Restoring Nature and Climate Change Debate

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Daniel Zeichner

Main Page: Daniel Zeichner (Labour) - Cambridge)

Restoring Nature and Climate Change

Daniel Zeichner Excerpts
Monday 28th October 2019

(11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:32 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 254607 relating to restoring nature and climate change.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and an honour to introduce the petition on behalf of the Petitions Committee. That is timely because of the climate crisis we face, but also because it is a hot topic in Ambridge at the moment, for those who listen to “The Archers”. That is always a useful barometer for a certain part of public opinion.

The petition, which calls for natural climate solutions, such as rewilding, to be enacted to tackle the climate emergency, has been signed by around 110,000 people, including over 650 from my Cambridge constituency. It makes a series of important points and reads:

“Restore nature on a massive scale to help stop climate breakdown.

To avoid a climate emergency we need to act fast.

Rewilding and other natural climate solutions can draw millions of tonnes of CO2 out of the air through restoring and protecting our living systems. We call on the UK Government to make a bold financial and political commitment to nature’s recovery.

We need to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate breakdown. To do this we need both to reduce carbon emissions and to remove carbon from the atmosphere. By drawing down carbon, nature’s recovery can help us reach net carbon zero.

We have a chance for the UK to become a world leader in natural climate solutions. Those who manage our land and sea play a pivotal role and should be supported to come together to deliver carbon reductions.”

I doubt many—or even any—of us here would disagree with much in that statement. It is a topic that chimes with the public mood over the last year. From the school climate strikes, the Extinction Rebellion protests and many more related campaigns, it is clear that stopping climate breakdown is at the top of the agenda for many people.

Mr Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:32 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this wonderful debate with his magic power. More people in Huddersfield than in Ambridge signed the petition. Does he agree that we need more action from this Government and from the Opposition parties? Climate change is now. We must not put noughts on. We need the northern forest, millions of trees planted and so much more. Does he agree that this is an emergency and we have got to act now?

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:33 p.m.

Strangely enough, I agree, as my hon. Friend will find as I go through my speech.

We should start with some definitions. I make an introductory caveat; I am not someone who believes that humankind is the cause of all problems, although we cause many. I have always been slightly puzzled by the term “unspoiled” that some people apply to areas untouched by human intervention. There are certainly many—far too many—places that have been spoiled, polluted and harmed, but there are also examples of glorious and wonderful buildings and interventions, where people have achieved works of great beauty.

Henry Smith Portrait Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:33 p.m.

In that recognition of where humans can enhance our environment, will the hon. Gentleman join me in paying tribute to the Sussex Wildlife Trust and the wildlife trusts around the country that do so much to support our environment with innovative and practical solutions?

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:35 p.m.

I suspect that many Members around the Chamber will have worked with their local wildlife trusts and seen the excellent work they do. Just a few weeks ago I was with the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Northamptonshire releasing Nora the hedgehog into the wild, although Nora’s building was not one of the works of art I was about to reference in my great city of Cambridge.

Cambridge is full of fine examples of magnificent buildings and we are proud of them. They are often the work of previous generations, sometimes created in political and economic circumstances that we would not now accept. We can all point to examples across cultures and countries of magnificent interventions. My point is that we are not for or against nature, but with better scientific understanding of our impact on the wider environment, we now have the responsibility to act in a way that does no more harm and, where previous harm has been caused, take the opportunity to work with natural processes to secure improvement. That is my starting point.

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:35 p.m.

Kent Wildlife Trust, along with others, has a strategy of greening urban areas. Will the hon. Gentleman welcome its initiatives and others, such as that at Luton Junior School, in my constituency, which plans to build a green, living wall to help absorb pollution and improve the future health of the children at the school?

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:35 p.m.

The hon. Lady is correct; I suspect we will be hearing more examples of good work done by other wildlife trusts.

Sir Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:36 p.m.

I will say a word about the role of water and wetlands. The hon. Gentleman will know the example of Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire and about the work that is being done to improve the wetlands towards Anglesey Abbey. We could do with more work like that around the country. In Hertfordshire, our chalk streams are suffering from over-abstraction. Do we not need a policy for water?

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:36 p.m.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. I am about to embark on a tour of wetlands; Wicken Fen will be one of them. This summer we have seen some particular problems with a number of streams drying up, so we need a plan for water.

Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:36 p.m.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that show that nature and climate crisis are inextricably linked? The IPBES report says that one million species globally are at risk of extinction. Does he agree that nature-based solutions are a fundamental way of stopping climate change and preventing the extinction of species?

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard

My hon. Friend is right; I will come to some of those points later.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:37 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. It is great that we are all paying tribute to our local wildlife trusts; I will put in a word for the wonderful Sussex Wildlife Trust. Does he agree that we need urgent action? Ministers could make a decision right now to ban the burning of blanket bog, ending the release of huge amounts of emissions that could otherwise be captured by peat. When we consider that globally peatlands can store more carbon than rainforests, we need to be doing much more and not burning them.

Sir Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald - Hansard

Only if they are wet; they have to be wet.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:37 p.m.

The hon. Lady is right, as is the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who spoke from a sedentary position. Later in my speech, I will make that point.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:38 p.m.

My hon. Friend is exceedingly generous in taking interventions in this important debate. I pay tribute to the Walthamstow Wetlands—I hope they will be on his tour—and to my local authority, which has planted 5,000 trees in the last year alone in Waltham Forest.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) is right when she says that we need to look at what Government can do. Many of us are interested in ideas about carbon pricing and how we can further incentivise rewilding as part of tackling climate change. Frankly, it is not enough to leave it to local communities and local authorities, which do individually brilliant things; in this time of climate emergency, we should ask national Government to incentivise rewilding. Does my hon. Friend have a view on that?

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:38 p.m.

I had a wonderful day out in Walthamstow with my partner earlier this year, when we came to see some of the wonderful things that have been done there. On the point of urgency, my hon. Friend is right. The conclusion to my speech will lay down the challenge to the Minister about the degree of urgency we face, which I am sure he will respond to.

Sir Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:39 p.m.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that any rewilding scheme is far more likely to be successful if it is pursued and taken along with the consent of the local community and local landowners?

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:39 p.m.

The right hon. Gentleman is right; again, I will make that point in my speech. When we work together with local communities we can achieve much more.

The petition specifically talks about rewilding and natural climate solutions, and I want to draw on a number of examples and points that experts on those subjects have raised with me. The organisation Rewilding Britain describes the issue as being about people reconnecting with nature, wildlife returning and habitats expanding, while communities flourish with new opportunities. That starts from the principle that natural processes drive outcomes, and that rewilding is to go where nature takes it, with long-term benefits for future generations. I will give some examples, beginning close to home.

There are some wonderful long-term projects such as the National Trust’s visionary project to restore wetlands around Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, which has been mentioned. That project has been ably promoted over many years by Tony Juniper, who now chairs Natural England. He is a highly regarded environmentalist. I will mention in passing that he was my Green party opponent in the 2010 general election in Cambridge. We spent a long evening at the count together after he had run a brilliant, vigorous and exciting campaign, which, sadly for him, secured only a few thousand votes, marginally behind me. I came in a disappointing third. I remind colleagues gently that election outcomes are not always exactly as anticipated. Tony has recently written extensively about the social and economic benefits of a nature-centric green new deal, which would unlock benefits such as public health improvements, both physical and mental. It is a programme that I strongly approve of.

However, it is not just land policy that attracts the attention of rewilders. We need to look to the oceans as well.

Stephen Gethins (North East Fife) (SNP) Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:41 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman has touched on something that is important in our approach to the debate. When we talk about rewilding and climate change, we often talk about the challenges. Would not it sometimes be better to talk about the opportunities, for jobs, the economy and the social fabric?

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:42 p.m.

I am slightly alarmed at the unanimity that is breaking out in the Chamber today. The hon. Gentleman is right and many of us have noticed that in the last period the green economy has survived times of recession much more effectively than the rest of the economy.

To return to the subject of the oceans, the securing of no-fish zones in oceans can allow marine habitats to recover from the effects of bottom trawling and scallop dredging. An example is the no-take zone in Lamlash bay in Scotland. That is beautifully outlined by Rewilding Britain on its website. The issues are not always straightforward. In my area, the Cambridge Independent reported last week that Cambridgeshire County Council’s goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions is going to be more challenging than originally thought, as peatland emissions will be included in Government calculations from next year. Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange, which strongly advocates nature-based solutions, identified—as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) pointed out—that peatland is a main contributor to CO2 emissions in Cambridgeshire. Adam Barnett of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds tells me that that is a crucial issue. Consequently, the RSPB and other organisations rightly want to ban the burning of peat bogs, which releases carbon and is extremely damaging to the atmosphere. I hope that we shall get a response on that from the Minister. I know that questions have been put to Ministers about it before.

