[Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered global biodiversity.
A number of colleagues have applied to speak in this debate, but unfortunately they cannot all be here today to take part. In particular, Zac Goldsmith—I think we can refer to him by name at this stage—is unable to be with us today. However, since he originally applied to speak in the debate, I thought it would be nice to record that. I am also grateful to colleagues who have signed early-day motion 624 on global biodiversity to support this debate today. If other colleagues have not yet had the opportunity to sign that early-day motion, I would be grateful if they did so.
The catalyst for this debate was new research, conducted by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, that shows that the global wildlife population fell by more than half between 1970 and 2012. According to the report, global populations of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles have declined by 58% since 1970. Within that figure, the fish population declined by 36% and mammals by 38%, but the biggest decline, at 81%, was in the amphibians population, which shows how vulnerable they are to the challenges that we face, not least climate change, which further threatens their habitat.
The facts suggest that we face a global biodiversity crisis: without urgent action, by 2020, these vertebrate populations will have declined by 67% since 1970. The international community has agreed that by 2020 declines in biodiversity should have been halted. Frankly, these things do not compute—the international community is way off target when it comes to meeting its commitments.
When I was Environment Secretary, I had the great privilege of representing the UK at the United Nations conference on biodiversity loss in Nagoya, Japan, in 2010. It took place just after the climate change talks in Copenhagen had failed, after which people were very pessimistic—they did not think that a UN agreement would be achieved in this area. However, to everyone’s surprise, we did it. The agreement achieved in Nagoya states that we should take effective and urgent action to halt the loss of habitats and species in order to ensure that by 2020 our natural environment would be resilient and continue to provide the essential environmental services that we otherwise take for granted. To that end, a series of targets was agreed to, known as the Aichi targets.
The reality is that most of our planet’s biodiversity is not in developed nations such as ours, where we have already destroyed many natural habitats, but in the most remote and least developed areas of our planet. So the big challenge is how to protect these vulnerable areas and their endangered species, while trying to regenerate our own natural capital and lost species.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this very important debate. She has mentioned the agreement. In the recent Paris discussions on climate control, not all countries signed up and not all of them turned up. What more can be done to influence those countries that are causing some of the major difficulties that we have?
We have clearly made some progress in the climate change talks, and climate change is one of the things that definitely threatens, or aggravates the loss of species. There has been a significant breakthrough between some of the big players over climate change. For a long period, large countries such as America and China just would not engage, so we have made some progress on that issue, but, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we need the rest to be as good as the best. I am sure that the Minister heard what the hon. Gentleman would like the UK Government to be doing to encourage that to happen.
In fact, 90% of the biodiversity on UK territory is situated in our overseas territories, precisely because they are less heavily developed. The Government made the groundbreaking decision to create the largest marine reserve in the world around the Pitcairn Islands and are on their way to doing the same for Ascension Island, South Georgia, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha, in a blue belt strategy around the world’s oceans. If all those are achieved, the area offering some form of protection will be greater than the size of India. That would make a significant contribution to Aichi target 11, which is on marine protected areas.
That points to the clear value of helping less developed parts of the world to protect vital species. Frankly, the cure to some disease that is currently a scourge of human society could be deep in the Amazon jungle. We have every interest in helping the poorest.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does she agree that the UK Government often sign up to agreements that are worthy in principle, but the overseas territories that then become subject to those agreements do not always receive reciprocal finances to implement them? I know that in places such as Anguilla particularly and the Cayman Islands, that is placing an undue financial burden on their Governments.
My hon. Friend and I were members of the Environmental Audit Committee together. He has recently rejoined the Committee and I know that he looked closely at the predicament of overseas territories such as the Cayman Islands which would not naturally be in receipt of funds to help them to address this kind of issue. It is clear that we all have an interest in their being able to do so. I am sure that his comment was heard by the Minister.
The approach of helping the world’s poorest countries to reduce and halt the loss of species was at the heart of our agreement in Nagoya. It inspired 193 countries to agree unanimously to own and solve this problem together. So everybody was present and did sign that Nagoya agreement. However, there were lengthy discussions about access to, and the benefits arising from, the world’s most biodiverse populations. That was the heart of the matter. The world’s richest nations wanted to be able to access some of the most biodiverse parts of the world, perhaps to find a cure for cancer, but in return the developing nations wanted to share in those benefits and for us to help to resource them in protecting those areas. That was the nature of what we agreed to, which was a genuine example of a negotiated deal.
Historically, the UK has provided international leadership on this approach and there are many examples of how we have done so. The most recent is the opening of the new David Attenborough building in Cambridge, which will become the new global focal point for research and practice to transform our understanding about the conservation of biodiversity.
Even before I became Environment Secretary, the UK was providing resources to prevent deforestation under the so-called REDD-plus scheme, which stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. If one is going to try to reduce deforestation in very poor countries, it is important to find a way to support those people who have not known any way of sustaining themselves other than by cutting down trees. If they are paid to maintain and look after the trees and to sustain the forest, deforestation will be reduced.
It is worth noting that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will spend more than £300 million of official development assistance by 2019-20, including funding to help to tackle the serious criminal industry of the illegal wildlife trade, which definitely threatens endangered species, and to deliver projects to conserve biodiversity and to reduce poverty worldwide, including in the UK’s eligible overseas territories and in developing countries, which will help developing countries to phase out ozone-depleting substances. When it comes to global biodiversity, no man is an island.
I have seen for myself how paying farmers in places such as the Amazon not to cut down their trees but to manage their forests can help us all, for the Amazon is the world’s largest carbon sink. However, the next challenge in Latin America is to prevent the adjoining native savannah, the forest of the Cerrado in Brazil, from being ploughed up to grow soya. Over half of that area has been converted to agriculture since 1950. At present, the Cerrado shelters 5% of total global biodiversity and one in 10 of every Brazilian species. Almost half of its 10,000 plant species are found nowhere else on our planet and wild animals that are threatened by the loss of the habitat include the jaguar, the maned wolf and the giant anteater. I saw there an extraordinary plant, the like of which I had never seen, called the shauvarinho, which captures water droplets on tiny fan-like leaves that have adapted to survive drought. It is not, therefore, just the plough that destroys species on that savannah; the area is also very vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
As I have highlighted, we now have the tool accurately to measure the rate at which we lose species and the cost to the economy of that loss: the national ecosystem assessment. For example, bees, should they die out and should we have to replace what they do, would cost the country £400 million a year. These days, we can put an economic value on the loss of vital species.
The right hon. Lady was talking about projects in Latin America. She might be aware of the Yasuni national park in Ecuador. The Government there tried to raise money internationally, so that there would be no oil drilling in what is one of the most biodiverse places on earth—an absolutely pristine area. They could not get the international sign-up, however. Does she agree that that is something we all value, on a global level? Ecuador obviously needs to feed its people and boost economic growth, so in the end it was forced to go down the drilling route.
