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Convention on Biodiversity COP15: Outcomes

Volume 725: debated on Monday 19 December 2022

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will update the House on the outcomes of COP15 on the convention on biodiversity, which was held in Montreal and from which I have just returned.

For too long, nature has been overlooked as the Cinderella of the story, but flora and fauna are important in and of themselves. Nature is both the essential foundation and a powerful engine of our economy, and helping nature to recover is one of the most cost-effective ways of tackling so many challenges, including the causes and impacts of climate change, thirst, hunger and ill health. and of bolstering peace and prosperity.

Early this morning, the world came together to secure the strong, ambitious global framework we need to catalyse a decade of environmental action. The framework is on the scale of the Paris agreement, as required, and puts nature firmly on the map. The agreement includes global targets to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030, and to see natural systems restored, species populations recovering and extinctions halted. It includes reporting and review mechanisms that will hold us all to account for making timely progress on bringing our promises to life, and commitments on digital sequence information to make sure communities in nature-rich countries feel the benefit of sharing the solutions that we know their flora and fauna can provide.

Behind the scenes, over many months, we have been working with Ecuador, Gabon and the Maldives to develop the credible 10-point plan for financing biodiversity during this decade that played a critical role in getting the agreement over the line, by giving nature-rich countries confidence in our collective willingness and ability to secure the investment needed to protect the natural wonders on which their people and, in many cases, the whole world depends. On the back of those efforts, public, private and philanthropic donors committed billions of dollars to new investment in nature.

The agreement includes commitments to create a new international fund for nature, to increase investment in nature from all sources to $30 billion a year by 2030, and to accelerate the vital shifts that are already under way to make sure our economies underpin our survival and our success. I thank our team of Ministers and pay tribute to all our UK civil servants from across Government and our world-leading scientists from a range of British institutions, including Kew Gardens and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

We have been on this journey since the CBD COP14 in Egypt in 2018, which I attended. In meetings with delegations from around the world, time and again, we heard praise for how the UK’s world-class negotiators helped to broker this agreement. We know from our experience here in the UK that, when we set ambitious targets, we see an acceleration in action to meet them across Government, sectors and communities, which is why we have worked so hard to secure these global targets.

Just before I set off for Canada, I announced that we have taken the next steps towards leaving the environment in a better state than we found it, by putting a set of new stretching domestic targets into UK law under the Environment Act 2021 on air, water and waste, as well as nature, land and sea, to improve the state of the environment in our country. These targets will be challenging to meet, but they are achievable. The global coalitions of ambition that we have been leading, co-leading and supporting will now shift towards supporting the implementation of the new international nature agreement.

The UK is committed to playing our part now and in the months and years ahead. Although no country can solve this alone, if we work together to make this a decade of action, we not only stand to avoid the worst impacts but, by securing the abundance, diversity and connectivity of life on Earth, we stand to build a better future for every generation to come.

I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. The agreement signed in Montreal this morning to protect 30% of the planet for nature and restore 30% of the planet’s degraded ecosystems is welcome news. That we are to protect a minimum of 30% of land and 30% of our seas is a benchmark we must adhere to, to avoid ecosystem collapse.

I was glad to be part of the UK’s delegation to COP15. The Secretary of State used her spot on the global stage to announce the UK’s environmental targets—the ones where she missed her own legally binding deadline in October. I note that the Secretary of State did not announce the delayed targets to the House first in the proper way, and I think that speaks volumes. We are still to have an oral statement on those targets.

It is astonishing then, that after all the warm words, the Government’s own targets do not include a 30% goal for protecting nature. The Secretary of State compared nature with Cinderella. If that is the case, the right hon. Members for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) and for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) must be the cruel stepsisters who have neglected her during their time in charge.

The Government also failed to include overall measures for water quality and protected sites in their targets. The reality of the Secretary of State’s watered-down targets means that our country and our communities will face even more toxic air and more sewage dumping for longer. A cynic’s view might be that the Government are happy to commit to non-legally binding targets in Montreal, while shirking any real responsibility at home. Ambitious environmental leadership means, at the very least, ensuring clean air, clean water and access to nature. It does not matter how the Government try to dress it up, their targets do not go anywhere near far enough and it is our communities that will suffer as a result.

