Report (1st Day)
Relevant documents: 3rd Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 4th Report from the Constitution Committee
1: Before Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Purpose and declaration of biodiversity and climate emergency
(1) The purpose of this Act is to address the biodiversity and climate emergency domestically and globally. (2) As soon as reasonably practicable and no later than one month beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Prime Minister must declare that there is a biodiversity and climate emergency domestically and globally.(3) The Government must have regard to this purpose and declaration when implementing the provisions of this Act.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would have the effect of the UK Government declaring a climate and biodiversity emergency.
My Lords, it has been two months since we debated the Bill in Committee over a period of three weeks, but the planet has not stood still over that time. First, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the IPCC—released its sixth report prior to COP 26, on which the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr António Guterres, commented:
“This is code red for humanity.”
This is an absolutely accurate declaration to my mind.
However, this is not just theoretical: let us look at other things that have happened during the end of July and beginning of August. First, we could look at fires: we have had forest fires in the northern hemisphere, almost unknown before, in California, Canada and Siberian Russia, where some 4 million hectares of forest have burned down and are still burning in parts of Siberia even today.
In terms of flooding, we have seen flash floods just now in New York. It was almost unexpected there, let alone down in the southern states of the United States. We have now had some 300 deaths in the north-east of the United States from those flash floods. Earlier, in July or August, some 300 people died in Henan province in China, many of them in underground metro systems, again in flash floods—something that had never happened in that way before. Of course, nearer home, in Europe—in Germany and close-by states—we had some 200 deaths because of flooding, which was unprecedented and unpredicted in terms of conventional weather forecasting.
In terms of temperature, in Lytton in British Columbia we had the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada at 49.5 degrees centigrade. More staggering was the fact that that was 5 degrees—I repeat, 5 degrees—more than the previous record. All those incidents and that report have happened since we last debated this legislation in this House.
We have also had, in July, the Government’s response to the Dasgupta report on biodiversity. They accepted, quite rightly, that we have to reverse biodiversity loss by the end of this decade; it is something that has been going backwards for decades and we have to amend that within a period of nine years.
We are now a month closer to the beginning of COP 15 next month, the biodiversity equivalent of COP 26, the first half of which will be centred around Kunming in China. Of course, we are now only 56 days away from COP 26 opening in Glasgow on 1 November. I also remind Members of the House that we had a report in June, again from the IPCC—the Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change—and the secretariat of the biodiversity equivalent, which made it quite clear that these two crises, climate change and biodiversity, are absolutely and inextricably linked. You cannot solve one without solving the other. That is why this is an important area, an emergency, a real area and a place where the planet is globally changing.
We want this to be a landmark Bill; in fact, the Government declare this to be very much a landmark Bill, and we all want it to be so. But what I find it difficult is that it is not yet that. I welcome many of the Government’s amendments that they want to put forward, but it is not yet a landmark Bill, as the Climate Change Act 2008 was at that time. I do not believe that it is credible that this House, this country, can have what will become an environment Act without pointing out and declaring the obvious—that we have at the moment a climate change and biodiversity emergency.
I am sometimes asked whether this is the way we do things in the United Kingdom, and I had some arguments with the Public Bill Office around this when I put down this amendment. But I remind Members that over 200 local authorities in our land have already declared a climate emergency, and many of those are now also declaring a biodiversity emergency. I believe that what is right for them is right for us as a Parliament. Also, the way that we in the United Kingdom show unity in parliamentary politics is through legislation, because that brings the two Houses together, together with the Government. Having a declaration in an Act of Parliament brings together the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Government, and I believe that this is absolutely what is needed to make this a landmark Bill.
I believe this amendment would achieve leadership for this country—globally as well as nationally—in both those crises. I believe it will give us extra credibility and leadership at COP 26 and COP 15. I believe it will make this Bill something like the Climate Change Act for the future, and that it will also bring biodiversity, which is so important to this Bill, up to a similar status to the Climate Change Act. As I said, I think it brings together the two Houses and the Government in a unity that is important and that we saw in the citizens’ climate assembly.
I am also sometimes asked, “Is this just politics?” It is not, because we all know that these crises are real, and we all know that we want our means of combating them to be effective. Here I would like to quote President Biden; he was asked a similar question and was talking about Hurricane Ida and its effect on the north-east of the United States. He said categorically, “This is not politics”. The climate crisis is here; it is now, it is here, it is happening. This is not about politics.
I was also very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for adding her name to this amendment, even though it was after the date when it could be published on the Marshalled List.
This is exactly the right time for the Government to make such a declaration. We have this potentially landmark legislation going through the House, which will be completed—we hope—before COP 26. It is time to bring us together and confirm our leadership, and it is also the opportunity to recognise something that is real and happening now. At COP 26 we have the opportunity not just to have the presidency but to take global leadership. I believe passing this amendment would be part of that, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very happy to support this amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, I joined up a little too late.
Biodiversity is all too often seen as the poor relation of climate change and somehow less important. It is not. It is just as important and life threatening as any weather patterns, droughts or floods—and they are indeed all connected. So what is it? In essence, it is the variety of life on earth and all its interconnectedness. But it is also the product of millions of years of learning—of trial and error—by all the creatures, flora and fauna on earth to arrive at a system where this planet flourishes and where we can exist on it. Everything is in its place and everything is doing its bit—sometimes large, sometimes microscopic—and it keeps our planet in the healthy state that we want to preserve.
I have heard what we are doing now described as “burning the library of earth”. To take something really complex that we have made, let us think of an aeroplane going to New York, carrying 600 people. Out falls one rivet—not too bad. Out come two—maybe not a big deal. But suppose 10, 20 or 30 come out; at some point that aeroplane is going to come crashing down to earth—and that is what we are doing now with the complex world of our biodiversity. We do not know quite when we will pass the tipping point, but we are clearly very nearly there.
I have a few examples relating to the insect world, which is endlessly dismissed, but—as Einstein, apparently, famously said—the planet would survive without us, but it would not survive without insects. They are essentially the unseen rivers that keep the planet functioning, yet we have not managed to identify them all—and yet we are cutting down their environments. As I said, no one knows how close to the edge we are, but in China they are pollinating apples and pears by hand. In Bengal they are doing the same for squash plants. In Brazil it is passionfruit, and it is blueberries in Canada. Even the French beans in Kenya are now having to be mechanically pollinated because we have trashed the insects.
Clearly, many parts of the world—and, indeed, under the oceans; we have the temerity to think that we should destroy the ocean bed like we have destroyed the land above—have a huge value: trillions of dollars, or around double the world’s current GDP. In Europe alone it costs the 3% of GDP that we get from our natural services.
I thoroughly support the amendment. This is an emergency. That message needs to come from the Prime Minister and it needs to be made clear to everyone that we have only one planet and that we have to protect it. Biodiversity is extraordinary and amazing. It is up to all of us in this House to ensure that this becomes part of the Bill.
My Lords, I support both these amendments: Amendment 1, so ably introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and backed by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, to which I am pleased to have attached my name; and Amendment 21 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and signed by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott.
In introducing his amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, looked at what happened in the timeframe from when we last debated the Bill to today. I will take a different timeframe and go back to when the Bill was first introduced on 15 October 2019. A lot has happened since then. Obviously, we have had, and still have, a global pandemic, which is related to our biodiversity and climate crises, but in reaction to it we have seen enormous, massive and rapid change. We have seen the invention from scratch of highly effective new vaccines from a range of technologies. We have seen billions of doses of those vaccines already delivered. We have seen transformation on an almost daily scale of our entire way of life. The previously obscure word “lockdown” has become daily currency. International travel has almost stopped. “Zoom” has become a verb.
What has happened to the climate in those two years? Emissions fell in 2020, chiefly because of the pandemic, but a lot less than people expected. They then started to rise again. We have seen Extinction Rebellion out on our streets regularly and the climate strikers have become part of the national life of countries all around the world. But we have yet to see the scale of reaction that is needed to these emergencies, which are on the same scale as the pandemic. Just look at the contrast between those two scales of reaction and the fact that the Bill was written two years ago. In the age of shocks, with time moving so fast, that is an age. Amendment 1 would update the Bill to be fit for today, as it must be, and create the frame for it to be fit for the future.
I will briefly address Amendment 21. It is particularly important because we are starting to see the word “resilience” in news coverage, which was once an extremely rare occurrence. It is starting to rise up the news agenda. I speak as a former journalist. Amendment 21 seeks to address the risks, identify them and report on them.
I will focus in particular on proposed new subsection (2)(c), which would ensure that the views of 11 to 25 year-olds in the United Kingdom are continuously engaged in debating these risks. I reflect on that because yesterday I was in Sheffield, where I joined the Young Christian Climate Network, which is on a deliberately very slow pilgrimage from Truro to Glasgow, stopping in as many communities up and down the land as it possibly can to engage communities, particularly young people, on this issue. Climate strikers, young pilgrims and Extinction Rebellion are leading. The amendment would ensure that the Government and the Bill are at least in the right place to catch up.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 1, to which I added my name. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Bird, for his helpful amendment. We agree that assessing long-term environmental risk should be an essential part of setting environmental targets and improvement plans.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, very much for setting out why recognising our climate and biodiversity emergency is so important. He and other noble Lords set out the case with clarity, passion and commitment. As he said, this is indeed code red for humanity.
We had a number of excellent contributions in Committee which all strengthened the importance of having Amendment 1 underpin the Bill. It has of course become commonplace for government and civic society to acknowledge that we have a climate change emergency. The recent global evidence that the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Bennett, referred to reinforces this view. Quite frankly, it has made a mockery of the dwindling band of climate sceptics.
However, we still have some way to go to put the biodiversity crisis on an equal footing with the climate crisis, with comparable attention and resources. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said, biodiversity is seen as the poor relation, yet, as we have heard, the evidence of a biodiversity emergency is all around us. At a UK level, the RSPB’s State of Nature report showed that 41% of our species are declining and one in 10 threatened with extinction. We are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. At a global level, the WWF has documented the international failure to meet the UN biodiversity targets, with an average 68% of species decline across the world. We see the impact of this decline in our gardens, countryside and waterways. For many of us, it is personally heartbreaking to see nature suffering and declining in this way.
We now understand more than ever that nature is not just a “nice to have”; it underpins our very existence and regulates the earth’s climate. As the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s report concludes:
“Biodiversity and well-functioning ecosystems are critical for human existence, economic prosperity, and a good quality of life.”
Of course, this echoes the previous conclusions of the much-quoted and seminal Dasgupta report.
That is why Amendment 1 is so important. A government declaration of a climate and biodiversity emergency would be more than symbolic. It would make it clear that the two issues are inextricably linked and that both require action on an urgent scale. In Committee, the Minister acknowledged these arguments. He said:
“We absolutely recognise the extent of the crisis”
that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and I had relayed. He went on to say:
“There is no doubt that the facts on the ground tell us that we are in crisis territory”,
but he also acknowledged that international action on climate change is well ahead of any comparable action on biodiversity. As he said:
“It remains the case … that of all international climate finance, only 2.5% to 3% is spent on nature-based solutions.”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; col. 37.]
This lies at the heart of the problem. A group of us were involved in debates on the Financial Services Bill earlier in the year. It was clear then that banking and businesses in the UK are slowly waking up to their climate change commitments, but I do not recall much mention of biodiversity in their strategies for the future. So far, it seems that biodiversity and nature-based solutions are seen as Defra issues, not government-wide issues. I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity or commitment on this issue, but the evidence seems to show that the department is struggling to get other government departments to take this issue seriously. This is why it is important that the Government as a whole recognise the joint emergency of climate change and biodiversity, and why the Prime Minister needs to recognise the emergencies and put action on both issues at the heart of government policy for the future.
Nature will not wait. We are spiralling into levels of extinction that cannot be reversed. As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, this is the right time to make this declaration. I therefore hope that noble Lords will heed our call and support our amendment if it is put to a vote.
My Lords, I have listened carefully to the very powerful arguments that have been made. I believe that what is happening with biodiversity is more of an emergency than the climate. I am not certain that I like subsections (2) and (3) of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, and I do not like Amendment 21, which is grouped with Amendment 1 but is not consequential on it. That would make it harder for the Government to pursue their environmental improvement plans and 25-year plan. There would be unnecessary duplication with the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Bird. I am very happy with subsection (1) of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson. The purpose of this Act is to address the biodiversity and climate emergency domestically and globally. Once that is in print, it will be acknowledged by the Government as an emergency. Surely that meets the noble Lord’s point, and if my noble friend the Minister accepts subsection (1), I will be perfectly happy.
My Lords, it is a curious experience to be standing up without being called.
The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has made the classic Conservative error of separating biodiversity from climate. It is all interconnected: you cannot talk about either without accepting that each has an impact on the other. Every noble Lord must understand that we have a climate emergency, and therefore this government Bill is not good enough. We all know that–it is why there are so many amendments at Report. It is our job to improve the Bill and it is the Government’s job to listen and, I hope, accept our improvements.
I hope that your Lordships will remember the words of the Pope in Laudato Si’, when he said that climate change was the symptom of what we had done to the world. That brings together bio- diversity, imposed poverty, the lack of fertility in our soil, modern slavery and a whole range of other things. Climate change is the planet crying out for the elimination of its disease.
I was not present for his speech but I read carefully what my noble friend said about his commitment to both these things. I hope that, when he comes to answer this debate, he realises that it is extremely difficult for us in the Climate Change Committee to explain to people why biodiversity is part of the answer—putting that right is just as important as a range of other things, and we cannot divorce them from each other. It is difficult, because we have already started doing that, making climate change one sort of thing and these other things different from it. I hope that the Government will understand why this amendment has been put down and why it is important to connect these things. If I have a difficulty, it is that a lot of other things ought to be connected as well, but these two are particularly important this year, given the nature of international negotiations in this area.