That speaks absolutely to the heart of the current debate on how we use international development assistance. The truth of the matter is that the issue is an increasingly difficult one, as people experience hard times themselves. I am disappointed to hear it vocalised that charity begins at home and that we should not be helping people abroad. I certainly do not share that view, but it is incumbent on us all as politicians to explain why helping people in very poor countries benefits everyone in the end. We must all work harder at getting that message across.
To come back to the bees, the fact that if they took their pollinating brushes home we would face a very big bill for substituting what they do underlines the importance of the debate about the demise of pollinators and explains why it is such an active one. The principles we agreed to in Nagoya bind us to reverse the trend of species loss, and that will take time and resources. The wealthy nations that signed up to the Nagoya agreement are the ones upon which it is incumbent to bring resources to the table to help poorer nations, if we are to arrest that decline.
The sequence of meetings known as the conference of the parties, or COP, has seen some progress in agreeing, in principle, to double biodiversity financial flows. I say in principle, because at COP 13, the next in the series—due to take place in Cancun in December—there will no doubt be more discussion about the amount of resources we need and who precisely will bring them. At that meeting, countries will discuss the practical delivery of the targets agreed following Nagoya. The excellent analytical work that is being undertaken by non-governmental organisations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to measure the level of ambition of, and the practical progress being made by, the signatories to the original agreement will be published to coincide with the meeting. It is the Ministers who go to Cancun who will have to face up to the reality of whether they walk the talk, so I hope that the UK Government will continue to provide the international leadership they are known for in this area by sending a Minister to the meeting.
Our efforts to halt the loss of species in our own country are going to come under close scrutiny. The reality is that most of the world’s most precious biodiversity is not on UK territory. The very fact that the British Isles has been developed has forced nature into retreat, but that does not mean we should not continue to strive to protect the species that are endangered here and to restore the lost natural capital. For example, a key action is to implement an intelligent and forward-looking biodiversity offsetting strategy for major infrastructure works. There are many infrastructure plans in the making, so there will have to be an awful lot of offsetting.
One of those plans is on my doorstep. High Speed 2 will go straight through my constituency and there is the opportunity to restore the polluted River Tame and enhance the Blyth river valley so that the urban populations of the west midlands conurbation can enjoy the green space and appreciate what nature has to offer. We know how important that is for overall wellbeing. I hope that the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will consider carefully proposals being put forward by Birmingham City University to regenerate the lost natural capital in the area.
The UK has made good progress on marine protection. It is committed, under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, to deliver an ecologically coherent network of well-managed marine protected areas within UK waters. However, critical gaps in the network remain, including protection for mobile species, such as seabirds. The third and final tranche of the English marine conservation zone designation is due to come forward next year and it is those critical gaps that I hope the Government will now be able to fill.
I have some key requests for the Government. I welcome the statement of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in response to the “Living Planet Report 2016”. It is encouraging that she has emphasised her commitment to protecting and restoring our natural environment for future generations. She has also called on us all to play our part. Indeed, every individual can play a role in arresting the loss of species. I certainly advocate that anyone who has not done so take part in the RSPB’s bird count once a year. The count will enable us to have some sense, against a baseline, of whether the common species we all grew up with are thriving or declining. That is particularly important when it comes to the demise of farmland birds, and everyone can do their bit.
The Secretary of State has highlighted two key areas in which the UK has been successful, one being the blue belt protection for our overseas territories and the other helping to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State will attend the next IWT conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, next month, providing the kind of leadership for which the UK is known. However, as I have already mentioned, it is critical that we send high-level ministerial representation to December’s conference of the parties in Cancun. I cannot stress enough how important it is that a Minister is there—193 countries are present at the meetings. We often underestimate the capacity that the UK has, because of its heritage and the leadership it has provided on the issue, to be involved as a facilitator, in particular between countries that are dragging their feet a bit, and to get their agreement. I really hope that a Minister will be able to attend.
We must be visible and vocal as a leader on the world’s stage, and establishing a clear presence in December will be an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to continuing as an environmental leader. That will underline that the UK still wants to be at the forefront of the fight against biodiversity decline.
It is evident that tackling biodiversity loss will require a multisector approach, and in that we are helped by the fact that since the Nagoya agreement we have the framework of sustainable development goals—SDGs—which provides a context for our actions and our approach. The SDGs have the power to create a safer, fairer world, but we must now implement them ourselves, with careful cross-Government co-ordination and a clear focus on the challenges outlined in the report.
Goals 14 and 15 are directly connected to the convention on biological diversity and the Aichi targets, and they address reducing biodiversity loss on land and in the marine environment. Many of the targets are due for completion in 2020—in less than four years’ time. However, at the current rate of progress, those will be the first of the sustainable development goals the UK will fail to meet. As we know, the deadline for most of the SDGs is 2030. So there is real pressure, and an urgency to get on and implement what we can to achieve the targets.
It is important that DEFRA and the Department for International Development work closely together on implementation. I found, as Environment Secretary, that DFID was extremely helpful to the cause; indeed it gave me the money to be able to provide assistance in very poor countries where species were endangered. I sincerely hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that DEFRA continues to work closely with DFID in that area.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that it is welcome that the Natural Capital Committee reports directly to the Chancellor? That ensures that policy is accompanied by finances and reinforces and reiterates to us that nature does not come for free.
My hon. Friend is completely right. I should have said that it is not only about DEFRA and DFID working together; the Treasury holds the purse strings. He is right that the Natural Capital Committee—its chair, Professor Dieter Helm, provides outstanding leadership—reporting directly to the Chancellor is the best way of reminding the Treasury that nature comes at a price and that we need to reflect that in the decisions we make and the resources it gets.
I hope that we will shortly see a clear plan from the Government on the sustainable development goals. DEFRA’s forthcoming 25-year plan for the environment is also a key opportunity. I hope that Ministers will use it to set out how they will work to reduce the UK’s international carbon footprint, as well as to protect nature at home. Ministers will need to carefully weave together the domestic and international dimensions. We must emphasise intergenerational accountability and include mechanisms to assess the impact of policy on nature and the natural capital we wish to leave for our children.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I forgot that pleasantry in yesterday’s heated debate on grouse shooting.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on her excellent opening speech. She emphasised the need for Departments to work together on these issues, but I think it is also incumbent on all parliamentarians to work together, too. They are not party political issues and there is consensus in the House on them. We should all continue to press the Government as hard as we can to deliver and halt the declines in biodiversity. It is refreshing to see debates in this Chamber being led by former Secretaries of State who have stayed loyal and interested in their briefs. That is not always the case, but when we get that expertise and experience coming back it enriches and strengthens our debates.
