Biodiversity Loss — [Christina Rees in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 15 May 2024.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 9:30, 15 May 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered biodiversity loss.

It is a real pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Rees, and to open today’s debate on biodiversity loss.

It is now less than six months until COP16 takes place in Colombia—the first summit since the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework was agreed in 2022, when countries committed to

“halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.”

The meeting will be a crucial opportunity for global leaders to demonstrate how they are delivering on the commitment to restore our depleted natural world, and it is a moment for our own Government to step up as well.

When the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dr Coffey, gave her statement to Parliament following the Kunming meeting, she promised to

“make this a decade of action”.—[Official Report, 19 December 2022;
Vol. 725, c. 47.]

But what have we seen since then? Raw sewage continues to pour into our waterways, including for more than 4 million hours last year, according to the Environment Agency statistics. There have been repeated so-called emergency approvals of neonicotinoids, a poison so powerful that a single teaspoon is enough to kill 1.25 billion bees. And just this weekend, it was reported that the Government are poised to row back on their commitment to ban the sale of horticultural peat this year, and are seemingly content to see precious peatlands further degraded. It is hardly a reassuring picture.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North

I absolutely agree with what the hon. Lady is saying. She mentions COP16. Later this year, the world will meet in Colombia for the biodiversity conference, which is of critical importance. She will be aware that Colombia has joined the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, yet the Government of the UK—a similar-sized oil and gas producer—have not. Does she believe that one of things we should be doing before the biodiversity COP is to join Colombia in the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance?

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

I agree wholeheartedly. I will come to that issue in a moment, but joining the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance does not mean that we will end oil and gas tomorrow. It is a commitment over time, and it sends out a massively important signal to the rest of the world. Frankly, the fact that we have not signed up tells its own story, unfortunately.

The “State of Nature” report, published last year, shone a spotlight once more on the horrifying decline—let us call it what it is: the wanton destruction—of biodiversity across our four nations. It showed that, in that well-worn formulation, the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth. In the course of my lifetime alone, the abundance of species studied across the UK has fallen by almost 20% on average, meaning that just half of the animals, insects and plants with which we are privileged to share our home now remain—from the mosses and the lichens in our woodlands to the internationally important seabird populations that breed on the cliffs and rocky islands of the coastline.

This is a disaster so extreme that, frankly, it is hard to contemplate. Imagine if we lost half our population, or if half the country was swallowed by the sea, or if half the country’s financial wealth was squandered; and yet we have sacrificed, seemingly with few regrets, half our natural inheritance. Scientists are now warning of what they term “acoustic fossils”, as the natural world falls silent and once familiar sounds, such as the dawn chorus, grow quiet or are lost altogether. It could not be clearer that nature is in freefall. Without urgent action to not just halt but reverse its decline, species risk being lost forever from our skies, land and waters. That is a disaster for the individual species concerned, including my favourite bird, the swift, which can fly an extraordinary 1 million miles in the course of its lifetime.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Attorney General)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the situation of migratory birds. There is one tiny glimmer of hope: in Ynys Enlli on Bardsey Island, which is in my constituency, we have had Europe’s first and only dark sky sanctuary since last year. One of the key actions was to replace the bright white light of the lighthouse with a red light, thereby saving thousands of birds’ lives—previously, in one night 2,000 birds had died. We must acknowledge those little glimmers of hope, while also recognising the larger picture and its seriousness.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

I thank the right hon. Lady for her inspiring intervention, which shows that incredibly simple things can make a world of difference.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

Indeed, I anticipate an intervention in just a moment on one of my favourite subjects: swift bricks.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to talk about losing 50% of some species. One of her favourite birds is the swift. For just £30, a swift brick can be installed in new build properties. The swift population has declined by 60% over the past 30 years, so I ask the Minister: why are we not legislating for such a simple way to protect the swift population?

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

As the hon. Member knows, I could not agree more. I remember being in this room for that debate in Westminster Hall last year, as he was, talking about the importance of something as simple as a swift brick and hearing the Minister basically going through gymnastics in trying to explain why it would not be possible to legislate for swift brick use. This is not even £30 that the Government would have to spend; if the buildings were properly built and swift bricks put into them in the first place, the developers would only have to spend a tiny amount of money. In essence, we are saying to the Minister that a whole raft of actions need to be taken, but some are incredibly simple. Will she please start to take on some of those actions?

The loss of biodiversity is not only a tragedy for the species involved, but a disaster for us, too. The world is a lonelier place for human beings when the number of species that we have been privileged to share it with are declining on a daily basis. If people want to measure it in economic terms, a recent report found that biodiversity loss could cause a larger hit to the UK’s economy in the years ahead than either the 2008 financial crisis or, indeed, the covid-19 pandemic. Well, of course it could, because the bottom line is that our wellbeing is intimately and inextricably bound up with the wellbeing of nature. We are nature, and it is the false perception of a division between human beings and the rest of the world—that mechanistic assumption that the natural world is something for us to use, rather than to live alongside—that is at the root of so much of the ecological crisis around us.

To give one small example, Lawyers for Nature has started an inspiring campaign to change the definition of “nature” in the “Oxford English Dictionary” so that it includes humans. Currently, all dictionaries exclude humans from their definition. Words matter. Highlighting our connection and interdependence with nature matters, and that needs to lead to action.

The Government have made welcome commitments at a global level, including to manage 30% of the land and sea for nature by 2030, and at home, with the Environment Act 2021 setting legally binding targets, notably to end the decline in species populations by 2030. But we all know that what matters is not just the setting of targets, but the delivery of them. The latest assessment from the Office for Environmental Protection has been damning on that front, warning that the prospect of meeting key targets and commitments is “largely off track”. Dame Glenys Stacey, the OEP chair, went on to say that it is “deeply, deeply concerning” that “adverse environmental trends continue”. That statement is underlined by the evidence that our rivers and our seas are being polluted with a cocktail of chemicals and effluent, while ancient woodlands are being bulldozed to make way for roads and railways, and our fields are being doused in pesticides and fungicides. Our only home is on fire and being bulldozed before our eyes.

As State of Nature reports, two primary factors drive that decline on land: climate change and our intensive agriculture system. It is on those that I will focus the rest of my remarks. On our climate, rising temperatures are causing major changes in the natural world, leading to rain shifts, population changes and the disruption of precious food webs. Species that are well adapted to the warmth are likely to keep expanding across the UK, but montane species that are already on the edge of their ranges will tragically be squeezed out.

More broadly, nesting birds will be increasingly mismatched with peaks in invertebrate food sources. For example, more blue tit chicks will starve, because the caterpillars on which they depend are no longer available. At sea, primary and secondary plankton production is likely to be shifted northwards. There was widespread alarm at the extreme marine heatwave last year, during which seas off the coast of the UK reached up to a horrifying 5°C above normal.

Species that have adapted over thousands of years simply cannot keep up with this perilous, high-speed experiment that we are conducting. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment from Working Group II showed that climate change is already

“causing dangerous and widespread disruption in nature”, so at the very least we need to stop pouring fuel on the fire: no new oil and gas licences, and certainly no new coal mines.

I am deeply concerned that the Government have not only issued licences for oil and gas projects inside our marine protected areas, making a mockery of that designation, but have been ignoring objections from the Joint Nature Conservation Committee to new licences on environmental grounds. Ministers need to rapidly speed up the transition to net zero, rather than delaying action in a desperate attempt to stoke a climate culture war. We need to work with nature to tackle this crisis by creating woodland, planting seagrass meadows and rewetting peatlands. That would not only restore vital habitats but lock away carbon.

