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World Biodiversity

Volume 767: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to tackle the loss of world biodiversity caused by human activity.

My Lords, the matters that I wish to discuss today are largely taken from the excellent report by the IUCN Red List. By sheer coincidence, the latest list was published last Friday. It states that because of the melting ice at the North Pole, polar bear populations were expected to decline by 30%, confirming their vulnerable status. That was the headline announcement from the IUCN last week.

So, what is the IUCN and its Red List? The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organisation, with almost 1,300 government and NGO members and more than 15,000 volunteer experts in 185 countries. Their work is supported by almost 1,000 staff in 45 offices and hundreds of partners in the public, NGO and private sectors around the world. Of crucial importance is the fact that it is absolutely neutral; no one has ever challenged its findings or criticised its integrity. It is the most respected and thorough conservation organisation in the world and is free from political or personal bias.

The Red Lists are the most comprehensive sources on the global conservation status of animals, fungi and plant species. They are the starting point for conservation action. By 2000 the IUCN had assessed slightly more than 15,000 species. By 2015 it had assessed 79,859 species, and it has set itself the ambitious target of 160,000 species by 2020. The assessments are carried out by a global network of scientists who have access to the best scientific data and knowledge available on the species being assessed. Each assessment then goes through a review process involving scientists who were not directly involved in the first assessment.

The Red List is published in eight categories. The first category is species where the data are insufficient or not evaluated. The second category is “least concern”, the third “near threatened”, then “vulnerable”, “endangered”, “critically endangered”, “extinct in the wild” and finally “totally extinct”. The latest list, published last week, shows that of those 79,000-odd species 834 have been lost for ever and are totally extinct, while 69 are extinct in the wild. However, there are also 4,898 “critically endangered” species, 7,323 “endangered”, 11,029 “vulnerable” and 5,204 “near threatened”. I suppose if you had asked the public—or me, before I read that—to name critically endangered species, I doubt if we could have named 10. We might have come up with rhinos, tigers, maybe elephants, gorillas, polar bears and leopards, and then we would all have got a bit stuck. So how on earth have we got to the stage where almost 5,000 species are in danger of extinction and another 7,000 endangered? In the UK we have lost to extinction the starry breck lichen, and the roundnose grenadier is critically endangered, fished to near extinction by the French and Spanish. That latter comment is mine, not the IUCN’s, I hasten to add. The IUCN has also just announced that the Atlantic puffin, of which we all thought there were millions, has moved up into the “vulnerable” category.

Most people would say that it would be a shame if we did not see polar bears, pandas or lions any more, but would ask why we should care about all the other things that do not matter too much, like starry breck lichen. Those things do matter, though, and in our general ignorance of our wanton destruction we do not know how much they matter. Most Governments in the world are trying to cut carbon emissions but we are ignoring the one massive natural resource that captures carbon: forests. The protection of ecosystems such as peat bogs and forests is critical to regulating carbon. The Amazon rainforest has been described as the lungs of our planet because it provides the essential world service of continuously recycling carbon dioxide back into oxygen. More than 20% of the world's oxygen is produced in the Amazon rainforest, which also releases 20 billion tonnes of moisture every day, most of it watering crops tens of thousands of miles away.

The burning of the rainforest accounts for almost 20% of all carbon emissions in the world and that is far more than all the cars, lorries, buses, trains and ships put together. If we do not halt the total destruction of our rainforests we could close down all the transport in the world and we would still, eventually, die. We are destroying rainforests the size of England every year, and at the present rate they will be totally destroyed in 40 years’ time.

As rainforest species disappear, so too do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases. The National Cancer Institute in the United States has identified 3,000 plants that are active against cancer cells, 70% of which are found in the rainforests, and 25% of the active ingredients in today’s cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rainforests. However, of those 25% of western pharmaceuticals derived from rainforest ingredients, fewer than 1% of tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists. So we have tested 1% and are burning the other 99%, yet we are getting a quarter of our drugs from that 1%. How can we be so stupid as to destroy a habitat and species permanently when we have not looked at 99% of the species in it and what benefits they may bring to our survival?

Let us briefly consider the three following facts: a single pond in Brazil can sustain a greater variety of fish than is found in all the rivers of Europe put together; a 25-acre area of rainforest in Borneo may contain more than 700 species of trees, and that figure is equal to the total tree diversity of north America; and the number of species of fish in the Amazon exceeds the number found in the entire Atlantic Ocean.

With enormous effort and will on the part of all Governments in the world we could eventually reverse climate change, but we can never ever bring back to life a species that has been wiped out. Biodiversity is not just about saving the red squirrels—dear to my heart—or the polar bears, orang-utans, lemurs and tigers, whose loss would diminish us all; of perhaps far greater importance to the planet are the plants, bugs, mosses and lichens that we never see and which are not cuddly or iconic.

Look at that tiny insect which we have taken for granted for millennia, the bee, which holds the key to huge quantities of our food production. That is just one insect that we know about and which we have studied. We kind of know the bee’s place in the jigsaw of the survival of humankind but why, therefore, do we carry on destroying without checking hundreds of other species whose role we have not studied and do not understand, but which might be equally crucial to our survival?