I hope also that my noble friend will think to himself a very simple thing: if the Government will not accept the amendment or rewrite the Bill—my noble friend Lord Caithness may be right; I am not arguing in detail about the particular amendment—it is perfectly possible for them to come forward and make a statement in the Bill which makes it clear that the biodiversity and climate emergencies are intimately and intricately connected. I hope my noble friend will realise that, if he cannot say it, he will be showing that the Government are not prepared to say it. That would be really worrying. The reason the Government have to say it is that there is a fundament problem with government: it has a series of silos, and if we are not careful these big issues get caught up in some ministries and not others. Unless we make it clear that this should be a driving force in, say, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport as much as in the Department for Education, Defra or BEIS, we will not win this battle.
I hope my noble friend will recognise that the House is asking for a very simple statement. If it is refused, I really would not blame people outside for questioning the commitment of the Government as a whole to these two essential parts of the same problem. I look to him if not to accept these amendments then to at least tell the House that, at Third Reading, he will introduce an amendment that will assert publicly the Government’s commitment to these being urgent, necessary issues that deserve the title that we have asked for. I hope he is able to say that; if he is not, it will send the wrong signal, at a time when we should be united in sending the right signals, so that in all discussions people will know precisely where Britain stands.
My Lords, in supporting the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I draw attention to a particular feature that has been mentioned but perhaps could be made more explicit. It is a feature of both the climate emergency and the biodiversity emergency: the discontinuities that will arise as a result of incremental change. My noble friend Lady Boycott alluded to this in talking about the rivets in an aeroplane: it does not matter, perhaps, if one, two or three rivets fall out, but when more than a critical number fall off there is a discontinuity and the plane falls out of the sky. This is true, as we know from the IPCC and others, of the climate emergency. We hear over and over of the notion of dangerous climate change, whereby if we exceed a certain boundary then we will tip into a new world in which life becomes intolerable and many regions of the planet are uninhabitable for the human species. That is equally true of the biodiversity emergency.
I am an academic ecologist, and so I will refer back to the scientific literature. Back in 1969, an American ecologist, Robert T Paine of the University of Washington, drew attention to the notion of keystone species. He was studying a species of starfish that lives in the intertidal zone of the north-western United States—Washington state. If this species of starfish disappears then the whole ecosystem flips to a new state, because the starfish is the keystone species that maintains the equilibrium of the intertidal ecosystem. The same will be true in many other situations.
It is not just the number of rivets that fall out of the plane that is important; it is particular, key rivets. The sad thing is that, if we lose some of these keystone species, we will be among the ones that suffer, because we will suddenly find that the systems we rely on to produce food, purify our water and provide other ecosystem services will simply not exist any more. A genuine emergency is created by crossing these thresholds: once we have crossed them, it will be too late.
My Lords, in the Book of Common Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer says:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
in earth as in heaven.”
I repeat, “in earth”. It was not the work of some liberal conspiracy in the Church or the Liturgical Commission but, somewhere in the last 300 or 400 years in the popular saying of the Lord’s Prayer, it somehow changed from “in earth” to “on earth”. This tiny change encompasses for me all that is wrong in our relationship with the earth of which we are a part. We used to understand that we live in it, we are part of it, we depend on it and that, as good stewards of the earth, the earth depends on us. Then, somehow, we decided that we did not live in it any more but on it; it was ours and we could do with it as we wanted.
Therein lies the whole challenge to the human race. What I want to hear from the Government on this crucial amendment is a clear signal that we have recognised—as a human race, as a nation and as the Government of this land—that there is an emergency, and that what is happening to our climate and to biodiversity is completely connected. At the same time there must be recognition of the terrible responsibility that we bear for having imagined that we lived on the earth rather than in it. By giving that signal, everything else could follow.
My Lords, I echo the words of my noble friend Lord Caithness. The Government are to be congratulated on the first major piece of environmental legislation in two decades; I congratulate them on this. It will set a world-leading framework for environmental improvement and vigilance. I believe that the Government—certainly my noble friend on the Front Bench and our excellent Minister in the other place—recognise the scale of the crisis. That has been said in the House already.
It is inevitably the case that the climate change emergency is much better recognised than the biodiversity emergency, yet the two are so linked. Indeed, it is frightening to see the decline in biodiversity. The figures announced by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for example, are a telling reminder of the dangers to our precious planet and the interconnection between all species on earth. Part of my religious belief is founded on the amazing magic that nature produces. This world has been created for us, yet we are in danger of ending the precious balance that has, in my view, been created for us. I hope that those who do not agree with my underlying religious belief on this matter will forgive me.
I hope that my noble friend might be able to accept the first part of Amendment 1, which aims to address the biodiversity and climate emergency both domestically and globally. I am not convinced that proposed subsections 2 and 3 are clear in what they imply. What does this mean? What do these extra bits add? What we want—and I think this House is keen to see—is that we are addressing a crisis in biodiversity and in climate change. Of course, there is pollution and waste management. All these things are incorporated in this crisis. I cannot support Amendment 21, but I hope that my noble friend will be able to speak to the first bit of Amendment 1.
My Lords, I wish very briefly to endorse everything that my noble friend Lady Altmann said a moment ago. There is a great deal to be said for clarity and simplicity and I believe that the first part of this amendment moved so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, frankly, says it all. We do not need the encumbrances. We need this clear, unambiguous, emphatic statement. If my noble friend the Minister will agree to give us that, I think it would be unwise of the House to seek to vote on the composite—as the trade unions would call it—resolution. This is what we need.
The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York put it very well when he quoted from the Lord’s Prayer. We are in earth. As president of the Prayer Book Society, I always say that and would not say anything else. I beg my noble friend the Minister to take on board the wise words of my noble friends Lady Altmann and Lord Deben—how good it is to have him back in the Chamber—and that he will accept this; then, we can move forward.
I am delighted to be back debating the Environment Bill on Report and not least to be able to do so in person. I thank noble Lords for continuing to meet me and my officials over the Summer Recess.
Off the back of much of that engagement, as well as the many insightful contributions in Committee from right across this House, noble Lords will have seen that we have secured and tabled some significant amendments to the Bill. I outlined these in a letter to your Lordships last week and I look forward to discussing these in more detail as we progress the debate.
Moving on to the important issues at hand, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate, and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his Amendment 1. He described an emergency; I reassure him that the Government fully recognise the seriousness of both climate change and biodiversity loss, which, as a number of noble Lords have said, must be addressed in tandem if we are to protect the planet. There is no credible pathway to net zero that does not involve the protection and restoration of nature on an unprecedented scale. Indeed, there is no pathway to meeting our sustainable development goals—any of them—without massive efforts to protect and restore nature. We know that those people who depend most on the free services that nature provides, and which have been described by a number of speakers today, are in the most vulnerable and poorest communities. As we destroy nature, we destroy those services and plunge people in huge numbers into base poverty.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, pointed out that of total global climate finance, less than 3% is invested in nature-based solutions to climate change. An attempt to shift that balance and get that 3% much closer to 50% is at the heart of our ambitions as the president of COP. In addition to committing to double our own international climate finance to £11.6 billion, we have committed that nearly a third of that will be invested in nature-based solutions, including forests, mangroves, seagrasses and more. As part of our diplomatic efforts in the run-up to COP, we are talking to other donor countries on a regular basis to try to persuade them to do something similar. There has been some progress and I hope that, by the time we reach COP, I will be able to present significant movement in that area.
My noble friend Lord Deben, who I too am very pleased to see here and who is an authority on climate change, quoted the Pope; I am not sure whether it was the current or previous Pope but he quoted a Pope. The point he made was absolutely right. Climate change has been described by others—perhaps from a less theological point of view—as a fever caused by decades and generations of our abuse of the natural world. The more we can see it in that way, the more likely we are to deliver appropriate solutions. COP will be a nature COP; this is at the heart of what we are attempting to do with our presidency.
I take issue with one suggestion that the noble Lord, Lord Deben made: that we need to make it clear to others where the UK stands on these issues. I would not pretend that there is a country in the world, including the UK, that is doing enough. The gap between where we are and where we need to be is vast; that is true of every country on earth, and that is why we are having this discussion today. But where the UK stands on climate change and nature already sends a pretty powerful message to the world. I think we are regarded internationally as leaders: we were the first major economy to legislate for net zero by 2050; we have committed to ending taxpayer support for fossil fuel projects overseas, which the noble Lord has been urging for many years; we are the first to make our land use subsidy system conditional on environmental outcomes; we have doubled our international climate finance, as I said; and we have committed to a third of investment into nature-based solutions. As COP president, we are all engaging in intense diplomacy to try to raise ambition across the world.
I think my noble friend misunderstood my point. My point was that, given the opportunity to declare this simple thing in an Act, the Government, if they do not take it, cannot avoid the fact that many will say they do not want to. The Government have the opportunity. I do not want the rest of these amendments; I just want the statement, and then no one can argue. If he cannot give that, I merely say that people outside will think we are not willing to do so.
I thank my noble friend for his intervention, and I will address his question directly.
The Environment Bill contains numerous world firsts as well—for example, legislation to move illegal deforestation from supply chains, which we are trying to persuade many other countries to emulate, and with which we think we are making some progress. Biodiversity net gain is, I believe, a world first. I am delighted to introduce a legal requirement, which we will debate later today, to everything the Government can do to bend the curve of biodiversity loss by 2030. The Bill will enable us to improve air quality, address nature’s decline, deliver a resource-efficient economy, tackle the scourge of single-use plastics and ensure we can manage our precious water resources in a changing climate. All climate change legislation in England will be part of the enforcement remit of the office for environmental protection, including enforcement of the net-zero target. The OEP will work closely alongside our world-leading Committee on Climate Change on these issues, ensuring that their individual roles complement and reinforce one another.
Through the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan, the Government set out steps to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This innovative programme outlines ambitious policies and includes £12 billion of government investment to support up to 250,000 green jobs, accelerate our path to reaching net zero by 2050 and lay the foundations for a green recovery by building back greener from the pandemic. The Government have also published their energy White Paper, transport decarbonisation plan and hydrogen strategy, and we will bring forward further proposals, including a net-zero strategy, before COP 26—a strategy that all government departments, without exception, are working on. We will continue to tackle these interrelated crises in an integrated way, internationally, as hosts of COP 26 and by playing a leading role in pushing for the development of an ambitious post-2020 global biodiversity framework to be adopted at the CBD COP 15.
Briefly, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, who talked about the need for action alongside this but questioned the action taken during the passage of the Bill, most of the examples I gave earlier are things that have happened during the passage of the Bill but, in addition to that, the Government announced a few months ago the £3 billion green investment fund to create thousands of green jobs and upgrade buildings; a £2 billion green homes grant; the England peat action plan, produced by my honourable friend Rebecca Pow in the other place; the England trees action plan, which was part of my portfolio; and a £5.2 billion fund to better protect properties from flooding, increasing amounts of which will be invested in nature-based solutions to try to deal with numerous problems using the same investment. We are taking action.
In response to the amendment, but also to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Deben: it is clearly the action against which a Government will be judged. Any Government can make declarations, as we have seen. As we approach COP, every declaration made so far in relation to deforestation globally has been missed. The Aichi targets were missed catastrophically. I cannot think of a single grand statement about the environment, biodiversity or climate change that has in fact been met—not a single one. It is the steps—the actions—that Governments take against which they should be judged.
A number of noble Lords have described an environmental crisis, a biodiversity crisis and a climate crisis. I have, in the short time I have been in this place, described those crises myself. Indeed, the reason I am in politics is to tackle those crises. It is hard to talk about the scale of the crisis. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, gave the example that the populations of key species have declined by nearly 70% in my lifetime, and that would not even qualify as a nano-blip in evolutionary terms. One more nano-blip like that and we are in very serious trouble. Of course this is an emergency; there is no doubt that we are describing, combating and tackling a biodiversity and climate emergency. But adding this proposed new clause to the Bill would not, we believe, drive any specific further action. It does not change the nature of what we need to do or of the action we are already taking. While I agree completely with the sentiment behind the noble Lord’s amendment—and I think the Government have demonstrated, in the steps they have taken, that they share that sentiment—respectfully, we do not see that this amendment would have any material impact.
Amendment 21 was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, but he has not spoken to it, so I hope it is okay if I address it. I am not sure what the protocol requires, but I will do so unless I am told not to. I firmly believe that environmental risks are already accounted for under the Bill—in numerous ways, such as the environment improvement plan and annual reports that will consider risks related to improving the natural environment and be actively managed through ongoing performance management. These reports will be published and scrutinised by Parliament and the office for environmental protection. Furthermore, the Government report publicly on specific environmental risk, including long-term environmental trends and high-impact environmental risks, through Defra’s annual reports and accounts and the outcome delivery plans for each government department. These are all available online.
Regarding youth engagement, a point raised by a number of speakers, we have consulted the Youth Steering Group and are exploring new approaches to youth engagement as part of the EIP review due to take place in 2022. In addition, the emphasis being placed by the COP president-designate on the value of youth engagement and youth involvement cannot be overestimated, and that is demonstrated through the actions he is taking and the plans he is making.
The Bill and the actions we are taking elsewhere will deliver on the sentiments behind both amendments. Therefore, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Before my noble friend sits down: if the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, or anyone else for that matter, brought back at Third Reading proposed new subsection (1) of Amendment 1, which is merely a headline, would my noble friend pledge to accept that it does not detract one iota from the Bill? Yet headlines can be useful—they can be pointers—and I would urge my noble friend to do that. It is a pity to start on a Division when we all agree that that is the one thing on which many of us feel particularly strongly.