If we do not act soon to halt the declines in our biodiversity, it could be too late. The World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report 2016” shows the scale of the task. As was pointed out earlier, although I will repeat the figures because they need repeating, global vertebrate populations fell on average by 58% between 1970 and 2012 and freshwater species such as amphibians and fish have declined by a shocking 81%. We are facing a global biodiversity crisis, and the need for action is urgent.
The problem should not be analysed by contrasting the performance of developing countries with that of advanced economies. I have seen that recently in print and in the media, and it is not helpful to describe the declines we have seen in that way, suggesting in some way that richer countries are doing better because they can afford to deal with the problem. It not does not help us at all and it is not accurate, because wildlife in the UK is far from thriving. If Victorians took a walk in our countryside today, they would be shocked at how sparse our wildlife really is. I have listened to my parents talk about that frequently; they say that the decline has been dramatic since their childhood, 50 or 60 years ago. We have seen huge declines in biodiversity, even since then.
Our planet’s biodiversity—or to put it another way, the natural capital that we depend on—is on the verge of collapse. If we are not careful, we could see the demise of the global environment we all depend on—the quality of the air we breathe, the quality and range of the food we eat, or the water we drink. In the final analysis, there will obviously be a negative impact on the global economy, too. It is becoming apparent that we could be entering a new epoch: the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which the size and scale of human activity is affecting our most important environmental systems on a planetary scale. The list of endangered species is never-ending, and if action is not taken soon, many species will disappear before our very eyes.
Declines in our ocean biodiversity are of particular concern. The living planet index shows that marine species have declined by 36% since 1970. That cannot be allowed to continue. It is estimated that our oceans provide annual economic benefits of up to $2.5 trillion a year—it is an international index, so it measures things in dollars. If we manage oceans effectively, they could help to underpin the relevant sustainable development goal and provide food security for many millions living in developing coastal and island states. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that because of poor management, including the over-exploitation of fisheries, that ambition will not be met. While Governments understand the importance of our marine environment, evidence is growing that their critical role in securing future resilience is still not given sufficient priority.
The UK can and should be playing a key role in taking forward and implementing sustainable development goal 14, which relates to our oceans. The right hon. Lady repeatedly stressed that point. We have strong economic and cultural ties to the sea—I grew up in a coastal community, so I understand that well. I am not originally from an inland community, as Sheffield is. Even though many of our communities have secured livelihoods from our seas, we import a huge volume of seafood from many developing nations. We have international trading links that give us even more of a responsibility to work collaboratively on these issues. Our strong marine research expertise could help the Government in prioritising the actions needed on this specific aspect of global biodiversity. We also need to play our part internationally by building strategic partnerships with developing countries. Those partnerships are incredibly important when it comes to ensuring international resilience for our oceans.
That brings me neatly on to the EU’s common fisheries policy, which provides a multilateral forum for taking action to rebuild resilient fishing stocks in European waters and a sustainable fishing industry. I know I will upset the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) with that point, but fortunately she is a Parliamentary Private Secretary, so she cannot respond on this occasion. The Government must remain actively engaged in the CFP for as long as we remain in the EU. I say that as the daughter of a fisherman and as someone who grew up in the biggest fishing port in the world. I feel strongly about the issue.
We must also start putting in place plans for continuing engagement and action on illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing once we leave the EU. We therefore need assurances from Ministers that once we leave, the protections against unethical fishing, if I can put it that way, afforded by membership of the CFP will be embedded into UK fisheries policy. If we are going to build our status globally as a soft power on biodiversity issues, we need to continue the best practice established in the European Union. Whatever Brexit provides for the future, we must as a country remain committed to the policy of maximum sustainable yield and must retain fishing quotas in the form of total allowable catches by species. Not to do so would be wrong and would risk a return to the days of over-fishing and the consequences that that brought down upon all of us. I therefore ask the Minister to give assurances in her closing remarks.
Marine protected areas are a critical tool for conservation. It is estimated that protecting just 30% of the world’s oceans could result in net benefits of between $490 billion and $920 billion over 35 years. Currently, just 3.9% of the world’s oceans are designated for protection, despite a global commitment to achieve 10% by 2020. Many of the marine protection areas that do exist lack effective management plans. We need to play our part in addressing that weakness. The Government must continue designating an ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones around our shores, as the right hon. Member for Meriden pointed out. We also need to continue the creation of a blue belt around our unique overseas territories by putting into place large-scale marine protected areas overseas, which will contribute to delivering on our 10% target.
Will the Minister commit to delivering a truly comprehensive and ecologically coherent network of marine conservation zones around the UK, with the management plans to match? That is the key weakness in our implementation of the Marine and Coastal Access Act so far. We need effective management plans for that network and we need them quickly. Also, will the Minister commit to the 10% target for MPAs around the UK’s overseas territories?
Although the world’s oceans face huge pressures, there is evidence that sustainable management and conservation work can reverse biodiversity declines and bring life back to the world’s seas. For instance, North sea cod stocks are now on an upwards trajectory because of the strong management measures implemented through the EU’s cod recovery plan. It is worth putting on the record that the decline in those stocks was not caused by the European Union. It never was. Those stocks were heavily depleted before the EU’s management regime came into effect. Nobody ever asks why the fishing fleets of the east coast, where I come from, went to Iceland to catch fish. Why go all that way? Why face all those dangers? It was because they had depleted the North sea stocks. The measures needed to put that right have started to work and the UK has a responsibility to continue on that trajectory. The experience of working with the European Union and internationally, as we have over all those years, also underlines the importance of the UK Government continuing to work co-operatively with other Governments, both in the EU and more widely, to ensure that our fisheries are sustainably managed.
A key opportunity for the Government to set out their own stall will be the forthcoming 25-year plan for the environment. The Minister could use the opportunity of the plan to reduce the UK’s international footprint by setting out a trajectory and a clear strategy for how we will achieve that, as well as protecting nature at home. At this point I will refer to yesterday’s debate and hope sincerely that the plan will include measures to deal with the decline in the health of our blanket bog and upland environment in the UK, which is a source of particular concern to me.
When might this extremely important plan be published? Are the rumours that it is being reviewed because of Brexit true? If that is the case, what exactly is being reviewed in the plan? Are we going to see more ambitious plans for improving the environment as a result of Brexit, or are we going to take Brexit as a chance to reduce our environmental standards? The House deserves some clarity on that point.
We are at a crossroads both as a country and as a planet. We need action and we need it now. The UK needs to play its full part and lead from the front internationally in reversing the decline in our biodiversity not only for our generation, but for the many generations yet to be born. Let us not forget that the environment is our legacy to future generations. The world belongs to our children. If we forget that legacy and forget the important fact that the world belongs to our children, we will never be forgiven for abdicating our responsibilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing the debate on global biodiversity today.
