Restoring Nature and Climate Change Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate

Restoring Nature and Climate Change

John McNally Excerpts
Monday 28th October 2019

(11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text
Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 5:35 p.m.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie, and to follow the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who has reminded me of some pleasant holidays in the New Forest. My wife always reminds me that I fell off a bike there—she will be delighted that that is now on the public record.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on his excellent introduction on behalf of the Petitions Committee. E-petitions have become a feature of this Parliament; they are an excellent way for the public to ensure that we hear their concerns and to press us to take action. It is fair to say that we have all received many representations on climate change in the past year or two, but today’s debate relates to a particular aspect that we have not touched on much. That shows that the climate emergency is moving up the agenda of the public’s priorities fast. In my view, we are not going far enough fast enough. How many of us can say that in our own lives we are doing all we can to tackle climate change?

Of course, change should come from the top. The Committee on Climate Change’s report in May led the UK to adopt a net zero target by 2050, but it also found that the Government are failing to prepare the country for the inevitable impact of climate change. That failure is putting our communities and infrastructure at risk. The consequences of our actions are with us already: over the past two decades, severe weather events across the country have cost an average of £1.5 billion a year—only this weekend, parts of Cheshire were subject to severe flooding. Those figures will be dwarfed in coming years by the overall cost and effect of climate change, including the cost to our environment and the human cost as swathes of land become uninhabitable all over the globe. If we do not take action now, the effects predicted in this country alone will include a trebling of heat deaths by 2050, far more frequent flooding, and food insecurity, which is a matter of national security. This is an emergency—and, of course, we may well be one of the more fortunate countries in respect of the impact of climate change.

We cannot and should not act alone, but that should not be an excuse for failing to take a lead. Why are we still financing fossil fuel projects overseas? According to Christian Aid, the UK Government are still spending more on fossil fuels than on renewable energy in developing countries. How does that set an example? It is not leadership. What does it say to the likes of China and India, whose CO2 emissions dwarf our own? Will our desperation to seal trade agreements with those countries—should we ever leave the EU—inhibit our ability to talk candidly with them about their need to change tack, too? I have a particular regard to the United States in that respect.

We know that our homes, our workplaces and other infrastructure need to be prepared for unavoidable climate impacts, yet the Committee’s report also tells us that the Government funding to help to support regions, businesses and individuals has ceased.

There has been a failure to start the critical conversations that we need to have with the public about the changes to behaviour that are necessary. In those circumstances, how will we really be able to equip our communities to meet the challenges of reducing carbon emissions and removing carbon from our atmosphere?

We know that natural climate solutions, and carbon capture and storage, can play a very important role in getting us to net zero. Rewilding and other natural climate solutions can be used to draw potentially millions of tonnes of CO2 out of the air, and to restore and protect our living systems. Indeed, new research estimates that a worldwide planting programme could remove two thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities. Of course, to do that we need to really prioritise the environment.

There was a manifesto pledge from the Conservatives during the last election to plant 11 million trees. I do not know whether the Minister can update us on the figures today, but I think we are some way short of that at the moment. Also, tree planting targets have been missed every year since they were set in 2013. Tree planting in England fell short of targets in the last year, with less than 1,500 hectares of the Government’s planned 5,000 hectares being planted with trees. Only 13% of the UK’s land area is covered by trees, which is well below the figure for other European countries; on average, the figure is about 35% across Europe. So, 13% simply will not be good enough to meet the challenges we face.

We often trade numbers across the main Chamber: the number of operations carried out, the number of homes built or the number of police officers that we have. Perhaps the real sign of change here will be when we begin to trade insults over the number of trees being planted by each Government. That would be a real sign that there was a genuine commitment on both sides of the House to take this issue seriously.

