My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 11 and will speak to Amendment 14 in my name and those of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman of Ullock and Lady Parminter, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. Both amendments are designed to ensure that the important environmental plans and targets established by the Bill drive strong and effective action. The Bill introduces an important suite of legally binding, long-term environmental improvement targets and provides for these to be guided by five-year interim milestones. Unlike those in the Climate Change Act, these interim milestones are not binding requirements.
In Committee, the noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, Lady Hayman, Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Parminter, the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, made a persuasive case for these interim targets to be statutory. They cited evidence—lists of non-statutory targets missed, such as those for biodiversity, contrasted with the success and focus of the Climate Change Act. They highlighted human behaviour; a statutory duty in five years’ time will get more focus than one in 20 years’ time—or, as Allegra Stratton, the No. 10 climate spokesperson, has said, 2050 is “too far away”,
“we have to feel the … urgency of now.”
They stressed the need for urgent action. Nature takes time to respond, and there is no hockey stick from new technologies enabling back-ended action. They emphasised the value of transparency; statutory interim targets make progress more visible and the OEP’s role more effective. They quoted business, with the Aldersgate Group’s support for statutory interim targets that give business certainty to invest and act. In short, they outlined a compelling case.
However, the Minister was not persuaded. He responded that interim targets would
“undermine the long-term … targets framework”—[
The Minister rightly said that we are dealing with complex, living “non-linear systems”. Indeed we are. In my experience as a scientist, it is easier to predict the impact of actions to support such systems over a five-year timescale than it is to predict outcomes in 15 or 20 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, reminded us on Monday. The Minister said it discourages large-scale change for a focus on quick wins. I might agree with this if we were talking about a five-year target alone, but evidence shows the effectiveness of the combination of statutory interim targets and a legislated long-term goal. I sincerely hope the Government will reconsider their position on statutory interim targets, because the evidence is clear. They would help ensure that the excellent intent of this important Bill is delivered.
I will very briefly turn to Amendment 14. This amendment strengthens environmental improvement plans by linking them clearly to the proposed measures and targets under the Bill and by requiring the Government not just to take steps to improve the natural environment but specifically to set out policies and proposals. Without this clear link to specific measures and delivery of targets, there is a risk that environmental improvement plans will resemble our current national adaptation plan—long descriptions of process with few time-bound actions.
This requirement to set out policies and proposals is the wording in the Climate Change Act. This has led in recent months to a stream of major policy announcements across government departments, including the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, the transport decarbonisation strategy, the hydrogen strategy, the industrial decarbonisation strategy and the anticipated net-zero strategy—an impressive list, referred to by the Minister on Monday. These are truly important developments for the climate. Do nature and the environment not deserve the same? “Yes” is the message we have heard in many speeches in this debate. The Minister was reassuring in his response on this issue in Committee. I hope he will now accept that we must turn steps into policies and proposals and give nature the focus and funding across government that it so urgently needs.
Binding five-yearly targets on our way to critical long-term goals are such an important issue in terms of the urgency of now that I may wish to test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, I rise very briefly to say why I added my name to this amendment. The Bill currently lacks a coherent interlocking scheme, and these amendments seek to deal with that. It is right to warmly acknowledge the huge progress made by the Minister, but as he has said so clearly, the costs of much of this are not yet understood by the public and there are still obvious strong lobbies that will seek delay.
It is therefore very important that there be a coherent scheme with interlocking interim targets, environment improvement plans and long-term targets. I warmly thank the Minister that we have legally enforceable, long-term targets. It is good that we have them, but the really difficult decisions relate to interim targets. They do not easily fit into the short-term electoral cycle; they are not something a politician or decision-maker can say is for a future generation, years and years away. Interim targets are the here and now. Nothing much has changed, as one can see from the great Victorian novelists, “Yes, Minister” or, more tangibly, the targets that have been missed to date. That is why I so strongly support providing for the practical nature of legally binding interim targets.
There is another matter to which, as a legislature, we should have regard: we ought not to be passing aspirational, vague legislation, but legislation which is clear and sets clear duties so that people know where they stand and so that the Government can be held to account. The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, has dealt eloquently with the arguments made by the Government. There is no need for me to add anything to her observations.