The report laid before us by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society paints a bleak picture of wholesale ecocide on a scale unseen for aeons. Faced with such catastrophe, it would be easy to retreat into complacency and mourn while the web of life unravels. An article on the rapid decline in species in last Thursday’s Times on 27 October was very interesting. It stated:
“Human activity is driving many of the planet’s species dangerously close to extinction.”
It is predicted that
“Global vertebrate populations...are likely to have declined by an average of 67 per cent on their 1970 levels by 2020.”
This is the here and now, and yet this does not have to be the case.
One of my favourite quotes comes from the great American politician and civil rights activist, Harvey Milk. He once said,
“If you want to change the world, start in your own neighbourhood.”
As a “neighbourhood”, Scotland possesses a natural environment that retains some of its richness and diversity even after centuries of degradation. Scotland’s Government recognise that the importance of biodiversity goes far beyond majestic wildlife and bonnie glens. Carbon sequestration, the health of pollinator populations, water purity, which has been mentioned, and human health and wellbeing are just a few of the things that are dependent on resilient, diverse ecosystems. In recognition of the essential role that biodiversity will play in ensuring Scotland’s future sustainability and success, the Scottish Government are committed to placing it at the heart of their economic strategy. All Governments should do that. The fruits of these efforts have already started to show.
In 2010, Scotland’s biodiversity assessment concluded that biodiversity loss had slowed where targeted action had been applied, but that halting it would require renewed and sustained effort over a long period. In 2013, a route map was published, which set out the actions necessary for the country to meet the challenges set by the UN convention on biological diversity’s targets for 2020: the so-called Aichi targets—I hope I have pronounced that correctly.
For example, target 11 aims to have at least 17% of freshwater bodies and 10% of coastal and marine areas under protection by 2020. Target 15 aims to enhance ecosystem resilience and the contribution of biodiversity to carbon stocks through the conservation and restoration of at least 15% of degraded ecosystems. Its first progress report, published in 2015, shows that we are starting to turn this juggernaut around: 16% of our seas are now part of our marine-protected area network, exceeding the 10% stipulated by the UN. We are restoring twice the area of peatland that is required of us and exceeding our required area of protected land and fresh water. There are still actions that need to progress faster, but we can take heart from the fact that although in the second half of 2015 there were still some areas that showed no progress, or even a continued decline, progress was made on all of our actions in the first half of 2016.
Driving the strategy is the realisation that biodiversity loss is a problem that must be tackled at scales beyond the remit of a single area, organisation or even, as has been mentioned, Government. That realisation is as true here as it is in Scotland or anywhere else. Integrated, co-operative forms of management involving multiple Departments and other stakeholders are needed to form the backbone of actions and projects.
The natural world must no longer be seen as something desirable but expendable. The question “Can we afford that?” has an ecological answer that is at least as important as its financial and political answers. We face choices that will manifest in the near future. As individuals, we tend to be myopic; we prefer to deal with present outcomes at the expense, often, of future ones. That is a given. Our choice is to consider the long-term loss and decline of our wildlife, and decide on the best course of action to prevent the continuation of that decline.
To end on a somewhat brighter note, I will mention that, although the picture is bleak, there is still some ecological resilience left. The vast majority of species are not yet at the point of no return. If we act, we can reverse what is happening. If there is a concerted international effort, we can turn it around globally. Let us not create a global extinction event as our legacy.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to see you in the Chair, Mr Evans. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing the debate; as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said, she has very much retained an interest in the issues that she dealt with as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We have often had conversations in passing, in the corridor—particularly about marine conservation zones. I appreciate that in her new role as Second Church Estates Commissioner she has adopted a more conciliatory approach to bats in churches than her predecessor; we had some run-ins in our time. I am sure the bats appreciate it, too.
Today’s debate is timely, given the publication of the excellent “Living Planet” report by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London. I urge everyone to read it. Biodiversity has intrinsic value, but our survival also depends on it. It is a key indicator of the health of the planet, and we should treat it as seriously as climate change. It was frustrating for me, both during the Brexit campaign and the Paris talks, that the focus was always just on climate change and energy policy. There was not the discussion of the natural environment that there should have been, particularly given that so many of our protections stem from the EU.
The “Living Planet” report makes disturbing reading, but that should not come as a surprise. Year on year we have heard reports of mounting evidence of the decline of biodiversity. Each report adds to the imperative for action by Governments around the world. We have heard that we shall fail to meet the Aichi biodiversity targets by 2020, and that global wildlife populations fell by 58% between 1970 and 2012. On current trends, our vertebrate populations would decline by two thirds by 2020.
It is disappointing that public funding for biodiversity fell by 32% from 2008 to 2015. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge highlighted, that is potentially even more of a threat with Brexit on the horizon. I hope for reassurances from the Minister today. The Government have, through the Natural Capital Committee, recognised the potential economic value of the natural environment, and are trying to do work that builds in the costs, financial or otherwise, of damaging it. However, there is a lot more work to be done if that is really to be embedded in policy making.
There is a tendency for most attention to be paid to iconic species such as pandas, tigers and killer whales, which are under serious threat. There is a lot of talk about them, and there have been some successes. As the WWF highlighted, the giant panda has been removed from the list of endangered species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, thanks to China’s efforts to protect habitats and re-establish forest. Tigers are still critically at risk, but their population has increased by 20% since 2010, thanks to collaborative efforts by Governments, communities and conservationists. The Government have been very committed to the agenda of the convention on international trade in endangered species, with respect to the shark population, for example. However, species that we have never heard of—and, in some cases, can barely see—are also in dire need of attention. In his foreword to the “State of Nature” report, David Attenborough said:
“If we and the rest of the backboned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well.”
However, if invertebrates were to disappear,
“the land’s ecosystems would collapse.”
We need action to protect all biodiversity, whether vertebrates, invertebrates or plant life. All of those have suffered from human activity. Poaching, and the international wildlife trade, are an obvious cause, with elephant populations in Tanzania falling by 60% between 2009 and 2014. I, for one, would welcome further action to stem the global ivory trade that contributes to that—even the historic ivory trade.
Less visibly, as the global population has risen, our use of fertilisers, pesticides and transport, greenhouse gas emissions, our reliance on medicines and our water use have all increased. They all have a negative impact on biodiversity. It is the human population that has caused so much habitat loss for other species, whether through pollution, intensive agriculture, climate change, building or resource use that exploits natural resources.