I thank my noble friend for his intervention and his earlier comments, but the reality is that I, the department I work for and the whole of the Government will be tested and judged against the actions we take—actions and commitments we make in the run-up to COP and alongside the Bill. My view, and that of the Government, is that accepting this amendment and writing these words into the eventual Act would have no material impact on policy whatever. The reality is that securing changes to a Bill requires a great deal of heavy lifting. There are areas where I hope noble Lords will see that the Bill has improved considerably in recent weeks as a consequence of arguments put forward by noble Lords in this House. But those are material changes that will have a material impact on our stewardship of the environment.
My Lords, if my noble friend is not prepared to give the very simple assurance that at Third Reading he will have some form of declaration, he is being politically most unwise. What is more, he is setting himself up to have a great deal more trouble with this Bill than he otherwise would.
I simply say to my noble friend that I am not in a position to accept this amendment. If the House feels strongly on this issue, then it is important that it tests the amendment in a Division. Accepting it is not something that I am able to do or, frankly, that I think would make any material difference to government policy.
I do not want this to start off so badly, but the fact is that many of us do not want to have various bits of this amendment and it is not our fault that my noble friend has been offered the opportunity to make this statement. I have to ask him: is he really going to stand up and say that, if just that bit were put in at Third Reading, he would whip his side to vote against it? If he did that—and that is the only way in which he could stand behind refusing such an amendment—then that seems to open up the reality of the question that he has been asked.
I agree with him about statements. I am constantly attacking the Government for not doing the things that are necessary to achieve the ends that they have so nobly accepted, so he must not accuse me of being in favour of declarations. However, when he has been asked to make a declaration and he does not do so, that seems to me to be a very different circumstance.
Perhaps I have misunderstood my noble friend. If he is asking me to acknowledge, as I have done many times in this House and outside it, that we face a biodiversity and climate emergency then I believe I have already done so. However, it is not for me to unilaterally accept an amendment on behalf of the Government that would have no material impact. As my noble friend says, we have made some big commitments; accepting the amendment would not change our commitment to net zero or to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, or indeed in relation to any of these issues. I am afraid I have to come back to my noble friend and others by saying that if the feeling is strong then this issue needs to be put to a Division.
I would just like to get clarification on this. Since it is now so difficult to table an amendment at Third Reading, it needs my noble friend to say that he would consider it before Third Reading. As I understand it, that would allow the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, to bring it back at Third Reading. If my noble friend is point blank saying that he will not even consider it, then the noble Lord has no alternative but to divide the House.
As I said, I like subsection (1) of the proposed new clause but not the rest of the amendment, which puts me and indeed quite a lot of us on the Benches behind my noble friend in an extremely difficult position. I think it is essential, as my noble friend Lord Deben said, that we get subsection (1), but we would have to vote for the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in order to get it into the Bill.
I have been told to finish but I am not sure how; this is the first time I have been asked to finish in these circumstances. I will repeat what I said earlier: all I can suggest to the House is that if feelings are strong then this question should be put to a Division. I do not see an alternative to doing so.
My Lords, in all my time in this House, this is the first time that I have got to a point where the Minister is calling for a Division on an amendment that he does not agree with. We have perhaps made history this afternoon.
This is a very serious matter. I listened carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. If subsection (1) had been accepted by the Government then I would have been in a great dilemma, because it does not quite say what I wanted to say but gets pretty close to it. The reason why it is written as it is, I have to say, is partly because of the Public Bill Office. I would have appreciated the Government’s help in getting it right and we could have done that at Third Reading, but we are not in that position.
I want to be quite clear about this. These are key issues where what we say matters as much as what we need to do. All of us here believe there is no difference between saying what we want and actually doing it; we all know that we need both of those, not just one. The Bill goes on to do a lot of what we need in some of those areas.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her in-depth look at biodiversity. As the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Bennett, and other Members have said, biodiversity has to be brought into greater focus. The point is that, in public life as in private, there is a big difference between acceptance and public declaration. That is why the amendment is so important for the Bill and why I, like the Minister, would like to test the opinion of the House.
Clause 1: Environmental targets
2: Clause 1, page 2, line 4, at end insert—
“(e) soil health and quality.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment indicates that soil health and quality are a priority area for environmental improvement.
My Lords, Amendment 2 appears in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Whitty, Lord Curry of Kirkharle and Lord Randall of Uxbridge. I thank them all for their support, as well as others who would have offered their support had there been space under our procedures.
We have here a very simple amendment, but an improved amendment from Committee. As I listened to the discussion in Committee, it became obvious that we really needed to ensure that this amendment addresses both the health and quality of soil. I am simplifying slightly—I refer noble Lords to the discussion in Committee—but in a sense, in recent decades we have come to realise, in a way we had not before, that soils are complex ecosystems in their own right. The “health” element of this amendment very much addresses that biology aspect, whereas the “quality” element speaks more specifically to the chemical and physical composition of the soil. It is interesting that in our first debate today, the noble Lord, Lord Deben, highlighted the importance of soils when we are talking about biodiversity and climate. That is a useful introduction to this debate.
We debated soils at great length in Committee, so I will just briefly summarise some of the points raised. The UK loses more than 3 million tonnes of topsoil every year. Soil is degraded even while it remains in situ; almost 4 million hectares are at risk of compaction—the life and air squashed out of the soil, mostly by the passage of heavy farm machinery. Soil can also be contaminated through dangerous, damaging substances being swept or blown or landing on it—or still sometimes, sadly, being deliberately placed on it through error or fraud. We are also just beginning to understand micro- plastic pollution, something that cannot be escaped anywhere on this planet. Soils are stores of carbon too, of course. They are rich ecosystems and stores of life and biodiversity on a scale that we have barely begun to understand.
It is important to acknowledge that the Government, at least in some quarters, recognise the scale of this issue. The 25-year environment plan—supposedly the big, set-piece document outlining what the Government intend to do on many pressing issues—says that England’s soils must be sustainably managed by 2030. To drive home that point, that is little more than eight years away. In terms of farming practice, farmers are buying new machinery now that they might expect to use for many decades. In terms of the need urgently to plant trees, which is a soil health and quality issue as well as one in so many other areas, eight years is obviously not very long at all for them to reach any kind of size. Food manufacturers will have to think about their plans for the future and what crops might be available to them.
I credit the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for highlighting in Committee how your Lordships’ House, after a long wrestle, got a significant reference to soil in the Agriculture Act. This is very much its sister Bill, so surely we have to do the same thing here to get the two fitting and working together. In the priority areas of this Bill we have air and water quality, then there is a gap where soil obviously belongs and where this amendment puts it.
I want to address a couple of the points the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond, made in Committee. One response was that
“the Bill gives us the power to set legally-binding long-term targets on any aspect of the natural environment”.
A Secretary of State could set a target at any time, but given that there are a scant eight years to reach the Government’s own aim of 2030, why wait? Why would a world-leading Government wait?
The second response from the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, was that there is not enough information and knowledge about soils to know what the targets could be. I acknowledge, as I did in Committee, that there is a dreadful shortage of information on and understanding of soils. This is a result of the failure to fund independent agricultural research extending over decades and the outsourcing of it to agrochemical companies that have advocated highly profitable—for them—practices which have had such a disastrous impact on soil health and quality. I suggest that the Minister then contradicted himself when he said:
“Developing targets is an iterative process”.
In other words, this is something that is developed, evolved and finessed over time. These targets can be set, improved, developed and worked through. What we need in this Bill is a statement that soil has to be there with air and water.
Without this amendment, we have a Bill that is a two-legged stool. Someone pointed out to me that they were once used in dairy farming because you could wobble by hanging on to the cow, but that is not quite a practical arrangement for a legal process. Stools need three legs. What this small, modest, but important amendment does is put that third leg on the stool. In our Committee debate, the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said that soil
“warrants its own independent priority status”
and added that
“we are in danger of giving it a permanently second-tier status”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; cols. 87-93.]
without the addition of this amendment. If we are going to be able to grow our food, cultivate and support our natural world and store the carbon that we must in the coming years, decades and centuries, this amendment has to be in this Bill.
Noble Lords will note that the noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, who might be expected to be in his place and commenting on this amendment, having attached his name to it, is not here. The noble Lord asked me to send his personal apologies for being unable to be here and to share some of his thoughts. He said: “I have attached my name to this amendment because it is illogical not to include soil health and quality as a key environmental indicator. Soil is our most precious asset, and its status will determine whether or not we achieve net zero by 2050 and whether or not we can feed 10 billion people by 2050. Nothing can be more important than these two objectives. The Republic of Ireland has just committed €10 million to carrying out a nationwide soil testing programme to establish a baseline of soil health and quality. We have the opportunity to do the same through the ELMS if we specify the standard of testing required and create a national database. Why could we not take this unique opportunity to position ourselves as global leaders in this crucial area, particularly with COP 26 approaching?”
I have indicated informally and will now indicate formally that, unless I hear an acceptance from the Minister that the Government will put the final leg on the stool, I intend to push this amendment to a vote. I really feel we can do nothing else; we will be utterly failing the future if we do not do this. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Climate Change Committee has made it very clear that the soil is a crucial part of our remediation policies to deal with climate change. I declare an interest because, in a small way, I am an organic farmer and I have a son who is particularly interested in and works with those who want to use soil for sequestration. Whatever one’s interests may be, it is quite clear that the importance of soil is universal; it is a world problem. We have reduced the fertility of our soil almost universally over the past 40 and 50 years. I often want to say that five a day is worth about what four a day might have been some time ago. I am not sure that is scientifically accurate, but it expresses what the difference is—not only is it the fertility of the soil, but the trace elements in the soil.
What is rather curiously called “conventional farming” suffers from the problem that is does not put back the richness of the soil in the same way that historic methods of farming have done. We have to recognise that we have to change, because we cannot go on doing this. If you come, as I do, from the east of England, you know that more and more conventional famers are recognising that the way we farm gives us very few more harvests because we are denuding the soil.
The first reason that soil is crucial is because it is getting far less useful—if we only want to look at it from a utilitarian point of view. The second reason is because we need it to be better able to sequester. That means we really have to bring the soil back to the kind of strength that it had before the war.
The third reason it is crucial is that there are particular soils with special issues. I draw my noble friend’s attention to the question of peatland, which is a remarkable and wonderful sequester of carbon. But if it is ruined or torn up, it becomes the opposite and it exhales carbon, so we have a double whammy. The fact is that the Government have not even embarked on a peatland policy that will reach the level the Climate Change Committee says is essential to meet net zero—to restore all our peatlands by 2045. If we do it at the speed which is, at the moment, being celebrated by Defra, we will not get there.
It is crucially important—some sort of animal has just landed on me and clearly wishes to sequester upon me—to note that, unless we act on soil, we have very little chance of reaching net zero, because the “net” bit of net zero is about sequestration. It is not just about planting trees, although that is crucially important; it is about the whole way we deal with soil, including how we deal with the bare period, which should be covered, and the sorts of things that we can do and which we have to make sure are part of ELMS when it comes to the detail. All those things are essential.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, referred to a very interesting thing: of earth, air and water, earth is the first. Again, one comes back to the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, who reminded us of the nature of the Lord’s Prayer.
It is very important that soil should be part of this. My reason for speaking is simply because we have made that very clear in the Climate Change Committee’s report—which has been accepted by the Government and is the basis of our commitment to net zero and the way in which we are going to get there. It would be a great pity if we cannot find a way of including soil. It may be that the way the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, wants to do it has some technical problem which I have not so far seen, and I am perfectly prepared to be led down some path which enables some other way of doing this. But if we do not include soil, we are again saying something. There is no such thing as being able to negative something without making a statement. Therefore, we either have to do what the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, would like us to do, or we have to find another way of making sure that soil is part of this.
I end by saying to my noble friend that there is a particular reason why Defra should be saying this: we have not heard enough from Defra about how we are going to improve the soil—we have not heard enough about the details. Therefore, we are not sure that Defra has really taken this on board. The Climate Change Committee is, I think, trying to say to Defra that this is central. For example, we have not yet banned horticultural peat. What on earth are we doing making it worse? We could do that immediately; the industry is ready for it, but we have not yet done it because we are still talking. Climate change gives us no time to talk about this—something that we should have done a long time ago. Please can we have this in the Bill, so that we know where we are and the Government can be held to it?
My Lords, I added my name to this amendment and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, on the way that she presented it and added a few more points from the noble Lord, Lord Curry, in his absence. Now, the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has spelled out most of what I was about to say. The reality is that this is a very straightforward amendment and one which would be easy, sensible and logical for the Minister to accept.
In relation to the back end of the remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, Defra really has no excuse now. I have to admit that, 20 years ago, when I was a Defra Minister, soil management was not very high on the agenda; it was there, and it was vaguely there in the common agricultural policy and agro-environment schemes, but it was very low priority. And yet it is such a central issue to life on this earth and the future of the human race that we have a soil—both cultivated and in the wild—that will continue to be sustainable and be resilient enough to provide the multitudinous plants that sustain life for ourselves and for almost every other species on earth.
It is very odd that soil is not included in this simple subsection. The Minister should recognise that what has been obvious to farmers through the centuries and to gardeners every day—that we have to maintain the health of the soil—has been set back by practices over the last 50 or 60 years. It is not just pollution of the soil, loss to urbanisation and industrialised agriculture; it is also what we put on the soil through cheaper chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Some soil mismanagement is ancient, such as overploughing and trying to extract too many harvests, but some is very modern. We are capable of stopping it now and beginning to reverse this trend.