According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, those vital carbon sinks contain 2 gigatonnes of carbon—equivalent to four years of the UK’s annual emissions—and yet not only is two thirds of the store unprotected, but much of it is already damaged and degraded. Unforgivably, it continues to be destroyed. The Government have abjectly failed to deliver a complete ban on peat burning. Peat continues to be set alight each year simply so that a wealthy minority can engage in grouse shooting. If we needed a definition of absurdity, that would be one. We need to end that devastating practice, and we need real investment in nature-based solutions, which remain chronically underfunded. That should include a significant uplift to the nature for climate fund, and I hope the Opposition will urgently commit to renew it if they form the next Government.

When it comes to food production, our modern agricultural system, with its industrial processes, use of chemicals and monoculture fields stretching as far as the eye can see, is one of the main causes of biodiversity loss. It is driven by economic pressures and misguided views of so-called progress, which put a huge toll on farming communities and ecosystems alike. Author and farmer James Rebanks described it as like being “sucked into a whirlpool” and “slowly becoming exhausted” in an effort to keep up with so-called modern practices, while supermarkets squeeze profits to an extent that often makes it nigh-on impossible to make profit.

Farmers manage 70% of the land in England and have a vital role to play in addressing the climate and capture crises. The OEP observes that the

“Government will not achieve its ambitions without effective management of the farmed landscape”.

As it stands, the Government’s environmental land management scheme is failing both nature and farmers. First, the current structure of the sustainable farming incentive is leading to a pick-’n’-mix approach that risks directing funding into a very narrow range of low-impact actions.

Secondly, farmers are not being supported to enter the higher-tier schemes. One in five of those who applied for the countryside stewardship higher tier last year was turned away, including because of a lack of resourcing and an absence of a transition pathway for the thousands of farmers in previous agri-environment schemes, who now risk missing out. Thirdly, there is a gaping hole in minimum environmental protections, including for watercourses, soil and hedgerows, now that the cross-compliance regulations have come to an end and it is not clear what will replace them.

ELMs must be urgently reformed with a clear plan for how each scheme will deliver on the UK’s environmental targets and a proper regulatory baseline. The Government must deliver a pay rise for nature by doubling the annual budget for nature-friendly farming and land management. Going beyond that, we need a transformational shift to agroecological ways of farming so that food is produced in harmony with nature. That should include properly incentivising the transition away from harmful pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. I hope Labour will look again at its proposals for how we grow our food, because simply committing to make ELMs work falls short of setting out how the farming budget must be allocated if we are to restore the natural world and produce healthy and nutritious food in the context of the climate and nature emergency.

At sea, we urgently need a ban on industrial fishing in all marine protected areas. The current approach is far too slow and piecemeal to adequately respond to nature’s decline.

Finally, we must not only protect our most important sites but create new habitats and ensure that planning policy on land and sea properly takes nature into account. Despite sites of special scientific interest apparently being the crown jewels of the UK’s nature network, many are in poor or declining condition. According to a recent health check, just 6% of the total land area of our national parks is managed effectively for nature. Throughout the country, that figure reduces to as little as 3% of land and 8% of English seas being well protected for nature. That highlights the enormous gulf in delivering on the 30 by 30 target, regardless of the warm words we hear from Ministers.

If we are to have any chance of restoring nature and achieving our targets, protected landscapes can no longer just be paper parks; they must be thriving ecosystems bursting with life. The designated sites network should be strengthened and expanded, with funding increased and, crucially, targeted towards biodiversity regeneration. There should be a new statutory purpose for national parks and landscapes—formerly areas of outstanding natural beauty—to support nature’s recovery.

I welcome the proposal from the Wildlife and Countryside Link for a 30 by 30 rapid delivery project to ensure that the goal is delivered in less than six years’ time. We need to see better-resourced arm’s length bodies such as Natural England, as has been called for just this week by the chief executive officers of leading nature charities, to ensure that they can do their job for our critical assets and effectively advise the Government.

Lastly, we need to see more connectivity across landscapes, as nature’s decline is also being driven by the fact that those places that do exist for wildlife are too small and fragmented. A brilliant model for how that can be done has been shown by the hugely exciting Weald to Waves project, which aims to create a 100-mile nature-recovery corridor going from the Sussex kelp recovery project near Brighton to the Ashdown forest, with the Knepp estate at its heart. Many of us will have visited the Knepp rewilding project and heard the gentle purr of the turtle dove and the nightingale’s song.

The Green party believes we need to go further. We would introduce a new rights of nature Bill, to recognise that ecosystems have their own rights and to give a voice to nature in law. That would be enforced by a new independent commission for nature, so that the regeneration of nature was at the heart of all policy considerations. We need to look again at an economic model that has ever-increasing extractive GDP growth as its overriding goal rather than the promotion of a thriving natural world and increased wellbeing for us all. As the Dasgupta review urged, we need a change in

“how we think, act and measure economic success to protect and enhance our prosperity and the natural world.”

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate. It is extremely frustrating that the economic pack for today’s debate indicates that public expenditure and non-Government spending on UK biodiversity has increased in the past few years, yet many of the problems persist and some are getting worse. Does she agree with me that, in spite of increasing expenditure on the problem, it seems to be getting worse?

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

The hon. Member’s intervention demonstrates that more resourcing is a necessary but not sufficient component of what we need to see. We need a far more joined-up approach to the natural world. As I have argued, our farming and food system is absolutely integral to making things properly connected.

I am aware of the time, so I will draw my comments to a close by returning briefly to our international commitments. As the Minister knows, countries must publish national biodiversity strategy and action plans ahead of the next UN biodiversity summit in Colombia. The UK’s plan is expected to contain four individual country strategies for each of the four nations, as well as strategies for the UK overseas territories and Crown dependencies. It is understood that the plan could be published and adopted very soon, but, concerningly, there are rumours that the country strategy for England could simply be a repetition of the environmental improvement plan. Such a move would be totally unacceptable given the widespread criticism that the EIP has received, including from the Office for Environmental Protection.

I have asked the Minister many things, but I want to summarise three in particular that I hope she will address in her response to the debate. First, will she confirm today that the Government will publish a bold, co-ordinated and well-resourced plan, with concrete steps to deliver on our international commitments ahead of that key meeting in Colombia? Can she rule out the idea that for England it will simply be a reiteration of the environmental improvement plan? Secondly, I hope the Government will bring the global commitment to reverse nature loss by 2030 into UK law—a move that would be delivered by a new climate and nature Bill. Thirdly, will the Minister outline what will replace the cross-compliance rules? Can she indicate how the gap will be filled?

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by nature’s horrifying decline, yet it is entirely possible to reverse this picture and ensure that our children inherit an earth that is just as rich and vibrant as the one that we once knew, where habitats are restored and biodiversity blooms. But to do so, we need to take urgent steps now, not only to protect what remains but to work to create new wild spaces, and finally to recognise that we are nature, and that what we do to the natural world we ultimately do to ourselves.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath

May I remind Members that they should bob if they wish to be called to speak in the debate? I intend to start the wind-ups at 10.25 am to allow Ms Lucas a couple of minutes at the end to sum up. If Members stick to around three minutes as an informal guide, we should get everyone in.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 9:50, 15 May 2024

It is great to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.

I congratulate Caroline Lucas on securing a debate on this important issue. I absolutely agree with her that the protection of nature and wildlife is not some nice-to-have optional extra. From the pollinators that enable us grow crops and the marine life that provides our most popular national dish, to the trees that help us to breathe easily in towns and cities, biodiversity is vital for our survival and prosperity. As we have heard this morning, it is also vital for reaching net zero. If we are to have any chance of becoming carbon neutral, we need to plant millions of trees, re-wet peatlands and allow habitats to thrive in many more places.

