I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 254607 relating to restoring nature and climate change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and an honour to introduce the petition on behalf of the Petitions Committee. It is timely because of the climate crisis we face, but also because it is a hot topic in Ambridge at the moment, for those who listen to “The Archers”. That is always a useful barometer for a certain part of public opinion.
The petition, which calls for natural climate solutions, such as rewilding, to be enacted to tackle the climate emergency, has been signed by around 110,000 people, including over 650 from my Cambridge constituency. It makes a series of important points and reads:
“Restore nature on a massive scale to help stop climate breakdown.
To avoid a climate emergency we need to act fast.
Rewilding and other natural climate solutions can draw millions of tonnes of CO2 out of the air through restoring and protecting our living systems. We call on the UK Government to make a bold financial and political commitment to nature’s recovery.
We need to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate breakdown. To do this we need both to reduce carbon emissions and to remove carbon from the atmosphere. By drawing down carbon, nature’s recovery can help us reach net carbon zero.
We have a chance for the UK to become a world leader in natural climate solutions. Those who manage our land and sea play a pivotal role and should be supported to come together to deliver carbon reductions.”
I doubt many—or even any—of us here would disagree with much in that statement. It is a topic that chimes with the public mood over the last year. From the school climate strikes, the Extinction Rebellion protests and many more related campaigns, it is clear that stopping climate breakdown is at the top of the agenda for many people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this wonderful debate with his magic power. More people in Huddersfield than in Ambridge signed the petition. Does he agree that we need more action from this Government and from the Opposition parties? Climate change is now. We must not put noughts on. We need the northern forest, millions of trees planted and so much more. Does he agree that this is an emergency and we have got to act now?
Strangely enough, I agree, as my hon. Friend will find as I go through my speech.
We should start with some definitions. I make an introductory caveat; I am not someone who believes that humankind is the cause of all problems, although we cause many. I have always been slightly puzzled by the term “unspoiled” that some people apply to areas untouched by human intervention. There are certainly many—far too many—places that have been spoiled, polluted and harmed, but there are also examples of glorious and wonderful buildings and interventions, where people have achieved works of great beauty.
In that recognition of where humans can enhance our environment, will the hon. Gentleman join me in paying tribute to the Sussex Wildlife Trust and the wildlife trusts around the country that do so much to support our environment with innovative and practical solutions?
I suspect that many Members around the Chamber will have worked with their local wildlife trusts and seen the excellent work they do. Just a few weeks ago I was with the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Northamptonshire releasing Nora the hedgehog into the wild, although Nora’s building was not one of the works of art I was about to reference in my great city of Cambridge.
Cambridge is full of fine examples of magnificent buildings and we are proud of them. They are often the work of previous generations, sometimes created in political and economic circumstances that we would not now accept. We can all point to examples across cultures and countries of magnificent interventions. My point is that we are not for or against nature, but with better scientific understanding of our impact on the wider environment, we now have the responsibility to act in a way that does no more harm and, where harm has been caused, take the opportunity to work with natural processes to secure improvement. That is my starting point.
Kent Wildlife Trust, along with others, has a strategy of greening urban areas. Will the hon. Gentleman welcome its initiatives and others, such as that at Luton Junior School, in my constituency, which plans to build a green, living wall to help absorb pollution and improve the future health of the children at the school?
I will say a word about the role of water and wetlands. The hon. Gentleman will know the example of Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire and about the work that is being done to improve the wetlands towards Anglesey Abbey. We could do with more work like that around the country. In Hertfordshire, our chalk streams are suffering from over-abstraction. Do we not need a policy for water?
Is my hon. Friend aware of the 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that show that nature and climate crisis are inextricably linked? The IPBES report says that 1 million species globally are at risk of extinction. Does he agree that nature-based solutions are a fundamental way of stopping climate change and preventing the extinction of species?
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. It is great that we are all paying tribute to our local wildlife trusts; I will put in a word for the wonderful Sussex Wildlife Trust. Does he agree that we need urgent action? Ministers could make a decision right now to ban the burning of blanket bog, ending the release of huge amounts of emissions that could otherwise be captured by peat. When we consider that globally peatlands can store more carbon than rain forests, we need to be doing much more and not burning them.
My hon. Friend is exceedingly generous in taking interventions in this important debate. I pay tribute to the Walthamstow Wetlands—I hope they will be on his tour—and to my local authority, which has planted 5,000 trees in the last year alone in Waltham Forest.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) is right when she says that we need to look at what Government can do. Many of us are interested in ideas about carbon pricing and how we can further incentivise rewilding as part of tackling climate change. Frankly, it is not enough to leave it to local communities and local authorities, which do individually brilliant things; in this time of climate emergency, we should ask national Government to incentivise rewilding. Does my hon. Friend have a view on that?
I had a wonderful day out in Walthamstow with my partner earlier this year, when we came to see some of the wonderful things that have been done there. On the point of urgency, my hon. Friend is right. The conclusion to my speech will lay down the challenge to the Minister about the degree of urgency we face, which I am sure he will respond to.
The right hon. Gentleman is right; again, I will make that point in my speech. When we work together with local communities we can achieve much more.
The petition specifically talks about rewilding and natural climate solutions, and I want to draw on a number of examples and points that experts on those subjects have raised with me. The organisation Rewilding Britain describes the issue as being about people reconnecting with nature, wildlife returning and habitats expanding, while communities flourish with new opportunities. That starts from the principle that natural processes drive outcomes, and that rewilding is to go where nature takes it, with long-term benefits for future generations. I will give some examples, beginning close to home.
There are some wonderful long-term projects such as the National Trust’s visionary project to restore wetlands around Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, which has been mentioned. That project has been ably promoted over many years by Tony Juniper, who now chairs Natural England. He is a highly regarded environmentalist. I will mention in passing that he was my Green party opponent in the 2010 general election in Cambridge. We spent a long evening at the count together after he had run a brilliant, vigorous and exciting campaign, which, sadly for him, secured only a few thousand votes, marginally behind me. I came in a disappointing third. I remind colleagues gently that election outcomes are not always exactly as anticipated. Tony has recently written extensively about the social and economic benefits of a nature-centric green new deal, which would unlock benefits such as public health improvements, both physical and mental. It is a programme that I strongly approve of.
However, it is not just land policy that attracts the attention of rewilders. We need to look to the oceans as well.
The hon. Gentleman has touched on something that is important in our approach to the debate. When we talk about rewilding and climate change, we often talk about the challenges. Would not it sometimes be better to talk about the opportunities, for jobs, the economy and the social fabric?
I am slightly alarmed at the unanimity that is breaking out in the Chamber today. The hon. Gentleman is right and many of us have noticed that in the last period the green economy has survived times of recession much more effectively than the rest of the economy.