As I mentioned, in Ecuador the Government were very committed—probably top of the league when it came to biodiversity and the beauty of the country—but they face pressures, in a country struggling to make ends meet, with the knowledge that such a wonderful site as the Yasuni natural park is home to oil reserves. As the right hon. Member for Meriden and I have said, there is a global role to be played in helping such countries to protect their wonderful biodiversity. We need international co-operation and the UK to take a lead in talks, rather than turning its back on the world, which some might think the referendum result would lead us to do.
As part of that, we need a commitment from the Environment Secretary, or the Minister who is present today, to attend December’s conference of the parties to the convention on biological diversity taking place in Mexico. We need to lead by example. There has already been mention of the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on the British overseas territories; only a tiny fraction of DEFRA spending goes to them, although they are home to 90% of the biodiversity for which the UK is responsible. As the report revealed, DEFRA did not at the time have a single staff member dedicated to working full time with the overseas territories.
We had a private meeting of the Environmental Audit Committee today, with some overseas territories representatives, to talk about some of those issues. I do not think I am betraying any confidences if I say that, in particular on the subject of the blue belt or the marine protected areas, there were pleas for things to be territory-led. Some of the people who attended were very happy with what has happened, because it was led by the people in the territories, but in some cases there are still issues to do with not being compensated for loss of income from fishing licences. Money may be going in, but it goes to the marine protected areas and does not compensate the Administrations—of Ascension Island in particular. I hope that the Minister will consider that. The overseas territories appreciate that they have a role to play in protecting the wonderful marine environment, but they need the resources to do it without suffering as a result.
When we discussed the EAC report a couple of years ago, I think about 0.3% of the biodiversity conservation budget was spent in the overseas territories. As I said, they are home to 90% of the biodiversity, so that suggests quite an imbalance. More than 32,000 native species have been recorded in the overseas territories and more than 1,500 of those are found nowhere else in the world. The territories are home to at least 517 globally threatened species. Our lack of knowledge and attention risks those species becoming extinct. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office works closely with the overseas territories on some issues, particularly business, but we need a closer relationship on environmental issues as well. The marine protected areas are a very welcome contribution but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge said, we need to complete the network of English marine conservation areas and ensure that they guarantee the robust protections that our marine life needs.
We have been talking about overseas, but the latest “State of Nature” report found that 53% of the UK’s wildlife species declined between 2002 and 2013 and 15% of our native species are under threat of extinction. The report’s launch was very well attended and the Secretary of State spoke but, as so often with these things, the warnings are taken to heart in the short term but very quickly forgotten. I hope the Minister will tell us a little about how the Government intend to take those concerns forward. The report said that insects and invertebrates were under particular threat, despite being crucial for pollination and healthy soils, and concluded that the UK is
“among the most nature-depleted countries in the world”,
having lost significantly more than comparable western European countries such as France and Germany.
I understand that we may get a framework for the much anticipated 25-year environment plan in the next few months, but we will not see the plan until later next year. That plan must rise to the enormous domestic and international challenge we face. The signs are not encouraging. The “State of Nature” report identified policy-driven agricultural change—the intensification of farming—as the most significant driver of declines.
I know that Ministers have taken on board the need for more links and connections between the two plans that we have, but when the Environment Secretary gave evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on Brexit only a couple of weeks ago, she implied that one plan was about the economics—the selling of food, farming and food production—and the other plan was about the natural environment. I do not think that that is good enough, as the two are so interconnected, even with footnotes explaining the connection. I am sure that the Minister has heard these representations many times before and I hope she is listening again. If the Government are genuinely interested in protecting biodiversity, DEFRA must commit to the EU birds and habitats directive and pollution reduction targets post-Brexit.
I want to conclude by bringing the debate down to a local level. Bristol is fortunate to have the Avon gorge, which has been designated a special area of conservation under the habitats directive. It is home to Bristol whitebeam and Wilmott’s whitebeam, which are not found anywhere else in the world and—I found this out only in the past couple of days—we also have the Bristol onion. The Avon gorge is the only place where it is found in mainland Britain. It is very pretty, with big purple flowers, but it is under threat from invasive species.
My favourite Twitter account, NoExtinctions, looks at attempts on obscure islands to stamp out invasive species that put particular species under threat. Lundy island did a very good job recently stamping out the rat population. NoExtinctions is a great account to follow to see what is going on in very obscure, unheard-of places around the world.
Bristol has developed its own pollinator strategy. Urban pollination strategies are incredibly important as there cannot be a divide between the town and city. “Get Bristol Buzzing” plants nectar and pollen-rich flower meadows in public spaces, in parks but also on roundabouts and wherever there is a spare piece of land.
I am also a species champion. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Buglife has asked a number of MPs to be species champions and now have about 30 or 40 MPs. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) is one.
I would just like to say that I am the bittern species champion and I am proud to say that bittern babies are booming, so that is good news.
I am glad. If anyone is not a species champion, I should say that more are needed, so Members can sign up.
I am a swift champion. It is urban habitat loss that is responsible for the decline in swift numbers. The RSPB told me last week that in Exeter they are introducing a planning requirement for new-build developments to include swift bricks or boxes—a really simple measure that will increase the number of places where swifts can nest and could be replicated across the country. I will certainly be urging Bristol council to take that on board, and I hope others will too.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. You will not know this, but you are actually one of my favourite MPs, based on the image on your magnificent Christmas card of you casually leaning on the Terrace with your mug. It is etched in my memory and is one of my favourites from last year.
I look forward to it. I should get my act together and one-up you on it—I will get my thinking cap on.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) on securing this debate and kicking it off with a very well informed contribution. I confess that at first I was worried it was going to be a little bit too self-congratulatory regarding some of the things that had gone before, but it was not at all. There were some very good suggestions and proactive ideas for the Government to take forward. I congratulate her on bringing the subject before the House.
I thought the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) was particularly bold in bringing up the issue of fishing until I realised that the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) was not able to contribute to the debate, and suddenly it became an inspired move. I shall note that move for myself in future. Although there was much discussion about the blue belt, the hon. Member for South East Cornwall is a black belt when it comes to defending her local fishermen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) gave a lovely speech about the Scottish hills and bonnie glens that we are all so proud of, but as he rightly said it is about so much more than that. He gave a very honest report card on the Scottish Government’s efforts—some that we are very proud of and some that we need to work harder at.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) is a redoubtable champion of this whole issue. I hear she even braved yesterday’s Westminster Hall grouse debate to put forward an alternative view. Although I may not agree with her on that subject, it is really important to have voices on all sides that provide balanced argument. I thank her for her contribution today and for joining the fray yesterday. She made some excellent points. Throughout the debate, the importance came across of the Government joining up the dots of all the different plans to create the right picture for the future.
