Restoring Nature and Climate Change Debate

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Kerry McCarthy

Main Page: Kerry McCarthy (Labour) - Bristol East)

Restoring Nature and Climate Change

Kerry McCarthy Excerpts
Monday 28th October 2019

(11 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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David Tredinnick Hansard

I certainly would. Representing Bosworth, a hosiery and knitwear constituency in the midlands, I have spent much of the last 30 years in the House—not quite as long as the hon. Gentleman, I think, from memory—looking at the problem of phosphorescent dyes, which are very popular in the clothing industry, getting into sewage works and water streams. Of course I would be happy to become involved in that.

I turn to the importance of the UK’s having a sustainable healthcare policy. At the moment, one third of the world’s population already has, in part, a sustainable healthcare system. The two most populous countries in the world are, colleagues will recall, China and India; China has a population of 1.4 billion and India has a population of 1.3 billion. I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the challenge for us in this country is to develop—or to take forward from their small base—zero-carbon medicines and healthcare. We cannot ignore this subject.

China has 65,000 hospitals that use zero-carbon treatments in the shape of acupuncture. They also use traditional Chinese herbal medicine, which has a carbon footprint close to zero. I have to say to my right hon. Friend that India is light years ahead. Not only does it have a family health Ministry; it has the Ministry of AYUSH—the Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy, which is a sustainable health Ministry that is very much supported by Prime Minister Modi, who has just been elected for another five years. The Ministry has seen its budget increase four times in the last six years.

I say to my right hon. Friend that it is a mystery to me why the authorities in this country—the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, NHS England and, to a certain extent, the Department of Health and Social Care—do not look far afield beyond our country and take note of what is happening in other parts of the world. NICE decided to query the effectiveness of acupuncture, a zero-carbon treatment, for lower back pain. In January, I asked its chief executive, Sir Andrew Dillon, whether he had looked at evidence from China. He said no, on cost grounds; admittedly, NICE’s budget has been reduced. However, that is a mistake; we should look further afield.

Today, the head of NHS England, Simon Stevens, made a blanket attack on homeopaths over the issue of vaccinations. I personally support the Daily Mail campaign for vaccinations, which is a good campaign. What I think is mistaken is to attack a movement. Again, we need to look abroad, at what happens in India, bearing in mind that homeopathy—I will not dwell on it for long—is a zero-carbon treatment. Some would say that there is nothing there in homeopathy, but in Delhi there are 6,000 homeopathy clinics and 15,000 registered practitioners; 80% are doctors with five years’ training. I went to a clinic in Calcutta that is treating 2,000 patients a day in the off-season, with 100 doctors on duty each day. I really think that we should look at this.

I will finish on homeopathy on this point. In the whole of India, there are 300,000 homeopathic practitioners, a quarter of a million of whom are doctors with five years’ training. How can it be that at a time of environmental crisis and the shocking carbon footprint of the health service, we are not taking this, the second largest medical system in the world, seriously? I have to say that I think the head of our health service, Simon Stevens, has been very badly advised, and I say the same to Andrew Dillon. I think they have been badly advised. They should get out there and see what is happening in the rest of the world and bury their prejudices.

I met and would like to thank Shripad Naik, the Minister in charge of AYUSH; Dr Rajesh Kotecha, his Secretary; and Pramod Pathak, the Additional Secretary, for the courtesy extended to me when I visited the Ministry on a week-long tour of facilities in India. I am most grateful to them and I wish them well as they look after their 700,000 practitioners, 700 teaching institutions and 200 postgraduate institutions; manage an annual intake on degree courses of 46,000 students and an annual intake on postgrad courses of 6,000; and look after 28,000 dispensaries and 9,000 Government manufacturing units. They provide six practitioners per 10,000 of population. That is what we should be looking at.

Colleagues wish to speak, and I certainly do not want to monopolise the time this afternoon. I suggest that we have to broaden the scope of our environmental thinking to look at the whole issue of healthcare. I have seen this elsewhere and I do think that we need to think about zero-carbon treatments and zero-carbon medicines. They are out there, used by one third of the world’s population. We need to wise up, as my kids say—“Daddy, wise up.” We need to take note that three babies a day are born addicted to opioid drugs. We need to realise that the new antibiotics that we need are not coming online fast enough. We have to go back to the future, if I may quote Alvin Toffler—I think it was him—and look for new solutions in 4,000-year-old medical systems. If we do, we will have a happier, healthier world, with a better carbon footprint.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 5:13 p.m.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. The parliamentary authorities are doing their bit to combat global warming by not having the heating on today—I sent for my cardigan, so I will survive.

The hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) made an interesting speech. His was a slightly imaginative interpretation, perhaps, of the subject of the petition, but I say to him that the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I serve, is, as part of its greening government inquiry, looking at the environmental footprint of the NHS estates. Some of those issues are coming up as part of that inquiry. I think that all areas of Government need to look at how they can reduce their carbon footprint.

The petition under discussion today had 405 signatories from Bristol East. Many of my constituents are passionate about this issue. I am very pleased that we are now talking about rewilding as a natural climate solution. It can draw millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. I agree, though, with what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said: we need to look at both sides of the coin. I find when I take part in debates such as this and particularly when I talk about agriculture and its footprint—we had a debate in this Chamber three weeks ago about deforestation of the Amazon—that there can often be a focus on the positive side, with people saying, “Let’s restore our soil; let’s plant lots of trees,” but not addressing the fact that huge amounts of destruction are going on. There is not much point in planting trees if, with the other hand, we are destroying the Amazon to grow soya for livestock feed or whatever.

Mr Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Sheerman - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 5:15 p.m.

Do we actually have to go to the Amazon on this issue? A leading professor at the University of Cambridge, Professor Steve Evans, who is a great friend of mine, believes that soil degradation here at home, and worldwide, is probably the greatest challenge that we face at the moment. I am talking about what we actually grow our plants and trees in.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 5:15 p.m.

Yes, soil is a huge issue. The Environmental Audit Committee did a very good inquiry on it a few years ago, and the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming, which I chair, did a three-part inquiry. One of the amendments that I tried to get into the Agriculture Bill, with the list of public money for public goods, was to say that better soil health ought to be identified as a particular public good. The response of the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who was responsible for farming, was that it was covered by the broader list and the Government did not want to be too specific, but now that the Agriculture Bill—well, who knows whether the Agriculture Bill is coming back? Who knows whether we will even be here tomorrow, let alone in time for the Agriculture Bill to come back? But I would like to see the point to which I have referred spelled out more specifically and in the Environment Bill, too.

As the petition stated, we need to act fast to avoid a climate emergency. Reducing carbon emissions alone will not be enough to keep the heating of the planet below 1.5°C. We also need to find ways of removing carbon from the atmosphere, and nature is our greatest ally in doing that. Evidence suggests that natural climate solutions could provide more than one third of the greenhouse gas mitigation required globally between now and 2030, yet natural solutions currently receive only 2.5% of the funding spent globally on cutting emissions. The lack of focus on natural solutions is indicative of the wider lack of action on reversing the ecological crisis over the past 40 years.

Alex Sobel Portrait Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 5:17 p.m.

On that point and on the earlier point about deforestation, here at home peat bogs play a hugely important role in carbon sequestration. Should not the Government invest more in restoring peat bogs in the UK?

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy - Hansard
28 Oct 2019, 5:19 p.m.

Yes, that is really important. I think that there should be a ban on the burning of blanket bogs. I will have something to say about grouse moors in a moment. Another issue is peat in horticultural products. There has been quite a campaign to stop that, and I know that quite a lot of gardeners would support that. That is all part and parcel of this.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found that 1 million species

“already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken”.

It is a very sad fact that the UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world: it is ranked 189th out of 218, with a 41% species decline since 1970. Many of us are species champions; I am the parliamentary swift species champion. I know that other people are doing very good work on that front, and it is now more on the political agenda, but it is still shocking how much damage has been done in recent decades.

It is clear that nature is struggling against climate change, habitat loss, pollution and intensive farming, but we can turn that around radically by changing the way we manage land. Rewilding is the only solution that offers the opportunity to tackle the climate and ecological emergencies together. The benefits of rewilding our peatlands, heathlands, grasslands, woodlands, saltmarshes, wetlands and coastal waters are diverse. That would lock away carbon, clean air and water, reconnect us with nature, protect communities at risk of flooding, revitalise wildlife, restore our soil and support new economic opportunities.

In preparation for this speech, I read an article in The Spectator by the Minister’s brother, Ben Goldsmith, that was titled “The triumphant return of the British beaver”. He was saying that some people say, “Well, beavers are a bit messy, aren’t they?” This is the same sort of thing that we were talking about in relation to grass verges. I have some constituents who say, “Now that the grass in the parks and along the roadsides isn’t cut to within a centimetre of its life, it looks a bit messy with all this stuff growing,” but that is what nature ought to look like. Ben Goldsmith, in response to people saying that beavers make a bit of a mess, said:

“Considering that the majority of our land is stripped, cultivated, tidied and managed by humans, surely we can…allow nature a bit of free rein along our watercourses.”