Natural spaces play a hugely important part in our happiness, wellbeing and health. They are in many ways what makes life worth living. That is why I have always fought to conserve green spaces in my Chipping Barnet constituency. A huge amount of effort is under way to reverse the decline in the natural environment, as we have heard this morning. Much of that work is done under the Environment Act 2021, which I was proud to introduce to Parliament. The 2030 target of halting species loss is hugely important. The Environment Act also includes the toughest rules ever to bear down on the pollution of our rivers and waterways; measures to rid supply chains of illegal deforestation; measures to transform our waste and recycling system; and measures to crack down on litter and fly-tipping, which can so often defile our green and natural spaces and habitats.

While I was at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I also introduced to Parliament the Agriculture Act 2020, which ended the common agricultural policy and replaced it with ELMs schemes to support farmers to protect and enhance habitats. I acknowledge the points made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion but, despite the drawbacks, that is one of the most important and far-reaching nature-protection measures that has ever been adopted by this country, not least because it opens up a long, ongoing source of significant funding for the protection of nature.

Our exit from the European Union has enabled us to introduce additional protections for the marine environment, most recently to ban the fishing of sand eels in the North sea, which is a significant boost to our puffin population. Our overseas territories make us custodians of one of the largest marine estates in the world. We are taking truly world-leading action, protecting an area of ocean larger than India. Just in January we protected a further 166,000 square kilometres around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Despite that action there is, of course, still a huge amount to do if we are to meet that 2030 target on nature and the 2050 target on carbon. We need every part of Government to play its part in delivering on those two crucial environmental challenges. I urge Ministers to consider supporting my Bill to ban the sale of horticultural peat in the amateur gardening sector. I also urge the dramatic scaling up of tree-planting rates. We must do all we can to prevent litter and fly-tipping from choking our natural spaces. We also need to protect the green belt from Labour plans to bulldoze it.

Photo of Alistair Strathern Alistair Strathern Labour, Mid Bedfordshire 9:54, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I congratulate and thank Caroline Lucas for securing such an important debate.

I am proud to represent a particularly beautiful part of our country in Mid Bedfordshire with, I think, some of the best countryside that Britain has to offer. We take great pride in that countryside across our communities. There are fantastic local conservation groups and charities, and some brilliant work is being done by local parish councils to cherish and really look after the very best of the British countryside.

Our farmers play their part too. Whether they are nurturing the world-famous shallot fields of Clifton Bury farm, pioneering regenerative farming techniques at Southill estate, or rearing fantastic livestock at Browns of Stagsden, our farmers are the real unsung heroes of so much of what makes Bedfordshire special. However, the sad reality is that, in so many ways, these groups are being let down and our countryside is being let down too.

The last 14 years have seen a devastating decline in our biodiversity and local environments. Our rivers alone have seen 778 sewage spills in the past year, and our farmers have been let down by a broken economic policy settlement. The failure to deliver schemes such as ELMs and wider support measures at scale means that, all too often, farmers cannot access the support and funding they need to take care of the countryside that they so desperately want to look after.

It should fall to all of us here today and across Parliament to take ownership of addressing the issue and ensure that we finally act with the urgency that the nature crisis our country is facing demands. Under this Government’s watch, we risk becoming one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, and that should be a scandal to us all. The situation has wide-ranging consequences, too. Communities have seen cherished nature, which has been the backdrop to their lives for generations, diminished. Farmers worry about what the decline of their fragile ecosystems will mean for the future of their business and their much-loved countryside. Even hard-nosed financial institutions across the City are waking up to the real risk now posed to our economy by nature risk, as our great natural assets are eroded.

The shocking report from the Office for Environmental Protection, which has already been mentioned, should be an urgent call to action for us all to redouble our efforts and make sure that our commitments are lived up to and exceeded. That is why I am proud that Labour has underlined our commitment to meeting our targets, to redoubling efforts to make sure that we can halt the decline of nature and species in Britain by 2030, and to ensuring that we meet and live up to our international commitments and protect 30% of the UK’s land and seas for nature by 2030.

A lot of levers will need to be pulled to make all that happen. We will make sure that we finally get a land use framework into effect, allowing us to promote sustainable regenerative farming, reach our climate goals and strengthen ecosystems. We will also take robust action to hold water companies to account, by introducing tough action to stop bonus payments for pollution and ensuring that bosses who continue to oversee law-breaking will face criminal action. The last 14 years have shown a sickening decline in the quality of our waterways right across the country, with not a single river in England rated as being in good health. How on earth can we expect natural life to thrive in such a toxic environment?

While this Government and Parliament continue to stagger on, I urge Ministers to put this time to use. I know that the Parliamentary schedule can get crowded with multiple reset moments, but this really matters, so I urge the Minister to commit today to finally bringing forward the land use framework in this Parliament; to making sure that we finally bring forward legislation and action on water executives’ bonuses; and to make sure that we finally deliver every penny available, from ELMs to wider nature and climate funding, to farmers who desperately need the funds to look after our countryside.

If this Government are not up to that, it will fall to the next Government to act. I am proud to be part of a party that has a proud history of conservation. From setting up our natural parks to opening up our coastal paths and passing the world’s first legislation to tackle climate change, Labour has a lot to be proud of. Should we be asked by the British people at the next election, Labour stands ready to serve our countryside once again.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 9:58, 15 May 2024

I congratulate Caroline Lucas on introducing this important debate.

Across the globe, nature is collapsing. The UK has lost nearly half its biodiversity since the industrial revolution. We are ranked in the bottom 10% for nature loss and the worst among G7 nations. One in six UK species is at risk of extinction. The Government should be leading the way for nature, for planet and for people, but far too little is done. How can we tell others at COP16 what to do if we are falling so far behind?

This Conservative Government have missed their 2020 targets for sites of special scientific interest; they missed their targets for UK seas to meet “good” environmental status; and they missed their target for 75% of rivers and streams to be in good condition by 2027—just 14% of surface waters in England are in good ecological condition, and 0% are in good overall condition.

We Liberal Democrats would do a lot more. One of our priorities is to introduce a nature Act to restore the natural environment through setting legally binding near and long-term targets for improving air, water, soil and biodiversity, supported by funding of at least £18 billion over the next five years. We will reverse the decline of nature by 2030 and double nature by 2050 by increasing the protected area network from 8% of land to at least 16%. This will double the area of the most important wildlife habitats across England and double the abundance of species in the UK from the current bassline. We will also fund local government to increase the network of local nature reserves to move to a more nature-friendly management policy for council land. Local government has a huge rule to play but can be effective only if resourced properly. I am proud that my council in Bath was the first in the west of England to adopt a policy of biodiversity net gain.

Another of our Liberal Democrat policies is to introduce a right to nature, which would include a new environment rights Act that would recognise everyone’s human right to a healthy environment and guarantee access to environmental justice. Crucially, it would also introduce a duty of care for businesses to protect the environment. Particularly in our urban environments, such as Bath, there is so much opportunity to unlock the potential for nature growth. Bath Organic Group’s gardens exemplify the benefit of community farming for wellbeing and biodiversity.