I googled the Bristol onion, which Members may be interested to know is also known as the round-headed leek. It is beautiful, with purple flowers.
The phrase I always use is that God only made so many heads perfect; the rest he covered up with hair.
The hon. Lady mentioned swifts. I was looking at my front lawn recently and my front grass is looking a little the worse for wear—I am sure all MPs can relate to that, unless they have a gardener—apart from one little, very green patch, which is underneath where the swifts nest, so they are also good for fertilising the front lawn.
As someone relatively new to politics, one of the reasons why I have liked this debate so much is that I cannot help but observe that we are all in some way guilty of living in the present, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk said, and not projecting forward to consider the longer term implications of our decisions. MPs’ inboxes are full of short-term issues that need fixing, so it can be all too easy to ignore longer-term challenges. At times, we struggle to think beyond the five-year parliamentary term but, as we have heard today, the WWF’s “Living Planet Report” claimed that we are potentially facing the first mass extinction of species in 65 million years. If that is not a wake-up call, I do not know what is.
The scale of the challenge must not deter us. We have a duty to our children and their children not to be deterred from this enormous task. All efforts to focus the minds of policy makers in this place are welcome. If major declines in biodiversity continue, we risk nothing less than the collapse of the life-support systems that sustain us all. There is no synthetic alternative to those precious natural ecosystems. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the economy that underpins our standard of living all ultimately depend on biodiversity.
These problems reach far beyond DEFRA’s remit. This ought to be a common policy concern across all Government Departments, but let us be honest: we have very little sense of what approach the Government will take to the environment after Brexit and all its potential impacts on regulation and conservation programmes. I hope the Minister will give us a perspective on that today. Let me give one example of the Government’s approach. In a recent study, ecologists found that 65% of the areas earmarked for potential shale gas extraction have an above average level of biodiversity. I would be interested to learn how the Government think they can square such roughshod policies with their headline claim that they want to leave the natural environment in a better state than they found it.
In contrast, Scotland is a global leader on climate change. The Scottish Government have already achieved their target to reduce emissions by at least 42% by 2020. At the last count, Scotland generated the equivalent of 57% of its electricity consumption from renewables, and we aim to generate 100% equivalent of Scotland’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The UK Government’s recent contribution has been to slash support for renewable energy, much to the exasperation of the sector. I do not want to dwell too much on the differences because nature does not have any regard for national borders. I would much rather use the remainder of my time to talk about programmes under way in Scotland to protect our remarkable natural environment.
Scotland provides the major part of the UK’s contribution to the EU’s Natura 2000 programme. More than 15% of our land is designated for a wealth of habitats and species. Natura 2000 is the largest co-ordinated network of protected areas in the world, offering a haven to Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. Scotland remains a stronghold for a number of species, such as the Atlantic salmon and the freshwater pearl mussel, which are now threatened or extinct elsewhere in the EU. Additional conservation efforts include the network of sites of special scientific interest, targeted conservation efforts for species such as the red squirrel and reintroduction programmes for species including the white-tailed eagle, the red kite and the beaver.
After Brexit, there will be no compulsion on the UK to set targets for energy saving or green energy, which are both essential for meeting Scotland’s ambitious climate targets. On top of that, we face losing the protection that European courts offer if the UK Government fail to meet their commitments to the environment.
In conclusion, preventing the potential mass extinction of species due to the impact of human activity is about nothing less than keeping the only planet we have habitable. No country can tackle these challenges in isolation; they demand transnational co-operation, binding commitments and mutual trust. Given the Government’s claim that Brexit will revive Britain’s role on the global stage, let us hope that they choose to take a long-term view and put our duty to protect the planet and the diversity of life upon it at the heart of all they do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. This has been a fantastic and detailed debate. I start by thanking the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) not only for bringing her interest and expertise to the debate but for championing the relationship between natural capital and development, and its importance to the sustainability of this planet.
I first want to make an interjection about the species that I champion in York, the Tansy beetle. This year, its number grew substantially, despite York’s being under floodwater for several months. We have so much to learn about the behaviour of these species and what happens there. I am trying to grow the Tansy plant at home to help that species be even more productive in the future.
Last year was a very important year for us all. Not only were we signatories to the UN sustainable development goals, but we had the agreement in Paris on climate change. Both are very important indeed for challenging the real issues facing our planet at this time. Often in this place, we involve ourselves in debating the minutiae of operational processes, as opposed to taking a step back and looking at the big issues of our time and the global crises we are facing in this era. Therefore, it is a shame that there are not more parliamentarians here. I trust that this is the beginning of a process, not the end.
There are 169 targets that came from the 17 sustainable development goals, addressing issues such as climate action, life above the water—on land—and life below the water. What we have learned from these processes is that we alone in isolation will not make a difference. It is in the strong global partnerships we form that ambition can be realised.
The most important reason for staying in the EU is that it gives us an influential voice. Now that we have a determination to take another path, it is important for the Government to make sure we have that voice in the future. I call on the Minister today to say how we will have a voice on that global stage to ensure sustainability in the longer term. That was the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) was making with regard to fishing policy. Fish do not stay static in waters; they move. Therefore, it is so important that we have a seat at the table and a voice in that debate.
As we look at the global challenges that we face, we know that the environment is often at the heart of those issues—whether it is about population migration, for instance, or what is happening to our planet at this time. Our population has multiplied five times since the start of the last century. We know that we have got to address how we are consuming our planet at this time. We are using up 1.6 planets-worth of resources every year. That is not sustainable. We have to take a different direction if we are to be sustainable into the future.
I have to question the Minister again about the policies that are being pursued by her Department—for instance, over trade. Why, rather than focusing locally, are we trotting halfway around the world to build stronger trade relationships with emerging economies, as that increases our carbon footprint and therefore the damage that can be done to our planet? We need to ask challenging questions about what we are doing at the moment.
Biological diversity is a huge global asset. The interlinking of each element is so delicately balanced, as we have heard in today’s debate. The lack of prioritisation of the importance of this issue is seen as a serious threat to specific species and the whole ecosystem. That is why, 24 years ago, the convention on biological diversity moved things forward, acknowledging that we need to be putting things in order. That is why the Aichi targets, of which we have heard so much today, have set out the global framework for moving biodiversity forwards and are so important to ensure sustainability in future. Those 20 targets drill down to another 114 more specific actions—again, targets and actions coming out of global plans. We need to respond with our UK biodiversity action plan.
Around the globe, nations have put together their plans—high on ambition, but delivery makes the difference. It is so important for us to ensure that we can deliver and, obviously, we have heard about the serious risks that we will not now deliver on the plans by 2020. That is deeply concerning in a developed country, that we cannot put that in order. That is why the report that stimulated today’s debate, the “Living Planet Report”, by WWF and ZSL, and earlier this year the “State of Nature” report made startling reading. We do not have time to waste, we cannot delay and we cannot say that we missed our targets because we did not do the right actions, because the next generations will not forgive us for that. Therefore, it is so essential that we move forward.
