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Volume 814: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for establishing a crime of ecocide.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for her long-standing commitment to safeguarding the environment, but she will know that the ICC is far from functioning effectively in relation to the jurisdiction it already has. Our priority is to improve its ability to prosecute existing crimes against humanity before we create new ones.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but many noble Lords and many people around the world would now consider that crimes are being perpetuated against the environment, whether deforestation in Asia or South America, what is happening in the seas on an international level or the known culpability of many of the producers of fossil fuels to not just confuse the issue but downright lie. I would call that crimes against humanity. At the moment, we have limited ability to prosecute. The G20 meeting for Environment and Climate Ministers starts tomorrow in Naples. Could the Minister talk to our representative and ask whether they will raise this issue? This is gaining traction around the world. When we look at the fires in California and the floods in Germany, I do not think we can sit back and say that, as a world, we can continue to do nothing about this.

I know that the noble Baroness has a lot of support on this issue around the House, but the UK will use its COP 26 presidency and all the leadership positions it holds to continue to demonstrate global leadership on climate and nature. Of course I will relay her comments to the Italian conference tomorrow. It is not possible to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees without radical action on nature; I think we all agree on that. Our presidency will seek to drive action to protect and restore ecosystems, and to invest in sustainable agriculture throughout the world.

The Minister replies in her characteristically generous tone, but although I share her concerns about the functionality of the International Criminal Court, does she agree that it is worth exploring this new offence domestically and internationally? Grave offences are about not just enforcement but setting the tone for the kind of society we want to live in and operating as a deterrent. In this context, they could be a significant deterrent against corporates that ignore the grave catastrophe facing all of us for the reasons agreed.

I agree with the noble Baroness that we have to drive this forward. I know that an international group has recently defined ecocide, but I say again that the UK is a key player in all the multilateral forums focusing on tackling climate change. The significant amendment that would be required to establish a crime of ecocide is not only likely to distract from reform of the international court. It would also be extremely difficult to secure the agreement of all state parties and could occupy international negotiators for many years, which is why the UK is concentrating on what we can do domestically and to influence international parties.

The new legal definition of ecocide builds on many aspects of established international criminal law and environmental law, as well as existing text in the Rome statute. Will the Government be a world leader on this? If so, how will they explain it to the oil and plastics industries?

That is an interesting question. The UK’s priority, as I said, is to reform the court so that it functions more effectively and to take a leadership role in persuading international parties of the importance of the environment. On the oil and gas industries, the noble Lord will be aware of a number of initiatives, such as the 10-point plan, the White Paper and the North Sea transition deal, which seeks to show the oil and gas industries a pathway to decarbonising and to reskilling many of their workforce towards more environmentally friendly things, such as carbon capture and storage and hydrogen technologies.

My Lords, the emotive term “ecocide” conjures up horrific images of serious and deliberate crimes against humanity, such as genocide. I understand that an application was made to the United Nations International Law Commission in 2010 that a crime of ecocide be added to the Rome statute, defined as

“the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been … severely diminished.”

Does my noble friend not agree that it is hard to consider ecocide as so defined as a crime at all, let alone one equivalent to such serious war crimes, if it does not even need a person or a—

My noble friend is right that ecocide was removed from the drafting process of the Rome statute and that that was significant in gaining agreement on the crimes eventually included in the ICC’s jurisdiction. A norm of customary international law is that no one may be convicted of an offence except on the basis of individual criminal responsibility. This is reflected in the crimes listed under the Rome statute. Any future agreed definition of the crime of ecocide would need to reflect a similar set of norms.

I think it is time to end the appeasement. It is very interesting that in the past 50 years we have done more damage than it took us 2,000 to do. In the past 50 years, when we had more and more knowledge about the damage we were doing to the environment, we have had this pootling around, this lack of leadership. Great Britain could be the great leader here, as it was in the 1930s, and it could say no to the death of the planet.

I think the noble Lord underestimates the leadership role that we are playing this year in tackling international action to bend the curve of biodiversity loss. At the summit in Carbis Bay, the G7 leaders agreed a 2030 nature compact, committing for the first time to the global mission to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. We also have the upcoming COP 26 in November. All the actions we are taking through the Environment Bill and other legislative means will provide a leadership role in trying to get these messages across to the rest of the world.

Does the Minister agree that mining and deforestation activities that plague the Amazon are cases of ecocide? Does she also agree that an international law against these activities could become a catalyst for finding new and sustainable ways of operating?

I agree but, as I said, it is very difficult to take the international law path for the reasons I outlined. What we are doing in the UK to stop people using illegally logged wood in furniture imported into the UK is probably a more effective way for us to prevent these sorts of crimes being imported. However, I agree that more needs to be done internationally, but perhaps not through the International Criminal Court.

My noble friend is doing extremely well on this. As a conservationist and environmentalist, I am deeply concerned about the destruction of the rainforest in South America and south-east Asia, the increased use of coal in China and, indeed, the consequences of climate change. Nevertheless, I do not quite understand—perhaps she can enlighten me—what exactly making this a crime would do that would impact on, for instance, the Chinese Government or the Brazilian Government.

My noble friend raises an interesting point because a lot of communist countries, including China, Russia and many of the former eastern bloc, have the crime of ecocide. The issue really is therefore about enforcement. We are trying to drive forward ambitious global action to address these issues as probably the best way forward, combined with strict enforcement measures which the Environment Bill has set out in full.

My Lords, ecocide is a crime against human rights. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, yesterday promised that human rights would be taken into consideration in all companies working in these areas. Can the Minister confirm that this is so and that, at the same time, the human rights of families who then have to move because of ecocide crimes have been affected, and that we will take that into consideration?

I am not sure that I can go any further than my noble friend Lord Callanan did yesterday, but I take the noble Baroness’s points on board and will make sure that they are relayed to BEIS.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on all the excellent work they are doing in preparation for COP 29 and in the Environment Bill. Will my noble friend tell the House what the Government are doing to increase funding for nature-based solutions to address climate impact, especially as I understand investing in nature could provide at least one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation solutions?

My noble friend is entirely right: investing in nature-based solutions for adaptation will also help build resilience, support jobs, support livelihoods and help tackle biodiversity loss, but finance is lacking. Only 3% of global public climate finance flows was spent on nature. Noble Lords will recall that at the One Planet Summit in January 2021 the UK committed to spend at least £3 billion of our international climate finance on climate change solutions that protect and restore nature and biodiversity over the next five years.