Liberal Democrat councils have been leading the way on reducing pesticides. In July 2021, my local council in Bath approved a ban on the use of glyphosate, and in the same year Guildford Borough Council passed a motion to become a pesticide-free town, with cross-party support. The overuse of pesticides is destroying many areas used for food by wildlife. We need national standards for limiting pesticides, rather than relying on the work of local authorities.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the St Luke’s church community fair in Bath, and I met many community nature groups such as Friends of the Bloomfield Tumps and Friends of Sandpits Park. They both undertake conservation work to help to improve nature in their local areas. Everyone should also be behind No Mow May. In the UK, since the 1930s we have lost 97% of British wild flower meadows, which are a vital source of food for pollinators such as bees and butterflies. May is the perfect time of the year to leave certain green areas to develop their natural wild flowers and wildlife. It is not too late to reverse the decline in nature, but we must act now.

Photo of Olivia Blake Olivia Blake Labour, Sheffield, Hallam 10:02, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I thank Caroline Lucas for securing this important debate. While I think opinion is shifting, it is often forgotten that we face a twin climate and nature emergency. This debate is an important reminder that we cannot tackle one without tackling the other.

I pay tribute to the Rivelin Valley Conservation Group, which I had the privilege of visiting last Friday to see its work to establish a baseline in that river. The Rivelin valley is a beautiful part of Sheffield, and those volunteers are playing a vital role in monitoring the health and biodiversity of the river, which is unfortunately blighted by a number of storm sewage overflows, although it is the healthiest river in Sheffield, which shows how far we have to go to protect our incredibly important rivers.

Citizen science like that is a testament to the value that my community and communities across the country place on the preservation and conservation of the environment and the restoration of nature, but these efforts are not being matched by the Government. As other Members have said, the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with one in six species at risk of extinction. When they are gone, they are truly gone—yet the Office for Environmental Protection tells us that the Government are not on track to deliver the nature recovery that we so desperately need.

One of the key issues on which the Government are failing is land management. My constituency opens out into the Peak district and several peatland habitats. Peatlands have been called Britain’s rainforests, with landscapes covering 15% of the UK. Healthy peatlands are rare, fragile ecosystems that are home to an abundance of wildlife. As a species champion for the hen harrier, I could talk about raptor persecution for my whole speech, but I want to focus on the importance of landscapes. They are also carbon sinks, storing more carbon than all the forests in the UK, France and Germany put together. Damaged peatlands release carbon into the atmosphere and water, emitting the same amount annually as the UK’s entire aviation industry and deepening the climate emergencies.

Colleagues may know that I have been campaigning to prevent heather burning on peatlands, as the fires damage the peat and burn the moss that grows on top. The moss is really important not only for nature, but in preventing floods and helping with natural flood mitigation. Rather than burning, we need to re-wet and restore our peatland ecologies so that they can thrive.

It is important to recognise that more needs to be done to produce Britain’s national biodiversity strategy and action plan. I hope that that will happen and put on track the Government’s commitment to 30 by 30, but we need more than pledges; we need concrete plans and action. That is why I am a firm supporter of the Climate and Nature Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Alex Sobel, which builds on the Climate and Ecology Bill that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion and I tabled. I hope the Government will take it seriously. If I had more time I would continue, but I will stop there.

Photo of Sarah Dyke Sarah Dyke Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome 10:06, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I congratulate Caroline Lucas on securing this important debate. England was once a country brimming with wildlife, from bees and butterflies to birds and beavers, but within a few generations everything has changed. Now, time spent in the countryside is often a different experience. The landscape may be green, but it is all but empty. Biodiversity is decreasing: the World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet” report in 2022 found that wildlife populations had decreased by an average of 69% in the past 50 years.

I am proud to come from Somerset. The county is well known for its stunning nature and diverse range of landscapes, from the Mendip hills to the Somerset levels and moors. Somerset is also proud to be home to many farming communities, but we are really susceptible to the effects of climate change because of the county’s low-lying moorland. We have witnessed heavy flooding over recent years. It is all having a devastating impact on our communities and our wildlife.

Farming and biodiversity are intertwined. It is of the utmost importance that hard-working farmers are supported in their efforts to protect and increase biodiversity. Intensive agriculture has been a key driver of biodiversity loss, but that must change. Part of tackling those problems begins by making sure that British farmers get a fair deal and are adequately supported in their efforts to increase biodiversity, because if British farms are financially secure, they can do more to protect nature. That is why the Liberal Democrats would add £1 billion to the ELMS budget to help farms and nature thrive.

Communities are taking action. I am looking forward to the inaugural LandAlive sustainable food and farming conference at the Bath and West showground in November. I have met many farmers across my constituency who have demonstrated to me the benefits that biodiversity brings to their farms, such as the protection of the shrill carder bee, which was once widespread in the south of England but is now limited to just five areas in my constituency around Somerton and Castle Cary. Recorded numbers highlight their decline: just seven were recorded in 2022. Bee numbers are affected by climate change, flooding, loss of genetic diversity and pesticide usage.

Despite this fall in numbers, the Government have authorised the emergency use of damaging neonic pesticides for the fourth year in a row. The national pollinator strategy is due for renewal this year. I hope the Government listen to the criticism of the current strategy and implement a more comprehensive approach that considers the impact on all pollinator species.

I echo the calls for a national invertebrate strategy. Habitat destruction is one of the greatest threats that insects face—for instance, 97% of all flower-rich grassland has been lost in the past 50 years—but local action can be taken to restore diverse habitats. One such measure is the creation of a new 460-acre nature reserve near Bruton called Heal Somerset, which aims to tackle the nature and climate crises while creating new jobs for local people and businesses, alongside designing and delivering projects with the local community. This rewilding project will increase insect numbers and encourage the growth of more plants, including new saplings, while bringing a greater abundance and diversity of species.

The Liberal Democrats want to support such initiatives by introducing a nature Act that would restore the land’s natural environment by setting legally binding near and long-term targets for improving water, air and soil biodiversity. Protecting biodiversity requires action that protects and proliferates best practice among all who use the land. A rapid transition that supports British farmers, builds strong, long-term food security, restores biodiversity and ensures we all reach our net zero targets is crucial.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero) 10:10, 15 May 2024

As always, Ms Rees, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I congratulate Caroline Lucas on securing this debate. I am sure both of us could spend hours in this Chamber going through all the various aspects of biodiversity loss, but I will not repeat what she has said. I agree with almost all of it.

As the parliamentary species champion for the swift, I am very pleased that the hon. Lady mentioned swifts— I know she shares my enthusiasm. All around the country, local swift groups are welcoming their return. The hon. Lady will know that my sister runs the Save Wolverton Swifts group, which had a party in the streets to welcome the swifts back last week. It really is an iconic species, and we must do all we can to restore its habitat.

We are pressed for time, so I want to focus on a few specific questions for the Minister. The Office for Environmental Protection has warned in its annual report that the Government remain largely off track to meet their environmental ambitions: they are on track for a dismal four out of 40 of their environmental targets. Simply put, the conclusion was that it is not clear whether the Government’s plans stack up.

The position is very similar for the Government’s climate plans: they were taken to court just a couple of weeks ago, and once again they lost because their plans are inadequate. There is absolutely no point in waxing lyrical about their ambitions and targets unless there are plans to match it. What I am not quite clear about is what happens when the OEP issues such warnings on the inadequacy of the Government’s plans. Does that mean that DEFRA now has to do better? Who is holding its feet to the fire? Will it require court cases from organisations such as ClientEarth to do so?

I also want to focus on nature-based solutions to climate change. There is huge benefit in restoring biodiversity and helping with carbon sequestration. I echo what others have said about the huge importance of peatlands. Rather than sequestering carbon, as they could be doing, they are currently releasing it into the atmosphere, because they are not being treated properly.