To return to the subject of the oceans, the securing of no-fish zones in oceans can allow marine habitats to recover from the effects of bottom trawling and scallop dredging. An example is the no-take zone in Lamlash bay in Scotland. That is beautifully outlined by Rewilding Britain on its website. The issues are not always straightforward. In my area, the Cambridge Independent reported last week that Cambridgeshire County Council’s goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions is going to be more challenging than originally thought, as peatland emissions will be included in Government calculations from next year. Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange, which strongly advocates nature-based solutions, identified—as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) pointed out—that peatland is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions in Cambridgeshire. Adam Barnett of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds tells me that that is a crucial issue. Consequently, the RSPB and other organisations rightly want to ban the burning of peat bogs, which releases carbon and is extremely damaging to the atmosphere. I hope that we shall get a response on that from the Minister. I know that questions have been put to Ministers about it before.
I have mentioned just some of the complex range of issues that there are to consider. The staff serving the Petitions Committee were kind enough to set up an engagement event on the topic in Cambridge last week, and we had an extremely well-informed roundtable with experts in my constituency. I record my thanks to the Clerks to the Committee for their work on it. Our discussion took place at the premises of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative in the iconic David Attenborough building, a conservation campus that is home to organisations that promote the natural world, such as the RSPB, Flora & Fauna International and BirdLife International. There, I was privileged to meet Dr Mike Rands, the executive director of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, and Dr Andy Clements, the director of the British Trust for Ornithology, who shared with me their insights on natural restoration. Dr Clements hammered home the point that data and monitoring of natural activity are crucial. We must know the state of affairs to be able to improve it.
My hon. Friend has the great advantage that I have, of having a superb university in his constituency. Are universities, in partnership, doing enough in terms of leadership? I find that many universities do research and do not share with their local communities and groups, or even local government. Could more be done? Of course, many universities, such as Cambridge, are large landowners.
Cambridgeshire is not as flat as all that, if you cycle around. However, in answer to the intervention of the right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald)—yes; some important leadership, and extraordinary plans and ideas, are coming from such places as the University of Cambridge, about the dramatic interventions we might make to tackle climate change.
To return to the topic of data, there are many ways in which we can assess what is happening in the world. I was reminded, during the discussion we were having, of the work of immensely important organisations such as the Bumblebee Conservation Trust; its chief executive, the inspiring Gill Perkins, has pointed that out to me before. Its annual “BeeWalk” involves volunteer “BeeWalkers” walking the same fixed route once a month between March and October, counting the bumblebees seen and identifying them by species and caste where possible. That is important, and I suspect we are also all familiar with the hugely popular and important annual RSPB “Big Garden Birdwatch”. Those are just some of the ways in which we can monitor and assess what is going on. As hon. Members have suggested, such public engagement is vital. By encouraging each other to monitor the world around us, we shall, I am convinced, become better informed in our efforts to protect it.
During our discussion in Cambridge, the importance of data and evidence was further highlighted by Hazel Thornton of the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre. She told me that out of 337 common interventions that it had assessed, only about a third were evidence based. That is a striking statistic. I suspect that all too often we do things that we think are helpful because they are what we have always done, without really knowing whether they have the desired outcomes, or—worse—whether there is a risk of unintended consequences.
Hazel Thornton advocated Government support for open-access data and decision-making tools, which should include consideration of costs and local values. She also called for Government funding for a long-term evidence monitoring system. I have considerable sympathy because, important as voluntary efforts are, they need to be complementary to rigorous scientific recording.
Dr Clements highlighted the need to tackle the carbon crisis and biodiversity crisis together. He pointed out that in some ways the carbon crisis is simpler to communicate to the wider public. We can probably all remember the need to limit temperature rises to below 2°C, but the biodiversity crisis, which is just as crucial, is perhaps harder to explain in simple memorable terms that capture public attention.
Almost as we speak here, discussions in the main Chamber will have an impact on the ways forward. The Environment Bill and our wider future relationship with our European partners will both have a significant impact on the issues that we are debating. A point that has been much stressed in the many recent debates is that, were we to leave the European Union, that should not lead to the potential regression of existing environmental standards. Dr Clements emphasised that to me and, as Members would probably expect, there is near-universal agreement among those who are expert in the field. The combined power and influence of 28 states acting together should not be lost. It is a global climate crisis and we must tackle it collaboratively.
Sue Wells, of the Cambridge Conservation Forum, focused on the need to take oceans into account when making policy. She explained that marine issues could get left behind in comparison with terrestrial projects. Another issue that was highlighted locally was fenland projects. Roger Mitchell, of Fens for the Future, talked about the need for nature-based solutions to the carbon emissions of the fens, which we have already discussed.
All this suggests a wider picture. When developing our land for our needs—housing, transport, infrastructure —we must maintain a focus on natural capital and on nature-based solutions to carbon emissions. Whether in planning flood diversions and defences with natural solutions, or in projects such as East West Rail, which affects my constituency, and the natural capital work there, we must focus on the environment alongside any development plans.
There are good examples of where past developments can be improved. Recently, I visited Anglian Water’s sewage treatment plant in Ingoldisthorpe, Norfolk, with the East of England all-party parliamentary group. We were all impressed with the work that had been done to create beautiful wetlands and increase local and regional biodiversity. The restored wetland removes the need for carbon-intensive, expensive nutrient-stripping techniques, while improving water quality; it is a great project led by the Norfolk Rivers Trust.
We must keep our focus on the environment when delivering investment for the future, and we must think long term. Sarah Smith of the Wicken Fen rewilding project told me the project has a 100-year plan to extend the nature reserve by 10 miles, as I mentioned earlier.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as that allows me to put on record my tribute to the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, which runs the Eastwood nature reserve in Stalybridge. On the things that he has just mentioned, which I think we all agree with, does he agree that housing is perhaps the area that needs the biggest change? I see far too many generic, developer-led developments that have no relationship to the natural world around them. If we are serious about not just putting investment in, but changing how we do things, housing must be planned in a much better way with respect to the local environment. If we are serious about doing things such as garden villages, that could be the way, but I do not think the present approach will achieve the outcome he is quite ably describing.
My hon. Friend’s intervention takes us off into a different debate in some ways, but I absolutely agree with him. It is much to be regretted that the very high environmental standards for new build that were in place in 2010 are no longer there, but I am sure they can be restored—if not before Christmas, soon afterwards, perhaps.
I spoke before about long-term planning. While Wicken Fen may be looking 100 years ahead, I am not sure Parliament can look forward 100 hours at the moment, but we do need to commit to long-term natural restoration.
Can we put on the record the importance and value of roadside nature reserves, which are often forgotten in the dynamic environment we live in? Many of our wildlife trusts work alongside their local authorities to keep our roadside nature reserves wild and keep those species living in that protected environment, but there is no statutory requirement for local authorities to invest in them. It is important that we remember the value of roadside nature reserves in the context of this debate.
The hon. Lady must be a mind reader, because that is my very next point. She makes an important point, because, as I was going to say, beyond those big long-term projects, there are quite simple things that can be done locally or individually. That was drawn to my attention by Olivia Norfolk, of Anglia Ruskin University, who said that simple solutions in urban environments to encourage nature restoration, such as not mowing road verges, can be important. However, she also argued that, while we can all act ourselves, we need urgent systemic changes to the way we run the country, and we cannot continue to export our costs overseas.
The hon. Gentleman’s exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) reminds me that when I served as Roads Minister in the 1980s, we planted over 1 million trees a year—they were not actually trees when they were planted, but many of them have grown into trees. Those nature reserves are very important, particularly if they can provide continuous habitat and corridors for animals to get around; it is not just about the foxes getting into town on the railways, but about providing a variety of planting that we do not often get in some managed forests.
