Amendment 286

Environment Bill - Committee (8th Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 14th July 2021.

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Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle:

Moved by Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle

286: After Clause 133, insert the following new Clause—“Strategy for new economic goals to deliver environmental protection and societal wellbeing(1) Her Majesty’s Government must prepare a strategy for the adoption of new economic goals to deliver environmental protection and societal wellbeing.(2) “Environmental protection” in subsection (1) means the protection of humans and the natural environment from the impacts of human activity as defined in section 44.(3) The new economic goals must address—(a) the environmental targets in this Act,(b) the Climate Change Act 2008,(c) the United Kingdom’s commitments under international environmental agreements, laws and treaties,(d) the wellbeing of future generations,(e) the overseas environmental impacts of UK consumption and economic activity, and(f) the contribution of the UK’s consumption and production to the state of the global environment, in relation to nine planetary boundaries—(i) stratospheric ozone depletion,(ii) loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinctions),(iii) chemical pollution and the release of novel entities,(iv) climate change,(v) ocean acidification,(vi) freshwater consumption and the global hydrological cycle,(vii) land system change, (viii) nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans, and(ix) atmospheric aerosol loading.(4) The strategy must—(a) set out how the new economic goals will replace growth in gross domestic product as the principal measure of national economic progress,(b) set out a vision for how the economy can be designed to serve the wellbeing of humans and protect the natural environment,(c) include a set of indicators for each new economic goal, and(d) set out plans for the application of new economic goals and indicators to central and local government decision-making processes including but not limited to Central Government Guidance on Appraisal and Evaluation produced by HM Treasury (the Green Book).(5) In drawing up the strategy, Her Majesty’s Government must obtain, publish and take into account the advice of—(a) experts in the field of ecological economics,(b) a nationally representative citizens assembly,(c) trades unions,(d) businesses,(e) statutory agencies,(f) representatives of local and regional government, and(g) any persons the Secretary of State considers to be independent and to have relevant expertise.(6) The strategy must be laid before Parliament within 12 months of the passing of this Act.(7) The Secretary of State must lay before Parliament an annual report on progress towards meeting the new economic goals and their efficacy in delivering environmental protection and societal wellbeing.(8) A Minister of the Crown must, not later than one month after the report has been laid before Parliament, move a motion in the House of Commons in relation to that report.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause requires the Government to prepare a strategy for the adoption of new economic goals that are designed to deliver environmental protection and societal wellbeing and to report annually on these goals.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I will be speaking to Amendment 286 in my name in this two-amendment group. My noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, who is following me, will speak to Amendment 288. You can take it as read that I am entirely behind that amendment as well.

I make no apologies for referring again to the New Zealand living standards framework which guides every decision of that nation’s Treasury. That is truly world-leading, and this amendment seeks to take us a long way towards catching up. The amendment might be taken as a continuation of my efforts to help the Minister convince the Treasury that it is operating on flawed assumptions. The Treasury currently acts as though it is there in the interests of that entirely artificial, thoroughly discriminatory and deeply flawed construct, the economy, rather than operating for the well-being and security of people and planet. This amendment would provide a legal framework for change. It is essentially the same amendment that was tabled in the other place by Green MP Caroline Lucas, where it attracted cross-party backing.

This morning I was at an international event talking about how the people are leading on climate and biodiversity crises, with businesses and Governments trailing behind. Our long slog on the Environment Bill—a reflection, as my noble friend said in our last session, of the way the Government have failed to provide the necessary steel in its contents fit for this desperately late year of 2021—means its timing is fortuitous, for today a report was released by the Institute for Public Policy Research, drawing on the views of citizen panels in the South Wales valleys, Essex, Aberdeenshire, Tees Valley and County Durham. All of them offered their views on how the country should reach net zero by 2050 via a series of panels held over 18 months.

I go to the agreed conclusions of the Tees Valley and County Durham panel:

“Action to address the accelerating climate and nature emergencies can be about more than staving off the worst; it can be about imagining a better world which we can build together. A future where people and nature can thrive, with resilient local communities, good jobs, successful low-carbon businesses, and where inequalities are reduced and opportunities offered to all. A future where progress is measured”—

I emphasise “measured”—

“by the quality of life, security and wellbeing of all citizens as well as the health of our natural world.”

What this is talking about is reprogramming the economy. In practical terms, there are more than 100 recommendations in the IPPR report, ranging from upgrades to local public transport and policies to make it free by 2030, with free bus travel by 2025 as a first step. It also calls on the Government to launch a huge annual green housing scheme, similar to its flagship Help to Buy scheme, to help people replace their gas boilers with green alternatives and make energy efficiency improvements. It urges Ministers to introduce a “right to retrain” scheme for a just transition.