The complex and crucial interactions between species can sometimes be unrecognised until one species is lost from an ecosystem and the imbalance results in sometimes disastrous consequences. One example is that when top predators are removed from an ecosystem, prey populations can sometimes grow to unstable levels and deplete food resources, which leads to a cascade of ecological effects.

Not many people like vultures—big ugly, nasty birds which eat carrion and rotten flesh. So who cares if their numbers decline? In India a few years ago, in order to protect cattle from flies a pesticide was rubbed onto their hides. It was good for the cattle but when the cattle died, say, out in the bush, and the vultures ate them, the pesticide killed the vultures. India lost 99% of its vultures and what were the consequences? There were no natural scavengers to clean the bones, and rotting, diseased animals were eaten by dogs, which greatly increased in numbers and passed on diseases to humans. There are now programmes to save vultures, and by saving vultures, we save humans.

Not many people like sharks either. We see daily news reports of killer sharks all over the place. I have never seen one but I suspect that 99% of the public would not care if all sharks were killed. Sharks are being killed—in their millions. The median estimate for kills of sharks is at least 100 million, with some estimates at over 200 million. Sharks are heading for extinction unless the Chinese stop eating the fins—the main reason for them being killed. If the top predator of the ocean is taken out, we would certainly get an explosion in seal and dolphin numbers and a catastrophic decrease in fish numbers. We would have an ecological disaster which would impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and it would be irreversible. However, when one species gets to the endangered or critically endangered category we can save it and reverse the process, with enormous effort.

I was privileged to work with the Cayman Islands Government for some time. The native blue iguana had shrunk to just 12 by 2005 and was functionally extinct. Thanks to the work of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, based in Jersey, and the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, the project led by the excellent Fred Burton has now reproduced about 1,100 blue iguanas in total and almost 700 have been released back into the wild. In 2013 the IUCN dropped them from the “Critically Endangered” list to the “Endangered” list. Of course, the Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory, where most of the UK’s biodiversity is found.

I congratulate Defra, which is the most respected government department amongst the overseas territories for the work it does with the OTs and in CITES. I am delighted at the creation of the Pitcairn Island Marine Reserve, which at 322,000 square miles is the largest continuous one in the world. I hope that we can work with other countries in the South Pacific to one day make the whole South Pacific a marine reserve.

The loss of animals and plants, their habitats and their genes, on which so much of human life depends, is one of the world’s most pressing crises. It is estimated that the current species extinction rate is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than it would naturally be if man were not interfering. The main drivers for this loss are converting natural areas to farming and urban development; introducing invasive alien species; polluting and overexploiting resources, including water and soil; and harvesting wild plants and animals in unsustainable levels. Cutting down rainforests in order to produce soya beans, palm oil and beef burgers is sheer madness.

We were not responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, but we have been responsible for all the species losses in the last few hundred years. Every decision we take that affects biodiversity also affects our lives and the lives of other people. Biodiversity is crucial to human well-being, sustainable development and poverty reduction.

I conclude with the words of the double Pulitzer prize-winning biologist, Edward O. Wilson. In 1980, he said that, in the 1980s:

“The worst thing that can happen—will happen—is not energy depletion, economic collapse, limited nuclear war, or conquest by a totalitarian government. As terrible as these catastrophes would be for us, they can be repaired within a few generations. The one process ongoing in the 1980s that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats. This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us”.

The late Dr John Sawhill of the Nature Conservancy said:

“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy”.

I am sorry to have taken so long.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, on a fascinating speech and on securing this important debate.

Visitors leaving the Two Oceans Aquarium at Cape Town’s waterfront see a sign announcing:

“Planet Earth’s most dangerous predator”.

Under that sign is a full-length mirror. You stand in front of it and a neon sign behind you lights up with the word “You”.

We are well into the sixth period of extinction in our planet’s history, the first to be entirely manmade. The first five extinction periods were caused by catastrophic methane release, flood basalt eruptions, climate change and impact events like the asteroid famed for the death of the dinosaurs. The main threats to biodiversity today are overexploitation and unsustainable use of species; human wildlife conflict; habitat loss and degradation; emerging infectious diseases; environmental pollution; and human-induced climate change. Some 1.5 million species are known about, but scientists believe that there are potentially 5 million to 10 million or more to be found. However, because of this diverse list of threats, many of these unknown terrestrial and marine species may become extinct without us even knowing they existed.

Since 1970, our planet has lost half its wildlife. 10,000 representative populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish measured by the Living Planet Index have declined by 52%. Half of the Amazon rainforest tree species are under threat of extinction because of extensive destruction for timber. In Indonesia, forests are being burned to make way for palm oil planting, causing terrible air pollution which is killing animals, insects and humans.