I am grateful for that intervention. It must be a wonderful thing to be able to see that the trees that were planted then have now come to fruition. That is also an important point.
If we are to consider all these points alongside a future generations initiative, we need to make not only individual and cultural changes, but systemic, Government-led ones. Tom Maddox, of Natural Capital Hub and Flora & Fauna International, told me of the need to adopt a holistic approach, and in 2021—
I apologise for interrupting. I thought there was a semi-colon there, but perhaps there was not. I know the hon. Gentleman is concerned about an outbreak of unanimity, so in case that should happen, can I put it to him that natural climate solutions must be supported, but only in addition to, not instead of, rapid emission reductions in every part of the economy? Does he share my concern that Heathrow airport, for example, is pushing a set of ideas about peatland restoration as part of its so-called carbon-neutral growth plans, but not changing business as usual? We must not use natural climate solutions as a way to avoid real carbon reduction.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady; I am sure there is no danger of complete unanimity breaking out when she is in the room. She is right that, when it comes to the issue of Heathrow, there is certainly not likely to be unanimity. That is an important point, because sometimes—I am not saying this about that particular project—it is pretty clear that there is some greenwashing going on, and we must always be mindful of that.
I turn to the Government and ask for a couple of commitments—first, clear leadership and a commitment to implementing nature restoration measures, rather than simply leaving them to the market, where simplistic short-term economic arguments too often win out. Yes, restoration can make absolute economic sense on a macro level, but individual actors need encouragement, education and direction on why they should change their behaviour. Targets and monitoring are vital there.
Secondly, as I suspect is often the way, I want to press for more ambition from the Government. The 25-year environment plan includes measures that would improve our natural environment, yes, but many would say that we should go much further. The commitment to restore 500,000 hectares, for example, is half what a single company has pledged in Indonesia. We should look at what others have pledged in the Bonn Challenge. The commitment to raise forest cover in England from 10% to 12% takes us from sixth lowest in Europe to eighth lowest, still behind Scotland and Wales. Most European countries have over one third of their land covered in forest. Belgium has a similar population density to us, but over twice the forest, so we can do more, and we can challenge ourselves further.
I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman pay tribute to the efforts of the Scottish Government, but does he agree that the efforts of organisations such as Network Rail hold them back? It is trying to cut down swathes of trees along the railway lines through my constituency, removing a nature corridor that is important to local people.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right and points to exactly the kind of trade-off that I was referring to. As a member of the Select Committee on Transport, I should be at this very moment questioning Mr Williams on this issue. She is right to draw attention to the many trees that are being destroyed.
Let me conclude with a voice from a future generation, because last week I received a letter from Maggie, a 10-year-old girl from a primary school in my constituency, and I would like to quote one or two of the things she said:
“Sir David Attenborough said that ‘nature recovery’ laws must be created to ensure ‘habitats are expanded and reconnected’. Please ask the Government to pass a law to protect our wildlife!”
She went on:
“Secondly, our wildlife is endangered by the plastic in the sea and us cutting down their homes. We also need to stop littering around our environment, fields and especially on the beach! To sum up, I need you to tell the government that they need to act now and my question for the government is: do you want to keep ruining animals’ lives, or do you want to save the animals and our world from climate change?”
I must say that in my political life I have rarely invoked Maggie, but today I hope the Minister will rise to the challenge of 21st-century Maggie and act to protect her, and our, future.
Thank you for calling me first on this side of the Chamber, Mr Hosie. I declare an interest, in that I am a member of the Conservative Environment Network, and before that I was a member of the Tory Green Initiative in the 1980s. My commitment to the environment is sincere.
I congratulate the constituents of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on their ingenuity in using a petition, which is a very unusual way of bringing their concerns to a Chamber of the House, formed, as it is, of general Members. I hope that those constituents will feel satisfied with the response they receive today from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who has done so much in the field of the environment, long before he was promoted to be a Minister.
I congratulate the Government on what they have done so far, particularly on setting carbon limits, dealing with deforestation and their work on plastics. Last year, I was in India, in Bangalore, and I was astonished by the amount of plastics there. This autumn, I was in Delhi, and I saw very little plastic. I asked my host why, and he said that they had taken action in India, and that had made a decisive difference.
The issue of carbon emissions goes beyond the countryside, and it has to be faced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and others. During the Queen’s Speech debate, I drew it to the Health Secretary’s attention that the NHS’s carbon footprint in England is around 27 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents, and suggested to him that all new hospitals and health facilities in this country should take carbon footprint into account. The carbon footprint is high and it takes into account health service buildings, but we also have to look at the carbon footprint of healthcare services and medicines; the carbon footprint is measured without taking into consideration the pharmaceutical products provided as medicines.
I refer colleagues to an article published last year by Agence France-Presse, which said that large numbers of pharmaceuticals had been found at levels dangerous for wildlife and the environment. It said:
“River systems around world are coursing with over-the-counter and prescription drug waste,”
which is extremely harmful. If this trend persists, the amount of pharmaceutical effluence leaching into waterways could increase by two thirds before 2050, according to scientists speaking at the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna in April 2018. Francesco Bregoli, a researcher at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, said:
“A large part of the freshwater ecosystems is potentially endangered by the high concentration of pharmaceuticals”.
He said that a large number of drugs—analgesics, antibiotics, anti-platelet agents, hormones, psychiatric drugs and antihistamines—have been found at levels dangerous for wildlife. As part of a study, he focused on one drug, diclofenac, which both the European Union and the US Environmental Protection Agency have identified as an environmental threat; its veterinary use in India has driven a subspecies of vulture on the Indian subcontinent to the brink of extinction.
For scale, healthcare in the world’s largest economies, including China and India, accounts for 4% of global emissions, while carbon dioxide emissions from healthcare in the world’s largest economies account for about 5% of their national carbon footprints, according to a recent study. Scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany have said that climate change and medicines are inextricably linked, with rising global temperatures associated with everything from the spread of infectious diseases to the impact of dangerous weather events. They say that this is the major threat to human health of the 21st century.
I am listening attentively to the hon. Gentleman. A cross-party group of us are very interested in the quality of water in our rivers and streams. Indeed, in Huddersfield, I chair Greenstreams, which looks at the issue locally. Will he look with us at the quality of the Thames, and how its high levels of pollution were turned around right on our doorstep? Of course, building the new Palace of Westminster will have a vast impact on that river.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie, and to follow the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), who has reminded me of some pleasant holidays in the New Forest. My wife always reminds me that I fell off a bike there—she will be delighted that that is now on the public record.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on his excellent introduction on behalf of the Petitions Committee. E-petitions have become a feature of this Parliament; they are an excellent way for the public to ensure that we hear their concerns and to press us to take action. It is fair to say that we have all received many representations on climate change in the past year or two, but today’s debate relates to a particular aspect that we have not touched on much. That shows that the climate emergency is moving up the agenda of the public’s priorities fast. In my view, we are not going far enough fast enough. How many of us can say that in our own lives we are doing all we can to tackle climate change?
