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Volume 805: debated on Wednesday 16 September 2020


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, A lost decade for nature, published on 14 September, what action they are taking (1) to reverse biodiversity loss in the United Kingdom, and (2) to meet the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Teverson, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, in England the 25-year environment plan marks a step change in ambition for wildlife and the natural environment. The Government have announced significant funding and legislation to meet this ambition. The Aichi targets are international in scope. The Government have increased international biodiversity spending and are playing a leading role in developing an ambitious new global diversity framework. Nature will be at the heart of the UK COP 26 presidency, paving the way for transformative action.

I hear what the Minister says, but last October he said that the Government were looking at legislative options to ban the burning of upland peat bogs and yet it has been reported that these plans have been shelved. Peat bogs are incredibly important ecological sites, supporting many rare and endangered species, and helping to prevent flooding and store carbon. Are the Government going to ban peat burning or continue their failure over the last decade to meet agreed international biodiversity targets?

As the noble Baroness will know, we are currently engaging with stakeholders on the content of the England peat strategy and we expect it to be published later this year. The Government have always been clear—as I have—on the need to phase out the burning of protected blanket bog to conserve those vulnerable habitats. We are looking at how legislation can achieve this and are considering next steps.

My Lords, the United Kingdom’s sixth national report on the convention on biological diversity, published by the JNCC in 2019, concluded that there is still significant work to be done. To cite a few examples: there is an overall picture of ongoing species decline and a significant proportion of the best wildlife habitat inside and outside protected sites remains unfavourable. There has also been a short-term fall in the Government’s funding of biodiversity in the UK. Will the Minister explain exactly what has been done since the release of the JNCC report to rectify these failings?

The noble Lord is right in that, from 1970 to 2016 the relative abundance of priority species in the UK saw a dramatic decline of around 60%. Many but not all species groups show long-term decline, so we clearly need major improvements. We have expanded our protected areas at sea dramatically in recent months and years. We have provided new funding for woodland expansion. We have put aside a £640 million nature for climate fund. We have committed to 30,000 hectares of tree planting or regeneration each year. Peatland restoration and nature recovery have also been resourced to bring us closer to achieving the 25-year plan goals. We have greatly increased our funding for international biodiversity; perhaps more than any other country.

My Lords, the RSPB report emphasises that biodiversity is strongly linked to climate change. To meet our targets, we must take action on all fronts, including farming. In order to produce low-carbon British food, a company wants to build greenhouses in Wrexham using waste heat and emissions from the sewage works next to the site. Will the Minister support this enterprise in the interests of climate action and biodiversity protection?

The Government stand ready to support whatever action is necessary to boost biodiversity in this country and to reverse the depressing trends that have already been described. The RSPB is absolutely right to say that we cannot solve climate change without restoring and protecting nature on an unprecedented scale. Forests, for instance, hold 80% of the world’s biodiversity; their destruction is the second biggest source of carbon emissions. As president of COP, we intend to draw as strong a link as possible between what we are doing at COP and what the Chinese will be doing as host of the CBD just a few months before the biodiversity COP. We are working very closely with China to ensure that that happens.

My Lords, may I start by congratulating and thanking the RSPB not only on this report but on the regular briefings and support it gives us? Since most of the UK’s biodiversity is to be found in the overseas territories, will the Minister tell us to what extent the Government’s plans to which he has referred cover and include the overseas territories? Will he welcome a short debate on this topic? I have a Motion tabled and am merely seeking a slot.

I always welcome debate, particularly around the issue of our magnificent overseas territories. My noble friend is right: the overseas territories contain about 90% of the UK’s endemic species and we are very keen to increase our protection of them. For instance, we have increased to £10 million a year the Darwin Plus funding scheme. We are also on track, as my noble friend will know, with our Blue Belt programme to protect an area roughly the size of India. We hope to be able to grow it still further, perhaps even in the remaining months of this year. Protecting the biodiversity on land and in the waters around our overseas territories is and will remain a priority.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answers. In the wake of this devastating report and the UN report, the design of cities also comes under the spotlight. We live in cities more and more, and yet they do not need to be environmental wastelands. What will come forward in the Environment Bill to create green infrastructures and make space for nature inside our cities, so they can play their part in helping us recover our lost biodiversity?

The noble Baroness is right. In addition to greatly increasing our investments overseas in cities to enable people to deal with the warming effects of climate change and to reduce the temperature of cities, in this country we are increasing our funding for tree planting in our cities. We are yet to provide all the details for that. We will allow the policies to be informed by the England Tree Strategy, which we are processing at the moment and on the back of which we will develop what we hope will be a compelling and ambitious programme. I recognise that that is just one part of what needs to happen in our cities to enable people to have better access to and enjoyment of nature, but it is an important part.

The RSPB’s report, supported by the publication of Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, suggests a significant disparity between the UK Government’s view of their progress towards the Aichi targets and reality on the ground. What steps will the Minister’s department take to review how such progress is measured, and how will the Government ensure that they achieve greater compliance with the targets to be set for 2030?

We do not dispute that protected areas, which include protected sites and landscapes and other measures, need to be better managed. The Government have been very clear on this issue. I think the RSPB accepts that the quantity target has been exceeded but clearly, more needs to be done to improve the quality of our protected areas. As I have outlined, actions are in place to do so.

My Lords, we have failed. Not only have we not met 17 of the 20 Aichi targets in Britain; we have gone backwards on some of them. Clearly, we cannot be trusted to save our own wildlife unless we make ourselves take the action needed. Is not now the time to get serious and set legally binding targets for our own sakes, as well as the sake of our wildlife and, ultimately, our planet?

It is absolutely correct to say that we have failed to meet those Aichi targets. The Government have not sought to shirk from that or to mask the research that has been produced. However, I argue that the Environment Bill, Agriculture Bill and Fisheries Bill—combined with new sources of funding such as the Nature4Climate fund, our plans for nature recovery networks and much more besides—will put us on track to meet the obligations that we signed up to internationally. In addition, we have not only doubled our international climate finance to £11.6 billion, we have committed to spending a big chunk of that uplift on nature-based solutions. We are taking that core message to the world in the run-up to the COP.

Further to the Written Answer that the Minister gave me on 25 June, which said that

“it is not possible to confirm on available data whether there has been an increase in”

raptor persecution during the Covid crisis, have the Government now caught up with the statistics? If not, I can direct him to the Raptor Persecution UK website, which reports today the total tally of

“44 hen harriers ‘missing’ or confirmed killed since 2018”.

It notes that this is

“ten times more likely to occur over … land managed for grouse shooting”.

Given this, why did the Government create a special exemption from Covid-19 health restrictions last weekend for driven grouse shooting and other shooting? Should they not instead ban driven grouse shooting and the release of pheasants for shooting, as an emergency measure to tackle the crisis that this report identifies?

We are aware of reports that there has been an increase in wildlife crime, particularly that associated with raptor persecution, during lockdown. Raptor persecution is one of the UK’s six wildlife crime priorities and we understand that there are a number of criminal investigations ongoing. However, I am afraid that it is not yet possible to confirm, on available data, whether there has been an increase. I would welcome access to the report that the noble Baroness mentions. On the Government’s decision last week, she will note that it exactly mirrors decisions taken by the Labour Government in Wales and the SNP in Scotland, and is not—as has been reported—a special dispensation for any particular form of activity.