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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:35 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 5:35 pm, 28th October 2019

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie, and to follow Caroline Nokes, who has reminded me of some pleasant holidays in the New Forest. My wife always reminds me that I fell off a bike there—she will be delighted that that is now on the public record.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Daniel Zeichner on his excellent introduction on behalf of the Petitions Committee. E-petitions have become a feature of this Parliament; they are an excellent way for the public to ensure that we hear their concerns and to press us to take action. It is fair to say that we have all received many representations on climate change in the past year or two, but today’s debate relates to a particular aspect that we have not touched on much. That shows that the climate emergency is moving up the agenda of the public’s priorities fast. In my view, we are not going far enough fast enough. How many of us can say that in our own lives we are doing all we can to tackle climate change?

Of course, change should come from the top. The Committee on Climate Change’s report in May led the UK to adopt a net zero target by 2050, but it also found that the Government are failing to prepare the country for the inevitable impact of climate change. That failure is putting our communities and infrastructure at risk. The consequences of our actions are with us already: over the past two decades, severe weather events across the country have cost an average of £1.5 billion a year—only this weekend, parts of Cheshire were subject to severe flooding. Those figures will be dwarfed in coming years by the overall cost and effect of climate change, including the cost to our environment and the human cost as swathes of land become uninhabitable all over the globe. If we do not take action now, the effects predicted in this country alone will include a trebling of heat deaths by 2050, far more frequent flooding, and food insecurity, which is a matter of national security. This is an emergency—and, of course, we may well be one of the more fortunate countries in respect of the impact of climate change.

We cannot and should not act alone, but that should not be an excuse for failing to take a lead. Why are we still financing fossil fuel projects overseas? According to Christian Aid, the UK Government are still spending more on fossil fuels than on renewable energy in developing countries. How does that set an example? It is not leadership. What does it say to the likes of China and India, whose CO2 emissions dwarf our own? Will our desperation to seal trade agreements with those countries—should we ever leave the EU—inhibit our ability to talk candidly with them about their need to change tack, too? I have a particular regard to the United States in that respect.

We know that our homes, our workplaces and other infrastructure need to be prepared for unavoidable climate impacts, yet the Committee’s report also tells us that the Government funding to help to support regions, businesses and individuals has ceased.

There has been a failure to start the critical conversations that we need to have with the public about the changes to behaviour that are necessary. In those circumstances, how will we really be able to equip our communities to meet the challenges of reducing carbon emissions and removing carbon from our atmosphere?

We know that natural climate solutions, and carbon capture and storage, can play a very important role in getting us to net zero. Rewilding and other natural climate solutions can be used to draw potentially millions of tonnes of CO2 out of the air, and to restore and protect our living systems. Indeed, new research estimates that a worldwide planting programme could remove two thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities. Of course, to do that we need to really prioritise the environment.

There was a manifesto pledge from the Conservatives during the last election to plant 11 million trees. I do not know whether the Minister can update us on the figures today, but I think we are some way short of that at the moment. Also, tree planting targets have been missed every year since they were set in 2013. Tree planting in England fell short of targets in the last year, with less than 1,500 hectares of the Government’s planned 5,000 hectares being planted with trees. Only 13% of the UK’s land area is covered by trees, which is well below the figure for other European countries; on average, the figure is about 35% across Europe. So, 13% simply will not be good enough to meet the challenges we face.

We often trade numbers across the main Chamber: the number of operations carried out, the number of homes built or the number of police officers that we have. Perhaps the real sign of change here will be when we begin to trade insults over the number of trees being planted by each Government. That would be a real sign that there was a genuine commitment on both sides of the House to take this issue seriously.

That is why campaigners are calling the Government’s progress on this matter “painfully slow” and are calling for a new strategy to enable the Government target to be met. The Woodland Trust has called for much greater Government support and I echo that call. I am pleased that my own party has pledged to be more ambitious. I refer to the pledge made last month by my hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth that a Labour Government would plant a million trees in hospitals throughout the UK, which is a very innovative and interesting way to look at things. Some departmental leads could be taken on this matter, too.

I was also pleased to put my name to a letter from my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis in support of the Northern Forest. Again, that is an initiative spearheaded by the Woodland Trust that aims to plant 50 million trees in the north of England. It is said that this Northern Forest would generate around £2.5 billion of social, economic and environmental benefits, which would be at least a fivefold return on investment. That sounds like a win-win situation to me and I hope we can all support it.

In addition to these ambitious plans, I am pleased that the Labour party has pledged to ban all harmful pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, which we believe pose a serious risk of harm to honey bees and other pollinators. We should not underestimate the importance of wildflowers to the ecosystem; we know that if we do not get them right, there is a risk to the entire food chain.

In that regard, I congratulate my local authority, Cheshire West and Chester Council, on work that it has been doing in respect of bulb planting and allowing certain sections of the highway verges to grow wild. The aesthetics of that certainly work for me; it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it adds a bit of colour and a bit of pollen to the ecosystem, which is something we can all learn from.