Rivers in England are used as open sewers. Not one is in a healthy condition, and only 14% meet good ecological standards. With no overall water quality targets, the Conservatives can continue to allow raw sewage to flow into our natural environment hundreds of thousands of times a year. How does that fit with our Montreal commitments? Only Labour has a proper plan to clean up our waterways. We will introduce mandatory monitoring with automatic fines, hold water bosses personally accountable for sewage pollution and give regulators the power to properly enforce the rules.

One in five people in the UK live with a respiratory condition, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which are worsened by breathing toxic air. We know that is especially dangerous for children and vulnerable adults, and I am extremely concerned by the unambitious targets for air quality set out by the Government. Labour is committed to tackling this health crisis once and for all with a clean air Act, including the right to breathe clean air, monitoring and tough new duties on Ministers to make sure that World Health Organisation clean air guidelines are kept.

Of the 20 UN biodiversity targets agreed to in 2010, the UK has missed 17. When it comes to the environment, the Government constantly make the wrong choices, delay vital action and duck the urgent challenges. Failure to deliver on environmental targets at home show that their promises at COP15 mean very little. The Secretary of State’s colleague at COP, Lord Goldsmith, described the UK as one of the “most nature-depleted countries” on the planet. The Environment Act 2021 target on species abundance, which the Government were forced to concede by Opposition amendments, promises only to “halt” the decline in species by 2030. How does that now sit with our Montreal commitments? It is clear from the Secretary of State’s watered-down environmental targets that this Conservative Government have given up on governing.

I have never heard such rubbish from the Opposition. I am really quite sad about that. For a start, let us just get it clear: it was good that the hon. Member went to Montreal, but he was not a member of the UK Government’s delegation. I am glad that he went anyway, as did other Members. At the first opportunity after getting clearance for the targets, I did inform Parliament, and a written ministerial statement was laid in the Lords on Friday before I made a short announcement when I was in Montreal.

I am very clear that this agreement would genuinely not have been as strong had it had not been for the efforts of the UK Government. Even this morning, in the dark hours in Montreal, the text was reopened at our insistence to make sure that the depletion of nature was included in the text of what was agreed. At the same time, we have been working tirelessly, day in, day out, during this negotiation to make sure that we secured finances, because I am conscious that many nature-rich countries around the world need that financial support to make sure that nature is restored.

In terms of what we are planning to do here in the UK, frankly, nature has been depleted ever since the industrial revolution. That has recently been more recognised, and that is why it was this Government who put in place the Environment Act 2021. By the way, that builds on a number of environment Acts that previous Conservative Administrations have put in place, recognising the importance of legislation, but also delivery.

The hon. Gentleman refers to the air quality target. The only reason why we have kept what we consulted on—10 micrograms per cubic metre for PM2.5 by 2040—is because the Labour Mayor in London is failing to deliver it. I am absolutely confident that in the rest of the country it can be delivered by 2030, but that is why we will continue to try to make sure that air quality is a priority for Mayors and councils right around the country.

As for moving forward, almost every statutory instrument has now been laid today. There was a slight delay on one of them, but I expect those SIs to be considered by both Houses of Parliament next month. They will come into law. Meanwhile, we continue to work on our environmental improvement plan and making sure that the environment will be a better place than it was when we inherited it.

Will the Secretary of State say a few words about the need not only to stop the diminution across the world of biodiversity, but, ultimately, to get to a place where the expansion of nature can once again happen? That is a long way off. But is it not true that UK Government leadership on this issue has just delivered a major landmark step forward and we should all, across this House, be proud of the effort the team has put in, in order to make as much progress as this? In the international arena it is hard to get big agreements, and the Secretary of State has just got one.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. We both represent the magnificent county of Suffolk, which is why we are trying to make sure we continue that improvement of nature. I believe he is a champion for dormice and I am a champion for bitterns, and we have seen improvements in the habitats for both animals. On a long-term situation such as the environment, it is crucial that the House comes together to recognise the importance of what has been achieved and give credit, particularly to our civil servants, for that achievement. We also need to recognise the challenges ahead for Governments, local councils and industry, and for individual choices that people make, in what we are trying to do to not only protect, but enhance, restore and improve the environment, which we enjoy.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. Whether it is local schools such as St Paul’s Primary School in Shettleston having a focus on biodiversity in the school garden or global summits such as COP15, we all have our part to play. So we on these Benches welcome any progress made at COP15.