Of course, change should come from the top. The Committee on Climate Change’s report in May led the UK to adopt a net zero target by 2050, but it also found that the Government are failing to prepare the country for the inevitable impact of climate change. That failure is putting our communities and infrastructure at risk. The consequences of our actions are with us already: over the past two decades, severe weather events across the country have cost an average of £1.5 billion a year—only this weekend, parts of Cheshire were subject to severe flooding. Those figures will be dwarfed in coming years by the overall cost and effect of climate change, including the cost to our environment and the human cost as swathes of land become uninhabitable all over the globe. If we do not take action now, the effects predicted in this country alone will include a trebling of heat deaths by 2050, far more frequent flooding, and food insecurity, which is a matter of national security. This is an emergency—and, of course, we may well be one of the more fortunate countries in respect of the impact of climate change.
We cannot and should not act alone, but that should not be an excuse for failing to take a lead. Why are we still financing fossil fuel projects overseas? According to Christian Aid, the UK Government are still spending more on fossil fuels than on renewable energy in developing countries. How does that set an example? It is not leadership. What does it say to the likes of China and India, whose CO2 emissions dwarf our own? Will our desperation to seal trade agreements with those countries—should we ever leave the EU—inhibit our ability to talk candidly with them about their need to change tack, too? I have a particular regard to the United States in that respect.
We know that our homes, our workplaces and other infrastructure need to be prepared for unavoidable climate impacts, yet the Committee’s report also tells us that the Government funding to help to support regions, businesses and individuals has ceased.
There has been a failure to start the critical conversations that we need to have with the public about the changes to behaviour that are necessary. In those circumstances, how will we really be able to equip our communities to meet the challenges of reducing carbon emissions and removing carbon from our atmosphere?
We know that natural climate solutions, and carbon capture and storage, can play a very important role in getting us to net zero. Rewilding and other natural climate solutions can be used to draw potentially millions of tonnes of CO2 out of the air, and to restore and protect our living systems. Indeed, new research estimates that a worldwide planting programme could remove two thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities. Of course, to do that we need to really prioritise the environment.
There was a manifesto pledge from the Conservatives during the last election to plant 11 million trees. I do not know whether the Minister can update us on the figures today, but I think we are some way short of that at the moment. Also, tree planting targets have been missed every year since they were set in 2013. Tree planting in England fell short of targets in the last year, with less than 1,500 hectares of the Government’s planned 5,000 hectares being planted with trees. Only 13% of the UK’s land area is covered by trees, which is well below the figure for other European countries; on average, the figure is about 35% across Europe. So, 13% simply will not be good enough to meet the challenges we face.
We often trade numbers across the main Chamber: the number of operations carried out, the number of homes built or the number of police officers that we have. Perhaps the real sign of change here will be when we begin to trade insults over the number of trees being planted by each Government. That would be a real sign that there was a genuine commitment on both sides of the House to take this issue seriously.
That is why campaigners are calling the Government’s progress on this matter “painfully slow” and are calling for a new strategy to enable the Government target to be met. The Woodland Trust has called for much greater Government support and I echo that call. I am pleased that my own party has pledged to be more ambitious. I refer to the pledge made last month by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) that a Labour Government would plant a million trees in hospitals throughout the UK, which is a very innovative and interesting way to look at things. Some departmental leads could be taken on this matter, too.
I was also pleased to put my name to a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) in support of the Northern Forest. Again, that is an initiative spearheaded by the Woodland Trust that aims to plant 50 million trees in the north of England. It is said that this Northern Forest would generate around £2.5 billion of social, economic and environmental benefits, which would be at least a fivefold return on investment. That sounds like a win-win situation to me and I hope we can all support it.
In addition to these ambitious plans, I am pleased that the Labour party has pledged to ban all harmful pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, which we believe pose a serious risk of harm to honey bees and other pollinators. We should not underestimate the importance of wildflowers to the ecosystem; we know that if we do not get them right, there is a risk to the entire food chain.
In that regard, I congratulate my local authority, Cheshire West and Chester Council, on work that it has been doing in respect of bulb planting and allowing certain sections of the highway verges to grow wild. The aesthetics of that certainly work for me; it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it adds a bit of colour and a bit of pollen to the ecosystem, which is something we can all learn from.
One of the chief recommendations of the Thirty by 2030 report, which was launched last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey), the shadow Business Secretary, was sourcing 90% of electricity from renewables and low-carbon sources by 2030. This includes greater use of carbon capture and storage, with a goal of expanding it to become a “significant component” of the energy mix by the late 2020s.
On that front, I was pleased to learn about a carbon capture usage and storage initiative for the north-west that is based in my own constituency. The HyNet proposals would be based on the key industrial cluster around the Mersey estuary, alongside state-of-the-art hydrogen production in the long run. About 5% of the UK’s energy output comes from this area, due to the high concentration of energy-intensive industry there, but its location also brings with it an opportunity, because there is the ability to repurpose the Liverpool Bay oilfield and gasfield infrastructure, to divert around 1 million tonnes of CO2 per year into those oilfields. That would be the equivalent of taking 600,000 cars off the road. Ultimately, these proposals have the potential to take over 10 million tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere each year, which would make a huge contribution to reducing our emissions.
The plan would also have economic benefits. It has the potential to create around 5,000 jobs between now and 2025. The key is to finalise business models quickly, to bring forward some of the first stages of industrial development, so that we can start to realise the impressive ambitions for this project that a range of local players has come forward to try to realise.
I believe that these plans have a big role to play, not only in carbon capture but in taking us away from CO2 and getting our economy more involved in hydrogen. I hope that we can discuss with the relevant Ministers—they are probably Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Ministers, rather than the Minister before us today—how we can bring that plan forward as soon as possible.
I believe that this country has an opportunity to become a world leader in climate solutions, but that can be achieved only by strengthening policy to deliver emissions reductions across all levels of Government, including across Departments. Delivery must be regarded as being much more urgently needed, and we can also do our part at other levels of Government.
Let us take the example of planning, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) referred to. Planning is not normally a party political battleground, but I believe that, if used innovatively, it could drive forward this agenda. I have long held the view that we should be doing an awful lot more to require developers to future-proof developments in terms of not only the environment, but climate risk. However, we should not just look at the bricks and mortar of the homes; we should look at how estates are designed.
Planning decisions made decades ago can still affect things now. I say that because on some of the estates built in the 1960s I see how the trees planted as young saplings have grown out of all proportion to the surrounding houses. Such trees are often too unwieldy to be of use, and they can damage surrounding properties with their roots, which have to be cut. Then, the tree has to be cut down. Also, some trees become diseased. So, this is an issue on which, in future, we could probably show a little more forethought.
Let us make sure not only that developments being built now have a minimum number of trees planted in their common areas, but that the trees planted will grow in sympathy with their surroundings. Let us think about what those trees will look like in 20 or 30 years. Also, there is no good reason for new industrial developments or office blocks not to have trees and plants designed into their layout.
When we consider new developments, let us look at transport too, because that is a key factor. There is evidence that improved bus networks can reduce carbon emissions. A fully loaded double-decker bus can take, on average, 75 cars off the road, based on average vehicle occupancy for both buses and cars; one bus can move 10 times as many people as a car can.
