Skip to main content

Climate Change: Nature-based Solutions (STC Report)

Volume 827: debated on Thursday 9 February 2023

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

That the Grand Committee takes note of the Report from the Science and Technology Committee Nature-based solutions for climate change: rhetoric or reality? (2nd Report, Session 2021-22, HL Paper 147).

My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as chair of the adaptation committee of the Climate Change Committee.

I am delighted to introduce for debate this Science and Technology Committee report on nature-based solutions for climate change on behalf of my noble friend Lord Patel, the former chair of the committee. I thank all the committee members who participated in the report; our expert adviser, Professor Peter Smith, of the University of Aberdeen; and particularly the committee staff at the time, George Webber, Thomas Hornigold and Cerise Burnett-Stuart.

Nature-based solutions form a critical element of the Government’s net-zero strategy. We will need the carbon sequestration services of new forests and woodlands, restored peatlands, and new wetlands and marine environments if we are to take enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to get us to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We may also need to grow significant new areas of bioenergy crops to enable us to generate energy with carbon capture and storage, and to contribute to decarbonising aviation through the production of sustainable aviation fuels. All of that implies significant change to the way in which we use land. The CCC estimates that forest and woodland cover will need to increase from about 14% today to 18% by 2050, supported by major changes to what and how we farm. If we get it right, this will lead to healthier diets.

Our inquiry was important, but it was also timely, because the replacement of the common agricultural policy—following our departure from the European Union—by the development and introduction of the new environmental land management scheme is the key opportunity to support farmers properly to deliver the changes that we will need, while maintaining their livelihoods and enhancing our precious countryside.

The inquiry considered how protecting, managing and restoring natural ecosystems and agricultural land can reduce net greenhouse gas emissions and provide co-benefits such as adaptation to the changing climate, examining issues of both science and policy. The inquiry ran from July 2021 to January 2022, and we heard from a wide range of witnesses, including scientists with domain expertise on different types of nature-based solutions. We heard from stakeholders such as the National Farmers’ Union, the National Trust and the RSPB, as well as government agencies, including Natural England, the Forestry Commission and the Environment Agency, that deliver nature-based solutions. We also heard from government witnesses including civil servants, the Defra Chief Scientific Adviser, and the Environment Minister at the time, the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park.

Overall, we found that the Government have ambitious, even laudable, plans for nature-based solutions. There are headline commitments to plant 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025 and to restore 280,000 hectares of peatland by 2050. These sit alongside the ambitious reductions in land use emissions needed to achieve net zero. The scale of this ambition to restore nature is a major and essential component of reaching net zero, and could provide significant co-benefits for biodiversity, human health and well-being, and adaptation to climate change. We were pleased to see the Government lobby for the inclusion of nature-based solutions in the COP 26 decision text, as we advised in a letter to the president of COP 26.

However, in our report we were sceptical and concerned about whether the current level of policy support is sufficient to see these plans realised. There are strong headwinds that need to be overcome to deliver effective nature-based solutions. There are scientific uncertainties around how much carbon these approaches will sequester, and on what timescales. The Government have neither assessed the skills gap nor provided sufficient training to ensure that nature-based solutions can be deployed at scale.

There remains huge uncertainty about the details of the policies that are set to incentivise nature-based solutions, such as the new environmental land management schemes. More funding is likely to be required in key areas, from basic scientific research to funding for public delivery bodies that will have to regulate and support these projects. Many land managers feel disengaged and uncertain about the changes they will need to make, but their support is critical for these schemes to be delivered.

The Government are relying on private finance to help to fund nature-based solutions by creating markets for carbon credits and other ecosystem services that nature-based solutions can provide. However, these markets exist only on a small scale at present, and the regulatory infrastructure needed to ensure that they work as intended and genuinely deliver carbon removal over time does not yet exist.

Finally, we found that the Government have not said anywhere how they will balance the many competing demands on UK land. The committee was seeking evidence that the Government have a coherent plan for meeting these demands; we did not hear it. In short, although the Government’s ambitions for nature-based solutions are admirable and we support them, our report found that there is a clear and present danger that they will not be achieved, and that this could undermine the target of net zero by 2050, as well as undermine the agricultural sector with a failed transition.

Our committee made a number of recommendations to assist the Government in delivering their ambitions. Among these, we wanted the Government to invest further in researching the storage potential of nature-based solutions, especially for soils and in the marine environment. We recommended that the budgets of public delivery bodies such as Natural England and the Environment Agency be increased to be commensurate with the increased workload of deploying nature-based solutions at the scale of the government targets.

We asked the Government to provide urgent clarity on the nature of environmental land management schemes and how they will support nature-based solutions among their other objectives. We recommended that communication with land managers be improved, and the introduction of a dedicated advisory service for land managers to help them to navigate ELMS.

We made a number of recommendations about private financing for nature-based solutions, including that existing standards such as the woodland and peatland codes incorporate additional value for ecosystem services and co-benefits beyond carbon sequestration. We asked for clearer regulatory standards for emerging carbon markets and for the Government to create or sponsor an independent central broker to allow stacked and blended finance from the private and public sector and for a combination of different projects.

Finally, as with much in climate change policy, we wanted to see a plan that added up. Specifically, we wanted the Government to develop an overall land use strategy that explained how trade-offs in land use would be managed to deliver nature-based solutions as well as other important targets.