Scotland’s new biodiversity strategy includes the COP15 target of halting biodiversity loss by 2030 and goes further, with a target of restoring biodiversity by 2045. So will the British Government likewise produce a new biodiversity strategy, one that matches both the COP15 and Scottish targets? Ministers in Holyrood have recognised that the climate and biodiversity crises are inextricably linked, and that one cannot be tackled while the other is ignored. Does the Secretary of State agree with that, and agree that decisions to increase fossil fuel production and use will only accelerate biodiversity loss?

The Scottish Government led the UK in recognising the biodiversity crisis and have now led the UK in establishing a dedicated £65 million nature restoration fund. Will the British Government follow that example and create a dedicated biodiversity restoration fund for England? Finally, concerns have been raised about the sidelining of African states at the very end of the COP15 process, and the overruling of their calls for dedicated funding to support biodiversity efforts. Does the Secretary of State share our deep concern at global south nations being ignored? Does she agree that those who face the brunt of the climate and biodiversity crises must be heard in global climate negotiations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. The Scottish Minister, Lorna Slater, was out in Montreal as well, and it is really important that the UK works together to improve nature. I give credit to Scotland in that regard.

However, I say to the hon. Gentleman that we already have established funding, with the nature for climate fund, and through the blue planet fund we have already undertaken a number of investments that will improve nature, not only in this country, but around the world. I am particularly thinking of Commonwealth countries, but this also applies to overseas territories and the south, to which he refers. That is why the importance of the £30 billion funding that will go in was discussed back and forth, and the UK was very happy to make sure that it got delivered. We recognise the need to ensure significant investment all around the world and that value is attributed to nature as much as it is to climate, if not even more so. Candidly, we can do as much as we like on tackling climate change, but if we do not preserve and restore nature, it will effectively be for nought. That is why we have put so much work into doing this. It is why, at COP27 in Egypt, our Prime Minister set out the importance of restoring nature, saying that it was critical in terms of tackling climate change. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of our environmental land management scheme. We have started the first phase of the sustainable farming incentive, and we will be announcing more early in the new year as we make the transition from the traditional European funding, which is effectively area-based—on how much land people owned—to farmers being paid for certain goods in order to improve the environment and reduce carbon emissions.

This issue rightly attracts a lot of attention. In particular, schoolchildren in Moray often speak to me about biodiversity and nature. Indeed, it is one reason why a nature Bill was included in the Scottish Conservative manifesto for the Holyrood elections. The Secretary of State has outlined the collaboration that there was with Scottish Government Ministers out in Canada. Can she state what ongoing discussions there will be with the devolved Administrations to ensure that this crucial issue continues to be raised at the highest level within Governments across the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that collaboration, which is vital when it comes to recognising the importance not just of nature corridors, but of biosecurity, and it unites Great Britain. There is also the work that we do through Northern Ireland. Importantly, we have regular meetings with all the Governments of the devolved Administrations, and we will continue to do so. Nature is critical because of its self-evident transboundary nature. Whether it is about species abundance or about thinking of ways to reduce pollution, which has impacts on nature, we will continue to work collaboratively right across the United Kingdom.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the UK’s officials for what they have achieved in the negotiations in Montreal, and, indeed, to David Cooper, who, as deputy executive secretary, has worked tirelessly for many, many years. She knows that, despite 28% of England already being designated as protected areas, scarcely 4% is actually being protected. The target of 30% of our planet to be protected by 2030, however desirable, is just that—a target. It is nothing without a programme of implementation for the protective measures to restore those eco-systems and stop the extinction of species. That programme needs interim deliverable goals, yet in the written ministerial statement last week, the earliest interim target, against which the Government’s performance can be measured, is 2037. Will she set out clear UK staging points against transparent baselines, and does she accept that the Paulson report on the financing of nature says not that £30 billion is required, but that £711 billion is required?