The benefits of a renaissance in bus travel are very clear in reducing CO2, but I wonder whether the people setting climate policy in London really understand that it is not quite as easy to get around on public transport in the rest of the country. Try getting a bus after 6 pm in my constituency, or on a Sunday, and it soon becomes apparent that if someone’s shift pattern is not 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, they need a car for work. So, we absolutely need to boost local bus services, which will help us to tackle CO2 emissions.
I am sad to say that previous generations of politicians have failed to appreciate the enormity of what we now face. We are sleepwalking into a climate catastrophe, and unless we begin to face up to the fact that carbon reduction needs to be done now, we will be the last generation to enjoy the benefits of industrialisation and we will impose on the next generation the consequences of our indolence.
This debate is not about some theoretical future prospect; it is about something that is happening now. We see it all around us, and around the world, with increased fires, droughts and cyclones. The warnings from the scientists are crystal-clear: unless we begin to tackle these issues with urgency, we will only see more of these climatic events. We should not hesitate to call this an emergency. People say words can be spoken in here that do not really change anything, and maybe at the moment they have a point, but we must show people that we can do better and that we have a real commitment from the heart of Government to tackle climate change. A substantial British green new deal should be central to that. It would reduce emissions, create employment and show the rest of the world that economic benefit and climate benefit are not mutually exclusive.
We need to recognise that we are here now because there have been several centuries of relentless pursuit of economic growth without thought for the environmental consequences. There have been so many advances made in that time that it would be wrong to suggest that economic growth is a bad thing, but it is no longer tenable to consider economic advancement in isolation. The scale of the challenge we face from climate change should lead us to say that restoring nature is as much an economic imperative as a moral one.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on presenting today’s topical debate and on taking so many interventions with great patience. I want to declare a non-financial interest: I am a member of the Communities Along the Carron Association project in the Falkirk area and the Community Green Initiative. If we are still here next week, I want to invite Members to attend an inaugural all-party group on youth climate action on 5 November at 12 noon. I cannot remember exactly where it is. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who mentioned the importance of peat bogs. Scotland has the largest peat bog in Europe, and we cherish its magnificence and beauty.
“Restore nature on a massive scale to help stop climate breakdown” is a straightforward petition, and the petitioners are to be congratulated on their clarity of purpose and their aims. Who would not agree with such an ambition? A world conversion is taking place across the planet. We are at a pivotal moment in time, and the UK Government must realise the importance of the petition. The presence of MPs attending this debate tonight emphasises the importance of the petition. It calls for the UK Government to financially and politically commit to supporting natural climate solutions that can draw millions of tonnes of CO2 from the air.
The UK Government support the need to combat deforestation and to promote sustainable forests. All the evidence before us shows that urgency is required to face this climate and biodiversity emergency head-on. All Governments have to ask difficult questions, but the question is very simple: are we to allow a crisis that hits the poorest people and countries the hardest? To continue to do so would surely be a sin, and the answer has to be a resounding no.
Why, therefore, do we undermine international climate finance contributions by UK actions elsewhere? For example, in last week’s debate I mentioned that the UK consumes 3.3 million tonnes of soy per year, taking it from the lungs of the world—the rainforest and Amazon regions—for animal feed. The UK could take steps to stop that practice immediately. Will the Minister tell us exactly what the UK Government are doing to address that unsustainable practice?
I want to move on to what Scotland is doing. The Scottish Government are determined to lead by example by measuring and enhancing our own natural capital. By doing so, we will benefit the ecosystems and people of our own country, and we will do our bit to help the environment and wellbeing of the wider world. Scotland’s biodiversity is at the heart of a thriving, sustainable Scotland. Initiatives worth mentioning are the marine protected areas and the introduction of white-tailed eagles. Beavers are now flourishing in Scotland. Scotland is taking a leading role in reducing carbon emissions and promoting one of the most ambitious climate change strategies of any country in the world.
Studies suggest that the elements of Scotland’s natural capital that can be given a monetary value are worth more than £20 billion each year to our economy, supporting more than 60,000 jobs. The Environmental and Resource Economics project report for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency concluded that the economic value of ecosystem services can be estimated at between £21.5 billion and £23 billion per year to Scotland. Those are staggering figures. Many of Scotland’s growth sectors, such as tourism and food and drink depend on high quality air, land and water. The Office for National Statistics figures reported the equivalent of 21,500 full-time jobs in Scotland’s low-carbon economy, showing that strong emission reductions are fully compatible with an economically thriving nation.
Scotland has met its target of 11,200 hectares of new tree planting—a significant increase on 2017—and plans to increase the target further in 2024 from 10,000 to 15,000 hectares. The new legislative framework is the toughest, most ambitious in the world, with the new 75% target for 2030 going far beyond what the IPCC special report says is needed globally to prevent warming of more than 1.5°. Our end target of net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045 is five years ahead of the rest of the UK, and is firmly based on what the Committee on Climate Change advised is the limit of what can currently be achieved.
Being mindful of other issues and unafraid to face up to difficult questions, poor air quality remains an issue in numerous towns and cities in Scotland. Effective change is needed now so that all of us can breathe clean air and lead healthy lives in the future. The Scottish Government’s ambition is that Scotland’s air quality should be the best in Europe. As part of the Cleaner Air for Scotland governance group, we have incorporated the British Heart Foundation, which will help to bring a fresh perspective to the issue.
To conclude, we are encouraging a reduction of energy use and promoting better choices to prevent harmful emissions, and protecting what nature has to offer. All of us have to face up to possible risks to the environment now and in the future. Any lowering of environmental standards post-Brexit will not be tolerated in Scotland.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for introducing the debate so well. He spoke with passion in his calm-mannered speech, and many of the points he raised set us up nicely for what was a good debate on all sides of the Chamber.
It is quite common for there to be consensus across all parties in Westminster Hall. If only BBC Parliament and the news channels showed more of what goes on here and less of what goes on in the main Chamber, people would see politics at its best. Many of the debates that take place here get into the detail and intricacies. They encourage Ministers to look at the details that matter, not just the soundbites. When we look at rewilding and restoring nature, it is in many cases the detail that matters. It is easy to put big picture phraseologies around how we want to restore and rewild nature—let us insert a very large number of trees and say we will plant this—but it is the detail and delivery that makes a really big difference.
It has been said by colleagues on both sides of the Chamber that climate change is real. In Parliament, businesses, local government and in all our communities, we are confronted by a pressing question: since Parliament has declared a climate emergency, what are you doing differently? If the answer is nothing, as frequently it is, that is not a good enough answer. When it comes to restoring nature, it means not only looking at how we reverse the biodiversity loss in rural areas, but how we reverse it in urban areas as well. It is about what role our brilliant local councils can play, as well as central Government. It is about businesses, voluntary groups, the third sector, and co-operatives and mutuals as well. There are lots of challenges and it is up to each and every one of us to do something.
That is why, when the shadow DEFRA team talks about the climate emergency, my hon. Friends the Members for Workington (Sue Hayman) and for Stroud (Dr Drew) are always keen to mention the phrase that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) used in her remarks: this is a climate and ecological emergency. If we focus solely on carbon, we will miss part of the debate. That is why we need to look at habitat loss, biodiversity loss, the problems with our soil and so much more besides.
