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Convention on Biological Diversity

Volume 808: debated on Monday 7 December 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what preparations they are making for participation in the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

My Lords, the UK has clear ambitions for the global biodiversity targets to be agreed at CBD COP 15. Despite delays to the international timetable due to Covid, we are engaging fully in the negotiation process. We are working internationally—including through the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature and the UK-led Global Ocean Alliance, and in our role as ocean co-chair of the High Ambition Coalition—to secure support for our objectives, and will continue to leverage opportunities at all levels as we approach COP 15.

I thank my noble friend for his answer and draw attention to my environmental interest as in the register. Next year’s CBD will be a crucial opportunity for the nations of the world to address the worsening biodiversity crisis. Can my noble friend assure me that Her Majesty’s Government will be as ambitious on this as they have been on climate measures, not least by setting robust targets to halt and reverse the decline in species and habitats by 2030, committing to protect what we already have and creating not just new woodlands but also wetlands and grasslands?

The UK is absolutely committed to playing a leading role in developing the highest possible ambition in relation to the post-2020 global framework for biodiversity at the CBD. Our overarching ambition is targets that, as my noble friend says, will halt and reverse global biodiversity loss and, crucially, that will be underpinned by clear accountability and implementation mechanisms. Because we see no real distinction between climate change and our environmental obligations, we are committed to ensuring as clear a link as possible between those two conventions. Climate change represents perhaps the greatest threat that we face, and global biodiversity is being lost at an appalling and unprecedented rate. We cannot tackle one without a major focus on the other, and that is reflected in all our ambitions.

My Lords, the delay that my noble friend has just mentioned has improved the chances of COP being a great success next year, added to by the result of the American election and the reshuffle of people in No. 10 Downing Street. What plans does he have to meet the American team, and can he update us on the discussions with India to get it to play a positive role?

I am afraid I am not in a position to provide details about exchanges that have been happening between the UK and the incoming presidential team. However, I can say that the incoming President has made it very clear that climate change will be a priority issue. We have also heard that there will be an increased focus by the United States on nature, which we think is crucial. We in the UK have signed up to, and indeed are running, the campaign to protect 30% of the world’s oceans and land by 2030, and we have high hopes that the US will join us in that. Another core plank of our campaign is to ensure sufficient finance for nature recovery; again, we hope to be able to work very closely with the incoming Administration in that regard.

My Lords, at the COP meeting next year UK representatives will be signing pledges and agreements on behalf of all the four nations, yet at the moment there are still problems with peat and various biodiversity issues in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. What progress has been made on reaching an accord among our four nations, which can be taken to the meeting?

We work very closely with the devolved Administrations on all biodiversity issues. It is a devolved area but there is very little to distinguish the positions held among the four nations on international policies. I therefore have absolute belief that we can speak very much as one in wanting to raise the ambition as high as we can at both conventions next year.

My Lords, while I accept that modest progress has been made in some areas, will the Minister accept that the UK’s overall performance on biodiversity has been relatively poor? Public funding for conservation projects has fallen sharply in real terms over recent years, and the Government’s October 2020 publication of biodiversity indicators shows that the situation regarding a large proportion of the targets that the Minister mentioned remains the same or is deteriorating. How do the Government intend to address that apparent static position?

First, I am happy—well, not happy, but willing—as a government Minister to acknowledge that in many areas there are ongoing declines in biodiversity. The numbers here in the UK are no better than those elsewhere around the world. We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis. However, we are putting in place the mechanisms and resources needed to buck that trend, and we are absolutely committed to doing so: the first Environment Bill in 20 years; ambitious measures, including restoring and enhancing nature; a new £640 million Nature for Climate Fund to deliver woodland expansion and peatland restoration; most importantly of all, replacing the old common agricultural policy with a new system whereby payments are conditional on good environmental outcomes; and 25% of our waters being in marine protected areas. We have also announced the tripling of Darwin Plus to £10 million a year for our overseas territories.

I am very confident in saying that UK leadership on biodiversity internationally exceeds that of any other country that I am aware of. We are generally recognised to be world leaders in raising ambitions and taking meaningful action internationally to buck the biodiversity trends.

My Lords, would it not be easier for the Government to show leadership abroad if we were demonstrating it at home? How does the Minister square the statement he made just a moment ago—that we are putting the necessary resources in—with the fact that government spending on biodiversity has declined by well over a quarter since it reached its peak under the coalition Government? Can he tell us when it is going to get back to the funding levels required to effectively protect biodiversity?

The key principle of the convention on biological diversity is that biodiversity should be mainstreamed. That means that every decision of every Government should be made on the basis of whether or not it contributes to bucking the trends or takes us in the wrong direction. That is essential. On that basis, the UK Government are organising in such a way that our decisions on a wide variety of issues are increasingly reconciled with nature. The new Nature for Climate Fund will help us buck those trends and turn the tide. As I said earlier, the single biggest financial mechanism—the one that will deliver the biggest change we have seen in my lifetime—is the shift from destructive land-use subsidies to subsidies that are conditional on good environmental outcomes. No other country in the world is doing this. If we persuaded other countries to do so, I believe the world would be set on a path towards restoration and recovery of the natural world. It is really big news.

My Lords, the Ice Ages have left us with only 30-odd native trees of limited genetic variety, whereas a healthy temperate forest would have some 1,000 species. Does my noble friend agree that that is a fundamentally precarious position, as we have seen with recent tree diseases? Does he therefore support the Forestry Commission in its determination to increase biodiversity, in both species and provenance?

I agree with my noble friend. We will be spending a lot of public money on meeting our ambitions and targets for planting or restoring 30,000 hectares a year by 2025. It is essential that we use public money in a way that delivers the maximum possible solution. We do not want to see trees as just carbon-absorbing sticks; they have a crucial role to play in biodiversity, public enjoyment, flood prevention and enabling land to hold water better throughout the year. So yes, we want to deliver the greatest possible biodiversity and the best possible solution.

My Lords, given that the UK leadership team for COP 26 is an all-male affair, can the Minister assure us that the UK leadership team—not just the support staff—at the conference of biodiversity will properly represent the people of this country and will be gender balanced?

I do not have the figures in front of me, but I would be willing to bet that the answer to the noble Baroness’s question is that simply on the basis of choosing the right people for the job, the gender balance as we prepare for CBD is as it should be and is balanced. I also take issue with her comments about COP 26. I cannot tell her that the team is entirely selected on the basis of the 50-50 gender balance that we aspire to, but the balance is a great deal more impressive than she may have read in the newspapers. I would be happy to provide those figures in writing in due course.