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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:10 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith The Minister of State, Department for International Development, The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:10 pm, 28th October 2019

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David, and I congratulate Daniel Zeichner on securing this debate. It is similarly a pleasure to follow Luke Pollard, who has given a typically wide-ranging, thoughtful and knowledgeable speech on this hugely important issue. I will attempt to answer his questions; the “coked-up eels” debate is probably one for another day, but I look forward to it, not least learning what the impacts are. I do not doubt that human cocaine use has had a marked impact on the river environment, but it is not an area about which I know a great deal, so I look forward to hearing more in a subsequent debate.

The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned his constituent Maggie, who I believe is 12 years old. He can tell Maggie that I agree with her, and have done since I was her age; indeed, I have committed most of my life to campaigning and working on these issues. Nature clearly matters. Given that it is the only source of our wealth, our health, and our very lives, one could say that it matters more than anything else that preoccupies us in this ever-madder place in which we work. All the research, including the recent “State of Nature” report that a number of hon. Members have mentioned, paints a very gloomy picture of nature loss in the UK, with 41% of our species having declined since the 1970s. That report does point to some success stories, and it would be wrong to overlook them. Many of those happened as a consequence of Government, conservation groups, farmers and land managers all working together. Nevertheless, those success stories are the exception; we need there to be many, many more.

The situation globally is even worse. Scientists have warned that even a 1.5° rise in temperatures would be absolutely devastating for humanity, ecosystems and the natural world as a whole, but we are not heading towards a 1.5° rise. Currently, without radical intervention, we are heading towards a 3° rise, which—if we believe the majority of scientists—would be almost apocalyptic. Earlier this year, we saw the results of the most comprehensive assessment yet of the state of nature around the world, and again, the news is really bad. It tells us that today, 1 million species are on the brink of extinction. Over my lifetime, since the early 1970s—I was born in 1975—we have lost a staggering 60% of the world’s land animals in just those few years, and continue to destroy an area of forest the size of 47 football pitches every minute. Someone better at maths than I am would be able to tell hon. Members how many football fields’ worth of forest has been destroyed since this debate began. It is utterly shocking.

Our oceans, meanwhile, are under siege; we are told that by 2050, they will contain more plastic than fish, measured by weight. Fisheries that once seemed inexhaustible, such was their abundance, have either collapsed entirely or are on the verge of collapse. A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister referred to tackling climate change and biodiversity loss as

“two sides of the same coin”.

He was right. We cannot protect nature unless we address climate change, and we cannot properly address climate change unless we restore nature. I would add that unless we do those things, we have no hope of tackling base poverty around the world, either.

If that seems alarmist, we need only look at the facts. More than 1 billion people depend on forest for their livelihoods, more than 1 billion depend on fish as their main source of protein, and about 200 million depend on fishing for their livelihoods. All of us, of course, ultimately depend on the free services that are provided by nature, without which we simply could not survive. For the sake of nature, of climate and of people, it is critical that we step up our response, at home and internationally.

The good news, as a number of hon. Members have said, is that nature-based solutions have the potential to provide up to a third of the climate change mitigation that we need globally by 2030. Done properly, those solutions can turn the tide on the extinction crisis we are experiencing and provide sustainable, secure livelihoods for millions of people. Given that protecting and restoring nature provides a cascade of solutions to so many of the world’s pressing problems, it is extraordinary that it receives such a tiny proportion of global aid support. Of all the money invested by the world’s Governments in tackling climate change, just 2.5% goes to nature-based solutions. Such solutions should not become a substitute for decarbonisation on a massive scale, as was said by Caroline Lucas, who is no longer in the Chamber. However, those solutions clearly merit a far greater share of resources.

I was therefore thrilled when the Prime Minister announced at last month’s UN climate summit that we in the UK intend to double our climate spending to £11.6 billion between 2021 and 2026, and—even more importantly—that much of that uplift will be invested in nature-based solutions and biodiversity protection. We have already announced a £220 million fund to protect the world’s biodiversity, including £100 million for a biodiverse landscape fund that will protect a large range of cross-border, ecologically biodiverse and important landscapes. We are also trebling annual funding for the brilliant, long-established, and—as some hon. Members will remember—threatened Darwin initiative. Ten years ago, a number of Members had to step up to protect that initiative, because it faced closure. It is an extraordinary initiative, of which we can all be proud.

We are also committing an additional £30 million to tackling the grimly destructive illegal wildlife trade. We are on track to deliver the $5 billion of finance for stopping and reversing deforestation that we pledged alongside Germany and Norway in 2015, and are making big efforts to protect the world’s oceans. We have dedicated £23 million to supporting communities to maintain and enhance 20,000 hectares of mangroves in Madagascar, Indonesia, Latin America and the Caribbean. We have directly helped 100,000 people through building resilient jobs and supporting marine life. We are on track to protect more than half of UK and UK overseas territories waters by 2020 through our world-leading Blue Belt programme, and have announced that we intend to expand that programme much further, with an initial £7 million put aside to protect some of the most diverse marine systems on Earth.

At the UN General Assembly, we announced a global ocean alliance of countries committed to a new global target: to protect at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. Countries are lining up to sign up to that commitment—I forget the exact number, but it is a relatively new campaign, and over 10 countries have already signed up to it, with a number of other countries flirting with doing so. Hopefully, they will sign up in the next few weeks and months. We are also working with our friends across the Commonwealth to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution in our oceans. As one hon. Member pointed out, 1 million birds and 100,000 mammals lose their life every year from eating, or getting tangled up in, ocean plastic. As part of the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, we have invested in programmes worth up to £70 million to tackle that issue.