The issue matters to all of us, no matter where we live. We know that catastrophe awaits us if we do not act sooner. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned, we are already seeing the effects now. If we do not drastically cut the amount of carbon we produce, the result will be sea level rises, extreme weather, population movements, and large parts of our planet—our home—becoming inhospitable and unliveable. There will also be greater biodiversity loss, habitat loss and the extinction of countless animal, insect, fish and plant species.
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
Indeed, while the debate has been going on, according to the latest biodiversity loss figures we will have lost a couple of species around the world. That shows just how pressing the matter is. Many of those species might not be household names. We had good debates on the ivory ban, in which the Minister played a part, regarding the loss of some flagship species—the elephant and the rhino—due to hunting activities. However, as we saw in the debate about the loss of insects led by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), small insects that many of us will not know the names of are just as important to our environment.
That is why it is good that so many Members have spoken about why rewilding is good. My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East and for Ellesmere Port and Neston, and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) talked about activities in their constituencies, highlighting best practice. Other Members discussed the big themes. I was very glad that the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) mentioned green walls in schools and roadside planting. Frequently, it is not just about big schemes; small things add up as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) said that we need to have more nature-based solutions, which is at the heart of what we are talking about. Frequently, we get very good language, but not enough action follows. That is why we need to say that rewilding and restoring nature is good, and we should promote it much more. It is a really important part of a nature-led solution to the climate and ecological emergency.
The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North spoke passionately about the importance of trees, and Opposition Members made contributions about the variety of trees as well. We need not only to plant more trees, but to ensure that the species that we plant do not contribute to a mono-species environment in which it is harder for insects, birdlife and other plants to thrive. We need to have a mixed approach because, in some cases, not ordering a million trees of the same species makes it slightly more expensive. However, ordering different species is what creates a truly unique environment, and we know from the research that planting multiple species alongside each other sequesters more carbon and provides a home for more animal species than having tree species of the same variety in the same location. When we talk about tree planting, we need to ensure that we are talking about true diversity.
The Government say a lot of good words on tree planting. Indeed, their manifesto commitment to plant so many trees, as my hon. Friend for Ellesmere Port and Neston mentioned, was positive. It is a shame that we have not seen action on it. I know that the Minister will not accept any greenwash in his Department, but unfortunately, we have lately had very bold soundbites and very poor delivery on tree planting. I would be grateful if the Minister set out how he intends to reverse that.
Sequestering carbon in our forests is really important. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East spoke about the importance of, and the opportunity to, sequester so much more in our natural environment, which could come from a potential change in agricultural setting. I look forward to the introduction of the Agriculture Bill and, as the shadow Minister for fisheries, that of the Fisheries Bill. Those two very important Bills have been hamstrung by the Brexit paralysis, but we need them because of the impact on our natural environment and on coastal and rural communities.
Many Members spoke about the importance of rewetting our peat bogs and preventing the burning of our grouse moors. My party launched that policy during the summer, and I spent an entire day at BBC Plymouth talking to different radio shows and TV stations about why moving driven grouse shooting and changing the economy and approach surrounding it could create additional biodiversity in those rural areas.
That approach works not only on driven grouse shooting, but on rewilding other forms of our natural environment. It is important to make the case not just for a rural environment, but for an urban and rural environment. We need to enhance biodiversity in all settings. As the majority of our population live in urban environments, it is important that our activities as individuals can take place in the areas where we live, not just the areas we want to visit or that we might think of when we talk about natural environments.
The right hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), who is unfortunately no longer in the Chamber, very boldly called for a policy for water. Indeed, the Government’s policies for water are far too managerial when it comes to our response to climate change. I encourage the new Minister to give his Department a little kick in that area, because there is an opportunity to go much further. The over-extraction of water from our chalk streams, for instance, rightly carries an awful lot of headlines. Severe damage is being done to our chalk streams, and it is not just fantastic figures such as Feargal Sharkey who campaign in those areas. Local groups right across our chalk stream communities are really concerned about what is happening in those precious and unique environments. We need to do so much more about that.
I have in my constituency the finest chalk stream in the world, the River Test. It is not simply abstraction that is one of our big challenges; we have a significant problem with nitrates going into our watercourses, which is causing huge challenges locally.
The right hon. Lady is exactly right. Frequently, when it comes to problems of biodiversity loss and habitat loss, the problems are always “and” rather than “or”—as are the solutions. That gives me an opportunity to mention the contribution of the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick). I feared that he may have stumbled into the incorrect debate for most of his remarks; however, he raised an important point about pharmaceutical effluents seeping into waterways.
The Minister has not yet had an opportunity to sit with me in a Delegated Legislation Committee and hear me talk about water quality, but I am sure those days will come very soon. He will hear of my concern about coked-up eels in the River Thames. Cocaine passed through by human behaviour is resulting in severe consequences for our marine life. “Coked-up eels” is a phrase that sometimes attracts the attention of our friends in the media, but I know that the Minister will be very familiar with the impact of human behaviour on the natural environment.
In my last few remarks, I will mention one part of the petition that has not really been picked up on. The petitioners said:
“Those who manage our land and sea play a pivotal role and should be supported to come together to deliver carbon reductions.”
Indeed, before the debate the World Wide Fund for Nature sent round a very helpful briefing paper about the importance of seagrass replanting. The majority of our debates about carbon sequestration tend to focus on tree planting, and for good reason. Trees are part of our natural environment. We drive past them, walk past them, and cycle past them, and we have them in our own gardens and our parks. They are vivid, and indelibly part of the solution. However, seagrasses can sequester 35 times more carbon than equivalent tree planting in the Amazon, for instance.
There is a huge opportunity to expand our seagrass replanting. Indeed, that is what is taking place in Plymouth Sound, the country’s first national marine park, in my constituency. The reintroduction and replanting of seagrass and kelp forests have a hugely important part to play not only in the biodiversity and fantastic marine species in our coastal waters, but in sequestering carbon. We cannot underestimate the importance of the oceans in playing a part in climate change. They have saved our bacon so many times regarding climate change, because of the amount of carbon they absorb. That is leading to ocean acidification and the loss of habitats, as we see around the world.
In sequestering more carbon, we must not focus only on tree planting, as the Government rightly have in their headline policy. I would like the Government to look, through their marine policy—both in terms of the UK’s coastal waters and our waters around our overseas territories further afield, which I know the Minister has an interest in—at how the planting of seagrass, kelp and other marine plant forms can not only contribute to habitat restoration, providing a nursery for many fish and other marine life, but provide an opportunity to sequester so much of the carbon that we have spoken about.