I have mentioned just some of the complex range of issues that there are to consider. The staff serving the Petitions Committee were kind enough to set up an engagement event on the topic in Cambridge last week, and we had an extremely well-informed roundtable with experts in my constituency. I record my thanks to the Clerks to the Committee for their work on it. Our discussion took place at the premises of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in the iconic David Attenborough building, a conservation campus that is home to organisations that promote the natural world, such as the RSPB, Flora & Fauna International and BirdLife International. There, I was privileged to meet Dr Mike Rands, the executive director of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, and Dr Andy Clements, the director of the British Trust for Ornithology, who shared with me their insights on natural restoration. Dr Clements hammered home the point that data and monitoring of natural activity is crucial. We must know the state of affairs to be able to improve it.

Mr Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:44 p.m.

My hon. Friend has the great advantage that I have, of having a superb university in his constituency. Are universities, in partnership, doing enough in terms of leadership? I find that many universities do research and do not share with their local communities and groups, or even local government. Could more be done? Of course, many universities, such as Cambridge, are large landowners.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:44 p.m.

As ever, my hon. Friend makes an important point. The University of Cambridge provides global leadership, but I occasionally point out to it that the link with the local community could be improved. Universities need to be close to their communities.

Sir Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:45 p.m.

On that point, Professor Sir David King, the former master of Emmanuel College and emeritus professor at Cambridge, who has been the Government’s chief scientific adviser on this, has been a strong advocate of carbon sinks.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:45 p.m.

Indeed, Sir David is of course one of my constituents and I happily canvassed him recently. Cambridge is a wonderful place in which to canvas, I assure the House.

Mr Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:45 p.m.

It is very flat.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:45 p.m.

Cambridgeshire is not as flat as all that, if you cycle around. However, in answer to the intervention of the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald)—yes; some important leadership, and extraordinary plans and ideas, are coming from such places as the University of Cambridge, about the dramatic interventions we might make to tackle climate change.

To return to the topic of data, there are many ways in which we can assess what is happening in the world. I was reminded, during the discussion we were having, of the work of immensely important organisations such as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust; its chief executive, the inspiring Gill Perkins, has pointed that out to me before. Its annual “BeeWalk” involves volunteer “BeeWalkers” walking the same fixed route once a month between March and October, counting the bumblebees seen and identifying them by species and caste where possible. That is important, and I suspect we are also all familiar with the hugely popular and important annual RSPB “Big Garden Birdwatch”. Those are just some of the ways in which we can monitor and assess what is going on. As hon. Members have suggested, such public engagement is vital. By encouraging each other to monitor the world around us, we shall, I am convinced, become better informed in our efforts to protect it.

During our discussion in Cambridge, the importance of data and evidence was further highlighted by Hazel Thornton of the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre. She told me that out of 337 common interventions that it had assessed, only about a third were evidence based. That is a striking statistic. I suspect that all too often we do things that we think are helpful, because they are what we have always done, without really knowing whether they have the desired outcomes, or—worse—whether there is a risk of unintended consequences.

Hazel Thornton advocated Government support for open-access data and decision-making tools, which should include consideration of costs and local values. She also called for Government funding for a long-term evidence monitoring system. I have considerable sympathy because, important as voluntary efforts are, they need to be complementary to rigorous scientific recording.

Dr Clements highlighted the need to tackle the carbon crisis and biodiversity crisis together. He pointed out that in some ways the carbon crisis is simpler to communicate to the wider public. We can probably all remember the need to limit temperature rises to below 2°C, but the biodiversity crisis, which is just as crucial, is perhaps harder to explain in simple memorable terms that capture public attention.

Almost as we speak here, discussions in the main Chamber will have an impact on the ways forward. The Environment Bill and our wider future relationship with our European partners will both have a significant impact on the issues that we are debating. A point that has been much stressed in the many recent debates is that, were we to leave the European Union, that should not lead to the potential regression of existing environmental standards. Dr Clements emphasised that to me and, as Members would probably expect, there is near-universal agreement among those who are expert in the field. The combined power and influence of 28 states acting together should not be lost. It is a global climate crisis and we must tackle it collaboratively.