I will say a few words about just three of the many species under pressure because of human activity: bees, bats and elephants. I turn first to bees. Since the end of the Second World War there has been a massive loss of wild habitat for bees and other pollinators. Some 3 million hectares of flower-rich grassland have been lost since 1945, leaving only 100,000 hectares remaining. Only 2% of wildflower meadows and grasslands that existed in the 1930s survive, with over 7 million acres lost.

Honey bees are only part of pollination; wild pollinators are crucial, too. Hoverflies and other fly varieties, butterflies and moths, bumblebees and other wild bees all play their part in pollination, as do bats, but these species, too, are in decline. In the UK, between 5% and 10% of pollination is done by honey bees, with 90% to 95% done by other pollinators.

In the last 35 years, 75 species have declined by more than 70% and more than 250 UK pollinators are in danger of extinction. If these losses continue unabated, we could lose 80% of plant species and 13% of agricultural production at a time when future food security is becoming a real issue. Human intervention has caused this disastrous decline, not just through loss of habitat but though the use of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, which confuse the orientation of bees. A halt to their use throughout Europe was announced two years ago. After signing up to this, the UK regrettably gave a derogation to use the chemicals in certain areas of the country, which is likely to worsen the situation.

The population decline of bees is a national emergency. One answer is to grow bee-friendly plants. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust helpfully names the top 10 plants to help bees—mahonia, pussy willow, viburnum, lavender, scabious, borage, comfrey, pink allium, bellflower and yellow aquilegia. We need to outlaw the use of neonicotinoids and carry out an education programme to inform the public on how we can all help the bees.

Secondly, I am appalled to learn that the fruit bat—sometimes called the flying fox—is being culled in Mauritius. Under pressure from farmers, the Mauritius Government say that 18,000 of these little creatures—almost half the population—will be culled because farmers claim that the bats are damaging more than 50% of their crops. The IUCN, which we have already head about, says that this figure is nonsense and that fruit bats account for no more than 14% of the loss. The vast majority of fruit losses come from poor farming practices.

The Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, which has been running a fruit bat project for over a decade, and opposes the cull, strongly encourages a scheme to subsidise nets and train farmers in pruning trees. A government cull of tens of thousands of these bats has no scientific basis and is putting the survival of the species at risk. Furthermore, a decision to cull will damage the good reputation in conservation that Mauritius has acquired internationally with support from organisations such as Durrell. I hope that our Government will make a strong protest to the Government of Mauritius and that the cull will be stopped.

Thirdly, elephants. As we all know, a global poaching crisis threatens decades of conservation successes of many species, including rhinos, lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs and elephants. The illegal wildlife trade is enormous, worth up to an estimated $19 billion a year. Around 30,000 African elephants are killed by poachers each year. In 2013, more elephants died than were born—a clear sign of a species in trouble. So what can be done? There are two elements of the problem—the market for ivory, and poaching. First, we need to try to eradicate the market. The big markets for ivory are China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. Education is the key. Apparently, in China 75% of people believe that ivory is a mineral. Documentaries such as those made by Sir David Attenborough and others should be distributed worldwide, particularly to schools, so that the next generation will appreciate better that wildlife is precious when it is alive.

Secondly, we need to end poaching. Inevitably, elephants are killed for their ivory. There needs to be a tangible reward for information on where poachers are. When park rangers and game wardens receive intelligence on poachers they need to act and they need training and equipping to meet this task. This costs money and a long-term commitment. The message must sink in that poachers are effectively “on licence” all day, every day of every year from now on. This worked for a while in Kenya. The current Minister for Wildlife and Tourism in Botswana has said that his country does not negotiate with poachers. They are told to lay down their weapons and, if they resist, they do not resist for long.

In some countries, poachers with machine guns use helicopters in their murky exploits. They shoot elephants and rhinos, land the helicopter, take the ivory and take off again. This is not random poaching; it is highly organised and financed crime. There is now hard evidence that these helicopter missions are linked to terrorism; they fund terrorist activity or drug activity elsewhere in the world by killing elephants for ivory and selling it to China or Vietnam. I favour the bazooka option for these helicopters, although this is not party policy. We would need only a few of these aircraft to be destroyed to ram home the message that poachers are not going to win.

It is not all bad news. Botswana has an increasing population of elephants—I draw attention to my declared interest in that country—and that is because their rulers, from Seretse Khama onwards, have loved their wildlife. I understand that if noble Lords wish to have elephants on their estates, they can have as many as they like from Botswana; you just arrange the transport.

I end with this story. A few years ago I was on a boat on the River Chobe near Kisani in northern Botswana. In the distance in the river was a very large elephant, a matriarch. All around there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of elephants. When she died a few days later, wildlife wardens dragged her body on to the riverbank with a tractor and chains. Then, for hour after hour, elephants filed past her in an orderly fashion, touching her body with their trunks—a family paying its last respects. It is up to humans to ensure that elephants, like many other species, are around for future generations to enjoy.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Blencathra for giving us the opportunity to debate this very important subject. I declare an interest as patron of the National Biodiversity Network trust.

