Climate Change Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Monday 24th July 2023

(10 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
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My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, for this timely debate and very much look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Earl, Lord Russell.

The Church Commissioners and the Church of England Pensions Board have recently taken the decision to divest from fossil fuels following insufficient progress towards meeting the targets set by their investment boards in 2018. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury put it:

“We have long urged companies to take climate change seriously, and specifically to align with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and pursue efforts to limit the rise in temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels … Some progress has been made, but not nearly enough. The Church will follow not just the science, but our faith—both of which call us to work for climate justice”.

While mitigating the worst impacts of climate change must remain our primary goal—and here I disagree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Frost, especially when we consider the global dimension—the Church and the communities we serve have increasingly recognised the need for adaptation too, not least given the alarmingly rapid rise in so-called freak weather events that are impacting us all, and not simply those in far-flung corners of the globe. Heatwaves, droughts and heavy rainfall have affected every community across the nation in recent years, with the freakish apparently becoming the new normal. Churches have begun to think through how they can adapt so as to provide a base for emergency services, a safe refuge from extreme weather events and a sanctuary from overheating, as well as considering how their buildings might be protected from flooding, subsidence and other severe impacts of the climate crisis.

Many of our churches, including some in my own diocese, are set in predominantly agricultural communities, and I am grateful for today’s debate secured by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter highlighting the housing crisis there and elsewhere. Yet alongside those challenges sits a whole range of adaptation concerns too. The English language, like the Hebrew of the Jewish Bible, has a single root for “human”, “humility” and “humus”—the soil or tilth—reminding us of the complete interdependence between humanity and the soil we cultivate, and the consequent need to treat the planet humbly and with respect. Yet the pressing need for a cohesive strategy for land use to tackle climate-related degradation of the soil and what we grow in it is largely unmet by the Government’s NAP3, leading to unanswered concerns around food security, not least given the equal pressures on other nations on which we have traditionally depended when crops have failed.

The huge incoming changes in the structure of farming subsidies, with the phasing out of the basic payment scheme and the phasing in of the environmental land management schemes, are valuable and worthy in their intent. But difficulties in accessing new funding are in danger of pushing many small farmers over the edge, and the new schemes are insufficiently integrated with climate goals and indicators, on both mitigation and adaptation. Investment is needed here to help farmers and land managers choose the optimal use for each plot of land, considering water management, crop productivity, carbon storage and non-farm uses, alongside the Government’s existing and welcome commitment to greater biodiversity.

Water infrastructure is equally in need of fresh investment, not simply in reservoirs and pipe renewals but in nature-based solutions. Very little UK agriculture is currently irrigated, but that is likely to change as water supplies become increasingly inconsistent, with severe implications for our already stretched reservoir capacity. Meanwhile, the spectre of synchronised crop failures across a whole family of nations is real, making the case for lessening our dependence on imports even stronger.

I declare an interest in crop improvement work, in which my son-in-law Peter is involved as a foundation fellow at the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development. Peter would be the first to acknowledge that a cohesive approach to land use is by far the most important factor in the food security equation, whatever the weather.