As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, the horrifying thing is that there has been huge research over the last 20 or so years, in Britain and around the world, showing that the soil in almost every habitat has seriously declined and is continuing to decline. In northern Europe, if we carry on like this, we will perhaps have only 50 more harvests sustainable by the nature of our soil. People who are born today will be only in mid-life by the time that crisis hits us here in prosperous, climate- friendly northern Europe.
Look at sub-Saharan Africa. If we are not careful, and if COP 26 and the other mechanisms the international community has do not give us a lead on soil, what was one of the most fertile areas of the world will go the way of north Africa several hundred years ago. That is a very real threat to us and to biodiversity.
As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, has also underlined, soil is a very important part of our fight to reduce carbon. If soil is incapable of sequestering and retaining carbon, whatever targets we have on carbon reduction become meaningless.
I plead with the Minister simply to accept this amendment. It must be part of the agenda and should be upfront in this clause as a priority issue to address. I believe that, today, he could unite the House in accepting this amendment.
My Lords, I support this amendment very strongly. First, I declare my interests—for the whole of Report—as a farmer and landowner, as chair of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and as chair of an internet parking business.
For too long, in this country and elsewhere, we have ignored the importance of the 1 billion bacteria that should exist in every teaspoonful of our top-soil. We have ignored their vital importance for the foundation of life on our planet—food, habitats, everything. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has just said, the situation is particularly serious in sub-Saharan Africa, where we are losing good agricultural soils at a devastating rate. While obviously this Bill can do nothing about that, it would be good if the UK could lead by example and set the model for others to follow. Having soil as a priority area in our Environment Bill, and later, when we come to Amendment 18, having a serious soil management strategy, would be a good way to do this and would create a model for other countries to follow. I commend the emphasis on soils in this amendment and look forward to hearing the Government’s response.
My Lords, I support this amendment very strongly. I speak as the chair of the Adaptation Committee of the Committee on Climate Change. In June this year, we gave our advice to the Government on climate risks faced by the UK, and three of our eight urgent priorities are to do with the impacts of the changing climate on our soils—so it is not just those historic and current farming practices but the fact that our soils now have to put up with droughts, floods, high temperatures and wildfires. Of course, these are unfortunately only going to get worse. This means that we are giving them a very hard time—yet we are expecting them to sequester carbon and support the 30,000 to 50,000 hectares of trees that we need to be planting per annum to meet net zero, and we are expecting them to support increased food productivity to make room for planting those trees. We are expecting a lot from our soils; they need the support of this amendment.
My Lords, I added my name to the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and I was pleased to do so because I, like others who have spoken, realise the importance of soil. In fact, I doubt that there is anyone in this Chamber today who does not appreciate that.
The question is whether we should put this where it is on the face of the Bill. As has already been said, my noble friend Lord Caithness’s amendment about a soil strategy will come later. I am very taken with the idea of putting this in the Bill. However, I have one note of caution. The next amendment, which I will speak to, will put in something else that I think is a priority, and I dare say that there are plenty of, or quite a few, others that people could put forward as priorities—we have our own pet subjects. I really want to hear from my noble friend the Minister—I know that he believes in this—what Defra and the Government are taking seriously about this and how they will deal with it. This may not be the way to put it forward in the Bill, but at the moment it seems like the best way. I am very taken with my noble friend Lord Caithness’s amendment that we will come to later, which might be a better alternative. That said, I shall listen to what my noble friend says.
My Lords, I urge the noble Lord, Lord Randall, to be of good cheer and believe that this is the solution—because it seems to me that we have heard, from many noble Lords of high esteem, just how important soil is as a fundamental part of the environment. Indeed, two of the Government’s priorities in Clause 1(3), “water” and “biodiversity”, are crucially dependent on soils, apart from anything else. It is true to say that, as well as very many noble Lords being able to lay down the case very clearly for soil being part of the Government’s priority list, the Government themselves have said that: in their 25-year environment plan, they mentioned soil quality 17 times, so it does not seem to me to beyond the wit of man to believe that that looks like a bit of a priority and probably ought to be in this list.
I know that, in Committee, the Minister said that the science will not let us measure soil health, but there has been research on soil quality for the last 50 years, and lots of measures have been put forward as indicators of soil health, ranging from microbes to organic matter to earthworms. The Government just need to make a stab at a basket of indicators and get on with measuring and incentivising improvement.
Although I have banged on for many years about government needing to incentivise people to produce outcomes, in this particular case I want to recant from that and ask for the reverse practice, which is to incentivise practices that have a proven effect for good on soil health. If we can get farmers, land managers and others who have an impact on the soil to do the right things, good soil quality will result.
The noble Lord, Lord Deben, talked about a few of those things, such as minimum tillage, crop rotations, applications of manures and composts, use of cover crops and effective management of field margins. If farmers and land managers were incentivised to do all of those, we would be almost absolutely guaranteed to be improving the health of the soil. As such, I urge the Minister: soil health is too important to say, “It is too difficult” and to leave it out of the Government’s priority list.
My Lords, I rise to support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Randall for pointing out that my Amendment 18 is coming up, complementing this amendment in that it asks the Government to “prepare a soil … strategy”. No one could have put it better than the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, just now, and much of what she said is reflected in the wording that I have in Amendment 18, which we shall come to.
However, the Government must include plans for the integration of soil management with environmental objectives, such as climate mitigation, flood-risk minimisation, water-quality measures and policies relating to food production. All of this is so integrated that, unless one has a comprehensive approach to it, one will fail. In my view, it is very sad that the Government have got policies for air and water but no statutory policy for soil. My Amendment 18, which I will not speak to at length because I am speaking to this amendment, is equally as important as this amendment.
My noble friend Lord Deben mentioned that soil is a great sequestrator of carbon. Indeed it is, but saying “soil” is like saying “fruit”—there are so many different types of soil that a different approach will have to be taken on most farms, probably, because the soil varies so much. Some of the sandy soils are not terribly good sequestrators; they could be made much better with improved farm management, but, if you have a heavy clay soil, you have an inbuilt advantage for sequestration from day 1.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said how little Defra spent on soil. It is rather frightening that only 0.4% of the environmental budget is spent on soil—that is a catastrophically low amount of money, which is why this amendment is so important and why my Amendment 18 is equally important. The whole question of soil and research needs much more expenditure and we need to be clearer on it, but let us have one basic fact in mind: about 25% of our biodiversity is in our soil. That is why we need to get this amendment—and mine —in the Bill.
My Lords, I should note, for the record and for the whole of Report, my interest as a Devon farmer. For many years, we have been adding organic matter to our porous red sandstone soils to increase sequestration, combat run-off, build resilience to drought, decrease the need for chemical fertilisers and provide Teignbridge District Council with somewhere to put all the garden waste.
In Committee, we debated a number of potentially priority areas in Clause 1(3). I am glad that this one in particular has returned, and I will strongly support it. I would have added my name to it if it had not been so eminently oversubscribed. I am less keen on Amendment 3, the light-pollution amendment, which pales in comparison and importance to this one.
The prior debate on these amendments only explained how important this is. In Committee, the Minister confirmed that our understanding of soils is
“not as complete as it should be.”—[Official Report, 21/6/21; col. 95.]
He begged for more time to gather the necessary data. There is simply no more time to do so: our soils are in a crisis and have only a few harvests left, as we have heard from a number of noble Lords. If it is not a priority, how will we ever gather that data? How will Defra be instructed to gather it? The absence of data is seriously damaging the debate on environmental matters, and it is encouraging a number of extremes.
Take the debate on grass-fed meat and dairy. It is a topic close to the hearts of all Devon farmers. We all agree on the negative impact of indoor lot-fed meat and dairy consuming grain and soya in terrible welfare conditions, but no one knows the net environmental impact of beef and sheep fed on the ancient green pastures of the West Country because the data and the science are not there and everybody has an argument. This was confirmed to me just last week in discussions with an eminent environmental scientist at Exeter University. We really need that data, and this amendment needs to be made to encourage Defra to collect it.
Finally, if we do not have all the data, this does not preclude soil being a priority area. Clause 1(2) requires only that the Government
“set a long-term target in respect of at least one matter within each priority area.”
Surely Defra can come up with a single priority or measure with respect to soil that it will be happy with. As we heard from the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York, we live in the earth; that is, the soil. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the Climate Change Committee have said, this amendment should be made.
My Lords, we very much thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for moving this amendment on soil. As noble Lords have mentioned, if we do not have soil as a priority area, how will we have the sustainable food we need in future and how will we support the essential microbial organisms that live in and on the soil? Indeed, as noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, asked, how will we manage our carbon sequestration and net-zero targets without that? It is absolutely essential that the Government make soil a priority.
We accept some of the arguments put forward by the Minister in Committee—the noble Earl, Lord Devon, referred to them—concerning issues that the Government have had. The progress achieved has not yet resolved the definition and description of soil quality. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said in Committee, it is something of a chicken-and-egg situation. Do you have the research base first so that you can sort out the targets or do you need the targets first to ensure that you then get the information?
That pertinent point has informed our thinking on this because there are other ways in which the Government could show that soil is the priority it needs to be. For example, they could go along the route of the soil strategy of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. It is a compelling approach; he sees it as complementary. Perhaps that is another route. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, this House wants the Government to show that soil is a fundamental, critical issue and, as the Member’s explanatory statement says, to indicate
“that soil health and quality are a priority area for environmental improvement.”
That is the purpose of the amendment. The question is whether the route taken—having a long-term target—is the best way forward. I must say, I have gone back and forth in my mind about whether it is, but I have come down in favour of supporting the noble Baroness’s approach should she press this amendment to a vote because, as the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said, we must undertake this research to ensure that we can define and describe soil quality. It is a fundamental requirement for us to get the point where we can achieve what we need to on soil quality.
In my mind, if we do not set soil as a priority area, there is a real risk that the Government could choose to spend money in other areas. In future years, there will be myriad requests of Defra for research in the environmental field. We have so much to do in such a short space of time. Projects will come in left, right and centre, looking for money to take forward. If we do not specify that we have a long-term target for soil health, there is a real fear that future Defra budgets will be under serious constraints to deliver that necessary work.
Therefore, unless the Minister can, in summing up, assure the House that there will not be a curtailment of finances to resource this essential work on soil in future—we have to do that work to protect soil for all the important reasons outlined so eloquently by others —we will support the noble Baroness’s amendment.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, has spoken eloquently on this issue, both in Committee and during this stage of the Bill.
By failing to list soil health alongside air, water and biodiversity in the Bill, the Government have missed the opportunity to list the important aspect of monitoring soil health as a means of improving the environment. I hope that they can address this and show that they mean business by giving the important issue of soil health the attention it requires. We are all aware of the firm commitment to improved soil health in the new Agriculture Act, yet, to reverse the degradation of our soils and return them to a healthy state nationally, we need a long-term commitment to monitoring at both the farm and national level.
The simple truth is that, without a functioning monitoring programme, we are being kept in the dark over the state of our soils. A freedom of information request made by the Sustainable Soils Alliance revealed that, unlike for water and air, no single policy instrument exists to improve and protect them, and they are suffering as a result. As a BBC article states, the alliance discovered that
“just 0.41% of the cash invested in environmental monitoring goes on examining the soil”—
a point also made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. The article goes on:
“That’s despite the fact that soils round the world—including in the UK—are said to be facing a crisis. The figures are startling: £60.5m goes to monitoring water quality, £7.65m to checking on air—but just £284,000 to auditing soil … Its director … told BBC News: ‘This figure is staggering—but not surprising. It reflects the widespread under-investment in soil health compared to air and water. We could be actually saving money—and the environment—by investing in soil monitoring because understanding soil would tell us a great deal about the health of our water and air too.’ … A report by the Commons Environment Audit Committee in 2016 warned that some of the UK’s most fertile fields were losing so much soil they could become unproductive within a generation … The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told BBC News”—
this was in March last year—
“it was planning to design an indicator for healthy soils, and to establish a new national soil monitoring scheme. It says powers in the Agriculture Bill could be used to support the monitoring.”
What is the update on this? Currently, we see no evidence that Defra will commit to funding soil monitoring.
The noble Lord, Lord Deben, made the point that we just have not heard enough from Defra. My noble friend Lord Whitty said that there can be no time for excuses from Defra. What does the Minister plan to do to address the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and noble Lords across the House regarding the lack of references to soil health in the Bill, and to ensure that soil health is not left as an afterthought? I know that he will refer the House to the power in Clause 1 to give the Government the ability to
“set long-term targets in respect of any matter which relates to … the natural environment, or … people’s enjoyment of the natural environment.”
However, this power must be used actively to focus government action on environmental improvement in areas where the need is greatest.
We urge the Government to address the clear desire for stronger action on monitoring soil health through the target development process that the Bill will establish. This must be done holistically and transparently with early and effective stakeholder engagement. The Government should publish a timetable and plan for how they intend to progress targets. On current performance, they are failing soil health and, ultimately, the environment.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this important debate, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, in particular, for tabling Amendment 2 on soil health. She made a compelling speech, as she did in a previous session, describing soil as an ecosystem in its own right: an ecosystem—or ecosystems—that we are plundering and destroying at an extraordinary rate of millions of tonnes every year.
It is often cited as an example of extraordinary human progress that we have managed to treble food production in the past 40 years, and that is true, but we have done so at the expense, undoubtedly, of many future generations. It is the case, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, pointed out, that many of the bread baskets of the world have been pretty rapidly converted into deserts. According to the latest data that I have seen, at least 500,000 small farmers in the world are currently having to deal with diminishing yields as a consequence of their impoverished soils. As a Minister in the FCDO with some responsibility for part of our ODA budget, this is something I am trying very hard to shift the focus towards, so that it is a problem that, I hope, the UK will be able to have a positive impact on.