Both of the speeches that we have heard so far have given us some stark information on biodiversity losses. We must accept that with the human population expanding, and with the standard of economies by and large increasing, there are bound to be competing demands for land use and maritime resources, hence the conflict between conservation and other interests. We have to tackle the question of how industries such as agriculture, which is a large land user, fisheries, mineral extraction and forestry can coexist with the requirements of conservation. Realistically, if you can achieve 15% of land cover around the world protected in some form, you are doing well. You are certainly not going to get vastly more; that is probably near the upper limit. We have to recognise that habitat destruction is not the only cause of the loss of biodiversity; there is also climate change, and we have heard about the introduction of alien species. These are the issues that have to be addressed.

What instruments are available to us that could be rolled out on a global scale? The UK has some quite interesting tools that it has developed, and it needs to think carefully about how it can pursue them further. In 2011 we published the UK National Ecosystem Assessment, which was started under the Labour Government of Gordon Brown and has been pursued with some interest by the coalition Government and the present Government. It gave us an idea of how to take an overview of the state of our natural environment, including biodiversity, and how to value our ecosystem services.

The second instrument, which again is a first in global terms, has been the Natural Capital Committee, which gives advice to government and others on how to value our natural capital, including biodiversity. The Government’s response in September this year to the third State of Natural Capital report, said that they agreed with the underpinning premise of recommendation 3, which was:

“Organisations should create a register of natural capital for which they are responsible and use this to maintain its quality and quantity”.

The government response continued:

“We support the NCC’s work on developing an approach to corporate natural capital accounting. We will continue to work with the Natural Capital Coalition and the Natural Capital Declaration as they develop an internationally agreed approach to valuing and accounting for nature in business and finance … Once a domestically and internationally agreed approach to natural capital accounting has been established, we will look at appropriate mechanisms to support further adoption of this approach”.

That seems thoroughly realistic and it represents quite a sea change in how we construct our balance sheets, and how we put values on businesses and their impact on the environment. We have to make progress on this. There is a danger that this will get bogged down in interminable committees. It is a significant contribution that we should make so that every organisation, ultimately, has to account for its impacts, for better or worse, on natural capital, including biodiversity.

The UK assessment exercise was massive. Many scientists were involved. It took place between 2009 and 2011 and had the great advantage that this country has a wonderful heritage of recording—any number of people go out recording birds and butterflies as volunteers. But scientists, government agencies, NGOs and others also do it. That gave us a head start. This information, particularly the long-term databanks, is absolutely critical. I draw attention to the National Biodiversity Network, which is bringing together all these records held by any number of agencies. We now have more than 110 million biological records and they are accessible to anyone online. That is the key. There is no point recording where you find one particular plant or see a bird if that is not available online in order to inform policy-makers. That was a great springboard from which to build up the information required for monitoring, valuing and accounting for natural capital, as well as identifying the required investment and management programmes—the risks, the costs and benefits. Those are what was really meant by developing programmes in order to protect biodiversity.

An investment programme has to be based on the strongest evidence of economic benefit. That could include woodland planting, peatland restoration, wetland creation, the restoration of commercial fish stocks, urban green spaces or improving the environmental performance in farming. These are, of course, happening in some instances. There is a feeling that these must be funded by government grants, but that will not happen, particularly when we hear the news tomorrow. We need to be a little more inventive about sources of funding that might include a wealth fund derived from rents from non-renewable resources and compensation payments from developers.

Other parts of the world clearly do not have access to the same amount of records as we have. But we should not minimise the amount of information that we can get from remote sensing. I do not know whether other noble Lords heard, as I did, Professor Kathy Willis of Kew describe recently on Radio 4, Oxford’s local ecological foot-printing tool for mapping remote sensing, which gives specific information on biodiversity, which, of course, has to be supplemented, ultimately, by fieldwork. But she made the point that using this tool they were able to provide information that had escaped people on the ground.

I am rather cynical about the United Nations targets—the Aichi targets—the five strategic goals and 20 targets. If you read them, you cannot dispute them. For example, by 2020, the extinction of known threatened species will have been prevented and the conservation status, particularly of the most in decline, will have been improved and sustained. Likewise are the sustainability goals agreed at the General Assembly of the United Nations just this September. Quite frankly, when, as happened in 2010, we come to assess the targets that were set at Rio, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, surprise, surprise, we have not met them. I fear there is a real danger with a lot of these rather woolly targets set at Aichi that the same thing will happen.

Let us assess what we have that we are proud of in this country and what we need to improve. We should be very proud of the Darwin Initiative, which has been going since Rio. It has done excellent work. Now, it is much more funded by DfID than by Defra. That means that there must be a human well-being content, thereby excluding some of the environmental projects that were supported in the past. Nevertheless, we are proud of it. We have managed some excellent UK-based conservation schemes. Referring back to the IUCN red list, we succeeded in taking the bittern and the nightjar off that list, which is a small plus. I agree that it does not outweigh some of the other cases referred to by my noble friend.

