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United Nations Biodiversity Conference

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 13 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what preparations they are making for the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) to be held in Kunming, China, in October.

My Lords, it has recently been confirmed that the CBD COP 15 will now take place between 11 and 24 October in Kunming, China. Despite the continued delay due to Covid-19, we are engaging fully in the preparations and negotiation process. We continue to lead work internationally, including on the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, through 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. We are also working closely with non-state actors, including the private sector and NGOs, to help shape UK priorities, and will continue to engage in opportunities at all levels in the lead-up to COP 15. Domestically, we are extending our protected areas, bringing forward new legislation to restore and enhance nature and introducing new funding to support that process.

My Lords, I particularly welcome the Minister’s comments about oceans and maritime issues. It is really important that COP 15 is successful—we need it to be. Will it be attended by a senior Minister or the Secretary of State? What is the most important matter that the Minister and the Government wish to be resolved and acted upon following the conclusion of this conference?

My Lords, the UK is playing a key role. I think it is fair to say that we are doing more heavy lifting than almost any other country in the world to secure the maximum possible ambition from the CBD. Clearly, our number one goal is to leave the convention with meaningful, robust and ambitious targets commensurate with the scale of the challenge we face. In addition, we need the world to raise its collective finance for nature and nature- based solutions to climate change. We also need mechanisms to enable people—individuals, civil society and other Governments—to hold countries to the promises they make.

My Lords, in demonstrating our commitment to biodiversity, can we in the UK put more emphasis on the diversity part? To take the example of what we are doing with woodlands, it is wonderful that we are planting lots of trees, but it is a very limited range of species from a very limited selection of genotypes. We need to take diversity seriously if we are to push that in the world.

My noble friend makes an extremely important point. As the Minister in charge of developing the tree strategy, I am absolutely determined that as we use public money, which will be necessary to achieve the targets we set, we do so in a way that delivers the maximum possible solution. That means not simply having hectare after hectare of monoculture but ensuring that we maximise biodiversity at every opportunity and deliver not just a win for climate but a win in terms of boosting our declining biodiversity in this country.

My Lords, many species of plant, animal and other life forms have been in steep decline over centuries, yet the COP measures hitherto have not been transformative. Are the UK and the world systematic, ambitious and bold enough? Do we not need a national and global census of all life forms and clear, actionable plans to safeguard the myriad wonders of our natural world?

I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Lord about the scale of the crisis. We will be familiar with the numbers; they are shocking at every possible level, whether we are talking about terrestrial or ocean biodiversity. He is also right to say that targets have been set and missed many times in the past. What must be different about this convention is that, in addition to having those strong targets and ensuring we have the finance necessary to deliver them, we must have mechanisms enabling countries to be held to their promises—just as we have with climate and carbon emissions reduction commitments. We do not currently have them in relation to biodiversity. That is the bit that is missing and that the UK is pressing hardest for.

My Lords, biodiversity decline and climate change are twin crises and need equal and urgent concentration, so why are the Government continuing to refuse to accept a legally binding state of nature target in the current Environment Bill, in the way that there are already legally binding targets for climate change in UK legislation? Does the Minister agree that we will not get much credit for any heavy lifting or leverage at Kunming if the Government have just had a messy public punch-up as the Environment Bill goes through, refusing to adopt legally binding biodiversity targets here in the UK?

My Lords, it is absolutely right to say that climate change and biodiversity are two sides of the same coin. They represent the gravest threat we face, and we cannot tackle one effectively without also tackling the other. There is no pathway to net zero emissions without a major increase in support for nature and nature-based solutions, so I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Baroness. It is not the case that the Government are refusing to include the mechanism she proposes—the target around biodiversity and state of nature. This is a live issue and one we are engaging with very actively. I hope that when we bring the Bill to the House, we will be able to have a meaningful discussion about that.

Targets for previous CBDs have been missed, as the Minister has acknowledged. None was legally binding, unlike the Paris climate agreement. Do the Government support the post-2020 CBD framework, including legal obligations for all countries to deliver against global targets?

The Government are keen to push for the maximum possible ambition. There is no area in the discussion where any country is having to drag us kicking and screaming. We are the country pushing hardest for that ambition, but there is a line somewhere between the maximum ambition and what is deliverable. Things that may appear relatively mundane and not particularly radical to the UK are nevertheless big sells for certain countries. Our job is to use every diplomatic skill and lever we have to bring the rest of the world with us, and we will take the world as far as we possibly can. Where that takes us is hard to predict.

In recent decades, freshwater species have seen their populations decline twice as fast as land and marine species. Sadly, English rivers are in a particularly bad state, with just 14% deemed to be of good ecological standard. Ahead of the UN biodiversity conference, does the Minister agree that it is more important than ever for the UK, as the host of COP 26, to lead by example? Can he confirm whether Defra will use the Environment Bill to deliver the department’s recent pledge to finally do something about tackling sewage pollution in rivers?

It is absolutely right that to speak with authority internationally, the UK needs to get its own house in order. That is not the case at the moment. Our biodiversity has been in decline; our environment is denuded. However, we have put in place a number of ambitious steps to try to turn that trajectory: the first Environment Bill for 20 years, with a whole host of ambitious measures; the green recovery challenge fund; getting NGOs restoring nature and tackling climate change in communities up and down the country; a £640 million Nature for Climate Fund; big and ambitious tree-planting targets; peatland restoration targets; and, above all, a commitment to switch the old land use subsidy system so that instead of incentivising destruction, it incentivises good environmental stewardship. The tools and the commitment are there, but we have some way to go.

My Lords, the ground-breaking UN report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, said that we need to reflect on both

“the value of nature, and on the nature of value.”

The loss of species and the decline in the ability of natural systems to provide for humanity’s needs is not just an environmental catastrophe—it is an economic one as well. As has been said, the two COPs happening this year have complementary ambitions. Will my noble friend the Minister encourage the UK position to reflect the fact that Governments alone cannot solve this problem? We have to engage, empower and deploy the power of markets and the private sector, on a global scale, to make the difference that is needed.

That is absolutely right. A big part of our campaign as president of COP is to encourage donor countries to step up with more finance for nature. We are showing leadership ourselves, having doubled our international climate finance to £11.6 billion. We are committing to spend about a third of that on nature-based solutions and we want others to do something similar. Even if we succeed, however, that will not be anything like enough finance for nature; we will need more. That means mobilising private finance on an unprecedented scale and ensuring high-integrity carbon markets; we need a breakthrough around the Article 6 negotiations. Above all, we need to mainstream nature through the way we do business and align, for example, the big multilateral development banks not just with Paris commitments but with nature as well.

The link between agriculture and biodiversity is absolutely clear. What plans do the Government have to take targets to reduce the land use for agriculture to the meeting? Can the Minister tell us his view on the need to cut down the amount of land used for livestock and livestock feed? Currently, humans and the animals that we plan to eat make up 96% of all the animals on Earth, which is not a bio- diverse way forward.

This will be an important part of our work in the run-up to COP. The noble Baroness may perhaps consider that the top 50 food-producing nations spend about $700 billion a year subsidising often destructive land use. One of our goals—an important one—is to try to encourage as many countries as possible to shift the way those incentives are used so that they support nature. We are also trying to break the link between commodity production and deforestation—commodity production is responsible for about 80% of the world’s deforestation. We are leading in global dialogues with producer and consumer countries to that end.