We have also invested in research so that we can better understand the role of the oceans. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned the value of seagrass, and he was right to do so: we know that seagrass has an extraordinary capacity to absorb carbon, but we do not fully understand the role of the oceans as a whole in relation to climate change. For example, we do not know the full impact on the ocean floor of bottom trawling and dredging, but science is emerging that suggests it plays a gigantic role in releasing emissions. That is something we need to know, so we are investing in that research. In the meantime, we are investing in protecting fragile ecosystems in the oceans. We are working on a number of other big interventions on land and at sea, and I look forward to telling hon. Members who are interested in these issues more about those interventions in subsequent debates.

However, this is not just about aid. As we negotiate new free trade agreements, we must be confident that we are not importing deforestation through environmentally damaging goods, as was noted by Kerry McCarthy. John Mc Nally made the point about our environmental footprint here in the UK; I believe that we rely on an overseas land area more than half the size of the UK just for imported commodities such as palm oil, soya and things that we feed our livestock. Whether we like it or not, despite the fact that most people in this country would be appalled to know it, we are importing deforestation daily. Under our global resource initiative taskforce, we are working to create a plan to end our contribution to global deforestation through our supply chains. It is incredibly complex, but we have to find a way to do it. We have no alternative.

The OECD estimates that the top 50 food-producing nations spend about $700 billion a year subsidising landowners and farmers. At the moment, they do that pretty badly, with little regard for sustainability. We have to find a way to encourage as many of those countries as possible to shift the way that they subsidise farming, as we are trying to do here through our environmental land management schemes. We have set up the Just Rural Transition to do that.

2020 will be a gigantic year for nature and the climate. We will do all we can to deliver meaningful commitments at the convention on biological diversity in China and at COP 26, which we will host with Italy in Glasgow. We want to focus international attention on the importance of and opportunities inherent in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss through investing in nature-based solutions.

I will turn my attention back home, which has been the focus of most hon. Members’ speeches and where, as I said, biodiversity is undoubtedly suffering. We need to reverse that and we are taking steps to do so. The UK was the first major economy to set a net zero emissions target in law for 2050. The restoration of nature will be a big part of our response to that challenge. We are already committed to planting 11 million trees in England, plus a further million trees in and around our towns and cities. Despite the scepticism of several hon. Members, we are on target to do that. I am fully confident that we will meet that target, but, equally, I will not pretend that it is anywhere near ambitious enough. We will have to do much more.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport rightly laid out the challenge: we need to ramp up our efforts. In the next few months, we will consult on a tree strategy for England. Earlier this year, we announced a new Northumberland forest, which will be delivered through a local partnership. This year, we will launch the woodland carbon guarantee, a new £50-million market-based mechanism to provide long-term payments to land managers in England to plant trees.

I will move on, briefly, to peat, which was raised by almost all hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes. Peat, including blanket bogs and peat soils under agriculture, acts as the UK’s largest terrestrial carbon store. When peatlands are working and healthy, they sequester carbon, nurture wildlife, act as water regulators and contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Some 86% of peatland emissions come from lowland peat in agricultural use. This year, we launched a lowland agricultural peat taskforce that will deliver recommendations for a new, more sustainable future for agriculture on lowland peat in England.

Several hon. Members talked about the problem of burning peatlands. There is no doubt that they are right; the Government share that view. There has been an attempt, through voluntary initiatives, to scale back—to reduce and eventually eliminate—the burning of fragile and important peat ecosystems, but that has not proven 100% successful as had been hoped. We are developing a legislative response to the problem and we will come back to the House in due course with our plans. There is no disagreement with the hon. Members who have spoken today about the need to address the issue, but we have to do that through legislation, because the alternative simply has not worked.

We are funding the restoration of more than 6,000 hectares of degraded peatland, much of it in the uplands, and we are allocating £10 million to 62 sites across England. We will publish a peat strategy for England that sets out a vision to reverse the decline in England’s peatlands and peat soils.

Much of what I have described, here and overseas, involves what some people refer to as rewilding, which is effectively integrating natural closed processes into land management. Rewilding is already happening across the UK in lots of projects, many of which deliver huge benefits. The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the Knepp estate in West Sussex, where agri-environment funding has helped to create extensive grassland and scrub habitats, with huge benefits for declining bird species such as the nightingale and turtle dove. I have not been to the Knepp estate, but I long to go and I will be going. I am told by those who have been that it is magical.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for quoting my brother’s article in The Spectator in which he promotes the value of untidiness in nature. He has also been a huge promoter of the release of beavers back into the countryside, so I would not get away with not mentioning the return of beavers, more than 500 years since they were eradicated by us. It seems to be unambiguously good news; it is an extraordinary thing.

Beavers are the ultimate keystone species. They build small dams along river tributaries and streams, which play a big role in holding back water following rainfall and help to mitigate flooding and drought, while at the same time breathing life back into the landscape in an extraordinary way. Science is only beginning to understand how that simple species has such a magnificent and transformative impact on the natural world. I am in total agreement with my brother on that, and he would have been furious if I had not mentioned the beaver.

In the marine environment, domestically, we are expanding our network of marine protected areas. The recent designation of 41 new marine conservation zones means that we have 355 sites covering 25% of UK waters.

Our new Environment Bill, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members, includes measures that will address the biggest environmental priorities of our age and ensure that the Government are held to account if we fail to meet net zero by 2050. It will place a duty on the Government to set long-term, legally binding targets on biodiversity, air quality, water, and resource and waste efficiency. It will lay the foundation for the nature recovery network that will create or restore half a million hectares of wildlife-rich habitat in England, which will encompass woodlands, peatlands, grasslands and coastal ecosystems.