Restoring Nature and Climate Change Debate

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Restoring Nature and Climate Change

Justin Madders Excerpts
Monday 28th October 2019

(11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Ind) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 5:26 p.m.

It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon and to follow the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who serves on the Environmental Audit Committee. When I first came to this place, I served on that Committee alongside the Minister, and we spent many a jolly afternoon debating a wide range of subjects and conducting various inquiries.

I fear this speech may become a march around my constituency. In the words of the chief executive of Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, Debbie Tan, we must look to local solutions. The national picture is crucial, but in each of our constituencies we can ensure that there are good and important projects.

I want to focus on trees. A fortnight ago, Extinction Rebellion came to Westminster and provided each of us with a tree. Perhaps it was not wholly sustainable, being in a single-use plastic pot. None the less, I was struck by the image in Portcullis House of Birnam wood coming to Dunsinane, as these walking trees were paraded through the building. The humble oak tree, a fantastic symbol of our countryside, is one of the best carbon reservoirs we could have. I was disappointed that afternoon to get a beech tree rather than an oak, but I proudly took it home and ensured it was planted in my constituency. The oak tree lives and grows for 200 years, which is why it is important that we plant all the time, ensuring there is a replenished stock.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) mentioned the Department of Health and Social Care being an important partner with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when it comes to the environment, but we must also look to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, because it has a crucial role in ensuring that our natural environment works hand in hand with the built environment, so we can address the challenge of climate change. I am blessed to represent a heavily treed constituency, but there are many instances of historic oak trees being chopped down, despite having tree preservation orders. There is relentless pressure to build more houses in areas where there is a conflict between nature and the built environment. Valley Park Woodlands are hard up against the 3,000 or so houses built in Valley Park.

Given the pressure that exists, there has to be a balance; that is what much of this debate is about. Of course, we have to provide houses, but we have to ensure that they are in the right place and that there is access to the natural environment so that people can enjoy the special areas that need to be preserved, or simply have somewhere to walk the dog. Those things do not always fit together very easily—walking the dog in an SSSI is never a good idea. There are many examples in my constituency of pressures on Ramsar protected sites such as those in the New Forest, as well as places such as Emer Bog in North Baddesley. It is about providing the right facilities.

I spent 10 years as my local authority’s cabinet member for leisure. At the end of that time, we were heavily in negotiations with the local landowner to take possession of an area called Fishlake Meadows. The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust now describes the area as a

“glimpse of how the Test Valley would have looked over 2000 years ago…a dynamic, shifting swathe of ponds, lakes, reedbed, willow scrub and fen grassland”,

but 20 years ago it was farmed agricultural land—it was drained, planted and ploughed for food that we clearly did not require. It is a much healthier environment now that it has been given back to nature and is functioning exactly as it should: as a flood prevention area for the town of Romsey and as a place where ospreys, otters and kingfishers can thrive. It is all about ensuring that we have the right resources in place to support the land. Hon. Members have spoken about nature being “tidied up”, but when we took possession of Fishlake Meadows, it was at a tipping point. If it had been left any longer, the balance would have tipped towards those invasive species that are not wholly desirable, and bringing it back to the point it is at today would have been a much harder job.

I wish to pick up on comments made about farming. It is important to reflect that agriculture can have an important role for good. Last Friday, I had a visit on my schedule to Broughton Water Buffalo in my constituency. Who would have thought that Indian water buffalo provided so much good to the Hampshire countryside? They are farmed completely sustainably, fed only on grass and moved on to different pasture every day. The hay that they eat in winter is grown on the farm, where more than 15,000 trees have been planted in the past few years. That is an example of how local farmers can play a fantastic role in ensuring that the environment is at the forefront and climate change is uppermost in their thinking when they decide how to get a return from their land and protect it at the same time. Unfortunately, the weather in Hampshire was too miserable for me to be able to go, but it is certainly high on my list of priorities. Who knows? We may all have an opportunity in the next few weeks to disappear back to our constituencies and stomp around in our wellies to our heart’s content.

My final point is about volunteering. It has been suggested that volunteers might be inclined to “tidy up”, but actually in both Valley Park Woodlands and Fishlake Meadows a fantastic relationship has built up with the local communities and the local university—Southampton University, which I am blessed to have on the very edge of my constituency. In many instances, it is students who have been on the forefront of ensuring that nature is not tidied up, but enhanced and given the opportunity to thrive as we all want it to.

The Minister will know that part of my constituency is on the edge of the New Forest. We have heard a great deal about the reservoir of CO2 that peat bogs can provide; peat has not been burned in the New Forest for many a long year, but there are still instances where it is dug, quite illegally, so the national park authority has a massive role to play in ensuring that laws are adhered to and peat bogs are restored and maintained. Again, that can provide some conflict. I had better declare an interest as a member of—I am going to get the name wrong—not the New Forest Pony Breeding and Cattle Society, but one of the other horsey societies in the New Forest. There is a real conflict between draining the peat bogs, which riders would love because it would give us wider access to the forest, and the crucial need to ensure for nature’s sake that that does not happen and that peat bogs and mires are managed correctly.

Many hon. Members who have spoken in our debate were recognised a fortnight ago with species champion awards. I will make a quick pitch for the species that I champion: the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, which I gather is the pollinator that has recovered most over the past 12 months. I would like to pretend that that is the result of some great breeding programme of mine, but sadly it is not; it is the result of our warm summers and the efforts of landowners to ensure that the habitats for that extremely endangered butterfly are kept as they should be. In yet another example of how farming can work hand in hand with nature, it is coppiced hazel that provides the best environment for that butterfly. It is important that forestry management continues, but it needs to continue in a way that enables species and, crucially, pollinators to thrive.

I have probably said enough. I very much welcome our recognition of the crucial role that nature can play in sucking up CO2. In the words of the hon. Member for Bristol East, we do not need any great technology to do that; trees can do it for us.

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.