Bringing this back to the domestic, I would like to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, that we are working out now how to develop the appropriate means of measuring soil health. It is complicated but we are doing that work and its results could be used to inform a future soils target. However, as I outlined a number of times in Committee, long-term targets set under the framework of the Bill have to be capable of being objectively measured. If we commit in the Bill to setting a target by 2022, without the reliable metrics needed to set a target, and then measure its progress, we could be committing to doing something that ultimately we cannot deliver or might not even know whether we have delivered it. We therefore cannot commit to set a soil target in the Bill, but I can assure the noble Baroness of a number of things.
The first is that we are focusing our efforts already on developing a soil health measuring and monitoring scheme, which will produce a baseline assessment of soil health against which change can be measured. This, as I said, could inform a future long-term soil target. Secondly, we are currently identifying soil health metrics as the basis of a healthy soils indicator. This will complement a future soil health monitoring scheme by providing a straightforward measure—
I was coming to the point made by the noble Earl. As part of the soil health measuring and monitoring scheme, we are developing methodology to enable visual field assessments of soil health to be carried out by farmers and land managers across all land uses and all soil types. That will be supported by the development of field protocols and the production of field guides instructing land managers how to do the sampling. That work will, we hope, be a user-friendly and relatively easy way of measuring long-term trends, which I think is what the noble Earl was getting at—trends that can easily be understood by those on the ground who actually manage the soil. Data collected by land managers will then provide a baseline for an informal, non-statutory target, which in turn could inform the future, robust and well-evidenced soil health target that will be established under the Environment Bill. The data from the soil structure scheme would feed into future soil health monitoring.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, we are also proposing additional actions that support land managers and farmers to achieve sustainable soil management. For example, the sustainable farming incentive scheme—she referred to it as ELM, but I think it is now referred to as the sustainable farming incentive scheme—includes practices such as the introduction of herbal leys, the use of grass-legume mixtures, cover crops and so on.
I make two additional points. The first, very briefly, is that by setting, as we are committing to do in the Bill, a 2030 biodiversity target, and having already set, on the advice of the Climate Change Committee, a net-zero target by 2050, in addition to all the other targets that are either in the pipeline or already committed to, it is inconceivable that we could achieve either of those headline targets without addressing soil, for all the reasons mentioned and explained so well by noble Lords today: we cannot get to net zero without addressing soil.
The noble Lord, Lord Deben, mentioned peatlands, which are particularly important for the reasons he described. Although I think we shall debate this issue later—potentially today in response to the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness—I just mention that earlier this year we published the England Peat Action Plan, setting out the long-term vision for large-scale management, protection and restoration of our peatlands, which are critical carbon stores but, when mismanaged, can become a source of carbon. This will enable them to deliver a huge range of benefits for people, wildlife and the planet. It sets out a number of policies to achieve that vision: the announcement of a nature for climate peatland grant scheme, through the Nature for Climate Fund; an immediate commitment to restoring 35,000 hectares through that fund; a commitment to end the use of peat in amateur horticulture by the end of this Parliament; longer-term plans that we are setting out, as all departments are, in our net-zero strategy—peatlands will be a critical part of getting to net zero; and a new spatial map of England’s peatlands to enable us to make more robust estimates around the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions from peatlands and to prioritise investment in restoration.
I thank the Minister very much for allowing me to intervene briefly. I want to wind back a few moments in his response to this debate, in which he said, as I heard it, that we will not be able to achieve the biodiversity target without improving soil health. I want to clarify what was meant by that. Does it mean that, in the indicator species that will be part of the biodiversity target and halting species decline—the billion bacteria to which my noble friend Lord Cameron of Dillington referred, as well as the tens of thousands of protozoa and fungi in a single teaspoon of soil—they will be part of the species abundance target and therefore soil health will be folded into that objective?
I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. We will talk in detail about the target shortly—perhaps even next—but my point is less about the individual fungi or bacteria; it is that you cannot deliver a reversal of our catastrophic biodiversity loss without tackling ecosystems and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, make plain in her speech, soil is the basis of so much of our biodiversity and ecosystems, so it is logical that you cannot do one without the other—and likewise with net zero, for all the reasons that my noble friend Lord Deben pointed out.
So, as I have outlined, we are very much on the case. We are developing a metric and prioritising soil health in numerous ways, through this Bill but also other actions. The amendment would undoubtedly pre-empt the process of developing that metric and, for that reason, we cannot accept it—but, with the assurances I gave, I hope that the noble Baroness can be persuaded to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I think this has been some of your Lordships’ House at its finest and I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. It is extraordinarily striking that, from all corners of this House, we have seen overwhelming support for Amendment 2.
I do feel I must address the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, who signed the amendment and then expressed some concern about it. I do not believe that there is any form of conflict or competition between this amendment and Amendment 18 from the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. This amendment sets out that there must be a target; Amendment 18 sets out a process, scheme and operational activity. So they are not in competition. I strongly urge your Lordships’ House to support the noble Earl’s amendment. Indeed, I attempted to sign it, but, as with a number of others, it was already oversubscribed.
I should love to go through so many contributions—each has added something to the debate—and acknowledge them all, but I know that some of the people who are keen for the Bill to progress would be right on my case if I did that, so I will not. But I shall pick out just a couple of contributions, because I think they are particularly important. They are from two members of the Climate Change Committee: the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge. This is the expert view saying that the amendment needs to be in the Bill; that is the independent view, in all senses. The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, made a point that no one else has made in our long discussion of soils, about the way in which climate change is putting pressure on soils: drought, flood, fires and all the extra damage to what has already been done.
I also want to note the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. She has been a particularly fervent supporter of this amendment, and I thank her for that. I also thank her for counting the number of times that soil quality appears in the 25-year plan; I confess that I had not done that. That shows that the Government kind of see the issue but are just really not engaging with it in the Bill.
So I will address a couple of points that the Minister made. He talked a lot about what Defra is doing operationally and what it is setting out, but he did not really address my point that the 25-year plan says that we will have sustainable management of soils by 2030. How can we do that without having this long-term target to progress towards—without, indeed, having the noble Earl’s strategy? It was particularly telling that one of the other chief points of the Minister’s argument was, “Oh, well, we deal with these other things—biodiversity and water—and that will fix soils”. That is making soils a second-order issue, which is putting it in profoundly the wrong place. This amendment puts it in the right place: in the Bill. As we have discussed in so many other areas, whatever the department might be doing under one Secretary of State, there is no guarantee that it will continue under another Secretary of State. Issues must be put in the Bill.
I well understand the pressures in your Lordships’ House against calling votes; I understand the desire to progress the Bill. But, having listened very carefully to the Minister and having heard the very strong support for the amendment from all sides of your Lordships’ House, I must ask to test the opinion of the House.
3: Clause 1, page 2, line 4, at end insert—
“(e) light pollution.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment aims to set a commitment to act on matters which relate to light pollution that are currently omitted from this Bill. It aims to ensure that the Government must produce targets to reduce levels of light pollution in England.
My Lords, Amendment 3 in my name is also in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, to whom I am grateful. I declare my environmental and conservation interests as on the register, and it is also relevant—although not registerable—that I am a member of Buglife, the invertebrate NGO. Perhaps one of the flies which have been annoying my noble friend Lord Deben is an agent.
Artificial lights disrupt the world’s ecosystems, human health and, I submit, society in general. Most of the earth’s population is affected by light pollution, as 80% live under skyglow, and very few in the UK can experience a natural night sky from where they live. Those few who do see a night sky naturally without light pollution are amazed by what they see on a clear night.
Light pollution is increasing from a variety of sources, including residences, public infrastructure such as lighting along motorways, and industrial activity such as energy infrastructure. Ironically, the rapid switch to LEDs is contributing to the installation of brighter lights, in places increasing light pollution and missing the opportunity to reduce it. That is ironic because LED is much better for the environment if used appropriately.
The 25-year plan for the environment states:
“We must ensure that noise and light pollution are managed effectively.”
However, no indication of how existing light pollution will be reduced has been proposed by Her Majesty’s Government. As far as I can see, the Environment Bill does not currently offer a suitable location for this form of pollution to be addressed. The amendment would ensure that the Government set out how they will reduce light pollution levels.
In Committee, 12 noble Lords spoke in favour of my very similar amendment on light pollution, covering a range of issues including the impact on invertebrates, astronomy, human health and bats, among other things. I was extremely grateful for their powerful arguments and I am extremely grateful for the many who support today’s amendment in the Chamber and elsewhere. Noble Lords shared their own experience of light pollution and provided compelling reasons why this issue should be included in the Bill.
In his reply, my noble friend the Minister did not seem to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of environmental and health damage. His response, as drafted, was disappointingly focused rather narrowly on uncertainty about whether it has been proved that light pollution is the main driver of insect loss. That is one of the main reasons why I tabled this amendment: because I do not think we had a proper discussion of some of the other harmful effects of light pollution. Perhaps his department was unaware of the recent science review “Light pollution is a driver of insect declines”, published by Owens and others in 2020. Since that debate, many noble Lords may have seen that newly published evidence has confirmed that light pollution has a negative effect on local moth populations. The response given in Committee also did not address the other issues raised in the debate or recognise the cross-departmental benefits that reducing light pollution would bring.
In recent years, evidence of the impacts of light pollution on species and ecosystems has grown and consolidated. Increased artificial light at night is now directly linked to measurable negative impacts on energy consumption, human health, and wildlife such as bats, birds, insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and plants. As I mentioned in Committee, noble Lords who saw the David Attenborough documentary will have seen turtles, instead of going towards the moon as they go back to sea, going back to some taverna on a Greek shore. This resulted in many of their deaths.
Unnecessary artificial light increases financial costs and contributes to greenhouse emissions. I submit that light pollution should be treated with the same disdain with which we treat other forms of pollution. As I mentioned, recent studies from Germany suggest that a third of insects attracted to street lights and other fixed-light sources will die. This results in the death of an estimated 100 billion insects in Germany every summer. As many noble Lords will recognise, insects are an incredibly important part of our whole ecosystem.
My amendment aims to set a commitment to act on matters relating to light pollution that are currently omitted from the Bill and would ensure that the Government must produce targets to reduce levels of light pollution in England. I will not go through all the examples I have written down, because I think that many people know them for themselves; besides which, we are a little pressed for time. However, speaking as a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust, I know that artificial lighting can cause many problems for bats, including disrupting their roosting and feeding behaviour and their movement through the landscape. In the worst cases, that can directly harm these protected species. Even hedgehogs have been shown to avoid lighting, restricting their movements in areas of high artificial light.
Light pollution has been identified as a serious threat in many areas biodiversity areas, but the amendment is not just for the birds and the bees. Lighting is estimated to account for 15% of global electricity consumption and 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Social inequalities in exposure to light pollution occur across urban and rural settings. Light pollution is negatively impacting astronomy and our ability to observe the stars. The British Astronomical Association estimates that 90% of the UK population are unable to see the Milky Way from where they live.
The Environment Agency’s state of the urban environment report acknowledges that light pollution comes with urban life and identifies an uneven distribution of the natural environment across all sectors of society, leading to issues of environmental justice. Humans have evolved to rely on the cycle of night and day to govern our physiology, and evidence suggests that light exposure at the wrong time has profound impacts on human circadian rhythm, affecting physical and mental functions. Studies have also shown links between artificial light at night and low melatonin levels and disrupted circadian cycles with heart disease, diabetes, depression and cancer, particularly breast and prostate cancers.
To me, the evidence is clear that light pollution has a significant impact on the normal activity of invertebrates, birds, bats, plants and humans. These impacts are more than sufficient to require action. It would be a failure not to address this before we have the long-term data. Doing so would go against the Government’s draft environmental principles, in particular the precautionary principle but also the prevention and rectification at source principles. As it is, there is no official report for the UK on light pollution levels. However, and distinct from the previous debate in which we talked about soil and how difficult it is to measure soils, measuring light pollution is simple to do. Satellite images can be used to establish pollution levels, and the CPRE has developed a nine-band classification system that could form the basis of monitoring change.
My amendment is designed to provide clarity on how the Government will reduce the impact of light pollution on nature and people’s enjoyment of it. I am very grateful to my noble friend the Minister. We have had some very good discussions on this during the Recess. I know he understands it and I recognise that many noble Lords regard this as a serious matter. Perhaps, as the noble Earl, Lord Devon, said, it is not of the same magnitude as soil, and it is possible that we cannot keep adding more and more to the list of priorities, but I think that national targets should be set to include, at a minimum, no net increase in light pollution, with an ambition to reduce existing levels.
I have received a certain amount of support on this, but I will wait to hear what my noble friend the Minister has to say. If he can give me ample reassurances, we might not have to test the electronic voting system again—but no promises yet.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Randall, on one of his and my pet topics. He has covered the issue extremely well. We have all had a very good briefing from Buglife, which I thank very much, supported by Butterfly Conservation, the Bat Conservation Trust, Froglife, the Mammal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. This comes from a lot of areas of expertise. They all draw attention to the fact that light pollution impacts on humans and other species. I argue that it also impacts on the planet in terms of energy consumption and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, whether we use LED lights or not. It deserves a place in the Environment Bill.
