COP26 Conference Priorities — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:59 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 1:59 pm, 22nd July 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr McCabe. I thank Mr Clarke for securing the debate, and for highlighting global green finance in particular.

I extend my thoughts to all those impacted by the flooding in China and in central Europe these past weeks. The loss of life is devastating, and the emergency response heroes have my deepest respect. The flooding should be a wake-up call for us all about the unpredictable but inevitable impacts of rising temperatures. We urgently need serious action. Two priority areas for COP26 this autumn are to protect and restore ecosystems and to build resilient infrastructure to mitigate effects of the global heating we have already seen. It is right that those are priority areas, but because we cannot tackle either the problems with nature or the climate emergency without tackling the other as well, it is important that they are thought about equally.

I am concerned about what the Government will bring to the climate negotiations on both those issues, because although Ministers like to talk up their record on carbon and on nature restoration, the reality is far from the rhetoric. For example, we hear a lot from the Government about how they are taking unprecedented measures to restore nature, but we are in an unprecedented crisis and nature is in freefall—41% of UK species are declining, and one in 10 is threatened with extinction.

Faced with that shocking decline, it would be odd if there were any precedent for the action that the Government are taking, which is simply not enough. It is not just me who thinks that. The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne, who spoke earlier, has commented on the Government’s plans for species abundance and nature restoration, saying they are “toothless”. The Committee’s recent report said:

“There is no strategy indicating how new biodiversity policies will work together. Implementation of these policies could be piecemeal, conflicting, and of smaller scale as a result.”

Similarly, the recent Climate Change Committee progress report made this call on the Government:

“Publish an overarching strategy that clearly outlines the relationships and interactions between the multiple action plans in development for the natural environment, including those for peat, trees, nature and plant biosecurity. This must clearly outline how the different strategies will combine to support the Government’s climate change goals on both Net Zero and adaptation, along with the wider environment and other goals.”

On one of the two key themes of COP26, the CCC and the EAC both say that the Government have no clear strategy. Without a joined-up plan for the UK, how do the Government hope to negotiate one for the entire United Nations?

Ministers are right to say that the UK’s global leadership starts with our ambition and delivery at home. However, I am worried that our representatives at the conference simply do not have the credibility to talk about the issues with any authority. One of the key pieces of natural infrastructure to mitigate the effects of the climate emergency is our peatlands. The CCC is clear that we need a plan to restore all blanket bogs. Instead, we see Ministers putting forward legislation that protects only 40% of our deep peat. Another piece of important natural infrastructure is our trees and woodlands. Again, the CCC is clear that we need 17% woodland cover by 2050 to meet net zero. Instead, Ministers propose only 12% coverage.

While a third of the UK’s seas are apparently protected, only 1% are well managed and only 5% of protected areas are safe from bottom trawling. The CCC says that there has been no significant improvement in the management of marine habitats since 2019.

Those are just some examples on adaptation. The Government have made progress on only five of 34 sectors mentioned in the CCC’s progress report. The stream of Government action plans, grants and press releases represents a litany of piecemeal half-measures. Now the Government say they will wait until after COP26 to publish their species abundance targets, but Ministers should take a plan to the conference, lead the debate by example and push for ambitious targets, not wait for an international consensus to emerge before taking any action.

Today, I challenge the Minister. What plans is she taking to COP26 for nature recovery? What ambitious targets will she press for at the negotiating table? How will she establish Britain as the leading light in the debate?

I know that my constituents care deeply about this issue. Every month, I meet with them to discuss different aspects of the negotiations and what they want to see coming out of COP26. They have a clear plan. If the Minister does not, I urge her to meet with us before the conference. If the Government are out of ideas, my constituents have plenty.