We have been active participants in the international programmes, such as Ramsar for wetlands, CITES for endangered species, and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Therefore we have pulled our weight there. However, quite frankly, I am not sure whether we have brought the devolved Administrations in very successfully. When somebody from Defra goes to these meetings, there does not appear to be very good dissemination of outcomes, which certainly needs looking at.

Lastly, I make the point that historically we are bound to recognise that we have a key role. If you go to Kew, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh or the Natural History Museum, there you have the type specimens—the collections to which just about every other country where these collections come from will need access to make their biodiversity plans. Again, we should be enormously proud of the resources that are available there. I note that the science strategy from Kew, in spite of the funding difficulties it is facing, is very positive.

Scotland is to be congratulated on the online publication last year of the Atlas of Living Scotland, an online biodiversity database built to inform the world of just what biodiversity, soils, climates and habitats can be found in Scotland. I much look forward to the day when England can do the same.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, for seeking this debate. I declare my interests in the register of Members’ interests as being president, vice-president and chairman of a very long list of biodiversity and conservation organisations.

We have already heard that global biodiversity is declining at its fastest ever rate. I am rather more gung-ho than the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, about the Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the Convention on Biodiversity. Unless we set targets we will live in some sort of fool’s paradise, not being able to tell whether we are getting better or worse. We have less than five years left to meet these targets, and to be honest the noble Earl is absolutely right: progress and action from Governments round the world, including the UK Government, is simply too slow and too little.

The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, stipulated in the question for debate the loss of biodiversity “caused by human activity”. That gave me some pause for thought, because that pretty well means all loss of biodiversity. The biodiversity specialists I consulted could not think of a single species decline that was not caused by human activity. We have already heard some of the list: human development, introduced invasive species, climate change, unsustainable agriculture, fishing or forestry, as well as natural resource extraction, persecution and illegal trade—all those are manmade. Yet half the world’s population directly depends on biodiversity for its livelihood, and we all depend on ecosystem services that biodiversity and the natural environment provide.

I therefore ask the Minister how the Government plan to step up UK action to meet the Aichi targets and to help protect and foster global biodiversity. I will raise three issues in particular. First, the UK overseas territories contain—would you believe?—90% of the UK’s biodiversity, yet efforts by the UK Government to tackle biodiversity loss in the overseas territories is fairly low; there is a very strong presumption that the overseas territory Governments will cope, but they have very small capacity and even less money to do much. The current Darwin Plus funding stream is valuable but does not go anywhere near meeting the scale of the challenge.

I have the privilege of being president of the South Georgia Heritage Trust and just spent five weeks in Antarctica completing the third phase of eradicating the man-introduced rats and mice from South Georgia. They came with the whalers 100-odd years ago and had been eating the eggs and young of seabirds, penguins, albatrosses and the endemic South Georgia pintail, a rather dinky duck that looks more at home in a bath than on a rather cold island. The South Georgia Heritage Trust raised nearly £7 million to carry out the first three phases of the eradication programme. Although I am very grateful for the funding that the Government provided, the vast majority—nearly 90%—came from private donors. I must confess that I gnashed my teeth rather when the Australian members of our highly expert team told me that a similar exercise to rid Macquarie Island off Tasmania of its similarly introduced rats, mice and, in this case, rabbits, in order to protect its native biodiversity, had been paid for totally by the Tasmanian and Australian Governments.

The second point that I want to raise has been raised previously—the Darwin Initiative, which is a fine example of UK leadership on tackling global biodiversity conservation. It has a very positive profile in many parts of the world and has had a significant impact well beyond its relatively small size. However, it has kind of undertaken a bit of mission creep, in my view. It is now rather more focused on DfID and development-related criteria than on biodiversity conservation per se. Can we have Darwin back, please, and can we have it focused on long-term sustainable development and biodiversity conservation rather than short-term and reactive policies?

My third point is that biodiversity conservation is a bit like a charity—it needs to begin at home. We could take the view that if every nation in the world looked after its own biodiversity, we would not have a problem. So I ask the Minister about the Government’s commitment to doing their bit for global biodiversity by looking after the biodiversity in the UK that we uniquely are responsible for. We have heard of a number of assessments of biodiversity in the UK, and the 2013 State of Nature report found that 60% of UK species that have been studied had declined in recent decades and 31% had strongly declined. More than one in 10 species could disappear from the UK altogether.

I commend to the Minister the conservation NGOs report Response for Nature, which outlines what needs to be done. We are all looking forward to the Government’s 25-year environmental plan, which I understand will include biodiversity conservation issues. I hope that we might lure the Minister into giving us some insight into what it might contain and how the Government are getting on with their preparations.

Although vision for the future is important, I urge the Minister that the plan needs to be more than just a vision; it needs to have some teeth. It needs to commit clearly to actions for government and to outline actions for businesses, landowners, local government, civil society and the public. It needs to have concrete, numerically expressed goals that can be measured and monitored, and five-year milestones with accountability and reporting to Parliament. In respect of monitoring biodiversity, can I urge the Minister to ensure that the monitoring functions currently carried out by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee do not suffer in the spending review, as is rumoured? If we cannot count and monitor our biodiversity, how will we know if we are winning?