The last comprehensive consideration of this issue by the Government was the 2009 report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Artificial Light in the Environment. Almost none of its recommendations have been implemented, and tackling this cannot be achieved by planning alone. There is also the fact that humans have evolved to rely on the cycle of night and day to govern our physiology. I am a very primitive soul: I would actually like to go to bed when it gets dark and I always wake up at first light, so I am extremely vulnerable to light exposure at the wrong time. I would like the Government Whips to note that when they insist on keeping us here beyond 8 pm. It is inhuman; it goes against human health, and it leads to underperforming. There is also a link to health conditions. We are much better off if we understand that light pollution is not good for us and it is not good for other species.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall, mentioned several species. I would like to add birds that migrate or hunt at night: they navigate by moonlight and starlight, so artificial light might cause them to fly to lit areas, which may or may not have their prey. Many marine species, such as crabs or zooplankton, are attracted to artificial lights, and that can disrupt their feeding and life cycle. All in all, it is an important environmental issue that we really should not ignore.
My Lords, there is very little that I can add to the speeches of the two noble Lords who have spoken already, but I will make one small point. The opportunity to prevent species’ decline and improve our environment is certainly presented by this Bill, and this amendment would assist. Addressing light pollution offers a simple solution for the species that we are trying to enhance and protect. We should bear in mind, however, that the pollution that we are trying to address does not linger when the source is dealt with—it is an easy win. It also has the added advantage of reducing carbon gases, so these two are major issues that are worth considering in relation to this amendment.
My Lords, I spoke in favour of my noble friend Lord Randall’s similar amendment in Committee. I confess to being a little disappointed that the Minister has not brought forward an amendment to deal with this. While I think that adopting too many targets that cannot be realised is not necessarily a good thing, to adopt a target for light pollution would at least show that the Government accept that it should be included together with other types of pollution. As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has just pointed out, it is certainly true that it can be dealt with immediately—unlike the soil—by just switching off lights or reducing the number of lights.
There is strong evidence that light pollution has a detrimental effect on birds, bats and insects. I am certainly no lover of clothes moths, and would love to find a way of introducing light pollution to my cupboards to protect my clothes, which have been devastated during lockdown. However, the Government are committed to increasing biodiversity, which means a wide range of species, including insects. Studies from Germany are among the clearest, as my noble friend Lord Randall pointed out, in showing how serious a problem light pollution is for insects, frogs, bats, birds and hedgehogs, among other species.
As for homo sapiens, we have indeed evolved to rely on the cycle of night and day to govern our physiology. We all know how exposure to light at the wrong time affects our mental functions. Light pollution is not included within the existing priority areas in the Bill. My noble friend’s amendment would provide clarity on how the Government could reduce the impact of light pollution on nature and, especially, on people’s enjoyment of it.
My Lords, I have not yet participated in the discussion of light pollution during the stages of this Bill. That is not due to idleness: it is because at the times the Committee or the House were discussing the light pollution issue, I was double-booked on the Charities Bill or the Dormant Assets Bill, in both of which I have a particular interest. That failure means that I should be very brief this afternoon, and indeed I will be. I add my support to the very important point made by my noble friend Lord Randall of Uxbridge and others, and will just make a comment about the all-pervasive nature of light pollution.
I have a house in Shropshire, on the Welsh border, well in the country, 500 feet up. If you go into my garden at night, the whole of the eastern horizon is suffused by the glow of the conurbation from Birmingham. If you swing your eyes round, you hit Kidderminster; south is Hereford; and even when you turn to the West—to Wales—there are frequent patches of light from small towns and villages. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will give due weight to the very important points made by people who are much more expert in this area than I am.
My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, to which I have added my name. The noble Lord set out the case for this amendment previously in Committee and has reiterated his arguments this afternoon. I agree with him and the other speakers—the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, the noble Lords, Lord Carrington and Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, and the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard. I declare my interest as a member of the APPG for Dark Skies and am lucky enough to live in a village with no street lighting. I appreciate, however, that street lighting is an issue that can divide communities. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that light pollution is not as important as soil quality, but it nevertheless has a place in this Bill.
Street and security lighting, which are on throughout the night, can have a number of serious side effects. For plants, there is no real darkness in which to rest; nocturnal animals, birds and insects become confused, and this affects their well-being and, subsequently, their numbers. As has already been stated, moths, in particular, being attracted to light, struggle to maintain their normal life patterns. This is particularly damaging, as moths are essential pollinators, which is something we do not always recognise as happening at night. The lack of a plentiful supply of insects and moths has a knock-on effect on bats, for whom they are the main food source. Over recent years we have seen a steady decline in the number of bats. For us humans, exposure to excessive artificial light can lead to sleep deprivation, which affects our overall health and well-being, as was so eloquently demonstrated by the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge.
A number of amendments will be debated over the next two weeks that seek to address climate change and redress the loss of biodiversity and species. Light pollution is undoubtedly contributing to this loss, and adding this amendment to the Bill would contribute towards halting and redressing it. The evidence is slim that switching off streetlights late at night causes a spike in crime. Security lights, which cause the greatest distress when excessive, should be focused on the ground, not pointing upwards towards the night sky.
There is also the effect on children’s development. The wonder of the stars at night is lost to millions of children who live in urban areas, where streetlights are never switched off at night. I am lucky enough that I can frequently go out and optimistically think that I can look for a UFO. I never see one, but I nevertheless look up into the dark sky.
The satellite illumination profile of our country shown on TV news programmes clearly demonstrates the level of light pollution over the whole country. There are very few dark sky areas. The exceptions tend to be the national parks, such as Exmoor, which has declared itself a dark sky area.
Light pollution may seem like a very minor issue for some people, but for me, it is absolutely vital that each one of us should be able, if we choose, to go outside at night and enjoy the night sky and the creatures that should, by right, be able to thrive in the darkness. I fully support the noble Lord, Lord Randall, and hope that the Minister will, on this occasion, have some encouraging words for us.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, has made important and eloquent points in relation to light pollution throughout the passage of the Bill. Not only is this crucial for our insects and wildlife, but it is important that we can see the stars and better understand our place in the universe.
The 25-year plan for the environment states:
“We must ensure that noise and light pollution are managed effectively.”
However, no indication of how existing light pollution will be reduced has been proposed by the Government and, as the noble Lord, Lord Randall, indicated, the Environment Bill does not currently offer a suitable location for this form of pollution. The Minister needs to acknowledge and deal with this important area, as encouraged by the Government’s draft environmental principles, encompassing both precaution and prevention.
The briefing from Buglife, which, to be honest, the noble Lord might have authored himself, stipulated that light pollution is a real contamination of our environment. It affects not only human, animal and bird health but insect health—not only how they function but how they can act as pollinators. There are serious environmental consequences of light pollution.
In Committee, the Minister’s response did not acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of environmental and health damage, focusing narrowly on uncertainty about whether it has been proven that light pollution is a main driver of insect declines. I know we cannot vote on everything we care about, as we will never finish the Bill, but I use this opportunity to ask the Minister again what action the Government will take to reassure us and provide clarity on how they will reduce the impact of light pollution on nature and people’s enjoyment of it.
Existing UK law and regulations relating to light pollution do not provide sufficient guidance and are not strong enough to tackle its increasing impact. There are now several examples of countries that have introduced a national policy on light pollution, such as Germany, France, Mexico, South Korea, Croatia and Slovenia. Will the UK also produce a national plan intended to prevent, limit and specifically reduce light pollution, including a series of targets and a programme of monitoring?
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate and particularly the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, for his Amendment 3.
As my noble friend campaigned for, the Bill requires the Government to set a legally binding target to halt the decline in species abundance by 2030, and we will talk more about that shortly. But to meet a species abundance target we will need to address the multiple interacting causes of nature’s decline, including light pollution. This does not mean that we need to or should set targets for each and every cause of nature’s decline. The species abundance target will drive the right mix of policies and actions. For light pollution, this includes measures such as planning system controls for street lighting improvements. Through the designation of the dark sky reserves that a number of noble Lords mentioned, we are also working to protect exceptional nocturnal environments that bring great natural, educational and cultural enjoyment to members of the public.
The noble Lord, Lord Randall, made a compelling case, as he did in Committee. I should start by saying that if I appear to play down the importance of light pollution, the seriousness of the issue or its impacts on a whole range of things, including biodiversity, that certainly was not my intention. I say that in response to the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Khan, as well. The noble Lord powerfully summarised the impacts of light pollution. He gave the example of insects in Germany, the turtle hatchlings which a number of us saw on that powerful Attenborough programme, and bats. I also saw the Buglife briefing, which was full of examples as to why this is such an important issue. I thank the noble Lord for bringing some of those recent papers to my attention. I can tell him that my officials are already in touch with many of the academics and researchers behind that work, as well as with the NGOs that have been cited by him and others. That work is happening.
Although I cannot accept the amendment, I can commit to the noble Lord that we will continue to take action both to minimise risks and to improve our understanding of the impact of light pollution. We will continue discussions with PHE—Public Health England—and DHSC, focusing on the impact of light pollution on human health and the best approaches with which to tackle it. I am also happy to relay the noble Lord’s points on the planning system and light pollution to ministerial counterparts in MHCLG, and I will ensure that his remarks both now and from a couple of months ago are conveyed to them.
It is probably worth noting that the National Planning Policy Framework includes consideration of the impact of light pollution from artificial light on local amenity, intrinsically dark landscapes and nature conservation, but I do not think anyone pretends that this is an issue that has historically received the attention that it should. I hope that, using his powerful words, I will be able to move things a bit in MHCLG. I am also happy to confirm that we will continue to work with our academic partners to keep emerging evidence under review, and the Government can set a target in secondary legislation if it is judged to be the best way to deliver long-term environmental outcomes and subject to this review.
I hope this has reassured noble Lords that the Government are taking serious action to act against light pollution and that they agree that these amendments are therefore not necessary. I hope this reassures noble Lords and I beg the noble Lord, Lord Randall, to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I would like to thank my noble friend the Minister very much. He has gone a lot further than he was able to in Committee, and for that I am very grateful. I am also extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have lent their support and spoken in this debate. It is a very important issue and something that we will continue to hear about. While the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, is looking for UFOs, I tend to look for the drones from the Whips’ Office to keep an eye on me at these crucial stages of Report. So far, they have managed to keep away from me.
As I said, I am extremely grateful; we have had a good debate. I think the things my noble friend has said about the other departments are also very important, particularly planning. I have attended many planning meetings over the years, and I am not sure that that has ever really come up. Perhaps that is another tool that some people, when they are having big developments, should look at. So there are some good things. As the noble Lord opposite said, we cannot vote on everything. With that in mind, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
Clause 2: Environmental targets: particulate matter
4: Clause 2, page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
“(2) The PM2.5 air quality target must—(a) be less than or equal to 10µg/m3, (b) so far as practicable, follow World Health Organization guidelines, and(c) have an attainment deadline on or before 1 January 2030.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment sets parameters on the face of the Bill to ensure that the PM2.5 target will be at least as strict as the 2005 WHO guidelines, with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest.
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 4 and speak to Amendment 12. Both are in my name and the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley, Lady Finlay of Llandaff and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and I thank them for their support.
Amendment 4 would ensure that the new legal target for fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, commits the Government to reducing this pollutant to within the existing World Health Organization guidelines by 2030 at the latest. Amendment 12 would ensure that the importance of protecting health is reflected in the target review process set out in the Bill. But before I get into the detail of why these amendments are so important, I express my thanks both to the Minister and to the Defra officials for their time in meeting with me and others during the Recess and for the detailed information provided on their work in this area.
In his response to our amendment on air quality in Committee, the Minister said that
“the Government recognise the importance of reducing concentrations of PM2.5 and the impact this has on our health.”—[Official Report, 23/6/21; col. 306.]
Air pollution is also recognised by the UK Government to be the single largest environmental risk to public health that we have.
In Committee, noble Lords drew the Minister’s attention to the role that air pollution played in the death of nine year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. I was privileged recently to meet her mother, Rosamund, who shared with us her frustration at the Government’s lack of urgency in tackling damaging toxic air, despite recognising the serious health implications for people and communities. The motivation driving her campaign is simple: to make sure that what happened to her daughter does not happen to other people’s children. Amendment 54, in the name of my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark, seeks to enshrine in law the recommendations of the coroner’s prevention of future deaths report into Ella’s death, and we strongly support it.
Sadly, air pollution accounts for eight to 12 deaths every year in London alone, and it is 13 to 15 year-olds who are most at risk. Until our air is clean, our children will continue to die. The Government must grasp the urgency of this. The UK currently complies with the less ambitious existing legal limit of PM2.5, which is double the WHO guideline. Reductions in this pollutant have stagnated in recent years, so setting a more ambitious target in the Bill would drive action to better protect people’s health. The Minister assured the Committee that the Government’s target on PM2.5 would be ambitious, and he acknowledged the gravity and urgency of the situation. However, we then heard that until the Government completed the ongoing work and consulted the public again about the kind of restrictions that would be needed to be placed upon us, particularly in large cities, it would not be appropriate to write that limit into law.
We understand that reducing PM2.5 to meet the WHO recommendations is not easy—there are uncertainties about the future and the impact of climate change, and there are natural ways in which these particulates are produced so we can never bring the limit down to zero. However, we are deeply concerned that the Government are still researching, modelling, discussing what to do and looking at further consultations two years after the publication of the clean air strategy and after the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, which provides independent advice to the Government, said that reducing concentrations below the WHO air quality guidelines would benefit public health.
We have SIs promised for October next year but no indication as to exactly what the targets will be. It worries me that the Government’s unwillingness to accept this target and put it in the Bill might reflect their concern that the target is simply not achievable. The Minister has previously informed your Lordships’ House that
“at this stage the full mix of policies and measures required to meet the current WHO guideline level of 10 micrograms per cubic metre is not yet fully understood”,—[Official Report, 23/6/21; col.306.]
yet in 2019 Defra had technical analysis from leading scientists at Imperial College London and King’s College London which concluded that achieving the WHO guideline of PM2.5 was technically feasible. The analysis also highlighted that the measures the Government have already committed to as part of their clean air strategy could take us 95% of the way towards the WHO recommendation for what should be the basic level of protection.