Sue Wells, of the Cambridge Conservation Forum, focused on the need to take oceans into account when making policy. She explained that marine issues could get left behind in comparison with terrestrial projects. Another issue that was highlighted locally was fenland projects. Roger Mitchell, of Fens for the Future, talked about the need for nature-based solutions to the carbon emissions of the fens, which we have already discussed.

All this suggests a wider picture. When developing our land for our needs—housing, transport, infrastructure —we must maintain a focus on natural capital and on nature-based solutions to carbon emissions. Whether in planning flood diversions and defences with natural solutions, or in projects such as East West Rail, which affects my constituency, and the natural capital work there, we must focus on the environment alongside any development plans.

There are good examples of where past developments can be improved. Recently, I visited Anglian Water’s sewage treatment plant in Ingoldisthorpe, Norfolk, with the East of England all-party parliamentary group. We were all impressed with the work that had been done to create beautiful wetlands and increase local and regional biodiversity. The restored wetland removes the need for carbon-intensive, expensive nutrient-stripping techniques, while improving water quality; it is a great project led by the Norfolk Rivers Trust.

We must keep our focus on the environment when delivering investment for the future, and we must think long term. Sarah Smith of the Wicken Fen rewilding project told me the project has a 100-year plan to extend the nature reserve by 10 miles, as I mentioned earlier.

Jonathan Reynolds Portrait Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:51 p.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as that allows me to put on record my tribute to the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, which runs the Eastwood nature reserve in Stalybridge. On the things that he has just mentioned, which I think we all agree with, does he agree that housing is perhaps the area that needs the biggest change? I see far too many generic, developer-led developments that have no relationship to the natural world around them. If we are serious about not just putting investment in, but changing how we do things, housing must be planned in a much better way with respect to the local environment. If we are serious about doing things such as garden villages, that could be the way, but I do not think the present approach will achieve the outcome he is quite ably describing.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:51 p.m.

My hon. Friend’s intervention takes us off into a different debate in some ways, but I absolutely agree with him. It is much to be regretted that the very high environmental standards for new build that were in place in 2010 are no longer there, but I am sure they can be restored—if not before Christmas, soon afterwards, perhaps.

I spoke before about long-term planning. While Wicken Fen may be looking 100 years ahead, I am not sure Parliament can look forward 100 hours at the moment, but we do need to commit to long-term natural restoration.

Tracey Crouch Portrait Tracey Crouch - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:52 p.m.

Can we put on the record the importance and value of roadside nature reserves, which are often forgotten in the dynamic environment we live in? Many of our wildlife trusts work alongside their local authorities to keep our roadside nature reserves wild and keep those species living in that protected environment, but there is no statutory requirement for local authorities to invest in them. It is important that we remember the value of roadside nature reserves in the context of this debate.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:53 p.m.

The hon. Lady must be a mind reader, because that is my very next point. She makes an important point, because, as I was going to say, beyond those big long-term projects, there are quite simple things that can be done locally or individually. That was drawn to my attention by Olivia Norfolk, of Anglia Ruskin University, who said that simple solutions in urban environments to encourage nature restoration, such as not mowing road verges, can be important. However, she also argued that, while we can all act ourselves, we need urgent systemic changes to the way we run the country, and we cannot continue to export our costs overseas.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:53 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman’s interchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) reminds me that when I served as Roads Minister in the 1980s, we planted over 1 million trees a year—they were not actually trees when they were planted, but many of them have grown into trees. Those nature reserves are very important, particularly if they can provide continuous habitat and corridors for animals to get around; it is not just about the foxes getting into town on the railways, but about providing a variety of planting that we do not often get in some managed forests.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:54 p.m.

I am grateful for that intervention. It must be a wonderful thing to be able to see that the trees that were planted then have now come to fruition. That is also an important point.

If we are to consider all these points alongside a future generations initiative, we need to make not only individual and cultural changes, but systemic, Government-led ones. Tom Maddox, of Natural Capital Hub and Flora & Fauna International, told me of the need to adopt a holistic approach, and in 2021—

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:54 p.m.

rose—

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:54 p.m.

I will just finish the sentence. In 2021, the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration starts—a huge opportunity. Let us beat the curve and adopt those radical and far-reaching changes now.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:54 p.m.

