environment Bill commits to setting targets for improving air, water, biodiversity, resource efficiency and waste reduction. Liberal Democrats have argued for more than 10 years for the UK to adopt a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target; we therefore welcome the Government’s belated conversion to that cause last year.
So far, however, we have seen far too little action to meet the new target. The Government’s announcement of a review of the UK’s transition to a net-zero economy and how it will be funded is welcome, but I cannot understand why this review will not publish its findings until the autumn. The House is aware that the UK is hosting this year’s UN Climate Conference in November. The key task for that conference, and for the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as its president, will be to raise countries’ ambitions as expressed through their nationally determined contributions, or NDCs. At present, the likely outcome of the NDCs put forward at the Paris conference in 2015 would be to see global temperatures rise by more than three degrees by the end of the century. This would be catastrophic.
The UK, as host of the conference, could best persuade other parties to the Paris Agreement to raise these ambitions by publishing its own NDC—a major economy not just setting an ambitious target, but explaining in detail how it intends to achieve it. How is the need for ambitious targets as soon as possible, to lay the foundations for a successful conference, compatible with the review that will not be published until the autumn? We need to send the signal as soon as possible to encourage other countries to raise their own levels of ambition and give them the time they need to formulate their plans.
Setting targets, however, is only the first step in moving to a green economy. Achieving it will require a massive and complex effort to accelerate the deployment of zero-carbon infrastructure, vehicles and product development, commercialise new technologies and change behaviour. This will require the Government to set a comprehensive framework for action, regulating, taxing and providing financial support to create incentives and send signals to decision-makers, industry, communities and, indeed, households.
So, I ask the Minister, when will all elements of this framework be in place? There have been some welcome recent announcements from the Government: the 2035 end date for the sale of fossil fuel cars and the ending of the self-defeating ban on onshore wind. In yesterday’s Budget, the tax on plastic products not containing at least 30% recycled plastic creates a direct financial incentive to use recycled content in new plastic packaging. This is a step towards doubling our resource productivity by 2050, given that it incentivises refill business model development and gives industry the confidence to invest in UK recycling infrastructure. Indeed, Veolia has announced on the back of this that it is investing in a new £50 million facility in the Midlands to ensure that any plastic bottles and trays used to protect food can be reprocessed and used again.
Other announcements in yesterday’s Budget, however, such as retaining the freeze on fuel duty and building 4,000 miles of new roads suggest that the Government have not grasped the urgency of the task if we are to reach net zero by 2050. When will we see ambitious measures to improve the energy performance of homes and buildings? Not only would this cut emissions, it would reduce household energy bills, tackle fuel poverty and generate employment right around the country. Bluntly, the Government’s performance in this area over the past five years—ending the Green Deal and scrapping the zero-carbon homes standard—has been little short of scandalous.
We need more government action, and quickly, but we also need all government policy, including trade policy, to embrace a green economy. As we rightly ratchet up standards here, it is critical that we apply the same standards to all imports. However, recent government pronouncements suggest that they see Brexit as the opportunity for us to become a buccaneering free trade nation ruthlessly exploiting any openings in the global marketplace and being disdainfully dismissive of the need for a level playing field in standards. That begs the question: why put in the enormous work it will take to create a net zero and environmentally friendly farming economy here if we then just import carbon and contribute to environmental degradation in other countries?
Vital though these and many other steps are, net zero and better environmental protection cannot be achieved by central government alone. Many of the solutions are best tackled by cities, towns and rural communities developing waste reduction strategies and programmes for housing, transport, local energy generation and land use. Innovation often takes place most successfully through constructive partnerships on a local scale, as Liberal Democrat-run local authorities such as Sutton, South Cambridgeshire and Eastleigh have demonstrated.
The Minister will be aware that last week, 10 city council leaders and metropolitan mayors, in an open letter to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, argued against the Government’s proposals to restrict local planning authorities from setting higher energy efficiency standards for dwellings. Why are the Government preventing local councils making faster progress to net zero? What steps do they intend to take to liberate the ingenuity and innovative powers that local communities have to achieve this and the accompanying place-based green jobs?
It is not only government, central and local, that must act. Businesses of all sizes need to incorporate climate impacts in their decisions and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from their supply chains. One topic currently under debate here in the UK and in the EU is the placing of a duty of care—a due diligence obligation—on businesses with regard to commodities whose production is associated with deforestation. I refer to products such as palm oil, soya, beef, cocoa and rubber. The UK is a major importer of these products and our consumption is helping to drive deforestation abroad, with catastrophic impacts for forests, their wildlife and the communities that depend on them, as well as on carbon emissions. All these commodities can be produced sustainably, but voluntary initiatives on the part of the more progressive companies have failed so far to have sufficient impact.
We are familiar with the idea of a due diligence obligation from legislation such as the EU timber regulation, which the Government sensibly transposed into UK law. This applies the concept to illegally sourced timber. Companies are required to have in place a system that enables them to adequately scrutinise their supply chains, including their suppliers and sub- contractors, and take action to ensure that they are not sourcing illegally logged timber. I ask the Minister: will the Government use the opportunity of the Environment Bill, now making its way through the Commons, to introduce a similar obligation with respect to agricultural commodities associated with deforestation?
This is a good example of the type of action that we need to see the Government adopting to tackle both the climate and the nature emergency. In this critical year for the environment, with key international conferences taking place both for climate and for biodiversity, we need the Government to take a lead by setting out their plans for a sustainable economy, sustainable businesses and sustainable communities, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero, protecting landscapes and wildlife, and living in harmony with nature. I can think of no better task for the global Britain that this Government claim to want to lead.