Last but not least, the Government need to defend and implement the laws that conserve nature, particularly the European birds and habitats directives which are currently under review. It would be a grievous blow for biodiversity across the European Union if these directives were weakened. Can I ask the Minister tell the Committee where the Government stand on the defence of these directives? We were somewhat concerned that when nine EU environmental Ministers, including the German and French Ministers, called recently for the directives to be safeguarded, the name of the UK environment Minister was not attached to that call.

The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, talked about the IUCN Red List. My very good friend Jane Smart, who is the director of the IUCN global species programme, said that the IUCN Red List is the voice of biodiversity telling us where we need to focus our attention most urgently. If we look at that list, biodiversity is not telling us where to focus our attention most urgently; it is screaming for help.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for initiating this debate today, and indeed to all noble Lords who have spoken. Between us, around the Committee, we have highlighted some alarming truths, as well as making a compelling case for action.

We know that extinction is a fact of life. Species have been evolving and dying out since our creation but in the past there has been a rhythm to it. There has been a rhythm to evolution in which nature adjusts and rebalances as those changes take place. What we have identified this afternoon, which is different and alarming, is the extent to which that process has speeded up over the last 100 years, almost entirely as a result of human activity. As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, pointed out, the scale of population growth, and our drain on natural resources, is becoming increasingly unsustainable. In 1950 the global population was 2.4 billion; it is now more than 7 billion and continuing to rise. We are, therefore, outgrowing the planet and misusing the limited resources available to us.

The resulting degradation of biodiversity is breathtaking in its impact. Again, we have heard evidence of that. The noble Lord referred to the latest report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Undoubtedly, the thousands of new species that it has identified as being threatened with extinction really hammer home the case for action.

Knowing that I have limited time to speak this afternoon, I will pick up three issues that echo many of the themes that others have touched on. The first is climate change. Despite a few hardy climate change deniers, I think that there is a growing consensus that the earth is warming up as a result of increased CO2 emissions. If current trends continue, it is predicted that the earth could be 1 degree warmer by 2025 and 3 degrees warmer by 2050. Already the IUCN report highlights the loss of Arctic sea ice, which has been declining at a linear rate of 14% per decade since 1979.

This not only affects the survival of native species, such as polar bears, but becomes a major global environmental threat. Rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions, such as drought, flooding and hurricanes, will lead to huge population shifts as well as damaging biodiversity. This is why the outcome of the Paris talks is crucial. Countries such as China and India are already beginning to face up to their responsibilities to cut CO2, but we must show leadership as well. That is why it was so disappointing that the Minister’s colleague, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, chose to put the emphasis on the growth of gas, rather than renewable energy, in her announcement last week. Can the Minister, therefore, clarify what our negotiating position will be and whether the UK is committed to meeting its existing 2020 targets, as well as going further to reduce CO2?

Secondly, I want to talk about deforestation, another issue which has been touched on already. We know that it is happening globally and that attempts to control it have so far been frustratingly slow. As the noble Lord pointed out, it matters not only because of the rich biodiversity in areas such as the Amazon rainforest, but also because forests play a critical role in regulating climate. Forests are cleared for many reasons, not least the pressures of expanding populations, but they are also cleared to meet the West’s obsessive consumption of unsustainable foods: cattle ranching to meet demand for beef products in the Amazon; the planting of huge coffee plantations in Central America; the growing of coffee, cocoa and palm oil for export in Papua New Guinea; and the production of bananas and tobacco in Colombia. I know that we could all name many more. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that further action is needed, on a global level, to secure the future of the forests, and what are the Government doing to negotiate international environment and trade agreements that will deliver this in a meaningful way? What are the Government doing, too, to encourage investment, such as that promoted by Fairtrade, in more sustainable livelihoods for local people, which will make those forests more sustainable? Does he agree that at the UK level we could do a great deal more to improve the environmental labelling of products, as well as enforcing the ban on illegally-traded goods, to make good consumers of us all?

Thirdly, I would like to say something about the decline in marine species. The World Wildlife Fund report, Living Blue Planet, published in September, shows a decline of 49% in the global marine population between 1970 and 2012. As WWF points out, this is a disaster for both ecosystems and the people in the developing world who depend heavily on the oceans’ resources. Overfishing is a major source of the problem, with levels of some food fish, such as tuna, mackerel and bonito falling by 74%. Again, this is being exacerbated by the impact of climate change, with rising sea levels and increasing acidity levels further weakening the marine ecosystem.

Like the forests, the oceans are an essential part of our life support system, generating half the world’s oxygen and absorbing almost a third of its carbon dioxide. We cannot afford to take this contribution for granted. Clearly one solution is the creation of a global network of marine protected areas—we have heard some examples of how those are developing this afternoon and they would certainly help to allow habitats to recover. Of course, we already have our own network of protected areas around UK shores, which was introduced by the last Labour Government. Will the Minister update us on the rollout of these sites and confirm whether the 23 sites in the second tranche in 2016 are still on course? Will he clarify what negotiations are taking place at an international level to ensure that this model of marine protection is being adopted more widely?