I apologise for interrupting. I thought there was a semi-colon there, but perhaps there was not. I know the hon. Gentleman is concerned about an outbreak of unanimity, so in case that should happen, can I put it to him that natural climate solutions must be supported, but only in addition to, not instead of, rapid emission reductions in every part of the economy? Does he share my concern that Heathrow airport, for example, is pushing a set of ideas about peatland restoration as part of its so-called carbon-neutral growth plans, but not changing business as usual? We must not use natural climate solutions as a way to avoid real carbon reduction.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:56 p.m.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady; I am sure there is no danger of complete unanimity breaking out when she is in the room. She is right that, when it comes to the issue of Heathrow, there is certainly not likely to be unanimity. That is an important point, because sometimes—I am not saying this about that particular project—it is pretty clear that there is some greenwashing going on, and we must always be mindful of that.

I turn to the Government and ask for a couple of commitments—first, clear leadership and a commitment to implementing nature restoration measures, rather than simply leaving them to the market, where simplistic short-term economic arguments too often win out. Yes, restoration can make absolute economic sense on a macro level, but individual actors need encouragement, education and direction on why they should change their behaviour. Targets and monitoring are vital there.

Secondly, as I suspect is often the way, I want to press for more ambition from the Government. The 25-year environment plan includes measures that would improve our natural environment, yes, but many would say that we should go much further. The commitment to restore 500,000 hectares, for example, is half what a single company has pledged in Indonesia. We should look at what others have pledged in the Bonn Challenge. The commitment to raise forest cover in England from 10% to 12% takes us from sixth lowest in Europe to eighth lowest, still behind Scotland and Wales. Most European countries have over one third of their land covered in forest. Belgium has a similar population density to us, but over twice the forest, so we can do more, and we can challenge ourselves further.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:57 p.m.

I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman pay tribute to the efforts of the Scottish Government, but does he agree that the efforts of organisations such as Network Rail hold them back? It is trying to cut down swathes of trees along the railway lines through my constituency, removing a nature corridor that is important to local people.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard

The hon. Lady is absolutely right and points to exactly the kind of trade-off that I was referring to. As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, I should be at this very moment questioning Mr Williams on this issue. She is right to draw attention to the many trees that are being destroyed.

Let me conclude with a voice from a future generation, because last week I received a letter from Maggie, a 10-year-old girl from a primary school in my constituency, and I would like to quote one or two of the things she said:

“Sir David Attenborough said that ‘nature recovery’ laws must be created to ensure ‘habitats are expanded and reconnected’. Please ask the Government to pass a law to protect our wildlife!”

She went on:

“Secondly, our wildlife is endangered by the plastic in the sea and us cutting down their homes. We also need to stop littering around our environment, fields and especially on the beach! To sum up, I need you to tell the government that they need to act now and my question for the government is: do you want to keep ruining animals’ lives, or do you want to save the animals and our world from climate change?”

I must say that in my political life I have rarely invoked Maggie, but today I hope the Minister will rise to the challenge of 21st-century Maggie and act to protect her, and our, future.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con) Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 4:58 p.m.

Thank you for calling me first on this side of the Chamber, Mr Hosie. I declare an interest, in that I am a member of the Conservative Environment Network, and before that I was a member of the Tory Green Initiative in the 1980s. My commitment to the environment is sincere.

I congratulate the constituents of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on their ingenuity in using a petition, which is a very unusual way of bringing their concerns to a Committee of the House, formed, as it is, of general Members. I hope that those constituents will feel satisfied with the response they receive today from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who has done so much in the field of the environment, long before he was promoted to be a Minister.

I congratulate the Government on what they have done so far, particularly on setting carbon limits, dealing with deforestation and their work on plastics. Last year, I was in India, in Bangalore, and I was astonished by the amount of plastics there. This autumn, I was in Delhi, and I saw very little plastic. I asked my host why, and he said that they had taken action in India, and that had made a decisive difference.

The issue of carbon emissions goes beyond the countryside, and it has to be faced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and others. During the Queen’s Speech debate, I drew it to the Health Secretary’s attention that the NHS’s carbon footprint in England is around 27 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents, and suggested to him that all new hospitals and health facilities in this country should take carbon footprint into account. The carbon footprint is high and it takes into account health service buildings, but we also have to look at the carbon footprint of healthcare services and medicines; the carbon footprint is measured without taking into consideration the pharmaceutical products provided as medicines.