Let me just correct the hon. Gentleman on the last thing that he said. What was published the other day was about the targets, which, according to the Environment Act 2021, have to be for a minimum of 15 years. The interim targets have not yet been published. They will be included in the environmental improvement plan and they are for a minimum of five years. Therefore, to get the record straight, they are two different targets.

On making improvements, I completely understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. There are a number of situations where we want sites of special scientific interest to be in a better state than they are. That is why we will work through the environmental improvement plan. That is also why we are taking advantage of Brexit freedoms to make sure that we can redesign how the money from the common agricultural policy, which currently supports farmers and landowners, will be repurposed to make sure that public goods are achieved, such as environmental improvement and the tackling of carbon emissions.

Will this landmark agreement open the way for larger-scale uptake of solutions such as mangrove and seagrass as a means of capturing carbon and helping to tackle global heating?

My right hon. Friend may not know this, but I am mad for mangroves. They are amazing. Unfortunately we cannot grow them in this country, since we are not in the tropics, but we do have salt marsh and we want to see increasing elements of that. I expect to see a substantial amount of the funding from our blue planet fund purposed towards mangroves; I believe we already have projects under way in Madagascar and Indonesia, and we will continue to try to develop those.

I have also recently returned from the international biodiversity summit, COP15, where I met representatives from the Wampis Nation, indigenous people from Peru. Their fear was palpable. Their neighbours are dying and the world has cast them aside. Can the Secretary of State tell me what the UK Government are doing to prevent their extinction, and whether COP15 was a missed opportunity to protect the rights of indigenous people?

Far from it. I appreciate that the agreement was only closed earlier today, but it was a significant win for indigenous people and local communities, which is why it played such a prominent part in the negotiations. I think the hon. Lady is probably behind the times, but I think it is important we continue to make sure that—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady obviously wants an Adjournment debate, and I am sure she might get one, but that would just give us a further opportunity to say what a magnificent achievement this was for the world and that it is thanks to the UK Government making sure that it delivered, not only for people in the UK, but for indigenous peoples and local communities. We will continue to strive to make nature for the planet a lot better than what we inherited from the last Government.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this statement and on all her work and leadership on this issue. Protecting ecosystems and halting biodiversity loss is critical to safeguard our planet for future generations. Does she agree that maintaining international leadership and making this issue central to Government policy is the only way to ensure that the changes needed will be delivered?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That is why it was important that when the Prime Minister went to Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27, building on our COP26 presidency where we included nature as a full day of the climate change conference, he referred specifically to the fact that £3 billion of the £11 billion total climate financing will be dedicated to nature. He recognises how critical it is, and we will continue to endeavour to improve the natural environment not only in this country, but around the world.

The agreement on a framework that commits to halting and reversing biodiversity loss is of course very welcome. However, it is a bit staggering that the Government’s own environment targets, smuggled out late last week, will fail to deliver on that goal. They do not even include goals to improve the condition of protected nature sites or overall water quality. As a priority, will the right hon. Lady align the Environment Act 2021 with the new commitments made in Montreal? Specifically, with just 38% of SSSIs and 14% of rivers in good condition, will she now commit to consulting on and setting those crucial targets next year?

The hon. Lady is right to congratulate the world on recognising that and the UK on its role in making sure that nature and restoration were included in the text—and if she did not mention our role, I can assure her that that was the reason it was put back into the text early this morning. The indicators we consulted on set out very clearly that the apex indicator was species abundance. There are a number of other targets that will aim towards that, and by achieving that, I am confident that we will achieve some of the other targets to which she refers, including of course increasing the number of hectares of habitat for nature in this country.

Protecting nature and increasing biodiversity is often led by grassroots organisations. I invite the Secretary of State to commend the work of the Friends of Miss Whalley’s Field, led by Paul Wiggins in my constituency, which takes a piece of land between the Freehold and Ridge estate areas of Lancaster and plants trees and wildflowers, involving children from local schools such as Castle View and Lancaster Christ Church primary schools and Central Lancaster High School. Will she not only commend the work of those volunteers, but reaffirm the Government’s commitment that they will not return to fracking?