Further independent analysis by King’s College London commissioned by the Greater London Authority, which I referred to in our previous debate, has subsequently shown that, with additional action, achieving the WHO guideline of PM2.5 is feasible by 2030 in our most polluted city in this country. Surely that should remove the main barrier to achieving this goal. The Minister also referred to the Mayor of London study, confirming that officials were going through it and taking it into account. Does his department now agree with its findings, and what action is being taken as a result of it?
Today we have seen the publication of a report, funded by the Greater London Authority and carried out by researchers at Imperial College London, that provides a comprehensive overview of the most credible evidence of the links between air pollution and Covid-19. We already know that air pollution has harmful effects on the lungs, but until now it has been most associated with non-infectious or non-communicable diseases that cannot be directly transmitted between people—for example, the links between air pollution and cancer, stroke and asthma are all well established. Covid-19, however, is an infectious lung disease, and questions have begun to be asked about whether air pollution played a role in the spread of this devastating disease.
The report published today shows that the researchers have found, first, that exposure to air pollution before the pandemic increased the risk of severe outcomes if a person became infected with Covid-19. In other words, if you were living in an area of high pollution before the pandemic, you were more likely to end up in hospital or even die if you became infected. Secondly, exposure to air pollution may increase the likelihood of contracting Covid-19 if you are exposed to the virus. This is a new and evolving area of research because not everyone who is exposed may become infected. However, research is showing that people who are exposed to pollution may be more likely to become infected. Finally, there is pre-existing evidence that exposure to air pollution increases susceptibility to, and worsens the outcome from, a range of infectious lung diseases such as pneumonia and bronchitis.
Until now, the role that air pollution plays in increasing the risk of infectious respiratory diseases, including acute bronchitis in children and pneumonia, has been overlooked and underestimated. I ask the Minister if the Government accept these findings. Does he agree that this new evidence makes tackling air pollution even more urgent?
The WHO’s director of public health and environment, Dr Maria Neira, says that with the Environment Bill the Government need to
“raise the level of ambition”.
I wholeheartedly agree. This is a moment in time when the Government can be genuinely ambitious, not just talking about urgency but acting urgently. As the UK moves to a post-pandemic recovery and towards our net-zero carbon targets, action taken today to reduce air pollution will be crucial to ensuring a healthy, resilient nation, and put an end to even more families suffering as Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s family has done.
I know that the Minister understands this. I ask him to listen carefully to the debate today, to recognise the importance of urgent action—“urgent” means now, not next year—and to accept our amendments in good faith so that we can tackle the terrible effect of toxic air on our families and communities.
I am minded to test the opinion of the House on this issue but I will listen to the debate and look forward to hearing from the Minister.
My Lords, I have tabled Amendment 54 in this group. Like my noble friend Lady Hayman, I had the privilege of meeting Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. I was at the meeting that she had with the Minister last week, and I thank him for being generous with his time. I am sure that, like my noble friend Lady Hayman, he could not help but be impressed by Rosamund’s humanity and commitment, and her determination to ensure that her daughter’s tragic death is not something that will happen to other families. That is why I have tabled this amendment, which I also tabled in Committee. I also very much support Amendments 4 and 12 in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman.
In our meeting we were all in agreement—the Minister and Rosamund agreed about everything—until at the end there was the problem of the “but”. The Minister said, “Of course we will have to do some more consultation and look at this a bit further. We are with you, but”. Probably the only difference on both sides now is that “but”; apart from that, I think we are all in agreement. I hope that the Minister can go further than that today and give us some good news. If not, I know my noble friend Lady Hayman will test the opinion of the House on Amendment 4, and in those circumstances, I hope the House votes for it.
I want to talk about what happened to Ella. Rosamund and Ella lived near me in Lewisham. Ella died at the age of nine while suffering from one of the most serious cases of asthma ever recorded in the UK. Her chronic condition lasted 28 months. She suffered greatly, and fought to breathe right to the very end. On Ella’s final night in Lewisham, the borough recorded one of its worst spikes ever in air pollution. She had been hospitalised 28 times in 28 months, admitted to the ICU five times, and had fought back many times from the brink of death. Her condition meant that her lungs constantly filled up with mucus and made her feel that she was suffocating.
In December 2020 there was a landmark victory for Ella and her family. She became the first person in the UK—and the world—to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. The coroner, Philip Barlow, found that she had died of asthma that had been contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution, and the primary source of that was traffic emissions.
Eight years after Ella’s death, we have also learned that between 36,000 and 40,000 people in the UK die prematurely due to exposure to air pollution annually, and that all of us suffer from its negative health effects. Thousands are impacted every year and, across the UK, 22 to 24 young people die of asthma, eight to 12 of them in London. The UK has one of the highest death rates from asthma in Europe. In countries such as Finland no child dies from asthma. Toxic air impacts on the health of all of us, from cradle to grave. It is now a public health emergency, and Covid has highlighted the inequalities in health.
This is, in many respects, a very good Bill, but it completely fails to address the issue of air quality. That is why we are tabling these amendments. I hope that the Minister will respond positively and give us more than the “but” that we got at our meeting with him last week. If not, I hope, as I have said, that my noble friend will divide the House. I will support Amendment 4 tonight. I support all the amendments: Amendments 4 and 12 and Amendment 54, to which I am speaking now.
All we are asking is that the Government adopt the World Health Organization’s guidelines and targets. That is a pretty reasonable way forward: the World Health Organization’s particulate matter targets. I hope that the Minister can give us some good news in his response to the debate.
I support Amendments 4 and 12, and I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for the superb way in which she introduced this group and encapsulated the strength of feeling about the importance of these amendments.
I remind the House that air pollutants reach every organ of the body. They affect growing foetal tissue, not just adults. They affect organs as they develop in children and throughout people’s lives. Very small particles are a particular problem because they stay suspended in the air for prolonged periods and have a propensity to penetrate the deep parts of the lung. Ultrafine particles are especially problematic because in many respects they behave like a gas. As particles become smaller—into the nano scale—their surface area increases exponentially, so chemicals carried on their surface are released into cells and become bioavailable as toxins in the mitochondria within cells. The damage goes throughout the body.
The WHO guidelines are health-based and due to be revised downwards. They will not remain at their current level for many years: they will get tighter, because large epidemiological studies have shown that there are no safe levels of pollutant exposure. I remind the Government that as far back as 2001 their own advisory committee on air quality stated:
“Impact analysis of policies or specific developments, whether for industry, transport, housing etc, should take account of the interlinkages of emissions of air quality and climate change pollutants”.
That has still not occurred.
To increase the relevance of air pollution controls in environments where people live and move around requires greater input that takes into account real-life exposures in different settings, especially urban environments where people work and live close to busy roads and the foci of traffic congestion.
It has been shown in the bay area of California that there is a direct link between health impacts and the levels of pollutants in the air. There are enormous impacts, even from a single two-hour commute in a car. That has been shown to increase human stress metabolism, with very clear differences between people with normal lungs and those who are asthmatic. People with asthma are particularly vulnerable to air pollution.
I stress that point because, in addition to the growing evidence that air pollutant exposure increases susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection, as has already been said it enhances the severity of, and likelihood of death from, a lot of other lung diseases. It is all linked to the social determinants of health. Ella’s death illustrates the tragedy for many.
I remind the House again: the UK has the worst death rate for asthma in Europe and one of the highest incidences of asthma. I worry that short-term finance is driving resistance from the Government, because monitoring levels of these very small particles requires different equipment from that in use at the moment. To avoid doing this properly, however, is a real false economy. Quite apart from tragic deaths, there is the cost to the health service and social care. By installing equipment to measure particulates equal to or less than 10 micrograms per metre cubed, the Government will be prepared and able to set an example to other nations when the WHO guidelines change.
This amendment sets a quality target with a deadline far enough ahead to be achievable. Delay will simply mean that we will be playing catch-up, rather than providing the leadership that is desperately needed.
My Lords, I have been working on the issue of air pollution for more than two decades. I thank Simon Birkett of Clean Air in London and Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who are fantastic campaigners, and so tenacious. It moves me that I am able to present some of what they think and are fighting for. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, on her excellent opening speech—it was far better than anything I can do, I am sure, though I will try.
Amendment 4, on which we may divide, is crucial: it could save your life. The other two amendments are great, because they will help with your health as you go through our filthy London streets, but Amendment 4 is basic. We have to reduce PM2.5. Exposure to these fine particles is the main cause of death for most people who die early from air pollution. These are tiny bits of soot and grit that are so small that they not only stick to the lungs but can pass through them. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, explained it much better. We must understand that this is incredibly difficult to control without targets.
Amendment 12 is also extremely important, because the World Health Organization is due to publish its updated air quality guidelines this month, possibly within days. I try never to use the words “air quality”, because we do not have air quality—we have air pollution. We have to remember that. It is filthy and harmful. Many countries around the world follow the previous World Health Organization guidance, which was issued 16 years ago, but we still have nothing. We have a public health crisis leading to tens of thousands of premature deaths and we have identified the main cause, but still we do nothing.
Incinerators can be built and ignore this pollutant. Heathrow can be expanded and ignore this pollutant. Local authorities and national government are making decisions that will potentially damage human health and increase these emissions, but we allow it because we ignore the scientific advice. That really should not be acceptable.
The interim advice from our own scientists, published two months ago, is that reducing concentrations below the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline would benefit public health; that is so obvious. It is what we should do, and I hope that Defra will eventually set world-beating targets—but that is certainly not what it has done for the past 20 years, and that is why this amendment is necessary. It would immediately introduce a minimum standard and start us down the path to a healthier environment.
When I was on the London Assembly, Ken Livingstone, to his credit, did his bit; he introduced the congestion charge, which helped. I was a fierce critic of our current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London, because his solutions to the problem of air pollution in London, particularly in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, were to put plants along the main road towards the Olympic stadium and, secondly, to rely on the measurements from an EU monitoring station on one of the most polluted roads in London but set at 12 feet in the air so that it did not actually measure the air pollution on the ground.
I gather that the noble Lord wants to interrupt me, even though I am making a really important speech.
The noble Baroness is making a very important speech; I will just add to what she has said. In addition, the Mayor of London covered up the monitoring stations on the roads leading to the Olympics. Otherwise, the pollution would have been worse than it had been in Beijing four years previously.
But he did put potted plants there; let us give him some credit.
Amendment 54 is also incredibly important, because it would achieve three important outcomes. First of all, it would put health at the heart of government policy-making. I am an ex-Southwark councillor, like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. On the old town hall, there was a translated Latin quotation:
“The health of the people is the highest law”.
That is what this Government absolutely ignore.
Secondly, Amendment 54 would ensure that air quality targets are based on WHO air quality guidelines and achieved as soon as possible. Thirdly, it would ensure that air pollution is properly monitored, particularly where it is a problem, and that people are warned about it.
Please understand that this is a public health crisis. I have tried to get the issue of air pollution into other Bills, but I was always put off and told that whatever Bill it was was not the right Bill to put air pollution in. When we are talking environment, this is the Bill to add air pollution as a serious issue.
My Lords, I declare an interest as I am still a vice-president of Environmental Protection UK, which for most of its lifetime was the National Society for Clean Air. In that capacity, I was a bit remiss in not putting down an amendment myself. I was originally fooled by the Government; it does not happen very often, but it did on this occasion. I thought that by having this as the second clause and PM2.5 right up front in the Bill, they had really seized the opportunity. I did not read it properly.
Clause 1 sets a particular status for long-term targets that then run through the rest of the Bill, but this clause says the target for PM2.5
“may, but need not, be a long-term target.”
Parliamentary draftsmen are usually comfortable putting “may”, because that gives them a certain amount of flexibility, but on this occasion they put “but need not” very clearly. That means that the target envisaged in this clause, as it stands, does not have all the overriding principles and follow-through in the rest of the Bill that a long-term target has. That is why the clause, as it stands, has to be amended.
I support all these amendments. I just want to say two or three other things that colleagues have not yet covered. Before I do so, I say to the House that, in the debates on air quality over the years, one supporter was the late Viscount Simon, a lifelong sufferer from asthma who normally took part and had a lot of insight; we will miss him.
I point out, first, that the WHO targets were set on the basis of health information from over a decade ago. Hopefully, the new ones will be updated. The limits that we have been working to on EU standards were largely set—and I speak as a pro-European—by what the German motor manufacturers would put up with. Even then, they fiddled the testing. So, what we put in as our targets here have to be robust, health based and universally recognised.
It is also important to mention something else. There is a bit of an assumption that, since traffic has been the biggest contributor to air pollution, this is being resolved as we move away from diesel cars. It is not. A lot of pollution from traffic comes from brakes and friction between tyres and the road. In any case, of course, traffic is significantly increasing. The problem will not automatically resolve itself. We need new measures, both for vehicles and for the way we manage traffic. Also, as I believe is covered more fully in a later amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, there are a lot of non-traffic-related sources of PM2.5 and other forms of pollution. They have to be covered just as rigorously.
Thirdly, as my noble friend Lord Kennedy pointed out, the tragic death of Ella Kissi-Debrah happened because of where she lived: on the South Circular, an already heavily polluted road. I would ask local councils of all political complexions not to alter their traffic arrangements to divert the heaviest traffic to areas where the poorest live and where there are likely to be more pedestrians and more children. Moving air pollution around is not a solution. I hope that is recognised.
I support these amendments as they stand. I hope that the Government will be prepared to take at least some of them on board and we can start making a dent in what is a truly terrible aspect of urban life and the health of our people.