If we do not act quickly, climate change will be irreversible. That is why all the topics that we have spoken about, from actions at ministerial level down to the actions of local groups and wildlife groups, which we have heard so much about today, are so important. We must all do more to tackle climate change. We must all recognise that the climate emergency means that the way we live, work, travel and play all need to change. That is why the direction set by Ministers is so important. Under the previous regime, we had countless consultations from DEFRA, but not enough action. I hope that in this new era, with the Minister in place, there will be an end to the greenwashing and the obsession with press releases. I hope that the era of acting properly, with the swiftness and urgency that we need to address the climate emergency, will truly have begun.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir David, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) on securing this debate. It is similarly a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who has given a typically wide-ranging, thoughtful and knowledgeable speech on this hugely important issue. I will attempt to answer his questions; the “coked-up eels” debate is probably one for another day, but I look forward to it, not least learning what the impacts are. I do not doubt that human cocaine use has had a marked impact on the river environment, but it is not an area about which I know a great deal, so I look forward to hearing more in a subsequent debate.
The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned his constituent Maggie, who I believe is 12 years old. He can tell Maggie that I agree with her, and have done since I was her age; indeed, I have committed most of my life to campaigning and working on these issues. Nature clearly matters. Given that it is the only source of our wealth, our health, and our very lives, one could say that it matters more than anything else that preoccupies us in this ever-madder place in which we work. All the research, including the recent “State of Nature” report that a number of hon. Members have mentioned, paints a very gloomy picture of nature loss in the UK, with 41% of our species having declined since the 1970s. That report does point to some success stories, and it would be wrong to overlook them. Many of those happened as a consequence of Government, conservation groups, farmers and land managers all working together. Nevertheless, those success stories are the exception; we need there to be many, many more.
The situation globally is even worse. Scientists have warned that even a 1.5° rise in temperatures would be absolutely devastating for humanity, ecosystems and the natural world as a whole, but we are not heading towards a 1.5° rise. Currently, without radical intervention, we are heading towards a 3° rise, which—if we believe the majority of scientists—would be almost apocalyptic. Earlier this year, we saw the results of the most comprehensive assessment yet of the state of nature around the world, and again, the news is really bad. It tells us that today, 1 million species are on the brink of extinction. Over my lifetime, since the early 1970s—I was born in 1975—we have lost a staggering 60% of the world’s land animals in just those few years, and continue to destroy an area of forest the size of 47 football pitches every minute. Someone better at maths than I am would be able to tell hon. Members how many football fields’ worth of forest has been destroyed since this debate began. It is utterly shocking.
Our oceans, meanwhile, are under siege; we are told that by 2050, they will contain more plastic than fish, measured by weight. Fisheries that once seemed inexhaustible, such was their abundance, have either collapsed entirely or are on the verge of collapse. A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister referred to tackling climate change and biodiversity loss as
“two sides of the same coin”.
He was right. We cannot protect nature unless we address climate change, and we cannot properly address climate change unless we restore nature. I would add that unless we do those things, we have no hope of tackling base poverty around the world, either.
If that seems alarmist, we need only look at the facts. More than 1 billion people depend on forest for their livelihoods, more than 1 billion depend on fish as their main source of protein, and about 200 million depend on fishing for their livelihoods. All of us, of course, ultimately depend on the free services that are provided by nature, without which we simply could not survive. For the sake of nature, of climate and of people, it is critical that we step up our response, at home and internationally.
The good news, as a number of hon. Members have said, is that nature-based solutions have the potential to provide up to a third of the climate change mitigation that we need globally by 2030. Done properly, those solutions can turn the tide on the extinction crisis we are experiencing and provide sustainable, secure livelihoods for millions of people. Given that protecting and restoring nature provides a cascade of solutions to so many of the world’s pressing problems, it is extraordinary that it receives such a tiny proportion of global aid support. Of all the money invested by the world’s Governments in tackling climate change, just 2.5% goes to nature-based solutions. Such solutions should not become a substitute for decarbonisation on a massive scale, as was said by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is no longer in the Chamber. However, those solutions clearly merit a far greater share of resources.
I was therefore thrilled when the Prime Minister announced at last month’s UN climate summit that we in the UK intend to double our climate spending to £11.6 billion between 2021 and 2026, and—even more importantly—that much of that uplift will be invested in nature-based solutions and biodiversity protection. We have already announced a £220 million fund to protect the world’s biodiversity, including £100 million for a biodiverse landscape fund that will protect a large range of cross-border, ecologically biodiverse and important landscapes. We are also trebling annual funding for the brilliant, long-established, and—as some hon. Members will remember—threatened Darwin initiative. Ten years ago, a number of Members had to step up to protect that initiative, because it faced closure. It is an extraordinary initiative, of which we can all be proud.
We are also committing an additional £30 million to tackling the grimly destructive illegal wildlife trade. We are on track to deliver the $5 billion of finance for stopping and reversing deforestation that we pledged alongside Germany and Norway in 2015, and are making big efforts to protect the world’s oceans. We have dedicated £23 million to supporting communities to maintain and enhance 20,000 hectares of mangroves in Madagascar, Indonesia, Latin America and the Caribbean. We have directly helped 100,000 people through building resilient jobs and supporting marine life. We are on track to protect more than half of UK and UK overseas territories waters by 2020 through our world-leading Blue Belt programme, and have announced that we intend to expand that programme much further, with an initial £7 million put aside to protect some of the most diverse marine systems on Earth.
At the UN General Assembly, we announced a global ocean alliance of countries committed to a new global target: to protect at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030. Countries are lining up to sign up to that commitment—I forget the exact number, but it is a relatively new campaign, and over 10 countries have already signed up to it, with a number of other countries flirting with doing so. Hopefully, they will sign up in the next few weeks and months. We are also working with our friends across the Commonwealth to tackle the scourge of plastic pollution in our oceans. As one hon. Member pointed out, 1 million birds and 100,000 mammals lose their life every year from eating, or getting tangled up in, ocean plastic. As part of the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, we have invested in programmes worth up to £70 million to tackle that issue.
We have also invested in research so that we can better understand the role of the oceans. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned the value of seagrass, and he was right to do so: we know that seagrass has an extraordinary capacity to absorb carbon, but we do not fully understand the role of the oceans as a whole in relation to climate change. For example, we do not know the full impact on the ocean floor of bottom trawling and dredging, but science is emerging that suggests it plays a gigantic role in releasing emissions. That is something we need to know, so we are investing in that research. In the meantime, we are investing in protecting fragile ecosystems in the oceans. We are working on a number of other big interventions on land and at sea, and I look forward to telling hon. Members who are interested in these issues more about those interventions in subsequent debates.
However, this is not just about aid. As we negotiate new free trade agreements, we must be confident that we are not importing deforestation through environmentally damaging goods, as was noted by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). The hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally) made the point about our environmental footprint here in the UK; I believe that we rely on an overseas land area more than half the size of the UK just for imported commodities such as palm oil, soya and things that we feed our livestock. Whether we like it or not, despite the fact that most people in this country would be appalled to know it, we are importing deforestation daily. Under our global resource initiative taskforce, we are working to create a plan to end our contribution to global deforestation through our supply chains. It is incredibly complex, but we have to find a way to do it. We have no alternative.
The OECD estimates that the top 50 food-producing nations spend about $700 billion a year subsidising landowners and farmers. At the moment, they do that pretty badly, with little regard for sustainability. We have to find a way to encourage as many of those countries as possible to shift the way that they subsidise farming, as we are trying to do here through our environmental land management schemes. We have set up the Just Rural Transition to do that.