That is why campaigners are calling the Government’s progress on this matter “painfully slow” and are calling for a new strategy to enable the Government target to be met. The Woodland Trust has called for much greater Government support and I echo that call. I am pleased that my own party has pledged to be more ambitious. I refer to the pledge made last month by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that a Labour Government would plant a million trees in hospitals throughout the UK, which is a very innovative and interesting way to look at things. Some departmental leads could be taken on this matter, too.

I was also pleased to put my name to a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) in support of the Northern Forest. Again, that is an initiative spearheaded by the Woodland Trust that aims to plant 50 million trees in the north of England. It is said that this Northern Forest would generate around £2.5 billion of social, economic and environmental benefits, which would be at least a fivefold return on investment. That sounds like a win-win situation to me and I hope we can all support it.

In addition to these ambitious plans, I am pleased that the Labour party has pledged to ban all harmful pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, which we believe pose a serious risk of harm to honey bees and other pollinators. We should not underestimate the importance of wildflowers to the ecosystem; we know that if we do not get them right, there is a risk to the entire food chain.

In that regard, I congratulate my local authority, Cheshire West and Chester Council, on work that it has been doing in respect of bulb planting and allowing certain sections of the highway verges to grow wild. The aesthetics of that certainly work for me; it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it adds a bit of colour and a bit of pollen to the ecosystem, which is something we can all learn from.

One of the chief recommendations of the Thirty by 2030 report, which was launched last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), the shadow Business Secretary, was sourcing 90% of electricity from renewables and low-carbon sources by 2030. This includes greater use of carbon capture and storage, with a goal of expanding it to become a “significant component” of the energy mix by the late 2020s.

On that front, I was pleased to learn about a carbon capture usage and storage initiative for the north-west that is based in my own constituency. The HyNet proposals would be based on the key industrial cluster around the Mersey estuary, alongside state-of-the-art hydrogen production in the long run. About 5% of the UK’s energy output comes from this area, due to the high concentration of energy-intensive industry there, but its location also brings with it an opportunity, because there is the ability to repurpose the Liverpool Bay oilfield and gasfield infrastructure, to divert around 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year into those oilfields. That would be the equivalent of taking 600,000 cars off the road. Ultimately, these proposals have the potential to take over 10 million tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere each year, which would make a huge contribution to reducing our emissions.

The plan would also have economic benefits. It has the potential to create around 5,000 jobs between now and 2025. The key is to finalise business models quickly, to bring forward some of the first stages of industrial development, so that we can start to realise the impressive ambitions for this project that a range of local players has come forward to try to realise.

I believe that these plans have a big role to play, not only in carbon capture but in taking us away from CO2 and getting our economy more involved in hydrogen. I hope that we can discuss with the relevant Ministers—they are probably Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Ministers, rather than the Minister before us today—how we can bring that plan forward as soon as possible.

I believe that this country has an opportunity to become a world leader in climate solutions, but that can be achieved only by strengthening policy to deliver emissions reductions across all levels of Government, including across Departments. Delivery must be regarded as being much more urgently needed, and we can also do our part at other levels of Government.

Let us take the example of planning, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) referred to. Planning is not normally a party political battleground, but I believe that, if used innovatively, it could drive forward this agenda. I have long held the view that we should be doing an awful lot more to require developers to future-proof developments in terms of not only the environment, but climate risk. However, we should not just look at the bricks and mortar of the homes; we should look at how estates are designed.

Planning decisions made decades ago can still affect things now. I say that because on some of the estates built in the 1960s I see how the trees planted as young saplings have grown out of all proportion to the surrounding houses. Such trees are often too unwieldy to be of use, and they can damage surrounding properties with their roots, which have to be cut. Then, the tree has to be cut down. Also, some trees become diseased. So, this is an issue on which, in future, we could probably show a little more forethought.

Let us make sure not only that developments being built now have a minimum number of trees planted in their common areas, but that the trees planted will grow in sympathy with their surroundings. Let us think about what those trees will look like in 20 or 30 years. Also, there is no good reason for new industrial developments or office blocks not to have trees and plants designed into their layout.