My Lords, I support Amendments 11 and 14, but actually rise to speak to Amendment 13 in my name. The background to this is an amendment I put down in Committee specifically in relation to trees, tree-planting and tree health. It asked the Government to ensure that an annual report was made to Parliament on how far we had got in achieving the target set in the Bill. Obviously, what is applicable to trees is applicable to every target in this Bill—a whole range of targets will eventually be put forward and I will not go through them all.
The Bill as it stands now says there must be a review within five years of the first review. I suggest that the situation is now so urgent that Parliament needs to consider every year how far we have got towards achieving or failing to meet that target. We are all agreed that there is huge urgency to this, and we need to keep the pressure on year by year in Parliament.
I will never forget a meeting in Singapore in 2020, when one of the major issues facing the world was third-world debt. At the end of the meeting, people from the developing world looked at their diaries and said, “Perhaps we could meet again in three years’ time”, when suddenly a friend of mine—for whom this was literally a matter of life and death in his country—erupted with huge righteous anger which still echoes in my mind. I am not myself given to righteous anger, but I am sure that countries where people are literally now dying as a result of what is happening would have that same anger.
I will not divide the House on this as we have quite enough votes anyway. But I would like the Minister to consider seriously—sharing the sense of the urgency of this, as he does—bringing forward a government amendment to ensure that Parliament has a chance to look at the targets in this Bill every year in order to see how close we are to achieving them, or to what extent we are failing.
My Lords, I support the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, because I know from my experience as chairman of the Climate Change Committee why it works. It works because there are statutory targets to be met within reasonable times. If the target date is 2050, no Minister presently serving will have to be responsible for it. Indeed, I remind my noble friend that when a former Labour Party Administration announced a date for net-zero houses which was some 10 years later, there was ribaldry on the Conservative Benches on the basis that that would mean that they would not have to do anything during their period of office.
I am afraid I am long enough in the tooth to recognise that the Climate Change Act ensured that no Government could put off the actions they had to take until a more convenient time arose. The brilliance of the Act was to bring together two very different timescales. One is the democratic timescale of four or five years for the renewal of mandate and the other is the continuing timescale of fighting climate change. A democratic society has somehow to bring those two together. The cleverness of it was that by ensuring that Parliament agreed on the interim budgets and therefore they were democratically voted on, the Climate Change Committee was then able to hold the Government to them. They could not be changed without their agreement. That brought these two things in line.
What surprises me about my noble friend’s—and he is a noble friend—reply during the previous debate was his suggestion that somehow everything that is true about the Climate Change Act does not count in the Environment Bill. He does not believe that because he is a great supporter of the Climate Change Act. It is just not possible to hold those two views. I fear that this is the result of some apparatchik somewhere who does not want anybody to be held to anything. All of us should recognise how dangerous that is from the news today. Despite everything that has been said at this Dispatch Box and a similar Dispatch Box in the other House, the Government have bent over to the Australian Government and removed from the agreement the commitment to meeting the climate change figures and temperatures in the Paris Agreement.
If that is so, how can we possibly accept merely the assurances? We have to have it in the Act—we have to have it clearly there, not because we have any doubt that this Minister, this Front Bench, would do what they say they are going to do, but because we have lived long enough to know that if it is not in the Act, in the end it does not get done.
My Lords, I want, very briefly, to support Amendment 11. The whole point of this Bill is that it is going to be ready for the COP 26 meeting. It is a model Bill. It is something that we hope that other countries will adopt as a method of dealing with very difficult problems.
It seems to me in business experience that if you have long long-term targets, interim targets are very helpful. Therefore, as a necessary logical consequence, one would want the model Act to have such interim targets as well—the exemplar we would want other countries to follow. As I am sure we will be managing the thing in a logical way and therefore managing it with interim targets and would want other people to do that as well, it is logical that we should have these targets.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, for her excellent opening remarks. As she rightly said, a number of us spoke at some length on this matter in Committee. We have had excellent expositions from her and supporting evidence from the noble Lord, Lord Deben, of the merits of this case and why we need these statutory targets. It is not just this House that is calling on them —business is calling on them. This is what it needs to make the changes in the future for our country and for the sustainability of companies. Given that time is tight, if the noble Baroness were to press this to a vote, she would have the support of these Benches.