I would also like to say something about the UK’s biodiversity strategy. Like my noble friend Lady Young, I am concerned about the progress being made at home. The department’s Biodiversity 2020 strategy set out some useful priorities and planned actions, but, four years on, I wonder how the Government think they are doing on meeting those targets. The Minister will be aware that the Environmental Audit Committee last year published an environmental scorecard on its progress, using a traffic light system. None of the areas assessed received a green rating, and on air pollution, biodiversity, flooding and coastal protection the Government received a red rating, showing that things had deteriorated. I wonder whether the Minister would like to comment on that.

I have one final query. Like my noble friend Lady Young, I do not expect the Minister to give us a sneak preview of the Chancellor’s Statement tomorrow, but there are concerns about developments. I would be grateful if he could reassure us that, in proposing significant cuts, his Secretary of State has not also damaged the UK’s capacity to meet its own targets, as well as its EU and UN commitments. Put simply, if we are not seen to be rising to the biodiversity challenge, we really cannot expect the poorer developing nations to do so. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I have been very much looking forward to this debate and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Blencathra on securing it. The Government recognise how important biodiversity is, and the breadth of today’s debate has demonstrated the scale of the challenges that we face.

For many in this country, the word “biodiversity” conjures up awe-inspiring images from natural history programmes of majestic species like the tiger or the elephant. We are aware of the global impact of the large-scale degradation of an ecosystem like the Amazon rainforest, but when we talk about biodiversity we actually refer to the variety of all life on earth. It includes all animals and plants, including bugs, as my noble friend Lord Blencathra pointed out at the outset.

Climate change, deforestation, the pollution of land and seas, the overexploitation of natural resources and the introduction of invasive species into pristine environments are all major threats to global biodiversity and they are all down to us, the human race. The noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, my noble friend Lord Selborne and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, all highlighted that in their exceptional speeches. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, referred specifically to the impact of climate change on global biodiversity. A global climate agreement is the only way that we can deliver the scale of action required. That is why the Government are committed to working with other countries to secure an ambitious global climate deal in Paris in the coming weeks.

A threat to biodiversity is a threat to us all. Our survival depends upon biodiversity. The natural environment provides us with clean water, clean air, fuel, shelter, food and trade, but we can jeopardise all this if we do not act responsibly to protect it.

On the positive side, much good work is already being done to mitigate the negative impact that we have had, and continue to have, on our planet’s biodiversity. The UK is often at the forefront of these efforts through engagement in global agreements like the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which provide a framework of evidence and best practice as well as setting the common goals we are all striving for. Indeed, the Prime Minister and other world leaders met in New York in September to agree the global goals. These are ambitious and they recognise that biodiversity is key to the survival of life on earth.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra pointed to the devastating impacts caused by species loss and the excellent work being done by the International Union for Conservation of Nature through its Red List. The UK Government are taking the lead on addressing species loss internationally. The noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, specifically mentioned the plight of elephants. We have sought to galvanise action on illegal wildlife trade through the organisation of the London conference last year and we are committed to working with international partners to tackle this abhorrent trade. We are investing in projects, including anti-poaching training for rangers, training for high court judges and programmes such as the Elephant Protection Initiative, through which nine African countries have already committed to a 10-year moratorium on domestic ivory sales. However, we clearly need to do very much more.

We provide direct funding for projects in developing countries through our Darwin Initiative and Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund. The strength of these schemes is that projects leave a strong legacy behind once the project is complete, empowering local communities to protect their natural environment in the future. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Blencathra will be embarrassed but we are in his debt because it was my noble friend who in 1992 launched the Darwin Initiative and was our lead negotiator at the Rio summit, so much good has come of that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, mentioned our overseas territories, which are home to many species and ecosystems that are found nowhere else in the world. Since 2012 our dedicated overseas territories environment and climate change grant scheme, Darwin Plus, has funded 40 projects. I was delighted that the noble Baroness mentioned the South Georgia Heritage Trust project. I have just read an absolutely fascinating book on that. I cannot begin to express my delight on hearing that the endangered South Georgia pipit appears to be returning. I very much hope that the five-year quest to eradicate rats from South Georgia will continue to be a success. I hope that the noble Baroness will pass on our considerable thanks for the tenacity and devotion of those involved. Having seen the photographs, I have seen the amusing events that can arise but also the extremely hard work that they put in.