That underpins this debate. Nature ought to be allowed to do what nature does. It should not be controlled and tidied out of existence.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) mentioned peatland. We are lucky to have 13% of the world’s peatland in the UK, but the habitat is suffering: 80% has been damaged by drainage, extraction, burning or overgrazing. As a result, the equivalent of the emissions of 660,000 UK households are released each year. This natural resource can take carbon out of the atmosphere, but because of the way we treat it, it is releasing more emissions. The Government should ban the extraction and burning of peat immediately. Extraction for compost releases almost half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which is the equivalent of 100,000 cars on the road, so why do we always talk about cars, but not how domestic gardening is causing a problem?

Voluntary targets to phase out horticultural peat are not being met and it is over a year and a half since the Government said progress was insufficient. It is now time for action. Rewilding our peatlands is a no-brainer: it sequesters significant amounts of carbon, provides clean water and reduces flooding. Several years ago, I went to flood-hit areas with my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). Anyone who has been there can see the impact of the burning of the moors on the catchment area. It makes sense to look after our peatlands and plant trees.

Some critics of the rewilding agenda say that there is a choice between feeding ourselves and nature, and that turning more land over to rewilding, rather than using it for agriculture, will mean that we lose out in food security. However, the least productive marginal land often provides the best options for carbon sequestration, rewilding and other ecosystems services. We already have large areas of land that produce little food, which could be used to store vast amount of carbon. Grouse moor estates cover around 1.3 million hectares of England, Scotland and Wales. Deer stalking estates account for around 1.8 million hectares in Scotland. These estates are commonly located on degraded peatlands, currently managed at high environmental cost, using practices such as burning, for the benefit of a relatively tiny number of shooters. We need to reassess our priorities and take a more strategic approach to the use of that land.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on agroecology for sustainable food and farming, which does excellent work on this agenda. The Minister was, before his elevation to greater things, one of the vice chairs of the APPG. Rewilding must be accompanied by a wider transition to nature and climate-friendly farming. The Knepp estate is a good example of how that works.

It is well documented that the intensification of farming since the second world war has left less and less space for nature in the UK. To turn that around, the Government ought to commit to a transition to sustainable agroecological farming by 2030. That is supported by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. The Government must also commit to net zero emissions from agriculture by 2040 and reverting parcels of arable land, particularly the third that is used for animal feed, to permanent grassland, which has high levels of soil, carbon and biodiversity value.

I mentioned that the Agriculture Bill’s approach of public money for public goods is a step in the right direction, but it needs to be more ambitious. If £1.9 billion of the £3 billion currently spent on common agricultural policy payments were allocated to supporting native woodland re-establishment, and the restoration and protection of peat bogs, heaths and the species rich grasslands over a total of 6 million hectares, that could mean sequestering 47 million tonnes of CO2 a year, which is more than one tenth of current UK greenhouse gas emissions.

As I mentioned, we cannot think of natural solutions only on a domestic level. The UK should play its part on the world stage by ensuring that all UK aid is nature-positive. I know that the Minister, in his role as Minister for the Department for International Development, thinks that is important. We need to support more integrated interventions that improve people’s lives and enhance the natural environment. We need to stop harmful investments that destroy nature and contribute to climate change, such as the deforestation of the Amazon. We need to look at how our consumption patterns here are harming the environment overseas.

We need to negotiate an ambitious deal with people and nature at the Convention on Biological Diversity next October. We need to look at other countries that are leading by example on rewilding. Ethiopia planted more than 350 million trees in one day in July—God knows how they managed that, but that is what they did—with the aim of planting 4 billion in the next year. We should seek to follow that scale of ambition.

To conclude, the UK has the chance to become a world leader in natural climate solutions, but we need financial commitments from the Government. Markets alone will not solve the climate and ecological crisis. Next week, assuming we will still be here, the Government have the chance to prove their commitment—actually, this refers to the Budget, which is definitely not happening next week. At some point in the near future, hopefully, if there is not an election, the Government have the chance to prove their commitment, by guaranteeing at least £2.9 billion for the new environmental land management scheme in the Budget, as called for by the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the wildlife trusts, whenever that happens. It could also reverse the 42% funding fall as a percentage of GDP for biodiversity conservation since 2008.

Finally, taking a different approach to the way land is managed is as important as high-tech solutions to address climate breakdown. I have heard the Minister of State for Climate Change and Industry talk about weird technological advances that would suck carbon out of the air. I do not see why we need to do that when trees and peat bogs can do the job for us.

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.