My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendments 11 and 14 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, to which I have added my name. I thank the noble Baroness for her introduction.
In Committee, we tabled an amendment to place a statutory duty on the Secretary of State to meet any interim targets. We were very disappointed that the Government did not agree that this is important if we are to make genuine progress in improving our environment. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, today that if she chooses to test the opinion of the House, she will have our support.
It has been made clear in the debate today, as it was in Committee, that we really need to make sure that the interim targets are going to be met. Amendment 14 would strengthen the EIPs to do this and link them to the targets to make them legally binding, as opposed to their current standing, which is really being nothing more than policy documents.
As I said in Committee when I provided your Lordships’ House with a number of examples of how voluntary environmental targets had been badly missed or even abandoned on a number of occasions, this really only emphasises the need to make sure that the interim targets are as legally binding as the long-term ones.
The Government have seen fit, as we know, to bring in a legally binding species abundance target for 2030, which we welcome and support. This shows that the Government do not, in principle, object to legally binding short-term targets and, indeed, accept that they can drive progress in that area. It seems very inconsistent, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, said earlier, that they are not doing it in this case. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, strongly explained, the Climate Change Act 2008 has been very successful in holding the Government to account on their interim targets. I have heard no compelling justification for why there should be this critical difference in the Environment Bill.
The Minister made the point in Committee that long-term targets provide much-needed certainty to business; the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, also mentioned business and the Aldersgate Group. The Minister said that for businesses to invest confidently they need flexibility around the interim targets but the Aldersgate Group representing business has said that that is not the case. In fact, it has been very clear that it wants other legally binding interim targets so that it can deliver the much-needed investment in nature restoration.
I acknowledge the noble Lord’s previous argument that change towards long-term goals and progress towards meeting them, does not always happen in a linear way. However, I do not accept that this is a convincing argument not to make the interim targets legally binding. Instead, it is an argument for the Government to apply some flexibility in the type of interim targets they may well be setting. We know that the Bill already gives the Secretary of State considerable discretion in setting these interim targets
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, made the point that if you get this set, it means that any early action taken is much more likely to be sustainable as well. So, if we set end goals far into the future, we need binding interim targets with monitoring and scrutiny to prevent the targets being potentially kicked into the long grass or left to the last minute.
Finally, I remind your Lordships’ House that, as I mentioned in Committee, this is not just an issue for Defra. This is important, because if we are to meet our environmental targets, other departments have to play their part. If the interim targets are not binding, why do we think that the DfT, BEIS, local government and others will be on the path to meet the long-term targets? They will have their own priorities, so they will need to be properly encouraged by legally binding targets to make the progress we need.
This amendment would hugely strengthen the Environment Bill and its outcomes. I urge the Minister to review his previous position and support it.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. Beginning with Amendment 11, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, the Bill’s robust statutory cycle of monitoring, annual reporting and five-yearly reviews, combined with the OEP and parliamentary scrutiny, ensures that meeting interim targets is taken seriously, without the need for them to be legally binding. We discussed this in detail in Committee, but I would like to outline the Government’s position briefly once more.
The OEP will scrutinise the Government’s progress on targets, including those interim targets, and it can make recommendations on how to improve progress, to which the Government have a duty to respond. It would be both unnecessary and detrimental to our targets framework and our environmental ambitions to introduce legally binding interim targets, as the approach risks undermining the long-term nature of the targets framework, which we have designed to look beyond the political cycle of any one Government and to avoid action solely focused on short-term wins. As I mentioned in Committee, it is undoubtedly a natural temptation for any and every Government working to legally binding five-year targets to set eye-catching, short-term measures in their manifesto, even if those are not necessarily the most effective measures for meeting the longer-term targets.
However, everything we know about the complexity of the environmental targets—indeed, everything we know about natural systems—shows that they transcend any one Administration or five-year period. We are talking about living, non-linear systems, where there will be plenty of measures whose effects will take many years to bear out. For example, for certain habitats, such as peat bogs, native woodlands and elements of the marine environment, significant change is very unlikely to occur within a five-year period, no matter what we do now. We would not want to have to deprioritise key aspects of the environment with longer recovery times to meet a legally binding target in five years.