So it is deeply disappointing that we heard today that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is rejecting calls to include a VAT cut for green home improvements, which is the kind of thing that this amendment would surely point towards. This is in the context of our buildings continuing to account for 14% of our carbon emissions, and we are seeing precious little sign of progress. In a letter seen by the Guardian, the Treasury Minister said:

“The government has no plans to change the VAT treatment” because

“this would still not bridge the price gap with gas boilers”.

No one is saying that this should be the only measure, but it is certainly a no-brainer.

Turning directly back to the amendment, proposed subsection (3) consists of a long list of the environmental impacts to be considered. In short, it covers the planetary boundaries that we are already exceeding, are at risk of exceeding or, frighteningly in some cases, still do not know where we are but know we are at risk. I draw attention particularly to sub-paragraph (viii) about nitrogen flows, where we are—on one calculation at least—the nation most exceeding those planetary limits and that needs to reduce them by 89%. That, of course, is of intimate concern to the Environment Bill, as it is wrapped up in artificial fertiliser use, factory farming, soil erosion and the management of sewerage. Phosphorus, on 85%, is only marginally less bad and tied with many of the same issues. Proposed subsection (4) addresses the need for new goals, new vision and indicators—something that New Zealand has already done. But, to put it directly in our terms, it makes clear the need to use these in the Central Government Guidance on Appraisal and Evaluation produced by the Treasury, otherwise known as the Green Book.

You do not have to rely on the people to identify the need for this amendment. In a recent report for the OECD, a group of leading economists warned that patterns of economic growth are now generating “significant harms”, including

“rising inequality and catastrophic environmental degradation.”

The report calls for a paradigm shift in the way developed countries approach economic policy—so that, instead of focusing on GDP, they prioritise sustainability, human well-being, inequality reduction and the strengthening of economic resilience. The economists go on to call for a new metric, such as gross ecosystem product, to enable countries to go beyond GDP and integrate the value of nature into all decision-making.

Noble Lords can, of course, read for themselves the details of the amendment, but I draw attention to one final element of it. Proposed subsection (5)(b) says that, in drawing up the strategy, the Government must obtain, publish and take into account the advice of

“a nationally representative citizens assembly”.

If the Government want to be world-leading, or at least in the front of the pack, there it is: a method of direct deliberative democracy, by engaging the people in this dreadfully urgent task of tackling the climate emergency, nature crisis and all the pressing environmental and social issues we face. It has a proven pedigree internationally. Look at the progress in Ireland on gay marriage and abortion law, the experiments run here on local issues in England, our national Climate Assembly and the examples with which I began this speech.

I have no doubt that the UK will eventually get to implementing a system something very like this amendment proposes. But we cannot wait. We need it now. I thank all the other noble Lords taking part in this debate, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 4:00 pm, 14th July 2021

My Lords, what a pleasure it is to follow my noble friend Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. I would like to thank the Chief Whip for giving us our very own Green group grouping; I think that is very forward-thinking of him. It is probably about time that we had our own space on the Order Paper as well and, of course, Green group debates in the new Session. I really feel we are moving on here.

My amendment touches on the same philosophical question as my noble friend’s. Mine is predominantly about clean air, because this is getting very urgent, but it also mentions net-zero emissions. The question is: what is government for and how should it act? If our 20th-century nation state is to develop into a 21st-century sustainable society, the purpose of government should be to preserve and enhance human health, life and the environment, both for current and future generations. Nations and states are less important than clean air, clean water and a liveable planet.

We need public authorities to have legal duties and the funding to improve the health of people and the environment—particularly air quality, as that impacts on so many other parts of society, including placing a burden on the NHS now and reaching into the far future because of the damage being done to the lungs of children. Whether you are a parish councillor, a Secretary of State, a governor or the Secretary-General of the UN, people at every level of government and governance need to be racing to clean up our planet, to cut our air pollution and to cut back to net zero as soon as possible. I would argue that a liveable planet is actually a human right, and every single person on this earth, now and in perpetuity, deserves it.

Photo of The Earl of Dundee The Earl of Dundee Conservative

My Lords, I support these amendments in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Jones, and will refer to three aspects.

The first is how the pursuit of new economic goals, as here indicated, can be consistent with or complementary to the pursuit of previous and different economic goals.

The second is the need for greater clarity about what they actually are, not least as communicated between government and local authorities.