I share the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, about declines in marine biodiversity. This Government have also been very clear about the importance of marine biodiversity and the need for marine protected areas throughout the world’s oceans. That is why the Government are committed to ensuring that action is taken at the UN on this matter, as well as committing to deliver a “blue belt” of marine protected areas around our coasts and in our overseas territories. The blue belt will help protect threatened species and the marine habitats they rely on. Indeed, 16% of UK waters are already protected in marine protected areas. We established a marine protected area around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands covering more than 1 million square kilometres, which is equivalent to four times the size of the United Kingdom. Earlier this year we announced further plans to establish a marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands, covering 830,000 square kilometres, to which my noble friend Lord Blencathra referred.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, asked specifically about marine conservation zones and I am pleased to confirm that the second tranche of these is on course to be established in January 2016 and a third tranche of sites will follow. Overfishing is a serious threat to marine life. At the December negotiations on EU fishing quotas, the Government will continue to press for scientific advice to be followed and to meet our commitment of reaching maximum sustainable yield by 2020 at the latest.

My noble friend Lord Blencathra and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, referred to the essential importance of forests and the need to tackle deforestation. My noble friend Lord Blencathra highlighted what rainforests offer mankind. Indeed, they are the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the land. That is why we have made it illegal to place illegally-logged timber on the UK market and, through the UK International Climate Fund, have invested extensively in projects which address deforestation and forest restoration in developing countries.

We are equally committed to improving the quality and extent of wildlife habitats in England, for which Defra is responsible. Our Natural Environment White Paper sets out a bold vision for a resilient and connected natural environment, providing services vital to our economic prosperity and social well-being. Our Biodiversity 2020 strategy is taking forward that vision.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, referred to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on the Government’s progress. The Government have a strong record on environmental protection and we believe that the committee’s assessment is unduly negative. Clearly there is more work to be done and I hope that when the Environmental Audit Committee reports again, some of the work that we are undertaking will bear even greater fruit. We are committed to continuing implementation of our Biodiversity 2020 strategy, working to protect wildlife habitats and species both on land and at sea. We have set in motion the creation of 100,000 hectares of priority habitats such as arable field margins, wetlands and woodlands. We have also maintained 95% of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest—our most important sites—in favourable or recovering condition.

My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to the Natural Capital Committee. There is a key commitment to the work that we wish to undertake with that committee on how England’s natural assets can be better protected and improved. We are committed to developing a 25-year plan that will set out our ambition for a healthy and resilient natural environment that benefits both our economy and our nation. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, specifically mentioned this. We are on course. Three ministerial events have taken place last month and this month and we are engaging with more than 150 organisations. We wish to develop a framework for publication early next year and a full plan will be published late in 2016. I will make sure that all noble Lords who have engaged in this debate are part of that process, because it is important.

We have created a national pollinator strategy—a 10-year plan setting out our commitment to improving the status of the 1,500 or so pollinating insect species in England. That was a point that my noble friend Lord Blencathra and the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, raised. It is immensely important and I am privileged to be part of the Defra team that is pushing forward with this. It is about working with all stakeholders and a huge number of volunteers. It is about, for instance, engaging online with about 30,000 beekeepers who will be our eyes and ears on these matters, so it is very important.

We are committed to planting 11 million trees during this Parliament. That is the equivalent of nearly 25,000 acres of new woodland. We must also tackle invasive non-native species. We are the first country in Europe to develop a comprehensive strategy to address threats to our native wildlife from invasive non-native species. We are faced with many and varied challenges in safeguarding the biodiversity of this country and internationally.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Jones and Lady Young, alluded to the Chancellor’s Statement tomorrow. They are generous enough to know that I could not possibly provide any detail. In fact, I do not know any detail. However, I can assure noble Lords that the Government and Defra are committed to protecting biodiversity domestically and globally for generations to come. We clearly cannot do this alone. Many groups and individuals from conservation charities are supported by members of the public and volunteers. Farmers, local government, landowners and developers all need to make a vital contribution to protecting biodiversity. My noble friend Lord Selborne, in referring to the work of generations of recorders in the UK, said that their work should be acknowledged.

I was particularly grateful, as I am responsible for Kew and Wakehurst, that my noble friend mentioned their hugely important work. The Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst is a truly exceptional gem of these isles and we should be very proud of what it does. We should also be very proud that this country has a great system of volunteers and partners, and I particularly acknowledge the help that Defra receives from them. We could not do it without them.

There is a fight; the fight is on and we will need to continue that fight. Wherever we are in the world we each have a responsibility to look after the planet on which we live and to safeguard it for future generations. I believe that the debate has been exceptional. It has been an exceptional example of the contribution that noble Lords today have made personally to this quest. I sometimes regret that these gatherings in the Moses Room are a rather rarefied contribution because noble Lords in the Chamber should hear the contributions of those who have made such a personal commitment to biodiversity globally and in this country. All of us genuinely care about this issue. We will all have our differences and our nuances. There may be the odd political element to pushing the Government to achieve their targets. I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, is absolutely right. We must have targets. That is the benchmark from which we in Defra and in government can judge how well we are doing. That is what your Lordships and the wider country can see. I want to ensure and instil in noble Lords that we have a department that cares about these things. I work with Ministers who care absolutely passionately about the biodiversity of these islands and the commitment that we have to help in the wider world because we have great opportunities and good fortune in this country. I am most grateful for this debate today.

Committee adjourned at 7.03 pm.