There is also the issue of nutrient neutrality. The natural environment can play a huge role in climate adaptation, with things like rewilding rivers and planting more trees in strategic places. What I am not clear on is where the lead from the Government is. Biodiversity net gain will be crucial, but so will developing credible carbon markets. All these things are co-benefits. I will end on this point: can the Minister tell us whether there is cross-departmental working so that we can ensure investment into nature-based solutions? That will protect those natural environments in perpetuity, I hope.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 10:13, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Rees. I thank Caroline Lucas for securing this debate. I have said it before and I will say it again: she is the environmental conscience of us all in this House. She brings forward issues that we all support. I should qualify that, by the way: I do not always agree with everything, but there are many things that she brings forward that I support. I thank her for that.

It is good news that the Government are committed to halting the decline in species abundance and protecting 30% of land and sea by 2030. As with our net zero targets, we must ensure the correct strategies are in place to achieve that. I am here to discuss how Northern Ireland can play its part. I always bring a Northern Ireland perspective to these debates. I am ever mindful that the Minister does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland, but I believe in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland working together to achieve many goals that are helpful for us all.

At the end of 2023, it was revealed that Northern Ireland is one of the most nature-depleted areas in the world, according to the 2023 “State of Nature” report. I was shocked to learn that 12% of species assessed across Northern Ireland are at threat of extinction, which is what the debate is about, and the hon. Lady set the scene well. The report revealed that the abundance of farmland bird species has on average fallen by 43% since 1996. It also found a 14% decrease in the number of flowering plants in Northern Ireland since 1973, so there is lots for us to do in Northern Ireland, and we have some targets that the Department back home—the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs—can try to achieve. Among the species that have been identified as at risk of extinction are the basking shark, the Atlantic salmon and the Irish damselfly —the first two being native to Northern Irish and Republic waters. We have been hearing recently about blue-green algae appearing in Northern Ireland waters. Lough Neagh, the biggest freshwater lake in the UK, has been severely affected in particular.

Having healthy seas will help to regulate the climate and reduce the negative impacts. I represent the fairly coastal and agricultural constituency of Strangford, which is full of biodiversity, and that is why I am a great supporter of preserving nature and taking those small but necessary steps to protect it. There needs to be a joint approach and effort throughout the United Kingdom and further afield to do so. I declare an interest as a landowner and member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. We have planted on our land and farm some 3,500 trees and created two ponds for habitats. We have retained the hedgerows to ensure that the young birds, butterflies and insects can thrive. We have also been told to, and we have to, control the magpies, crows and foxes. We try to keep that balance in the countryside, and we are doing that—hopefully—fairly well.

I have also been involved in a project for black bees. Irish black bees are almost extinct, but they are coming back. Chris and Valentine Hodges have been instrumental in that. There are three estates close to us that have them, and we have them at our farm as well. Irish black bees are coming back because people are making an effort.

Having sustainable habitats protects species, as they have the environmental conditions and resources needed to survive. It is understood that DEFRA has a target to create and restore some 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitats. We have seen this year especially a drastic increase in the amount of rainfall. Of course, the rainfall has been enormous these past three months, but there has not been a lot in other years. Changing weather patterns alter the seasonal timing of certain species’ life-cycles and can lead to ecological mismatches. On habitat loss, level rise will affect coastal habitats through saltwater intrusion and erosion.

There are recommendations for improvement, which include setting targets we can meet, ensuring robust monitoring, and co-ordinating a joint approach across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to ensure that as a collective we can tackle biodiversity loss. I praise the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion for the work she has done on the matter. I am keen to learn more about what steps we can take to preserve nature, and so I look to the Minister for answers on how we can do it much better.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath

Before I call Alex Sobel, I would like to thank all Back-Bench speakers for sticking within the informal time limit—I appreciate it.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West 10:18, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I thank Caroline Lucas for securing the debate and for mentioning and supporting my Climate and Nature Bill, which gets its Second Reading on Friday. I thank my hon. Friend Olivia Blake for bringing forward the Climate and Ecology (No. 2) Bill, of which the Climate and Nature Bill is an iteration. If I am not successful on Friday, I am sure that we will see future iterations of the Bill as the matter has so much support across the House.

The covid-19 pandemic laid bare the interdependence of people and nature. It is no longer possible to deny the fact that human health is linked to our use and abuse of the environment. The biodiversity crisis is a cultural, social and economic one. As humans, we are not simply observers of nature but an integral part of it. We need an approach that collaborates across Departments, sectors and nations to even begin to save our natural environment.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people understand a lot more about the concept of net zero, and therefore combining net zero with nature loss is so important for bringing people emotionally on side?

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

I thank the hon. Lady, who serves alongside me on the net zero all-party parliamentary group. She has foreshadowed what I was going to say next: nature is essential to the future of all, and yet environmental degradation occurs disproportionately in, or around, low-income areas where a high percentage of people of colour live. Our approach must ensure a thriving natural environment for all.

The House probably knows that I have a long history of raising the subject of insects. In fact, I introduced the first insect population loss debate in 2019, in this Chamber. I think it was Rebecca Pow who provided the ministerial response to that debate, and she will be responding to this one as well. I wanted to call it insectageddon; unfortunately, the House authorities would not allow such a title. Sadly, we remain in the same position on insect loss. The decline in insect populations is one of the lesser-known tragedies of the human effect on the environment. Where insects go, all other species follow.

Let’s not mince our words: the rise in the human population and the loss of pollinating insects sets us on a road of cyclical starvation. We will lose the production of some crops, particularly those best for health and wellbeing. The role that insects play in food security is pivotal. Dung beetles, for example, save the cattle industry an estimated £367 million a year. The national pollinator strategy is set to be updated this year. There has been a successful educational piece on the role of bees in food security, but we need to go further and highlight the impact that invertebrates have, too. I hope the Minister can address that point.

Education will also be central to mending the heartbreaking lack of care that humans have for the natural environment. There are countless young people in particular who have shown outstanding leadership in this area, and I thank them for their bravery. Lots of organisations, as well as the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I used to sit, have noted that changes could be made to the school curriculum. For example, a new GCSE in natural history would teach children and young people skills in observing, naming and recording nature. There is a significant skills gap in ecology, which means that devolved and local authorities are simply unable to prevent further losses, let alone increase biodiversity. Adding this GCSE to the curriculum, which is to be done by 2025, will create a skilled workforce that can go into jobs in the natural world.

The practical skills that curriculum and skills initiatives provide are just one side of nature education. The second is encouraging people, not just young people but the whole population, to experience, celebrate and learn about nature in a holistic way. People are spending less and less time outdoors, and we know that this lack of connection results in a lack of appreciation of, and value placed on, nature. We can change that by improving access to nature in both urban and rural areas through, for example, expanding initiatives such as forest education schools—particularly to areas of high deprivation, where we know that children virtually never visit the environment. To build on that, we could create a national nature service so that young people can experience nature jobs and think about working in ecology in the broadest sense.

I spoke briefly about tackling green skills shortages through nature education, but the UK must set out how it will fund these skills. No matter how many well-intentioned speeches we hear about the need to create green jobs, if there are no proper financial incentives, then devolved and local authorities will simply be unable to help us to reach the 2030 goals that we signed up to at Kunming-Montreal.

We cannot decouple the crisis that the natural world faces from the economic crisis and the climate crisis. Economies are embedded in, rather than external to, nature. When we recognise that, it becomes blatantly obvious that depleting nature risks the health and wellbeing of everyone. What this demands, then, is a fundamental and transformational change of how we measure economic success. GDP does not take into account the depreciation of natural assets, despite the natural environment being the key decider of our future success. If we do not move into inclusive wealth measurement, we will continue running ourselves into the ground, destroying more and more of the natural environment. At their core, economies do not value the natural world and therefore cannot address biodiversity loss.