One of the chief recommendations of the Thirty by 2030 report, which was launched last week by my hon. Friend Rebecca Long Bailey, the shadow Business Secretary, was sourcing 90% of electricity from renewables and low-carbon sources by 2030. This includes greater use of carbon capture and storage, with a goal of expanding it to become a “significant component” of the energy mix by the late 2020s.

On that front, I was pleased to learn about a carbon capture usage and storage initiative for the north-west that is based in my own constituency. The HyNet proposals would be based on the key industrial cluster around the Mersey estuary, alongside state-of-the-art hydrogen production in the long run. About 5% of the UK’s energy output comes from this area, due to the high concentration of energy-intensive industry there, but its location also brings with it an opportunity, because there is the ability to repurpose the Liverpool Bay oilfield and gasfield infrastructure, to divert around 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year into those oilfields. That would be the equivalent of taking 600,000 cars off the road. Ultimately, these proposals have the potential to take over 10 million tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere each year, which would make a huge contribution to reducing our emissions.

The plan would also have economic benefits. It has the potential to create around 5,000 jobs between now and 2025. The key is to finalise business models quickly, to bring forward some of the first stages of industrial development, so that we can start to realise the impressive ambitions for this project that a range of local players has come forward to try to realise.

I believe that these plans have a big role to play, not only in carbon capture but in taking us away from CO2 and getting our economy more involved in hydrogen. I hope that we can discuss with the relevant Ministers—they are probably Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Ministers, rather than the Minister before us today—how we can bring that plan forward as soon as possible.

I believe that this country has an opportunity to become a world leader in climate solutions, but that can be achieved only by strengthening policy to deliver emissions reductions across all levels of Government, including across Departments. Delivery must be regarded as being much more urgently needed, and we can also do our part at other levels of Government.

Let us take the example of planning, which my hon. Friend Jonathan Reynolds referred to. Planning is not normally a party political battleground, but I believe that, if used innovatively, it could drive forward this agenda. I have long held the view that we should be doing an awful lot more to require developers to future-proof developments in terms of not only the environment, but climate risk. However, we should not just look at the bricks and mortar of the homes; we should look at how estates are designed.

Planning decisions made decades ago can still affect things now. I say that because on some of the estates built in the 1960s I see how the trees planted as young saplings have grown out of all proportion to the surrounding houses. Such trees are often too unwieldy to be of use, and they can damage surrounding properties with their roots, which have to be cut. Then, the tree has to be cut down. Also, some trees become diseased. So, this is an issue on which, in future, we could probably show a little more forethought.

Let us make sure not only that developments being built now have a minimum number of trees planted in their common areas, but that the trees planted will grow in sympathy with their surroundings. Let us think about what those trees will look like in 20 or 30 years. Also, there is no good reason for new industrial developments or office blocks not to have trees and plants designed into their layout.

When we consider new developments, let us look at transport too, because that is a key factor. There is evidence that improved bus networks can reduce carbon emissions. A fully loaded double-decker bus can take, on average, 75 cars off the road, based on average vehicle occupancy for both buses and cars; one bus can move 10 times as many people as a car can.

The benefits of a renaissance in bus travel are very clear in reducing CO2, but I wonder whether the people setting climate policy in London really understand that it is not quite as easy to get around on public transport in the rest of the country. Try getting a bus after 6 pm in my constituency, or on a Sunday, and it soon becomes apparent that if someone’s shift pattern is not 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, they need a car for work. So, we absolutely need to boost local bus services, which will help us to tackle CO2 emissions.

I am sad to say that previous generations of politicians have failed to appreciate the enormity of what we now face. We are sleepwalking into a climate catastrophe, and unless we begin to face up to the fact that carbon reduction needs to be done now, we will be the last generation to enjoy the benefits of industrialisation and we will impose on the next generation the consequences of our indolence.

This debate is not about some theoretical future prospect; it is about something that is happening now. We see it all around us, and around the world, with increased fires, droughts and cyclones. The warnings from the scientists are crystal-clear: unless we begin to tackle these issues with urgency, we will only see more of these climatic events. We should not hesitate to call this an emergency. People say words can be spoken in here that do not really change anything, and maybe at the moment they have a point, but we must show people that we can do better and that we have a real commitment from the heart of Government to tackle climate change. A substantial British green new deal should be central to that. It would reduce emissions, create employment and show the rest of the world that economic benefit and climate benefit are not mutually exclusive.

We need to recognise that we are here now because there have been several centuries of relentless pursuit of economic growth without thought for the environmental consequences. There have been so many advances made in that time that it would be wrong to suggest that economic growth is a bad thing, but it is no longer tenable to consider economic advancement in isolation. The scale of the challenge we face from climate change should lead us to say that restoring nature is as much an economic imperative as a moral one.