A number of speakers have made comparisons to the carbon—
I thank the Minister for allowing me to interject briefly. He makes the point that restoring and maintaining natural systems is a long-term process. I would agree with that, but does he not also accept that a key element of meeting the targets is to build resilience of natural systems—that is, their ability to withstand shocks and to recover from events such as extreme weather or infectious disease outbreaks? One can tell, from decades of ecological research, at an early stage whether the right steps are being taken to build the resilience of natural ecosystems. Therefore, that could be identified as a shorter-term target to achieve the long-term aims.
I agree with the noble Lord; building resilience into our natural environment—into the natural systems on which, ultimately, we depend—is clearly a priority, and I think that is reflected throughout the Bill. It is certainly reflected in our soon to be newly introduced 2030 biodiversity target. But I do not think that takes us away from the fact that, if we are measuring progress on the basis of a longer-term plan, you would end up in some cases with a very dramatic hockey stick, which would be difficult for a Government to explain in the way that would be necessary in the context of legally binding targets.
To comment on the comparison made by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, and others to carbon budgets, the targets will be different from carbon budgets, which is why the Environment Bill takes this different approach. While carbon budgets relate to a single measurable metric—the UK’s net greenhouse gas emissions—these targets will be set on numerous different aspects of the natural environment. They will be vastly more three-dimensional and complex. You can change a boiler and see immediate impacts and results, but plant a tree and it could be a decade before you see any real impact, whether on biodiversity or carbon. It is wrong, therefore, given the regular checks that the Government are subjected to—the regular reviews I have already described—to describe these longer-term targets as aspirational. For example, the 2030 biodiversity target is eight or nine years from now; it will be very hard for a Government not to be seen to be taking the right steps, given that we know the support that exists among the public for that target and the demand for progress. It is not feasible in our democracy for the Government simply to wait until the final hour and then hope a new Minister will take the brunt.
Setting interim targets in the environmental improvement plan provides the right balance. It allows us to set a clear trajectory towards our long-term ambitions while allowing us flexibility to innovate and respond to new evidence, so I am afraid that the Government cannot accept this amendment.
I turn to Amendment 14, also tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge. Clearly, I understand the desire to bolster the link between EIPs and targets, but our view is that this is not necessary, and I will explain why. The EIP already must contain steps the Government intend to take to improve the natural environment, as set out in Clause 8. Furthermore, the Bill also already expressly requires that, when reviewing the EIP, the Government must consider whether they need to take further or different steps towards meeting both interim and long-term targets. This means that, when reviewing the EIP, the Government will update it as necessary to include measures to achieve their targets. Finally, the OEP will scrutinise the Government’s progress towards targets annually, providing recommendations if and when it believes better progress could be made in improving the natural environment. The Government would have to respond to these recommendations, which will be published and laid before, and therefore subjected to the scrutiny of, Parliament.
Finally, I turn to Amendment 13 tabled by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. I thank him for our recent discussions on how to ensure that the targets framework is robust and world-leading; I am grateful for his time. However, we do not believe that this amendment, requiring an annual rather than five-yearly review of the Government’s suite of environmental targets to determine whether the significant improvement test is met, is necessary or proportionate. The significant improvement test has a very specific focus; it is a collective assessment of legally binding targets to test their potential to drive significant improvement in the natural environment. It is more appropriate to conduct this more holistic and prospective assessment periodically, rather than annually. Furthermore, it makes sense to allow for this periodic review of the Government’s suite of targets to align with the periodic review of the EIP, which will also take place at least every five years. Through those five-yearly reviews of the EIP, the Government will have to consider whether further or different steps are needed to meet individual targets.
I must stress that the Government are confident in our position on the issues we are debating today and that our approach ensures that successive Governments will regularly test whether the suite of targets they have in place has the necessary breadth and ambition and provides the necessary hooks for parliamentary and wider scrutiny. I hope I have been able to reassure at least some noble Lords, and I ask them to withdraw their amendments.
I thank the Minister for his response, and I agree with him that the targets will be difficult and complex and need to be set with considerable thought and attention. However, I can only repeat my point that I cannot see how it is possible to set robust, achievable, science-based, long-term targets as the Bill requires without identifying the steps needed to get there. If you can identify the steps needed to get there, you can set statutory interim targets.
I thank all noble Lords across the House who have contributed to this debate, and I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 203, Noes 181.