People should have the right to experience the benefits of nature and a healthy environment, and the right to play a meaningful role in restoring and protecting that environment. The crises we face—of poor mental health, food shortages, conflicts and socioeconomic inequality—are all connected, and nature is the key intersection. We must tackle the nature crisis.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 10:24, 15 May 2024

It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I thank Caroline Lucas for securing this important debate on biodiversity loss.

We can be in no doubt that biodiversity loss and the biodiversity emergency are intrinsically linked to the climate crisis. Scotland’s outstanding natural environment is one of our country’s greatest assets and it is something that every Scot is rightly proud of. We must do everything we possibly can to protect it.

Our nature attracts millions of visitors each and every year, and supports our exports of high-quality produce, as well as protecting those who produce it for us. Maintaining this resource is vital to Scotland’s continued success and it is critical that we manage the water environment to ensure that the needs of our society, economy and environment can be met for future generations to come. Restoring this natural environment is a key way to address the twin challenges of nature loss and climate change. That includes many of the interventions championed by the Scottish Rewilding Alliance, which is doing some fantastic work up the road.

The SNP’s £65 million nature restoration fund has committed nearly £40 million since 2021 to unlock the full potential that nature restoration projects can bring to local communities. The fund has supported local businesses to boost nature tourism, helped landowners with pollinator projects to boost local food production, and supports river and woodland restoration.

In the last five years alone, Scotland has contributed to around 75% of new woodlands across the United Kingdom. Scotland’s stunning national parks also bring significant benefits to the local communities they serve through collaborative working to support thriving local economies, maximising the benefits of the environment, the climate, the economy and the local people. In 2022, nearly £450 million was generated in local economies through visitor and tourism businesses. Our parks also play a key role in supporting our farmers and crofters, working with them to develop and deliver collaborative, nature-friendly, carbon-neutral projects and practices.

The SNP Scottish Government’s recently published Scottish biodiversity strategy sets out how key sectors will deliver work to combat biodiversity loss, including in planning, agriculture, forestry and water management. The delivery plan sets out the actions needed to halt biodiversity loss by 2030 and to reverse biodiversity declines by 2045, with action needed across the whole range of Government, business and of course local society. The plan presents a nature-positive vision for Scotland, one in which biodiversity is regenerating and underpinning a healthy and thriving economy and society, playing the key role that is so important in addressing climate change. The SBS will be implemented through a series of delivery plans, covering a five-year period.

Scotland’s rivers define our iconic landscapes. From mountain tributaries to estuaries flowing into the oceans, they provide vital water and rich habitats, helping us to adapt to global threats, including climate change and water scarcity. The SNP has many innovative initiatives under way in Scotland to nurture, improve and protect our rivers. Since 2021, the Scottish Government’s nature restoration fund has awarded in excess of £2.3 million for projects to restore and revive river habitats, and to improve their resilience to climate change. We are working closely with partners to develop integrated catchment management techniques to restore rivers and to improve natural flood management measures.

Over the past decade, Scottish Water has reduced environmental pollution incidents by 60%—they are down from 800 in recent years to 300 this year—despite increasingly challenging weather patterns. It has also invested £880 million in targeted improvements to environmental quality.

We are clear that Scotland remains fully committed to achieving our net zero targets by 2045. We are already around halfway there and continue to decarbonise faster than the UK average. The SNP is utterly focused on and committed to tackling the climate emergency.

Of course, the Climate Change Committee has advised that the 2030 target set by the UK Parliament is beyond what it considers to be achievable. That is disappointing news. However, its latest report also contains much to be proud of. Scotland has made strong progress to date, with emissions cut in half and, as I have said, it is decarbonising faster than the UK average.

Between 1990 and 2021, Scotland’s emissions halved, while the economy grew by 57%. That clearly demonstrates that a thriving economy and falling emissions are not just compatible but can actually support each other. We will continue to help businesses and investors through the development of a new green industrial strategy, so that the people of Scotland can share in the enormous economic opportunities of the global transition to net zero.

By contrast, the UK Government are falling behind in the global race to reap the economic benefits of the race to net zero, and have failed to rise to the challenges set by the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States and those set by our European partners. Collectively, we need to seize the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment and implement the robust measures that are required. It is time to lead by example in the fight to preserve our planet’s biodiversity.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Nature and Rural Affairs) 10:30, 15 May 2024

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate Caroline Lucas on securing this much-needed debate, and on the recent publication of her book on this issue. I am not sure whether this will be the last time I get an opportunity to respond to her, so I congratulate her on the contribution that she has made over the 14 years that she has been in Parliament and wish her well for all that she does in the future.

It has been an incredibly important and valuable debate, and I am really grateful to everyone who has contributed to it. The fact that we have had to limit people’s speaking time shows that this subject enjoys a great deal of interest in this place. Indeed, we could have had a debate that was twice as long and still had much more to say. It has been incredibly valuable.

I will reflect on a few of the contributions to the debate, both at the start of my speech and as I go through my remarks. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made the crucial point that we are inextricably linked to nature, and that the success of the human race and the success of our natural environment go absolutely hand in hand: we should not see them as being in conflict. The approach that the Labour party will take, and that we must all take as a society, is to recognise the need for us to work together. She also talked about the reintroduction of species such as beavers, which I feel very strongly about. We need to see a greater focus on that. We had a very interesting debate yesterday on species decline, and that is just one area.

Theresa Villiers, who was undaunted by making the only substantive Conservative Back-Bench contribution, made a number of important points, one of which was to reflect on the importance of the Environment Act. One point that has come across strongly in this debate is that it is all very well to have targets, but if we have legally binding targets that we do not achieve, they simply become a fig leaf to cover the Government’s lack of performance and activity. She also highlighted the importance of the British overseas territories. I do not think that other Members made that point, but it was certainly made strongly yesterday and needs to be taken seriously.

Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

I have just been at an infrastructure committee meeting, where the point was made that the Government can break the law. Would the Prime Minister go to court? No, he would not, so we need a Government who are seriously committed to the targets that we set ourselves and put into law, and who are not just paying lip service to that commitment.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Nature and Rural Affairs)

I thank the hon. Lady for that point. I will say more on COP shortly, but it is incredibly important. It would be hugely damaging if, as a result of the Prime Minister’s endless delaying of the general election, Britain’s contribution to COP16 became lost amidst the election, which could take place at a similar time. I will press the Minister on what the Government’s approach to that will be.

As many colleagues have rightly noted, our country is now one of the most nature-depleted in the world, which has devastating consequences for us all. My hon. Friend Alistair Strathern reflected on the fact that not a single river in Britain is in good condition. My hon. Friend Olivia Blake spoke about the positive work that is being done in the Rivelin valley in her area, as well as about the challenges faced by those who are passionate about maintaining the high quality of that river.

I am sure that when the Minister responds she will point, as she did yesterday, to the binding targets of the Environment Act. We are constantly told how ground- breaking they are—but setting legally binding targets that the Government then fail to meet is not cause for a lap of honour. My hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy asked some important questions on that. We have legally binding targets. What is the response of the Government and what are the opportunities for people to hold the Government to account if they fail to make those targets by 2030 and if, as currently, they are not on track to achieve those targets? What is the purpose of a legally binding target that a Government then go on to miss?