When we consider new developments, let us look at transport too, because that is a key factor. There is evidence that improved bus networks can reduce carbon emissions. A fully loaded double-decker bus can take, on average, 75 cars off the road, based on average vehicle occupancy for both buses and cars; one bus can move 10 times as many people as a car can.

The benefits of a renaissance in bus travel are very clear in reducing CO2, but I wonder whether the people setting climate policy in London really understand that it is not quite as easy to get around on public transport in the rest of the country. Try getting a bus after 6 pm in my constituency, or on a Sunday, and it soon becomes apparent that if someone’s shift pattern is not 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, they need a car for work. So, we absolutely need to boost local bus services, which will help us to tackle CO2 emissions.

I am sad to say that previous generations of politicians have failed to appreciate the enormity of what we now face. We are sleepwalking into a climate catastrophe, and unless we begin to face up to the fact that carbon reduction needs to be done now, we will be the last generation to enjoy the benefits of industrialisation and we will impose on the next generation the consequences of our indolence.

This debate is not about some theoretical future prospect; it is about something that is happening now. We see it all around us, and around the world, with increased fires, droughts and cyclones. The warnings from the scientists are crystal-clear: unless we begin to tackle these issues with urgency, we will only see more of these climatic events. We should not hesitate to call this an emergency. People say words can be spoken in here that do not really change anything, and maybe at the moment they have a point, but we must show people that we can do better and that we have a real commitment from the heart of Government to tackle climate change. A substantial British green new deal should be central to that. It would reduce emissions, create employment and show the rest of the world that economic benefit and climate benefit are not mutually exclusive.

We need to recognise that we are here now because there have been several centuries of relentless pursuit of economic growth without thought for the environmental consequences. There have been so many advances made in that time that it would be wrong to suggest that economic growth is a bad thing, but it is no longer tenable to consider economic advancement in isolation. The scale of the challenge we face from climate change should lead us to say that restoring nature is as much an economic imperative as a moral one.

John McNally Portrait John Mc Nally (Falkirk) (SNP) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 5:50 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on presenting today’s topical debate and on taking so many interventions with great patience. I want to declare a non-financial interest: I am a member of the Communities Along the Carron Association project in the Falkirk area and the Community Green Initiative. If we are still here next week, I want to invite Members to attend an inaugural all-party group on youth climate action on 5 November at 12 noon. I cannot remember exactly where it is. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who mentioned the importance of peat bogs. Scotland has the largest peat bog in Europe, and we cherish its magnificence and beauty.

“Restore nature on a massive scale to help stop climate breakdown” is a straightforward petition, and the petitioners are to be congratulated on their clarity of purpose and their aims. Who would not agree with such an ambition? A world conversion is taking place across the planet. We are at a pivotal moment in time, and the UK Government must realise the importance of the petition. The presence of MPs attending this debate tonight emphasises the importance of the petition. It calls for the UK Government to financially and politically commit to supporting natural climate solutions that can draw millions of tonnes of CO2 from the air.

The UK Government support the need to combat deforestation and to promote sustainable forests. All the evidence before us shows that urgency is required to face this climate and biodiversity emergency head-on. All Governments have to ask difficult questions, but the question is very simple: are we to allow a crisis that hits the poorest people and countries the hardest? To continue to do so would surely be a sin, and the answer has to be a resounding no.

Why, therefore, do we undermine international climate finance contributions by UK actions elsewhere? For example, in last week’s debate I mentioned that the UK consumes 3.3 million tonnes of soy per year, taking it from the lungs of the world—the rainforest and Amazon regions—for animal feed. The UK could take steps to stop that practice immediately. Will the Minister tell us exactly what the UK Government are doing to address that unsustainable practice?