I refer colleagues to an article published last year by Agence France-Presse, which said that large numbers of pharmaceuticals had been found at levels dangerous for wildlife and the environment. It said:

“River systems around world are coursing with over-the-counter and prescription drug waste,”

which is extremely harmful. If this trend persists, the amount of pharmaceutical effluence leaching into waterways could increase by two thirds before 2050, according to scientists speaking at the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna in April 2018. Francesco Bregoli, a researcher at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, said:

“A large part of the freshwater ecosystems is potentially endangered by the high concentration of pharmaceuticals”.

He said that a large number of drugs—analgesics, antibiotics, anti-platelet agents, hormones, psychiatric drugs and antihistamines—have been found at levels dangerous for wildlife. As part of a study, he focused on one drug, diclofenac, which both the European Union and the US Environmental Protection Agency have identified as an environmental threat; its veterinary use in India has driven a subspecies of vulture on the Indian subcontinent to the brink of extinction.

For scale, healthcare in the world’s largest economies, including China and India, accounts for 4% of global emissions, while carbon dioxide emissions from healthcare in the world’s largest economies account for about 5% of their national carbon footprints, according to a recent study. Scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany have said that climate change and medicines are inextricably linked, with rising global temperatures associated with everything from the spread of infectious diseases to the impact of dangerous weather events. They say that this is the major threat to human health of the 21st century.

Break in Debate

Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Portrait Zac Goldsmith - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 6:26 p.m.

In terms of zero-carbon medicine, I will struggle to give my hon. Friend a comprehensive answer, because I do not know much about that. As one of the biggest landowners in the country, however, there is a huge amount that the NHS could do. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned the Opposition’s plans to require the NHS to plant 1 million trees on NHS land. That would be just a start. As we build new buildings and expand the infrastructure of the NHS, we should do so in as close to a zero-carbon and nature-friendly way as possible.

The food that is supplied to patients in hospitals should be local, sustainable and good quality, as it is in a number of hospital trusts. The Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust wins the prize every year for the most sustainable, popular and healthy food by sourcing local ingredients. There is lots that the NHS can do, but I will have to get back to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) about zero-carbon medicines. I do not know a great deal about that area, but I will seek to find out more.

The Environment Bill also establishes spatial mapping and planning tools to help to inform nature recovery and, alongside the provisions in the Agriculture Bill, the actions and incentives that are needed to drive change on the ground. It establishes an office for environmental protection, with a statutory duty to hold the Government to account on our progress to improve the natural environment.

The cornerstone of our agricultural policy will be the environmental land management scheme that will replace the common agricultural policy and be a hugely powerful vehicle for delivering real change. Of everything that we have discussed, that could be the transformational policy in relation to our domestic biodiversity—if we get it right. It means that the payment of subsidies to farmers and landowners will become conditional on delivering public goods such as biodiversity, clean water, flood prevention and mitigation, and adaptation to climate change. It is potentially huge and I hope that the whole House will support it.

The Government are investing in restoring nature, at scale, at home and overseas, and we are providing leadership—I have no doubt about that. Given the scale of the problem that many hon. Members have outlined, however, I will not pretend that this or any Government are doing enough to respond to the crisis. I am absolutely determined that, as long as I am a Minister, and as long as I am in this place, we will do a great deal more. In the meantime, I urge hon. Members to support our Environment Bill and work with us through its passage, so that we can further protections for nature. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge again on his speech and on raising what is, perhaps, the most important issue of all.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 6:29 p.m.

On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed. It has been a very good debate; there has been a considerable amount of agreement. I will not single out many—I know that we are possibly close to time in the main Chamber—but I will mention my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for all the expertise that she has brought to this subject over many years. I was particularly taken with her comments on the messiness of nature, which is an important point.

Finally, I strongly echo the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on tackling the climate and ecological emergencies together—they are absolutely interlinked. I was delighted to hear from the Minister a pretty strong pledge on ending peat burning. I will be able to go back to my constituent, Maggie, and tell her that he agrees with her, and I am sure she will hold him to all the promises on which she sought reassurance.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 254607 relating to restoring nature and climate change.

Sitting adjourned.