Thirdly, promoting the joint interest of humans and the natural environment together is not a vague aspiration but instead a concrete aim which deserves to be represented by very specific plans and particular called-for action dates—such as, in the second amendment, net-zero emissions by 2030, an achievement which, of course, benefits not just the environment but, in the context of the first amendment, humans and the environment together.

In the latter terms, these useful and coherent amendments thus assist the Bill’s purposes, including initiatives for producing our own food, fuel and housing, and with restoring biodiversity and capturing carbon, while at the same time avoiding negative international impacts, whether in general or from our own exports to others overseas.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Non-affiliated

My Lords, I am very pleased to see the relationship with the economy being brought to the fore here for two reasons: one is its inherent importance; the second is the query lurking around somewhere about whether the Bill should have anything to do with the economy. Before Glasgow, that query will be blown out of the water. We cannot just go on saying that we are doing things about greenhouse gases, and about what we might call the coefficient between the growth of greenhouse gases relative to the growth of GDP, and thinking everything in the garden is lovely. It is not; the opposite, I am afraid, is true. We have until Glasgow to make sure we are not blown out of the water when it comes to our credentials.

I have raised both in Grand Committee and here, in different contexts, how we are going to make sure that we have a relevant metric—that is what the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, called it—to measure the development of greenhouse gases, the growth of the economy and, above all, the desired change in the coefficient so that greenhouse gases are going downwards, relative to the growth of the economy, rather than upwards.

Whitehall government is falling between some stools here, and I would like the Minister to take on board the fact that we need to get our act together with some statistical compatibility between the things we think we are talking about. There is no point repeating mantras such as “net zero” and looking at many decades if we cannot even get our quarterly data to make sense. We need to have quarterly data that puts together the recent change in the gross national product on the one hand and the greenhouse gas data on the other. The work done by the Committee on Climate Change leaves open to discussion an alarming divergence, in the wrong direction, of these two metrics.

I am not coming from the same place, politically, as Members from the Green Party. However, some clarity about how our economy, in the short to medium term, should be developing in terms of greenhouse gases, and how this can be made into a more credible picture before Glasgow, is—for the Labour Party and others taking a serious interest in this matter, I am sure—a hugely important requirement. We hear very little about it, and it is partly because of the environment being in a different silo in Whitehall from the economic silos in the department of business and the Treasury. We have some experience of those sorts of arguments; I recognise one when I see one.

I will table an amendment on Report on precisely these questions. This is a good moment, I hope, to flag up the importance of getting something into the Bill which will be an opportunity to make some progress before Glasgow, so that we do not look like the emperor with no clothes.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee, Chair, Environment and Climate Change Committee

My Lords, I support the green grouping, as it has been classed; as we are in coalition with a Green group in my local borough of Waverley, I am keen to do some cross-party supporting of this. It goes slightly broader than the Bill, but there is nothing wrong with that to me. I would not wish to suggest what was in the minds of the two noble Baronesses, but I have a strong sense of the frustration that we are facing this ecological crisis and getting to the end of the Bill, but are we using every single tool in the toolbox to make sure that we address this issue? I commend the ambition, and I am grateful to them for bringing this forward.

The noble Baronesses are right that the first amendment, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, focuses on economics. As we all know, it is always a case of “follow the money,” and it is right that we should put on more pressure to ensure that the Treasury embeds the climate and environmental goals into our future national accounting structures. It would be fantastic if we were standing here today and by now had seen the net-zero strategy and had an idea of the Government’s thinking on this.

We have not mentioned Dasgupta for a while, so I thought I would slip in his name. We have had the response to the Dasgupta review, but it is absolutely clear that there needs to be far more embedding of approaches to natural capital and environmental protection in our national accounts. I hope that the Minister will be able to say a few things about how his department will be working very closely with the Treasury over the coming months to deliver further progress on embedding those environmental considerations into our national accounts.

I want to make a slightly broader point. The amendment focuses on the economy, but we know that we need the Government to use other tools if we are to deliver on the Bill in particular, and if we are to embed the environment right across government. If the Minister is not able to accept these amendments—I do not know his views—I hope he might be able to say a bit more about some of the other mechanisms that the Government will use to ensure that their ambition is embedded right across government.

We have heard a lot, first, about targets, which are a key way of getting the whole of government to take the environmental ambitions forward. We have seen that with climate change. But here we have been debating the state of nature targets, which are not ambitious enough, and we hope the Government may look again to strengthen those targets. But it is not just targets; we know we also need to think, secondly, about overseeing bodies. We have the Climate Change Committee for the climate, but the Government have heard from noble Lords right across the House that the office for environmental protection needs its independence protected and its enforcement mandate strengthened. Thirdly, the Government need to move very quickly to get the statement on environmental principles right, because that is what is going to take the environment throughout all government departments.