I want to move on to what Scotland is doing. The Scottish Government are determined to lead by example by measuring and enhancing our own natural capital. By doing so, we will benefit the ecosystems and people of our own country, and we will do our bit to help the environment and wellbeing of the wider world. Scotland’s biodiversity is at the heart of a thriving, sustainable Scotland. Initiatives worth mentioning are the marine protected areas and the introduction of white-tailed eagles. Beavers are now flourishing in Scotland. Scotland is taking a leading role in reducing carbon emissions and promoting one of the most ambitious climate change strategies of any country in the world.

Studies suggest that the elements of Scotland’s natural capital that can be given a monetary value are worth more than £20 billion each year to our economy, supporting more than 60,000 jobs. The Environmental and Resource Economics project report for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency concluded that the economic value of ecosystem services can be estimated at between £21.5 billion and £23 billion per year to Scotland. Those are staggering figures. Many of Scotland’s growth sectors, such as tourism and food and drink depend on high quality air, land and water. The Office for National Statistics figures reported the equivalent of 21,500 full-time jobs in Scotland’s low-carbon economy, showing that strong emission reductions are fully compatible with an economically thriving nation.

Scotland has met its target of 11,200 hectares of new tree planting—a significant increase on 2017—and plans to increase the target further in 2024 from 10,000 to 15,000 hectares. The new legislative framework is the toughest, most ambitious in the world, with the new 75% target for 2030 going far beyond what the IPCC special report says is needed globally to prevent warming of more than 1.5°. Our end target of net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045 is five years ahead of the rest of the UK, and is firmly based on what the Committee on Climate Change advised is the limit of what can currently be achieved.

Being mindful of other issues and unafraid to face up to difficult questions, poor air quality remains an issue in numerous towns and cities in Scotland. Effective change is needed now so that all of us can breathe clean air and lead healthy lives in the future. The Scottish Government’s ambition is that Scotland’s air quality should be the best in Europe. As part of the Cleaner Air for Scotland governance group, we have incorporated the British Heart Foundation, which will help to bring a fresh perspective to the issue.

To conclude, we are encouraging a reduction of energy use and promoting better choices to prevent harmful emissions, and protecting what nature has to offer. All of us have to face up to possible risks to the environment now and in the future. Any lowering of environmental standards post-Brexit will not be tolerated in Scotland.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 5:56 p.m.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for introducing the debate so well. He spoke with passion in his calm-mannered speech, and many of the points he raised set us up nicely for what was a good debate on all sides of the Chamber.

It is quite common for there to be consensus across all parties in Westminster Hall. If only BBC Parliament and the news channels showed more of what goes on here and less of what goes on in the main Chamber, people would see politics at its best. Many of the debates that take place here get into the detail and intricacies. They encourage Ministers to look at the details that matter, not just the soundbites. When we look at rewilding and restoring nature, it is in many cases the detail that matters. It is easy to put big picture phraseologies around how we want to restore and rewild nature—let us insert a very large number of trees and say we will plant this—but it is the detail and delivery that makes a really big difference.

It has been said by colleagues on both sides of the Chamber that climate change is real. In Parliament, businesses, local government and in all our communities, we are confronted by a pressing question: since Parliament has declared a climate emergency, what are you doing differently? If the answer is nothing, as frequently it is, that is not a good enough answer. When it comes to restoring nature, it means not only looking at how we reverse the biodiversity loss in rural areas, but how we reverse it in urban areas as well. It is about what role our brilliant local councils can play, as well as central Government. It is about businesses, voluntary groups, the third sector, and co-operatives and mutuals as well. There are lots of challenges and it is up to each and every one of us to do something.

That is why, when the shadow DEFRA team talks about the climate emergency, my hon. Friends the Members for Workington (Sue Hayman) and for Stroud (Dr Drew) are always keen to mention the phrase that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) used in her remarks: this is a climate and ecological emergency. If we focus solely on carbon, we will miss part of the debate. That is why we need to look at habitat loss, biodiversity loss, the problems with our soil and so much more besides.