I certainly commend the children and volunteers to whom the hon. Lady refers. Fracking has nothing to do with what I am talking about today. That statement has already been made separately by Energy Ministers.

Addressing biodiversity loss is an essential part of addressing climate change, but as with climate change, we see no sense of urgency or leadership in action from this Government. Does the Secretary of State accept that her Department’s failure to set targets for water quality or habitat protections in England undermined talks at COP15? She calls nature the “Cinderella of the story”, but Cinderella was never forced by the ugly sisters to swim in sewage. That achievement belongs to this Government.

I can say that our beaches are cleaner than we inherited them in 2010 from the Labour Government—that is clear. The hon. Lady must be very proud of the last Labour Government’s record of achievement on that. I say to her that this matters not just in our countryside and on our coast, but in our urban environments as well. We already have targets on water quality. In fact, I was discussing today with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) who is responsible for environmental quality and resilience, the approaches we are going to take to try to improve water quality, particularly by thinking about the chemicals in our water, which are particularly problematic in urban areas. That is something on which we need to work with local councils, as well as with the Environment Agency, to try to get changes so that we clean up the water right around the country. I am sure that the hon. Lady will join us when we need to take appropriate action in her constituency in future.

An historic deal has been reached today, including a global target to conserve at least 30% of land and inland water at a time when we know that not a single river in the UK is free from pollution. The Government only last week scrapped the indicator on river health, the only measure for water companies and the public to know whether their water is clean. Without that indicator, how will my Bath constituents know in future that their water is clean?

I think the hon. Lady is incorrect in her understanding about that. The targets are still in place on our aim to achieve for our rivers a 75% “good” ecological status by 2027. That is what we signed up to when we were part of the European Union, that is still our target today, and that is what we will keep working on. It is important that we continue to try to improve the environment—she will know that, given the difficult things that happened with air quality in her city—and we will continue to try to make sure that we take that right across the country.

I join the Secretary of State and others in the House in welcoming this important agreement, but it only means something if countries do what they have signed up to do. Can she tell us when she intends to bring forward any proposals that may be required to ensure that we in the UK match the very ambitious targets that have just been agreed in Montreal?

Through the Environment Act 2021, some targets on improving the environment are already in primary legislation. We have just confirmed pretty much the environmental targets that we consulted on earlier in the year. I believe the statutory instruments are being laid today, and I think one is being laid tomorrow, so that Parliament can vote on those legally binding targets. Meanwhile, we continue to make other improvements, including through the clean air strategy, the biosecurity plan, existing plans for increasing biodiversity, and landscape recoveries.

We are already doing a lot of work. Indeed, we are changing our funding away from the basic payment system and what the European Union did—making payments to improve the environment based on the amount of land somebody owned—to paying for services, so that we can do more spatial targeting in a more intelligent way by improving water quality and reducing pollution. We will take that forward in aspects of the environmental improvement plan, which will be published next month, as well as in the changes that we will make through the environmental land management scheme.

First, may I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, which is really encouraging news? I think we are all excited by what she said. As somebody who has been involved in prior biodiversity drives and has planted some 350,000 trees on my land, I know that other landowners will get involved if the incentive is there. I am inspired by the aims, but will the Secretary of State outline how she believes that the UK as a whole can achieve them, how the devolved nations will play into them, and how we in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can all win?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I know that the people of Northern Ireland are also keen to see enhanced nature. I recall my trip earlier this year when I went to the Giant’s Causeway for the first time ever and saw beauty in nature but also the force of nature and a desire to continue to improve it. As for how we work together, it will be up to individual devolved Administrations, but I know that Northern Ireland Ministers and the Executive have been very supportive of our approaches so far.

What impact is the UK’s decision to cut the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income having on the UK’s ability to contribute to the 10-point plan for financing biodiversity?

We have actually increased the amount of official development assistance going to environmental and climate change projects. I am excited about that. We will continue to see more money coming in from around the world, including from the private sector and philanthropic donors, to help achieve these ambitious aims. I am excited about the future decade.