In this House, we clearly said there were two major exemptions around the MoD and the Treasury—loopholes that needed to be closed. Last week, the office for environmental protection gave the Government its advice, saying that the guidance to government departments needs to be strengthened and clarified to ensure it is robustly taken through all the departments.

This first amendment talks about economics, and it is right to do that. I hope the Government will take the opportunity today to say a bit more about those other mechanisms to deliver environmental protection right throughout the Government—the targets, the overseeing bodies and the environmental principles. If the Minister is not able to accept quite everything in these amendments, I hope that he will at least accept the spirit in which they were tabled, because we all in this House want to ensure that the Government use every tool in their toolbox to help us tackle this ecological crisis we face, which we are grateful to both the noble Baronesses for highlighting at this late stage of the Bill.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:15 pm, 14th July 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, for tabling these amendments and allowing us to have this broader and important debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, talked about reprogramming the economy fundamentally, and she set out a compelling case for linking our economic goals with biodiversity, health and well-being goals, which we know are all needed to protect our planet for the longer term.

This clearly needs a rethink at the highest level but so far it seems that the Treasury, which commissioned the Dasgupta report, has had the least to say about its conclusions. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said, it is not just the Dasgupta review; a wealth of accumulated expertise is pointing in the same direction and saying that we need new and different economic goals. I thought she made that case very well. Sadly, change on that scale will come only if there is leadership from the top and all Governments commit to play their part. As she illustrated, this is simply not happening at the moment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, talked about rights and duties, and I agree with that concept, but if we are to adopt that approach, I would be a bit bolder than the public sector duty to ensure everyone can breathe clean air—important though that is. I would include, for example, the right to access parks and green spaces within walking distance; the right to swim in unpolluted rivers; the right to plant trees and vegetables on unused public-sector land; the right to a service that recycles all unusable waste, underpinned by a vibrant circular economy; the right of every child to access to fresh fruit and vegetables every day; the right to social prescribing in the health service and to locally sourced food in hospitals and care homes; the right for every child to spend a night under the stars, and for nature to be back on the curriculum. I could go on.

The point is that if we are going to take forward all the discussions we have had over the past few weeks, let us think big about the kind of country we want to live in, so that the Bill becomes just the first step on a much bigger journey.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I welcome Amendment 286 and the thoughtful and interesting speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. The challenge is that GDP has been used by Governments pretty much everywhere as a proxy for well-being ever since it was developed half a century ago, but GDP was never designed to be an all-encompassing measure of welfare. In basic terms, it simply measures economic activity, indiscriminately—it cannot distinguish between growth that is or is not sustainable, or even good. GDP measures what we produce, but it ignores the cost of what we destroy to make it. It can add, but it cannot subtract.

It is possible to imagine that you could empty the oceans of all fish, chop down every last tree, fill our rivers with poison, pollute every last breath of air that we take, and all the time, GDP could still be rising and the economy still be growing. Ironically, the man who helped develop the concept of GDP in the first place, Nobel Prize economist Simon Kuznets, never anticipated its use as a comprehensive measure of progress. In 1934, he wrote:

“The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”

Robert Kennedy said something similar: that GDP

“does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom

The problem is that numerous organisations have over the years attempted to develop alternative indicators. I worked for one myself—it feels like many decades ago. The results of their work have often been overly complicated metrics that Governments would struggle to use in a practical way, but we need to find additional ways to measure the health of our economies. It is surely madness that the Amazon rainforest, on which the world fundamentally depends—each and every one of us—and without which the world would be thrown into chaos and turmoil, has no real recognised value until it is cashed in for commodities and throwaway goods. That just does not make sense.

That is something that the Government understand and are grappling with. For example, we are aligning our economic objectives and decision-making processes with our net-zero commitments; we are moving towards nature-proofing our decisions as well, and this Bill is a part of that.

The Treasury’s Green Book, which the noble Baroness mentioned, requires that all impacts on society as a whole, including environmental impacts, are assessed when policy is developed, and that includes monetised and non-monetised climate environmental impacts. The Treasury is currently conducting a review into the application of the discount rate for future environmental impacts, to try to ensure that decision-making probably accounts for the value of the environment. In their response to the Treasury-commissioned Dasgupta review, the Government have committed to ensuring that their economic and financial decision-making and the systems and institutions that underpin it support the delivery of a nature-positive future.

As all speakers so far in this debate have acknowledged, we have a very long way to go. It is not easy, but it needs to be done. Without that, we will fail to reconcile lives and the economy, nature and the economy, in the way that we will need to if we want a sustainable future.