We have been failing the targets. We want to know how we will complete the network of marine protection areas. How will we ensure that we have planted enough trees? What is happening to our air quality, with 50,000 people in our own country dying each year from poor air quality? And our soil has only around 32 harvests left to sustain the future. So we have real concerns moving forward.
The fact is that where we are, the analysis has been done, the reports have been made, the targets have been set and monitoring processes are being put in place, but the issue is political ambition and delivery. That is where my concern sits. If we are honest, this House saw the movement towards the Climate Change Act 2008, put forward by Labour, which was really momentum building, moved the whole issue forward and delivered a world-changing agreement on the back of it. That legislation was leading the world, but we have not seen the same on biodiversity and we are certainly not seeing the same importance being placed on that agenda by the Government.
That really concerns me, and my biggest call today is that this agenda is mainstreamed into every area of departmental and Government work. We may look at issues in their silos, when it is very easy to say, “That’s a DEFRA issue,” but as the right hon. Member for Meriden said, this one links in with development, industrial strategy and, as we have heard, energy strategy. It is so important that we mainstream this agenda into the future.
The reality, and another concern I have, is that we are a consumerist society, which is a focus of what I am looking at. How do we address consumption? We cannot keep consuming our planet, living our lives and saying, “These are our rights!” without serious consequences for generations to come. We therefore have to look at how we take that forward. That is why I was disappointed that the Minister did not embrace issues such as the circular economy when she appeared before the Select Committee. We have to move these issues forward—it is so important.
I have been heartened, I have to say, by the Welsh Labour Government addressing the issue of how we change behaviour and move things forward in their Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. This Act is about improving the social and economic environment, as well as cultural wellbeing in Wales. It is the first serious attempt to see driven changes in behaviour towards the wider environment. We have also heard today about Scotland and about putting these issues at the heart of economic strategy.
Loss of natural capital impacts on so many things—not just our air, land and sea, but our health and wellbeing, and our communities and livelihoods. With poor air quality and 5.5 million people dying prematurely, we also know that 663 million people do not have access to clean and safe water. In the UK, soil degradation is leading to 2.2 million tonnes of lost soil every year and, across the globe, only 15% of soil provides the quality needed to grow our crops. Therefore, we have to drive change forward.
In concluding, I want to say first, as many colleagues have already said, that the 25-year plan has been delayed and that, although we know a framework is on the way, what my hon. Friends have said is absolutely right: the integration with farming is absolutely essential. There is no point having two parallel plans. We need to move the plans into one, so that we get the balances right and so that we understand what the real issues are. That is a first step that the Government could take towards mainstreaming such issues as biodiversity.
Secondly, I want the Minister to give feedback on how she is mainstreaming this issue right across Government. If she has not been to date, how will she take that forward?
Thirdly, also called for across the House today, we can work together across the House on moving our biodiversity system forward. The reality is that the planet is so fragile, and the Government do not have a monopoly of wisdom on these issues, but if we work together we might just have the solutions needed to change behaviour. If change of behaviour starts at home, then every single parliamentarian has a responsibility back in their constituencies to lead things to a new place. We have even more responsibility in this place. Will the Minister therefore be prepared for a cross-party working group to look specifically at how we move the whole agenda around biodiversity forward to ensure that we do not miss our targets? If Government miss their targets, we are all affected, and the next generation is too. On those three requests, I would like an answer from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) for securing the debate. She has great experience in this field, as she eloquently illustrated. I also welcome back several hon. Members who were in this Chamber yesterday. Large elements of that debate covered biodiversity, and in particular we discussed actively managed heather moorlands, which I learned are rarer than rain forest.
Which I am sure is why the hon. Lady will welcome our strategy to tackle the matter.
As referred to extensively, last week WWF and the Zoological Society of London published the “Living Planet Report”, which included specific data and conclusions about the direction of travel and certain species being in decline. That is clear, but we need to be slightly cautious in extrapolating to a global scale from the detail of specific datasets in the report.
Biodiversity loss is a global problem that needs a global solution. Through schemes such as the Darwin initiative and the international climate fund, the UK supports projects that directly help developing countries to protect their biodiversity. Over the past 12 months, we have seen the agreement of a range of measures at international level, from the adoption of the Paris agreement on climate change last December, to which the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) referred, through to last week’s agreement to create the world’s largest marine protected area in the Ross sea in the Antarctic. As part of that landmark decision, countries also agreed to a proposal by the United Kingdom to protect areas after ice shelf collapse and retreat.
The global community has adopted targets to drive action on key areas of concern, most recently in 2010 under the convention on biological diversity, on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden was herself instrumental in reaching a final deal. Last year, those targets were reflected in the global goals for sustainable development. At the CBD meeting in December, we will hear that while there has been significant progress towards some of the 2010 targets, without further action many will not be achieved by 2020. The UK’s core aim for the meeting is to promote effective international action to halt the loss of biodiversity. We will work to agree strategic actions to mainstream biodiversity across other sectors, as well as to gain recognition for the important links between biodiversity, climate change and the global goals.
Our scientific expertise is globally recognised. UK scientists led the vital assessment of pollinators that will be presented to the CBD meeting and that provides the evidence to end up in international action. As we have heard, the December meeting will centre on the theme of mainstreaming, which is about taking on an integrated approach and putting conservation in the broader context of long-term prosperity and sustainability.
Our 25-year environment plan will help us to achieve mainstreaming in the United Kingdom—certainly in England and perhaps in other parts of the United Kingdom—and will put in place the foundations to ensure that everyone has the chance to become responsible stewards of the natural environment.
To answer Members’ specific direct questions, it is not possible for Ministers to attend all such meetings, which means that it is necessary to take strategic decisions about whether to attend. I confirm—I have already made this clear to the House in other ways—that a Minister will not be going to Mexico this December, but a considerable amount has already been achieved and our officials are clear about the levers that they can pull to achieve our strategic objectives.
No, I will not. There is an option for a PPS to accompany a Minister, but PPSs are not Ministers and therefore cannot represent the Government in that way.
I will give some examples of levers that can be pulled. DEFRA has invested £140 million of international climate finance and committed a further £200 million to forestry projects that protect the world’s most biodiverse rain forests. For example, in Brazil, which is home to 12% of the world’s forests, our investment is protecting biodiversity by helping farmers transition to low-carbon technologies. By working with other Departments, such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for International Development, we can deploy international climate funding as part of our climate change efforts, which help biodiversity.