2020 will be a gigantic year for nature and the climate. We will do all we can to deliver meaningful commitments at the convention on biological diversity in China and at COP 26, which we will host with Italy in Glasgow. We want to focus international attention on the importance of and opportunities inherent in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss through investing in nature-based solutions.
I will turn my attention back home, which has been the focus of most hon. Members’ speeches and where, as I said, biodiversity is undoubtedly suffering. We need to reverse that and we are taking steps to do so. The UK was the first major economy to set a net zero emissions target in law for 2050. The restoration of nature will be a big part of our response to that challenge. We are already committed to planting 11 million trees in England, plus a further million trees in and around our towns and cities. Despite the scepticism of several hon. Members, we are on target to do that. I am fully confident that we will meet that target, but, equally, I will not pretend that it is anywhere near ambitious enough. We will have to do much more.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport rightly laid out the challenge: we need to ramp up our efforts. In the next few months, we will consult on a tree strategy for England. Earlier this year, we announced a new Northumberland forest, which will be delivered through a local partnership. This year, we will launch the woodland carbon guarantee, a new £50-million market-based mechanism to provide long-term payments to land managers in England to plant trees.
I will move on, briefly, to peat, which was raised by almost all hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). Peat, including blanket bogs and peat soils under agriculture, acts as the UK’s largest terrestrial carbon store. When peatlands are working and healthy, they sequester carbon, nurture wildlife, act as water regulators and contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Some 86% of peatland emissions come from lowland peat in agricultural use. This year, we launched a lowland agricultural peat taskforce that will deliver recommendations for a new, more sustainable future for agriculture on lowland peat in England.
Several hon. Members talked about the problem of burning peatlands. There is no doubt that they are right; the Government share that view. There has been an attempt, through voluntary initiatives, to scale back—to reduce and eventually eliminate—the burning of fragile and important peat ecosystems, but that has not proven 100% successful as had been hoped. We are developing a legislative response to the problem and we will come back to the House in due course with our plans. There is no disagreement with the hon. Members who have spoken today about the need to address the issue, but we have to do that through legislation, because the alternative simply has not worked.
We are funding the restoration of more than 6,000 hectares of degraded peatland, much of it in the uplands, and we are allocating £10 million to 62 sites across England. We will publish a peat strategy for England that sets out a vision to reverse the decline in England’s peatlands and peat soils.
Much of what I have described, here and overseas, involves what some people refer to as rewilding, which is effectively integrating natural closed processes into land management. Rewilding is already happening across the UK in lots of projects, many of which deliver huge benefits. The hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned the Knepp estate in West Sussex, where agri-environment funding has helped to create extensive grassland and scrub habitats, with huge benefits for declining bird species such as the nightingale and turtle dove. I have not been to the Knepp estate, but I long to go and I will be going. I am told by those who have been that it is magical.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for quoting my brother’s article in The Spectator in which he promotes the value of untidiness in nature. He has also been a huge promoter of the release of beavers back into the countryside, so I would not get away with not mentioning the return of beavers, more than 500 years since they were eradicated by us. It seems to be unambiguously good news; it is an extraordinary thing.
Beavers are the ultimate keystone species. They build small dams along river tributaries and streams, which play a big role in holding back water following rainfall and help to mitigate flooding and drought, while at the same time breathing life back into the landscape in an extraordinary way. Science is only beginning to understand how that simple species has such a magnificent and transformative impact on the natural world. I am in total agreement with my brother on that, and he would have been furious if I had not mentioned the beaver.
In the marine environment, domestically, we are expanding our network of marine protected areas. The recent designation of 41 new marine conservation zones means that we have 355 sites covering 25% of UK waters.
Our new Environment Bill, which has been mentioned by several hon. Members, includes measures that will address the biggest environmental priorities of our age and ensure that the Government are held to account if we fail to meet net zero by 2050. It will place a duty on the Government to set long-term, legally binding targets on biodiversity, air quality, water, and resource and waste efficiency. It will lay the foundation for the nature recovery network that will create or restore half a million hectares of wildlife-rich habitat in England, which will encompass woodlands, peatlands, grasslands and coastal ecosystems.
I recommend going to the Knepp estate and talking to the Burrell family who run it. It is a wonderful wildlife centre.
I am listening attentively to the Minister. I apologise that I was not here at the beginning of his speech, because I was in the Chamber listening to the Prime Minister. Earlier, I raised the issue of zero-carbon medicines and treatments and sustainable healthcare. Will he have a word with the Health Secretary and share some of his experience in that field?
In terms of zero-carbon medicine, I will struggle to give my hon. Friend a comprehensive answer, because I do not know much about that. As one of the biggest landowners in the country, however, there is a huge amount that the NHS could do. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport mentioned the Opposition’s plans to require the NHS to plant 1 million trees on NHS land. That would be just a start. As we build new buildings and expand the infrastructure of the NHS, we should do so in as close to a zero-carbon and nature-friendly way as possible.
The food that is supplied to patients in hospitals should be local, sustainable and good quality, as it is in a number of hospital trusts. The Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust wins the prize every year for the most sustainable, popular and healthy food by sourcing local ingredients. There is lots that the NHS can do, but I will have to get back to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) about zero-carbon medicines. I do not know a great deal about that area, but I will seek to find out more.
The Environment Bill also establishes spatial mapping and planning tools to help to inform nature recovery and, alongside the provisions in the Agriculture Bill, the actions and incentives that are needed to drive change on the ground. It establishes an office for environmental protection, with a statutory duty to hold the Government to account on our progress to improve the natural environment.
The cornerstone of our agricultural policy will be the environmental land management scheme that will replace the common agricultural policy and be a hugely powerful vehicle for delivering real change. Of everything that we have discussed, that could be the transformational policy in relation to our domestic biodiversity—if we get it right. It means that the payment of subsidies to farmers and landowners will become conditional on delivering public goods such as biodiversity, clean water, flood prevention and mitigation, and adaptation to climate change. It is potentially huge and I hope that the whole House will support it.
The Government are investing in restoring nature, at scale, at home and overseas, and we are providing leadership—I have no doubt about that. Given the scale of the problem that many hon. Members have outlined, however, I will not pretend that this or any Government are doing enough to respond to the crisis. I am absolutely determined that, as long as I am a Minister, and as long as I am in this place, we will do a great deal more. In the meantime, I urge hon. Members to support our Environment Bill and work with us through its passage, so that we can further protections for nature. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cambridge again on his speech and on raising what is, perhaps, the most important issue of all.
On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I thank all hon. Members who have contributed. It has been a very good debate; there has been a considerable amount of agreement. I will not single out many—I know that we are possibly close to time in the main Chamber—but I will mention my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for all the expertise that she has brought to this subject over many years. I was particularly taken with her comments on the messiness of nature, which is an important point.
Finally, I strongly echo the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on tackling the climate and ecological emergencies together—they are absolutely interlinked. I was delighted to hear from the Minister a pretty strong pledge on ending peat burning. I will be able to go back to my constituent, Maggie, and tell her that he agrees with her, and I am sure she will hold him to all the promises on which she sought reassurance.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 254607 relating to restoring nature and climate change.