Peat - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:41 pm on 18th January 2022.

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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) 2:41 pm, 18th January 2022

My Lords, we are currently consulting on measures to end the use of peat in horticulture in England and Wales. This includes a call for evidence on the impacts of ending the use of peat and peat-containing products in the professional horticulture sector. The consultation closes on 18 March this year. Our assessment of the responses and the evidence that we receive will inform our next steps, which will include targeted engagement with specialised areas within the sector.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

I was frightened that that would be the Answer. Environmentalists are sick of all these consultations. The Government promised to ban peat in 2020, and there were years to achieve that then. In the interests of moving on, I suggest two things: first, that imports of professional peat be stopped, because when we stop selling it here it will just get imported. Therefore, this is a primary thing to do. Secondly, we must replace peat with something, and we could use green waste from councils, for example. Can the Minister take that back to his department and make them think about it?

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)

My Lords, I will certainly take both those suggestions back to the department. The point the noble Baroness makes about imports is a good one; I will have that discussion with the Secretary of State. She is not the only person who is sick of endless consultations but unfortunately, they are unavoidable when the impact of a policy affects the value of a business or of assets. We have no choice but to consult, but we are doing so as quickly as we can.

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, with apologies for jumping in too soon, the main concern of those who use peat professionally is finding alternatives of sufficient quality and quantity. This is not easily solved, even by just using green waste. Can my noble friend ensure that very real research is done by his department into a cure for this problem?

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)

My noble friend raises an important point, and she is right that there are insufficient amounts of suitable replacement materials. However, there is clearly scope for making better use of what is otherwise garden and vegetable waste. There are high-quality peat-free alternatives that are effective and price-competitive, including a growing material formulated with wood fibre, bark or coir, all currently available in garden centres.

Photo of Lord Clark of Windermere Lord Clark of Windermere Labour

My Lords, as the Minister knows, 3% of the earth is covered with peatlands, but they account for a third of the store of carbon. It is imperative that this carbon is not disturbed. We have a huge amount here in the United Kingdom. Can the Government commit to reducing to a minimum the amount of carbon from peat bogs?

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)

My Lords, I absolutely make that commitment, and that is one reason why we are moving with renewed vigour on banning the use of peat in horticulture. Additionally, our England peat strategy lays out ambitious plans to restore degraded peatlands on a scale we have not done before in this country, with plans leading up to 2050 involving hundreds of thousands of hectares being repaired, for all the reasons that the noble Lord has identified.

Photo of Lord Rogan Lord Rogan Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the Minister may be aware that DAERA has undertaken a consultation on the peatland strategy for Northern Ireland. While peatlands cover 11% of England’s land area, 24.6% of Northern Ireland is covered by peat. Is there scope for Defra to play an active part in the formulation of this strategy to ensure that it delivers the very best results for Northern Ireland and its ecosystem?

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)

The peat strategy we have produced is an England peat strategy, so clearly, there are geographical limits. However, the issue goes far beyond England: it is a UK issue, for the reasons the noble Lord has provided. Peatlands are iconic features of our landscape. They are the UK’s largest stores of carbon by far, and they provide hugely important ecosystem services, supply over a quarter of the UK’s drinking water, decrease flood risk and provide food and shelter for rare and, in some cases, endangered wildlife. That is why peat recovery and peat protection is a priority.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

My Lords, it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats. The noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, wishes to speak virtually and this is a convenient point to call him.

Photo of Lord Jones of Cheltenham Lord Jones of Cheltenham Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the UK’s peatlands are of immeasurable importance, storing three billion tonnes of carbon—as much as the forests of the UK, Germany and France combined. What discussions have the Government had with other countries about stopping the extraction of peat, and was any progress made at the recent COP 26?

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)

My Lords, an enormous amount of progress was made at COP 26. The story that made the headlines related to forests but the principles that were agreed around the protection of forests apply also to peatlands. Between us, we secured unprecedented sums—billions of dollars of finance—specifically to protect fragile, carbon-rich, biodiverse-rich ecosystems such as peatlands. Part of the agreement we reached involved commitments by countries with those precious habitats to end their destruction and to engage in restoration with renewed vigour.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated

My Lords, the Minister has already referred to the need to protect peatlands as an example of our iconic landscapes; they are a feature of these islands. Considering that the devolved Administrations are involved in this work as well, as a follow-on to COP 26 and as a means of protecting our landscapes, can he give due consideration to leading a summit with his ministerial colleagues and those involved in environmental organisations on how to protect our precious peatlands the length and breadth of the United Kingdom?

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 am very happy to make that commitment on behalf of my colleagues in whose portfolio and remit this issue sits. From an international perspective, the noble Baroness makes a very important point. We are designing programmes on the back of the new commitments we have made using our ODA; £3 billion of our international climate finance commitment will be invested in nature-based solutions, a very big part of which will be peatlands. I hope that we can describe in more detail soon what those projects will involve.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, in a Written Answer to me, the Minister stated that all government departments and their arms-length organisations should meet the mandatory government buying standards, which include not purchasing peat. Can he confirm that all government departments are indeed abiding by that ruling, and explain why organisations such as the Forestry Commission are still purchasing and using peat when, as we have heard, other alternatives are available?

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)

The noble Baroness is right: Forestry England continues to use peat in the manner she has described. However, it has committed to eliminating completely the use of peat in the growing media by 2028 at the very latest. All government departments and their related organisations must ensure that they meet the minimum mandatory government buying standards when buying goods and services. We also encourage the wider public sector to do likewise, but it is certainly our intention to accelerate the progress that is and being and needs to be made.

Photo of Lord Geddes Lord Geddes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, where does peat as a fuel fit into this picture?

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 am not convinced that peat as a fuel does fit into this picture. Our priority is to restore peatlands as closely as possible to their natural conditions, so they can fulfil the ecological functions we need them to fulfil.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee, Chair, EU Environment Sub-Committee

My Lords, I am interested to understand how the Government reconcile allowing commercial peat exploitation while at the same time the Exchequer, and thus taxpayers, are paying millions of pounds for peatland restoration.

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 am afraid I cannot provide that justification because there is a clear contradiction, but that is why we are pushing ahead with our proposals and measures to eliminate the use of peat in horticulture. The noble Lord makes a very good point.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend share my concern that, since we have left the European Union, we will now have different environmental standards in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? Will he use his good offices to ensure that the devolved nations all impose a ban on the use of peat for horticultural purposes, bearing in mind that it takes 200 years to create a peat bog?

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)

My Lords, it is not a source of concern that we are able to legislate or regulate differently; the UK has demonstrated a commitment to raising the bar in terms of environmental protections. It is generally recognised—if not in this country then certainly elsewhere—that the UK is a world leader in conservation and nature restoration, but it is for the devolved Administrations to make their own policies and, of course, we will continue our discussions in the hope that we are as closely aligned as possible.