The issue matters to all of us, no matter where we live. We know that catastrophe awaits us if we do not act sooner. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned, we are already seeing the effects now. If we do not drastically cut the amount of carbon we produce, the result will be sea level rises, extreme weather, population movements, and large parts of our planet—our home—becoming inhospitable and unliveable. There will also be greater biodiversity loss, habitat loss and the extinction of countless animal, insect, fish and plant species.

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

Indeed, while the debate has been going on, according to the latest biodiversity loss figures we will have lost a couple of species around the world. That shows just how pressing the matter is. Many of those species might not be household names. We had good debates on the ivory ban, in which the Minister played a part, regarding the loss of some flagship species—the elephant and the rhino—due to hunting activities. However, as we saw in the debate about the loss of insects led by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), small insects that many of us will not know the names of are just as important to our environment.

That is why it is good that so many Members have spoken about why rewilding is good. My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East and for Ellesmere Port and Neston, and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) talked about activities in their constituencies, highlighting best practice. Other Members discussed the big themes. I was very glad that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) mentioned green walls in schools and roadside planting. Frequently, it is not just about big schemes; small things add up as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) said that we need to have more nature-based solutions, which is at the heart of what we are talking about. Frequently, we get very good language, but not enough action follows. That is why we need to say that rewilding and restoring nature is good, and we should promote it much more. It is a really important part of a nature-led solution to the climate and ecological emergency.

The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North spoke passionately about the importance of trees, and Opposition Members made contributions about the variety of trees as well. We need not only to plant more trees, but to ensure that the species that we plant do not contribute to a mono-species environment in which it is harder for insects, birdlife and other plants to thrive. We need to have a mixed approach because, in some cases, not ordering a million trees of the same species makes it slightly more expensive. However, ordering different species is what creates a truly unique environment, and we know from the research that planting multiple species alongside each other sequesters more carbon and provides a home for more animal species than having tree species of the same variety in the same location. When we talk about tree planting, we need to ensure that we are talking about true diversity.

The Government say a lot of good words on tree planting. Indeed, their manifesto commitment to plant so many trees, as my hon. Friend for Ellesmere Port and Neston mentioned, was positive. It is a shame that we have not seen action on it. I know that the Minister will not accept any greenwash in his Department, but unfortunately, we have lately had very bold soundbites and very poor delivery on tree planting. I would be grateful if the Minister set out how he intends to reverse that.

Sequestering carbon in our forests is really important. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East spoke about the importance of, and the opportunity to, sequester so much more in our natural environment, which could come from a potential change in agricultural setting. I look forward to the introduction of the Agriculture Bill and, as the shadow Minister for fisheries, that of the Fisheries Bill. Those two very important Bills have been hamstrung by the Brexit paralysis, but we need them because of the impact on our natural environment and on coastal and rural communities.

Many Members spoke about the importance of rewetting our peat bogs and preventing the burning of our grouse moors. My party launched that policy during the summer, and I spent an entire day at BBC Plymouth talking to different radio shows and TV stations about why moving driven grouse shooting and changing the economy and approach surrounding it could create additional biodiversity in those rural areas.

That approach works not only on driven grouse shooting, but on rewilding other forms of our natural environment. It is important to make the case not just for a rural environment, but for an urban and rural environment. We need to enhance biodiversity in all settings. As the majority of our population live in urban environments, it is important that our activities as individuals can take place in the areas where we live, not just the areas we want to visit or that we might think of when we talk about natural environments.

The right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), who is unfortunately no longer in the Chamber, very boldly called for a policy for water. Indeed, the Government’s policies for water are far too managerial when it comes to our response to climate change. I encourage the new Minister to give his Department a little kick in that area, because there is an opportunity to go much further. The over-extraction of water from our chalk streams, for instance, rightly carries an awful lot of headlines. Severe damage is being done to our chalk streams, and it is not just fantastic figures such as Feargal Sharkey who campaign in those areas. Local groups right across our chalk stream communities are really concerned about what is happening in those precious and unique environments. We need to do so much more about that.