I assure Members that the Government take global biodiversity loss seriously, as demonstrated by the strong UK presence at several significant international meetings this year that have addressed that subject. Between September and December, there will have been four major international meetings: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources congress, the Vietnam conference on the illegal wildlife trade, and the CBD meeting. DEFRA will continue to be a strong influence at those meetings.
I attended the CITES meeting and the Secretary of State will attend the IWT meeting later this month. At CITES, we adopted measures that will protect critically threatened species such as pangolins, opposed the resumption of commercial trade in ivory, adopted enhanced global rules on hunting trophies—the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) correctly pointed out that that is about much more than just the iconic big animals—and in particular made groundbreaking moves on rosewood. I learned at the conference that more than two thirds of what CITES protects is flora rather than fauna. While in South Africa, I visited Kruger park specifically to see UK Government-funded tracker training to help stop rhino poachers. [Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
[Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey.
To reiterate, while in South Africa, I visited the Kruger national park specifically to see UK Government-funded tracker training, which is intended to stop rhino poaching. It is extraordinary to think that success is measured by the fact that, instead of two to three rhinos being poached a day, it is down to one a day. I am pleased to say that the canine unit is particularly successful. It has a dog called Killer, who has managed to get more than 100 poachers—it does not kill them; it just stops them—and in the 24 hours I was there seven poachers were found. Well done, Killer and the trackers.
To talk about the UK, in January, we published our latest assessment of UK progress with national and international commitments on biodiversity. As at the global level, our indicators give a mixed picture, but I do not think it is quite as bleak as painted by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). There are many areas in which we are doing well. We are world leaders on natural capital accounting. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), who is no longer in his place, referred to the fact that the Natural Capital Committee reports to the Chancellor; it does so through the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Economy and Industrial Strategy.
We lead the way in protecting our marine environment and have delivered on the commitment to create a blue belt of marine protection across the UK’s overseas territories, announcing new areas of protection around Pitcairn, St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. Seventeen per cent of UK waters and 21.8% of English waters are now designated as marine protected areas.
We have announced plans to ban the sale and manufacture of products containing microbeads, which can cause harm to the marine environment. Since the publication of the Government’s “Biodiversity 2020” strategy in 2011, an additional 15,000 hectares of our most important wildlife sites have been restored to a fully healthy state. More than 90% of our most important wildlife sites are in a healthy or improving condition, hitting our goal for 2020 already.
Our new countryside stewardship scheme is more targeted at our most important habitats and species and includes, for the first time, a wild pollinator and farm wildlife package as well as support for farmers, through the facilitation fund, to work together beyond their own farm gates. Some of our water companies are actively managing upstream habitats and so reducing their costs in purifying water, while conservation groups have found innovative ways of funding habitat management, such as providing cut reeds as biomass for bioenergy plants, as seen in the Waveney valley.
We have set in hand the creation of nearly 115,000 hectares of priority habitats such as meadows and traditional orchards, which is well over halfway towards the 200,000 hectare “Biodiversity 2020” target. We have achieved 63.45% of priority habitat in favourable or recovering condition. Woodland cover in England is at its highest level since the 14th century and I am confident that our manifesto commitment to plant another 11 million trees over the course of the Parliament is on track.
There are now otters in every county in England, and we have improved the fortunes of the bittern, the curl bunting and the greater horseshoe bat. A comprehensive national strategy has been in place since 2008 to tackle the threats posed by invasive non-native species and we have championed the introduction of the EU invasive alien species regulation to bring other member states up to UK standards.
However, it is clear that there are definitely still areas in which we need to do more, which have already been highlighted—for example, we need to reverse the negative trends on farmland birds, butterflies and pollinators. One way we hope to achieve that is through our 25-year environment plan, which will build on our successes and, together with the food and farming plan, set the direction for policy. We are consulting on a framework in the next few months to help us to develop the 25-year environment plan. We will set out what my officials say is a game-changing approach—a new approach to managing the environment, building on already good pillars of success.
Extensive reference has been made to the overseas territories. The UK is custodian of precious and unique environmental assets, including in the overseas territories, many of which are small islands that are highly vulnerable to environmental challenges, in particular through human activities and the introduction of invasive species. I am pleased that leaders and representatives of the overseas territories are in London this week to meet the Government to discuss a range of issues, including climate change and the environment, and I look forward to my meetings tomorrow.
I will take away the point made by the hon. Member for Bristol East about dedicated officials and compensation not going directly to the overseas Administrations. We know that the Darwin Plus fund, which was established in 2012, brought funding for environmental projects into one place to support the implementation of agreements such as the convention on international trade in endangered species and the convention on biological diversity. So far, 70 projects have been funded across 14 overseas territories, including Anguilla and the Cayman Islands, totalling well over £400 million.
During the last minute of my contribution I will try to address some of the other specific points raised. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden referred to the critical gaps that need to be filled in marine conservation zones. We will be consulting on that next year. I clearly do not know the geography of her local area as well she does, but I know that the biodiversity off-setting strategy for HS2 is being carefully considered in the work between my Department and the Department for Transport.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge spoke of fishing. I point out to her that the UK has led the way in marine conservation, for which I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) and the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). Let us be clear: we want to ensure that, in any future co-operation scheme, there is no sliding back by any party on the important marine conservation progress that has been made.
The hon. Member for Bristol East referred to the Avon gorge and the Bristol onion—I wonder whether that is as tasty as it looks. She also referred to swifts, urban habitat loss and the innovative planning requirements in Exeter. That is a good example of local action, and it shows how local nature partnerships can work really well. I am sure that her mentioning it in the House today will bring it to the attention of other local nature partnerships.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Calum Kerr), ably supported by the hon. Member for Falkirk, reminded us of Scotland’s contribution to helping the UK achieve its international commitments. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked a bit about trade around the world. The country has to earn its living, and there are huge opportunities for environmental services. Air quality is a personal priority of mine that I wish to take forward. On the circular economy, let me be clear: I support the principles, I just do not like the name. In fact, many companies are already leading the way on that, and I assure her that the UK is actively involved in the negotiations.
The decision to leave the EU means we now have a unique opportunity to design a set of policies specific to the needs of Britain, its species and habitats. We will continue to provide strong international leadership on biodiversity and to work with the EU. Our goal is to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it for future generations. I thank all hon. Members who participated in the debate.
I am delighted that you have been able to join us for the latter stages of the debate, Mr Bailey. I am sure you will have picked up in that short time how important this issue is for the future of our countries and for future generations. I thought it was put incredibly neatly by the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), who said of our generation, “Let us not create a global extinction event as our legacy.” I cannot underline that more. The debate has been an important contribution to making sure that, as far as possible, we leave a really good legacy for the next generation. I thank all hon. Members who took part.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered global biodiversity.