One in six species in the United Kingdom are at risk of extinction. Other people have referred to the Office for Environmental Protection’s report. The Government are off-track to meet all of their commitments on nature and the environment, including their goals to halt biodiversity loss. The biodiversity targets agreed at COP10 were missed by a country mile, and we are yet to see the Government’s plan for meeting the Montreal framework targets agreed at COP15. Just 3% of our land and 8% of our seas is currently protected for nature. It is crucial that the Government’s plans live up to the size of this moment.

My hon. Friend Steve Reed has set out Labour’s commitment to the targets in the Environment Act. We will look to deliver where the Conservatives have failed, including halting the decline of British species by 2030, and will be committed to honouring the international agreement to protect 30% of the UK’s land and seas for nature by 2030. We must be clear that our country cannot achieve the targets that have been set by continuing on the course that it is currently charting. Labour will review the environmental improvement plan and take steps to get Britain back on track.

Jim Shannon spoke about the importance of habitats, such as wetlands, peat bogs and forests, both for families to explore and for wildlife to thrive. Keeping those nature-rich environments at the forefront of our mind is very much within Labour’s approach.

The Government have a target to bring 70,000 hectares of ancient woodland in timber plantations into restoration by 2030. That is an ambitious target. We support it. Last year, they brought just one hectare of these irreplaceable habitats into restoration. It is simply not good enough. As a country, we are not on target for what we have already committed to.

Farmers are the custodians of habitats in all four corners of the United Kingdom. They know and cherish the land they work like nobody else, and in many cases they plough the same furrow for generations. The Labour party respects the crucial role played by farmers and farming communities. Government must do much more to support farmers moving to different practices that carve out a role for nature alongside their crucial role in food production.

Several Members mentioned the failure of the environmental land management scheme. Some suggested more money is needed. The truth is that the Government are not even spending the money that they have currently allocated. As for going to the Treasury and demanding more money for ELMs, the first response will be, “Spend the money that you have currently got.” That will be the No. 1 priority for a future Labour Government.

The number of farmland birds has reduced by 50% since 1970, while more than a third of nutrient pollution in rivers is caused by agricultural run-off, making it all the more insane that we have all this unspent money in the ELMs budget. Farmers want to make these changes. They value the natural environments in which they live and work, but they often face impossible choices. This year, we have seen crops washed away and farmhouses become islands in torrential downpours. A staggering 82% of respondents to the National Farmers Union survey said that their farm business had suffered negatively owing to the weather, and yet the Government’s response has been far too pedestrian, given the size of the crisis facing farmers.

Ensuring that ELMs delivers for farmers is a crucial priority, as Sarah Dyke said, so will the Minister explain why so much money allocated for farming transition is being sent back to the Treasury unspent? Will she confirm whether the Government will publish the land use framework before the general election?

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire, I am proud to represent the party that created national parks 75 years ago. That achievement shows the progressive changes that only a Labour Government can deliver. However, a recent report by the Campaign for National Parks found that just 6% of land in national parks is being managed effectively for nature. At the same time, as Wera Hobhouse said, only a third of sites of special scientific interest are currently in good condition. Those sites are actually in worse condition than national parks. That is utterly perverse, and reflects a failure of policy and a betrayal of the intentions set out by the post-war Labour Administration. Protected sites ought to be where nature particularly thrives, and must be the cornerstone of any strategy to restore biodiversity in the UK.

The nature crisis is global, as my hon. Friend Alex Sobel said, so we must be clear about the need to collaborate with international partners. The UK played a positive role in ensuring that the crucial commitment to nature recovery enshrined in the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework becomes reality. The UK should be a leader on the global stage when it comes to the environment and nature. I have to say that under the current Prime Minister, there has been far less of a commitment than there was under Boris Johnson. Since Montreal, the Government have shown very little interest in making good on that momentum. They have failed to deliver their targets domestically or on the international stage. A Labour Government will take on that mantle and drive international agreement and collaboration.

Will the Government treat the forthcoming COP16 with the urgency and seriousness it warrants? Does the Minister agree that it would be a tragedy if one of the impacts of the delayed general election was that Britain failed to focus on its contribution to Colombia because COP16 coincided with a general election campaign?

The need to tackle this crisis is urgent. Under Labour, we will have a Government who recommit to the environmental improvement plan targets, tackle the failure in our water industry and support farmers to play their crucial role in a way that boosts, rather than depletes nature. We will grow nature-rich habitats, get the environmental land management scheme working and end the failure that has resulted in too much being unspent. Finally, we will bring forward the land use framework and support farmers and communities by creating a flood resilience taskforce. Change is coming, Ms Rees. It cannot come a moment too soon.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:43, 15 May 2024

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. You are keeping everyone to time—excellent.

I thank Caroline Lucas for securing this debate. I expect no less of her: this is the kind of subject that we have heard her speaking about, certainly throughout the time that I have been in Parliament. Although we have our differences, we have certainly had a great deal in common over all these years, so I thank her for her work as she leaves this place.

We had an impassioned debate on biodiversity in Westminster Hall yesterday, in which a great many Conservative colleagues spoke. Like this debate, it was very full. Although we have our differences, we are all singing from the same hymn sheet of loving nature and knowing that it is intrinsically part of how we live. We know we cannot deal with the climate crisis and climate adaptation without tackling biodiversity and nature. That is a given, and it is something I have worked on since I have been in Parliament.

I was interested to hear that Alex Sobel held the first debate on insects, because I held the first debate on soil, of which I am very proud. That is firmly on the agenda now: we are paying farmers to look after their soil. We have made so much progress.

We know that half the global economy depends on nature and biodiversity. There are many reasons for looking after it, but that one is important. We have heard some stark stats about the disaster—we know that—which is why we must do something about it. It is not a question of shall we do something about biodiversity; it is an absolute must.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion called for a decade of action. She was suggesting that nothing had happened and that everything was terribly negative, but has she been listening? We have made enormous progress on that agenda in the past decade, at home and on the international stage—one cannot do one without the other. The critical thing is that the Government have done more than any other Government, which is to set the framework that we must have. We cannot tackle this with individual, itsy-bitsy pots; we need a framework. That is why it was so important to introduce the Environment Act—many of us present were involved in that. It is a globally changing Act, and no other Government have produced such an Act. That sets the framework.

We have passed legislation to protect our environment. We legislated and set a target for restoring nature by 2030. One can criticise that all one likes, but the target is challenging and legally binding. We have four legally binding biodiversity targets. We also have legally binding tree targets and we have targets in a number of other areas, such as water and air. The structure is there, as is the framework for how we will get there.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

I thank the Minister for her kind comments, but a number of us have made the point again and again that targets on their own are not sufficient, if we do not meet them. It is not just us saying that; her own watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, says that we are only on target with four out of 40, and that the prospect of meeting targets and commitments is “largely off track”. I put it to the Minister that yes, some progress has been made, but overall we are massively off track. Her tone, frankly, strikes me as rather complacent.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have to take issue with that, because I am trying to say that we have the framework and targets in place. The OEP came out with a somewhat critical report, but it will have better evidence next time. We will produce the next environment improvement plan in the summer, and it will only be the second one. As the hon. Lady knows, this is tricky and complicated. We have teams of people working in DEFRA, such as biodiversity experts, and scientists feeding in on whether these are the right targets and how we will hit them, as well as advising us on how to set policy to get to the targets. A huge amount of work feeds into that. We are working closely with the OEP to ensure that it has the right data and evidence so that it can see the trajectory to the targets. I am not saying it is easy, but we have the plan.