Moving on to Amendment 288, I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that, as the Environment Secretary set out in his response to her Private Member’s Bill on this subject, the Government take their air quality obligations extremely seriously. In this Bill, we have committed to setting ambitious, legally binding targets on air quality, to drive further emissions reductions, which will deliver significant benefits to the environment and human health. Specifically, the Secretary of State, will be required to set a new target on PM 2.5 to act as a minimum standard across the country, and an additional long-term exposure-reduction target to drive continuous improvement, including in areas that meet the new minimum standard for PM 2.5. This novel, dual-target approach is strongly supported by the experts and will deliver significant public health benefits by reducing our exposure to this pollutant in all areas of the country.

The Bill also includes measures to require regular refreshers of the national air quality strategy. The first review will be published in 2023, and we will be looking to develop a stronger support and capability-building framework, so that local authorities have the necessary tools to take the action needed locally to reduce people’s exposure to air pollutants.

Alongside that, the Bill changes the local authority air quality management framework to promote co-operation at all tiers of local government and with relevant public authorities. This will ensure that central and local government and public authorities work together towards achieving cleaner air and a healthier environment for us all. The Government continue to work closely with the Department for Health and Social Care, the Department for Transport, the Air Quality Expert Group, the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants and a wide range of other sector experts to drive concerted action to improve air quality.

However, not all air pollution is under the control of government, either nationally or locally. Significant contributions to UK air pollution can come from other countries, depending on the weather. For example, up to a third of the UK’s current levels of particulate matter pollution comes from other European countries. UK air quality can be affected by distant volcanoes and dust flowing in from as far away as the Sahara. The transboundary and transnational nature of air pollution therefore makes it ill-suited to be a general or formalised human right.

I thank noble Lords for their contributions on these important matters, and hope that they will not press their amendments.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who contributed to the debate and all their expressions of support for the amendments—perhaps even, in intent, at least, from the Minister; and I thank him for his detailed answer. My noble friend Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb asked, “What is the Government for?” Surely, one of the purposes is to ensure we have clean air to breathe and to ensure that we have a healthy life for future generations —something that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, is trying to do by other means.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, offered welcome support and said very clearly that we need goals to be identified and made concrete, acknowledging that we must consider the global impact of our environment. The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, said that we cannot go on just generating greenhouse gases—how could it be better summed up?—particularly highlighting our position of COP chair, and stressed the need for statistical compatibility and credibility in Glasgow. I think perhaps we may just park the emperor with no clothes metaphor, but it is certainly apt.

The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, stressed the need for the Treasury to engage in this debate, with which I can only very much agree, and spoke about the need for all departments to be engaged in environmental issues, with which I of course agree. My amendment is focused on the narrow issue of economic measurement, moving away from the failed, damaging emphasis on GDP.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, focused on reprogramming the economy, something we clearly need to do, and said that it needs a rethink at the highest level. As she was speaking, I thought that perhaps the highest level in the Government should be Defra, because that is the place where it all starts. She also stressed the need for leadership from the top.

I particularly have to welcome the Minister’s comments, many of which reflect speeches that I give regularly about the total misalignment of using GDP as a welfare measure. I just wish that we could hear that from the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, or Rishi Sunak in the other place, instead of only from the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith. He referred to the Dasgupta report, which is useful and important. At least by using pound values it puts all the issues into terms that the Treasury can understand.

However, I want to tackle the Minister’s suggestion that the alternatives are overly complicated. In my speech, I set out a suggested measure presented by a group of distinguished economists working with the OECD, and I should be happy to share their paper with the Minister. As I said at the start, the New Zealand Treasury has managed to master all these mathematical and statistical challenges. One might say that New Zealand is a smaller country than the UK, but if the New Zealand Treasury can manage it, perhaps ours should be able to, too.

When reflecting on my noble friend Lady Moulsecoomb’s amendment, the Minister said that the Bill sets out ambitious, legally binding air quality targets. Those are like the targets we had under EU membership for decades, which we have been breaking regularly and over which ClientEarth took the Government to court successfully again and again. This matter is not at all under control, and I welcome the Minister’s comments that we need to co-operate with our neighbours on that. I should like that idea to be reflected across government.

This has been a useful debate. Perhaps we have taken things a little further forward, particularly given the Minister’s comments. We will probably be back somewhere on these grounds on Report. However, in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 286 withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Alderdice Lord Alderdice Deputy Chairman of Committees 4:30 pm, 14th July 2021

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 287. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in this group to a Division must make that clear in debate.