My Lords, I support Amendments 4 and 12 to which I have put my name. Before I come to that, I will say something about Amendment 54 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I particularly liked the last two provisions—subsections (2)(e) and (2)(f) of his proposed new clause —on the training of professionals and, especially, on public information. I strongly believe that, if the public had any idea of the fatal effects of PM2.5 and their effects on health, they would be much more likely to accept some of what might otherwise be quite unpopular actions that needed to be taken to reduce the concentration of those particles. I very much support that.
I now come to Amendments 4 and 12. I have spent the last 18 months conducting my work in your Lordships’ House remotely via the wonders of modern technology, from rural Wales and, occasionally, Scotland. In those parts of the UK, air pollution, including from PM2.5 particulates, is low. Yesterday, I came back to London. As someone who suffers mildly from asthma, I noticed the difference immediately. I am now inclined to wear my mask outdoors on the street as well as indoors, not just to protect myself and others from Covid-19 but to avoid breathing in unfiltered London air.
The challenge of reducing the amount of PM2.5 in our air is a complex and difficult one, which the Government, assisted by dozens of scientists and economists, are already tackling to some extent. I do not underestimate the difficulty of reducing our national and local concentrations of these particles to below 10 micrograms per cubic metre. These materials are produced by many human activities, and some natural weather systems, which are beyond our control. Controlling some of them also requires international co-operation. But just because it is difficult does not mean that we should not set out to do it—and do so expeditiously.
The reason is, of course, that polluted air is the greatest danger to health of our time. PM2.5 causes damage to health from before birth, when it affects children’s brain and lung development, right up to old age, causing pulmonary and cardiac disease, liver damage, and damage to the brain—probably including dementia. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, has explained all that in great detail, so I need not go into any more detail. Everybody knows that polluted air can be fatal—sadly. That is why I support everything the Government are doing, including their dual target to reduce both national levels and population levels, particularly where pollution levels are high and health inequalities are greatest. To do that, they must support local authorities—but that is a debate for another time.
Our Amendments 4 and 12 do not impact on any of these activities or targets. The 10 micrograms in our amendment is not a target but a maximum—and if the WHO guidelines suggest a lower maximum, we should follow that. In other words, nobody will be happier than me if we can reduce it further. The Government tell us that they will announce their target and the date by which it should be achieved in October next year. Well, we all know how these things slip. Setting a target is one thing; achieving it in practice by a certain date is quite another. Our amendments simply hold the Government’s feet to the fire to achieve what Ministers themselves, including Mr Michael Gove, have said they want to achieve. This is for the sake of the health of the whole population, as there is no safe level of PM2.5, according to the WHO.
However, there are two other very important reasons why I want to see this target minimum level in primary legislation, and they concern wider climate-change policy. The Government have set the target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but as yet there is no detail as to how this will be achieved: no road map. There are many possible routes and combinations of policies and technologies that could lead us to achieving net zero. By setting in primary legislation the maximum PM2.5 emissions at 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air—or whatever the current WHO-recommended level is—we will influence the Government to choose those routes to achieving net zero which do not contribute to small particulates in the air.
Some people might think that surely all activities which reduce CO2 emissions must necessarily contribute to clean air—but this is not so. For example, the burning of biomass might emit less CO2 in the long run than burning fossil fuel, but this combustion emits small particulates—which is why wood burning stoves should be banned, at least in towns and cities where pollution is already high. There is more than one route to net zero, and we should choose the cleanest and healthiest. I accept that the Government will want to convince themselves of the feasibility of the target they set, but many scientists have advised us that the 10 micrograms maximum can be done by 2030, and I would like to see the Government set out seriously to do so.
My final reason is that the Government’s record on air quality has not been of the best. In one of its final judgments before the UK left the EU, the European Court of Justice—which was instrumental in enforcing environmental protection—judged that the UK had “systematically and persistently” broken legal limits on air pollution, which, as we know, hastens the death of 40,000 people per year. The replacement for this enforcement body is the OEP, which is introduced by this Bill, which is why the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and a cross-party group of Peers are trying to amend the Bill to ensure the new OEP is properly independent and has teeth. It is also why we who have put our names to this amendment seek to ensure that the Government are legally obliged to set and achieve ambitious targets for air quality.
My Lords, in the midst of all this great technical expertise, I would like to follow up one point that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, touched on, which is how all this will be achieved. This amendment asks that a further metric be added to those already in the Bill. The Secretary of State is tasked with setting targets for the annual mean level in ambient air, and an amazing combination of statistics will be needed to get that.
Clause 17 asks the Secretary of State to prepare a policy statement, but who is actually going to produce all these measures? The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, hinted at what local authorities could do, but is the Government’s policy to pile all these tasks on to local government? Who will be blamed if the measures are not produced? Are the Government considering what the financial demands are likely to be? The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has given us some indication that they may be considerably more than is currently the case.
My Lords, I think the later contributions have shown that it is vital, in this connection, for the Government to focus on changing the materials that produce this. It is one thing to say, for example, that we want to go to zero carbon by a certain date. Well, surely we should have that kind of system applied to the way this development arises. Nobody wants to kill people, yet there is a substantial amount of this trouble arising in our country, and the remedy must be focused on getting rid of the particulates as far as possible. That is a very high aim, which is not always made prominent in the literature and the policies.
I would like to thank all noble Lords for another important debate and to reassure the House that the Government view this matter as one of the utmost seriousness. As I have set out in previous debates that we have had on this issue, we are committed, through this Bill, to set at least two air quality targets. They will complement each other to fundamentally reduce air pollution in the worst areas, while driving continuous progress to benefit the health of all citizens across England.
Turning first to Amendment 4, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, I would like to thank her for the time she has given me over the past few weeks, discussing this and other issues. I know she has also met with my officials and Professor Alastair Lewis, chair of the Air Quality Expert Group, to better understand all the other work we are doing on PM2.5. I thank her for her time in all those meetings.
I will start by reiterating the assurance provided in Committee, first, that the Government want stretching and ambitious targets, like everyone who has spoken in the House today, and, secondly, that the Government are following a robust and evidence-based process to set those air quality targets, which will focus on delivering the greatest possible public health benefits.
The Government are committed to working with internationally renowned experts to deliver evidence to inform air quality targets. We regularly engage with independent expert groups, such as the Air Quality Expert Group and the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, to ensure the process is informed by their advice and reflects the latest evidence, which includes WHO air quality guidelines.
In July, advice from the Air Quality Expert Group and the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants was published. This showed that both groups support the proposal to set a concentration target and an exposure reduction target for PM2.5, though both acknowledged the difficulty in setting targets in this area. The Air Quality Expert Group highlighted the substantial challenges associated with modelling future PM2.5 concentrations, a point made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, including the many uncertainties and significant unknowns. For example, as our climate changes, the potential to reduce PM2.5 concentration also changes, because climate and weather strongly influence pollution levels. We may experience more rain and wind, which disperse pollutants and clean the air, or conversely more heatwaves, which lock in and exacerbate pollution. Some sources of pollution, such as shipping in the English Channel, require work with international partners to reduce emissions. This point was also made earlier.
As we take action to reach net zero, policies such as active travel will have co-benefits, but others may create tensions, as we see with anaerobic digestion and biomass burning. Many of these issues are not easily resolved or modelled, and this demonstrates why we should not be pre-empting or short-cutting the evidence required to underpin long-term target-setting decisions. While it is absolutely necessary to continue to achieve reductions in key pollutants in the air we breathe, the inherent complexity and diverse range of sources of PM2.5—both natural and manmade—means that significant reductions are much more difficult to achieve in practice.
Before setting these targets, it is vital to ensure that both the Government and the public understand the kinds of actions needed and the restrictions which may be required for them to be achieved. This is why we will be consulting on proposed targets and actions required, which may include significant changes to how we heat our homes and travel within towns and cities, early in 2022.
I will briefly respond to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about the timetable slipping. On the assumption that the Bill becomes law in its current form, or even in an amended form, allowing the timelines to slip would be a breach in law. We would be breaking the law and that is not something the Government could do, so we will not see this timeline slipping.
We are still working to understand the full mix of policies and measures that would be required to meet the WHO guideline of 10 micrograms per cubic metre, but we know that a range of restrictions on activities are likely to be needed in urban areas to meet any ambitious target. Meeting 10 micrograms would likely require policies, as I said in previous debates, including
“reducing traffic kilometres across our cities by as much as 50%”
“a total ban on solid fuel burning”.
As I said in Committee, I do not think it is
“right for us to set a target … that would impact millions of people and thousands of businesses”—[Official Report, 23/6/21; cols. 306-7.]
without first levelling with people about what would be needed and ensuring that we bring them with us in understanding the health benefits of achieving that target. Without fully understanding the policies needed to meet such a limit, we cannot know where the burdens of these policies will fall.
To date, this debate has focused primarily on the concentration target but, again, I remind noble Lords that we are setting two targets that will work side by side. To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, we have to set a long-term target under Clause 1 and the PM2.5 target under Clause 2. It is not a choice we have; it is inherent in the Bill. This dual-target approach is strongly supported by experts.
In addition to the concentration target, we are developing a new type of target that focuses on reducing people’s exposure to pollution. The population exposure reduction target will be a more important driver for achieving health benefits, both at national and local level. Experts tell us, and a number of speakers today have made plain, that there are no safe limits for PM2.5.
The long-term exposure reduction target will drive a process of continuous improvement to reduce people’s exposure across the whole country, even in locations where the concentration target has been achieved. It will inform how local interventions need to be targeted, particularly where the most people are exposed to elevated levels of pollution. The concentration target that we have spent much time debating serves to provide a general minimum standard and will focus on reducing levels where concentrations are highest, but it is not by any stretch the whole story.
As I have repeatedly set out in debate, in letters to the House and in meetings over the past year, we are working at pace on this. But it would not be right for us in this House to set a target without understanding the measures needed to meet it and bringing the public on board. The Government are therefore not able to accept this amendment.
Amendment 12 was also tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I assure her that, as air is part of the definition of the natural environment, it already falls within the scope of the significant improvement test. In future EIP reviews, we expect new evidence—including updated WHO guidelines, emerging scientific evidence and the like—to be relevant to an assessment of whether further measures are needed to meet interim and long-term targets. The intent of the noble Baroness’s amendment is therefore already delivered by the Bill as drafted and I ask her not to press it.
On Amendment 54, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, I thank him for meeting me and Rosamund Kissi-Debrah the week before last. I can say only that if I was not already convinced of the urgency of the case, I certainly would have been by that conversation. Rosamund is an extraordinary campaigner and speaks with huge authority; of course, what happened to Ella is heartbreaking on every level.
In setting these air quality targets, it is as crucial to have a scientifically reliable understanding of the pollution sources and their dispersion as it is to have in place sufficient means to monitor progress and assess compliance. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that the Government are working extensively with experts to seek advice on this and that the details of the targets, including monitoring requirements, will be set out in secondary legislation following a public consultation.
Making sure that information about air pollution is publicly available is clearly important; we already have legal obligations to do so. We do this through a range of channels, in particular the UK-AIR website, which carries an air quality five-day forecast and live information about pollution levels around the country. We are committed to improving the accessibility and usefulness of that information to a wider range of users, and we will undertake a thorough and comprehensive review of the UK-AIR website and the daily air quality index to ensure that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
In addition, the Government are funding work with health professionals in a number of therapeutic areas to develop advice for patients about air pollution. They are also looking at working with relevant health charities in longer-term campaigns aimed specifically at the most vulnerable groups.
The amendments tabled by my noble colleagues are hugely important contributions to this debate. I think we all agree that air pollution, particularly fine particulate matter, needs to be reduced urgently to protect the nation’s health. We know that, in setting both the concentration target and the population exposure reduction target, we need to be ambitious. Indeed, we are determined to be ambitious; that is a view shared right across government.
However, we also have to be realistic in how we set that ambition and consider the practical challenges and costs before enshrining new targets in legislation. It is so important to bring society with us and therefore consult properly and meaningfully on the measures that we are likely to need to implement to achieve those significant reductions in air pollutant levels in the future; that is something we will have to do.
I hope that I have managed to reassure at least some noble Lords of the seriousness with which we take this issue, and I beg them not to press their amendments.
Before my noble friend sits down, could he confirm that I understood him aright that the current situation, where we do not know the origin of 80% of the particulate matter, is not satisfactory and that the Government will fund more and better research so that we have a grip on where this is coming from?
That is a really important point. In this debate and previous debates, I have said that our knowledge base is not complete, and it needs to be much more complete. It may not ever be totally complete, but the Government—particularly Defra, working with the Department for Transport and Public Health England—are researching the issue exhaustively, with a view to informing the targets that we are obliged to set in the short term.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I will be very brief because I know that we are all looking forward to a break. I will not go into any detail about individual contributions, but I thank everyone who has spoken in support of my amendments—it is very much appreciated, and it has demonstrated that there is a lot of very strong feeling in the House about the concerns that we have raised.
I come to the points that the Minister made. Having met Defra officials on a number of occasions, I do not doubt at all that they are working extremely hard on this issue—for example, the planned exposure targets are extremely important—but that does not alter my frustration, and that of many others, that the urgent action that we need now is simply not happening and is being put off yet again. We have heard time and again that this is a health emergency, and I do not believe that the Government are treating it as an emergency. If that was the case, these amendments would be accepted, in my opinion.
We believe that our amendment is critical to drive the progress that we need. We also believe that a lot of existing evidence and information is already available in order for the Government to start taking action. On that basis, I would like to test the opinion of the House on my Amendment 4.
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.47 pm.