I want to talk about some of the things that we are doing to make progress. We have to tackle this from every angle: for example, we have to create and restore habitats, and connect wildlife-rich habitats. We have to tackle the pressures on biodiversity and pollution and we have to take action for species. We have an overall nature recovery plan for large-scale habitat creation. That includes a number of schemes, and Natural England is working on building on that.

Nature-based solutions are a big part of that—they have been mentioned and are important. Only last year, we launched a new £25 million fund for nature-based solution projects. We are using nature-based solutions in a whole range of ways, such as flood control, biodiversity and sequestration. A huge amount of work is going on. My right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers recognised the complexities and the need to look at this from every single angle, which is why—as many have said today—our farmers are so important.

Farmers and landowners farm 70% of our land. We had a really successful Farm to Fork event yesterday in No. 10, with some positive outcomes. The farmers understand their role in producing sustainable, secure food supplies, but that must be linked to environmental recovery and protection. That is what all our new schemes are completely focused on, and they are world leading.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

One of the most alarming aspects of the nature crisis is the collapse in insect populations. It would be good to understand from the Minister what key things the Government are doing on that, including through the ELM scheme.

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That has been raised by many. We have a bee unit in DEFRA working on that, with our bee pollinator strategy, and on invasives such as the Asian hornet. We have to tackle all those issues. That is why integrated pest management is one of the planks of the new sustainable farming initiative. That pays farmers to do other things so that they do not have to use pesticides, such as use bio-controls, which I do in my own garden because I garden organically. That initiative is on a big scale and also harnesses technology and innovation. For example, if it is necessary to spray, just spot spray.

All of that technology is moving forward. Farmers are moving with us and being paid to do it. We have guaranteed the funds that they got from the common agricultural policy. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet was there when we announced all the new schemes at DEFRA. Leaving the CAP gave us a huge opportunity to do something completely different. That is under way and we have had 22,000 farmers sign up to our sustainable farming initiative already. It is the most successful scheme DEFRA has ever run, and it will increase.

Countrywide stewardship is still running and we have increased the payments. We are looking all the time at how the actions will operate and what we need to deliver those targets. I say to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion that we are looking at this all the time, and feeding it in to work out how we can hit the targets and deliver the food. That is very much what we are doing.

Peatland was mentioned by Jim Shannon and peat areas are hugely degraded. We know we have to focus on this area, so we have a special fund for that from our nature for climate fund. We have a target to restore 35,000 hectares by 2030 and we have already done 27,000 hectares. Great projects are going on all over the country, including in Somerset. Somerset, including the Somerset Wildlife Trust, has huge benefit from millions of pounds from these funds. They are doing good work, with the farmers and the Government, to restore these precious environments, though we need to do more.

We also have the species survival fund. Some individual species need special habitats, so we have a fund for them. We are restoring habitat in an area equivalent to the size of York to deal with certain species—on chalk rivers, coasts, coastal marshes and plains, including in Dorset. I went to Bucklebury Common and saw heathland being restored, where adders and nightjars are returning. With the right management, we are getting those creatures to come back.

National nature reserves were mentioned. Yes, they are a cornerstone; they are critical to delivering our target of 30% of protected land. We have 219 national nature reserves, and in 2023 and 2024 we created another three, with another three on the cards. Those are cornerstones, with farmers working in them as well, helping us to deliver nature. I say to our Scottish friends, who tell us how good they are on biodiversity, that they could look at why they have cut their tree-planting grants enormously. That is going to have a huge effect in Scotland.

There are other measures, such as local nature recovery strategies, that are being worked on. They will help to inform us where we want the nature—what should go where—and they are already under way. Biodiversity net gain is a game changer and, again, globally leading. To legislate so that every development has to put back 10% more nature than was there when they started is a game changer.

I must mention swift bricks because I am a huge swift lover. Yellowhammers are one of my favourite birds and we are getting them back through the hedgerow protections we have just introduced. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made a good point about swifts. We have been talking to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about that. Many developers are already doing swift bricks. Sarah Dyke mentioned it, and her planning authority could specify that it wants developments to have swift bricks. These things can already be done and I urge people to do them. There is a biodiversity metric on swift bricks. That is how developers work out the biodiversity net gain they must add. For example, they are looking at swift bricks and how many points they would get in the metric to see if they can get that into the net gain tool, so that piece of work is definitely under way.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Nature and Rural Affairs)

I will be quick. I do not want the Minister to miss the question from my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy. She keeps referring to legally binding targets. What happens in the event that the Government do not meet those targets?

Photo of Rebecca Pow Rebecca Pow The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The point is that we have legally binding targets and a remit to report on them, so everything that we are doing is so that we can drive towards our targets. We have targets and carbon budgets, and we report all the time. That is how we work; we will aim to hit our targets, and the OEP will hold us to account on that. Do not forget that it was this Government who set up the Office for Environmental Protection to have a body to hold us to account. Again, that is a game changer.

We have something called a species abundance indicator, which is the official statistic telling us how we are doing on our species. We need that so we can work out how we are getting to our targets. We published the official statistic last Friday, and I urge people to have a look at that. It is a complicated tool, covering 670 species used as indicators of how we are doing on our targets and informed by an expert committee. Although there are real problems, it said that the indicators show promising progress towards levelling off. That was announced last week, and I urge hon. Members and hon. Friends to look at that.

I will move on to the international stage, which everybody has mentioned and is absolutely critical. We are considered world leaders working on the international stage. Many hon. Members here have taken part in the various COPs, and we have COP16 coming up. The UK was at the forefront of the international efforts to agree the landmark Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. We have also legislated to halt and reverse biodiversity loss in this country and we are putting our money where our mouth is. Nobody is saying that it is easy.

We are working on our UK biodiversity strategy right now, and it should be published in the summer. The overseas territories are a really important part of that and of our nature, which was mentioned. They contain 94% of our nature. I chaired a meeting just yesterday with all the OTs, even those as far as the Pitcairn Islands and St Helena. They all joined that meeting, because they are all working on their biodiversity strategies; we will put those together and they will be published. The UK national biodiversity strategy and action plan was mentioned by many hon. Members, and it will be published imminently. It is UK-wide, and I will just put it out there that the devolved Administrations must play their part and agree their bit. It is important and we want to get it out.

Before I finish, I must touch on finance. Climate finance and international nature finance are critical: we cannot do any of this without getting that right. We have a green finance strategy across Government. A question was asked about if we worked across Government, and we are working on how we get the nature funding flowing around the world. We have already committed £11 billion in our climate finance commitment. I will wind up there, apart from saying that oil and gas were raised in the debate. Some 47% of our energy last year came from renewables, and an enormous shift has happened under this Government. I thank everyone for taking part in the debate. We understand that this is a crisis, but this Government have set us on the pathway to addressing it.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Independent, Neath

Caroline Lucas, you have just under one minute.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 10:59, 15 May 2024

Which is not enough time to be able to respond to what I have heard, Ms Rees. I thank all hon. Members for sharing their concerns. Some key themes have come up again and again, one of which is around peatlands and why on earth we are still setting fire to peat, which makes no sense at all. Can we please take that away?

We have talked a lot about targets, but not about delivery plans to actually meet those targets, and as far as I could hear we still have no answer on what happens when legally binding targets are not met. I do not know if that means that we would have to take the Government to court again—that is becoming a bit of a routine, but if necessary I am sure that it will be done. I want to ensure that we do not have fossil fuel extraction in marine protected areas, and again, that just seems to be madness. At the end of the day, I want the Minister to take back to her Department and others across Government that this issue is so urgent, and while I know she cares about it, there is complacency. That needs to be addressed. We need urgent action, and we need it now.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).