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Restoring Nature and Climate Change — [Stewart Hosie in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:13 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East 5:13 pm, 28th October 2019

Yes, that is really important. I think that there should be a ban on the burning of blanket bogs. I will have something to say about grouse moors in a moment. Another issue is peat in horticultural products. There has been quite a campaign to stop that, and I know that quite a lot of gardeners would support that. That is all part and parcel of this.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that 1 million species

“already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken”.

It is a very sad fact that the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world: it is ranked 189th out of 218, with a 41% species decline since 1970. Many of us are species champions; I am the parliamentary swift species champion. I know that other people are doing very good work on that front, and it is now more on the political agenda, but it is still shocking how much damage has been done in recent decades.

It is clear that nature is struggling against climate change, habitat loss, pollution and intensive farming, but we can turn that around radically by changing the way we manage land. Rewilding is the only solution that offers the opportunity to tackle the climate and ecological emergencies together. The benefits of rewilding our peatlands, heathlands, grasslands, woodlands, saltmarshes, wetlands and coastal waters are diverse. That would lock away carbon, clean air and water, reconnect us with nature, protect communities at risk of flooding, revitalise wildlife, restore our soil and support new economic opportunities.

In preparation for this speech, I read an article in The Spectator by the Minister’s brother, Ben Goldsmith, that was titled “The triumphant return of the British beaver”. He was saying that some people say, “Well, beavers are a bit messy, aren’t they?” This is the same sort of thing that we were talking about in relation to grass verges. I have some constituents who say, “Now that the grass in the parks and along the roadsides isn’t cut to within a centimetre of its life, it looks a bit messy with all this stuff growing,” but that is what nature ought to look like. Ben Goldsmith, in response to people saying that beavers make a bit of a mess, said:

“Considering that the majority of our land is stripped, cultivated, tidied and managed by humans, surely we can…allow nature a bit of free rein along our watercourses.”

That underpins this debate. Nature ought to be allowed to do what nature does. It should not be controlled and tidied out of existence.

My hon. Friend Alex Sobel mentioned peatland. We are lucky to have 13% of the world’s peatland in the UK, but the habitat is suffering: 80% has been damaged by drainage, extraction, burning or overgrazing. As a result, the equivalent of the emissions of 660,000 UK households are released each year. This natural resource can take carbon out of the atmosphere, but because of the way we treat it, it is releasing more emissions. The Government should ban the extraction and burning of peat immediately. Extraction for compost releases almost half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is the equivalent of 100,000 cars on the road, so why do we always talk about cars, but not how domestic gardening is causing a problem?

Voluntary targets to phase out horticultural peat are not being met and it is over a year and a half since the Government said progress was insufficient. It is now time for action. Rewilding our peatlands is a no-brainer: it sequesters significant amounts of carbon, provides clean water and reduces flooding. Several years ago, I went to flood-hit areas with my hon. Friend Holly Lynch. Anyone who has been there can see the impact of the burning of the moors on the catchment area. It makes sense to look after our peatlands and plant trees.

Some critics of the rewilding agenda say that there is a choice between feeding ourselves and nature, and that turning more land over to rewilding, rather than using it for agriculture, will mean that we lose out in food security. However, the least productive marginal land often provides the best options for carbon sequestration, rewilding and other ecosystems services. We already have large areas of land that produce little food, which could be used to store vast amount of carbon. Grouse moor estates cover around 1.3 million hectares of England, Scotland and Wales. Deer stalking estates account for around 1.8 million hectares in Scotland. These estates are commonly located on degraded peatlands, currently managed at high environmental cost, using practices such as burning, for the benefit of a relatively tiny number of shooters. We need to reassess our priorities and take a more strategic approach to the use of that land.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming, which does excellent work on this agenda. The Minister was, before his elevation to greater things, one of the vice chairs of the APPG. Rewilding must be accompanied by a wider transition to nature and climate-friendly farming. The Knepp estate is a good example of how that works.

It is well documented that the intensification of farming since the second world war has left less and less space for nature in the UK. To turn that around, the Government ought to commit to a transition to sustainable agroecological farming by 2030. That is supported by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. The Government must also commit to net zero emissions from agriculture by 2040 and reverting parcels of arable land, particularly the third that is used for animal feed, to permanent grassland, which has high levels of soil, carbon and biodiversity value.

I mentioned that the Agriculture Bill’s approach of public money for public goods is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be more ambitious. If £1.9 billion of the £3 billion currently spent on common agricultural policy payments were allocated to supporting native woodland re-establishment, and the restoration and protection of peat bogs, heaths and the species rich grasslands over a total of 6 million hectares, that could mean sequestering 47 million tonnes of CO2 a year, which is more than one tenth of current UK greenhouse gas emissions.

As I mentioned, we cannot think of natural solutions only on a domestic level. The UK should play its part on the world stage by ensuring that all UK aid is nature-positive. I know that the Minister, in his role as Minister for the Department for International Development, thinks that is important. We need to support more integrated interventions that improve people’s lives and enhance the natural environment. We need to stop harmful investments that destroy nature and contribute to climate change, such as the deforestation of the Amazon. We need to look at how our consumption patterns here are harming the environment overseas.

We need to negotiate an ambitious deal with people and nature at the Convention on Biological Diversity next October. We need to look at other countries that are leading by example on rewilding. Ethiopia planted more than 350 million trees in one day in July—God knows how they managed that, but that is what they did—with the aim of planting 4 billion in the next year. We should seek to follow that scale of ambition.

To conclude, the UK has the chance to become a world leader in natural climate solutions, but we need financial commitments from the Government. Markets alone will not solve the climate and ecological crisis. Next week, assuming we will still be here, the Government have the chance to prove their commitment—actually, this refers to the Budget, which is definitely not happening next week. At some point in the near future, hopefully, if there is not an election, the Government have the chance to prove their commitment, by guaranteeing at least £2.9 billion for the new environmental land management scheme in the Budget, as called for by the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the wildlife trusts, whenever that happens. It could also reverse the 42% funding fall as a percentage of GDP for biodiversity conservation since 2008.

Finally, taking a different approach to the way land is managed is as important as high-tech solutions to address climate breakdown. I have heard the Minister of State for Climate Change and Industry talk about weird technological advances that would suck carbon out of the air. I do not see why we need to do that when trees and peat bogs can do the job for us.