The Government’s response to our report was generally positive, and I warmly thank the Defra civil servants involved for their detailed and helpful work. The response was characterised well by our evidence session with the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, who responded to most of our lines of questioning by agreeing with the concerns and points raised by the committee.

Among the concrete responses, we heard that the Government would publish more detailed information on the environmental land management scheme later in 2022. More detail has now been published on the sustainable farming incentive, launching new standards for payments, and further pilot projects for the landscape recovery scheme will be awarded in the next two years.

The Government said that Defra would conduct “spatially explicit analysis” on land use to assess the level and type of changes in land use in England indicated by government commitments, which would help to manage trade-offs in land uses. They said that the need for a land use strategy would be kept under review as work progressed in 2022.

The Government committed to engaging with land managers but stopped short of our recommendation to introduce a new advisory service to help them navigate ELMS. Farmers are now referred to a range of local organisations that can provide advice. However, evidence from stakeholder groups such as the National Farmers’ Union suggests that farmers are still struggling with the details of the schemes. The Government said they will work with stakeholders to develop a

“more stable and comprehensive standards framework … later this year”—

that is, in 2022, for carbon and other ecosystem services, to

“help ensure their use is beneficial for the climate, people, and nature.”

Section 6.5.1 of Chris Skidmore’s excellent review, Mission Zero: Independent Review of Net Zero, published this year, urges the Government to set up a regulator for carbon credits and offsets, and indeed repeats many of our recommendations in this area, suggesting that the problems are not yet resolved.

A year has passed since we published our report on nature-based solutions; we are a year closer to the net-zero target, and nature needs time to act. Trees take 20 or 30 years to grow and deliver their carbon sequestration potential, so action is urgent; we have to act now, and we do not seem to have seen much progress.

Let me illustrate my point with a few examples. In the environmental land management scheme, only the sustainable farming incentive has launched, which is the most basic payment scheme and the closest to the previous area-based payments. Local nature recovery and landscape recovery are still in pilot stages, and the old scheme of countryside stewardship is still being used. We hear that there are problems getting sufficient enrolment in schemes. Only 2.4% of eligible farmers—2,000 out of 82,000—applied for the sustainable farming incentive, which was intended to be the simplest ELMS and the one that most land managers would apply to. The Government have had to boost the payment rates to try to get more farmers to apply.

The House of Lords ad hoc Committee on Land Use in England, in its final report, published in December 2022, echoes our recommendations, saying:

“Create a Land Use Commission tasked with producing a land use framework. The framework must consider several factors, including food, nature, housing needs and the push for net zero.”

It continues by saying that we should

“provide immediate clarity on the Environmental Land Management Schemes … programme, ending the uncertainty which is causing serious problems for effective land use.”

We are hearing increased reports that the UK will miss its tree-planting targets, and there are similar stories about Scotland’s peat and the Scottish Government’s nature restoration targets. The Government missed their legal deadline for setting the first batch of targets under the Environment Act 2021, and there are concerns that the post-Brexit sunsetting of regulations will remove vital environmental regulations. These examples serve to underline that much more action is needed, and it is needed urgently.

To conclude, I ask the Minister to respond to the following questions. What are the Government going to do to ensure that we catch up with our tree-planting targets, given the shortage of nurseries, plug plants, skilled people and the lack of a clear land use strategy which addresses the trade-offs—for example, between food and carbon sequestration? The current markets for nature-based solutions have been described as the “wild west”, given a lack of strong governance and standards. Greenwashing is rife, while uncertainty about the level and consistency of revenues of certain ecosystems services is undermining the confidence of some investors. What discussions are the Government having about a strong, independent co-ordinating body to scrutinise and set national standards for nature-based solutions in the UK? This is an area where UK action could show real leadership and give confidence to corporates to fund these critical developments.

As you might expect, we are very fond of numbers on the Science and Technology Select Committee. We like sums that add up and measures that can be quantified. How will the Government make the numbers add up? The funding required for nature recovery in the UK is estimated to be between £4 billion and £10 billion per annum. Total government spending is about £650 million per annum, with aspirations for private sector investment to match this. How are we going to fill the gap?

Finally, after a catalogue of good intentions but missed targets and deadlines, what are we going to do to instil a sense of urgency and catch up with the delivery of this critical and laudable ambition? I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, for leading this debate. Her expertise in and knowledge of all areas of climate change and the road to net zero are unsurpassed. Like her, I thank the members of the committee, the committee staff and our specialist adviser, Professor Pete Smith FRS, professor of soils and global change at the University of Aberdeen. Due to Covid restrictions, the whole inquiry was conducted virtually, and we have yet to meet our specialist adviser—he certainly looked very colourful on the images we saw—but we hope to meet him some time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Brown, has so eloquently and effectively covered the issues raised in our inquiry that I intend to confine my comments to the contribution that better management of peatlands in the UK can make to climate change and net zero.

The UK’s natural environment is degraded due to decades of neglect and uncontrolled planning, and it has led to a decline in biodiversity, resulting in the UK being the worst country in the G7 and 12th in the world for biodiversity. There are many reasons for the decline in biodiversity, but the State of Nature report identified land use as the single biggest driver.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that only 20% of UK peatland is in a near-natural state. A recent assessment found that UK peatland is so degraded that it is emitting more CO2 than it is sequestering. The UK is one of the top 10 nations in the world for peatland area, accounting for 9% to 15% of Europe’s peatland and around 13% of the world’s blanket bog.

The partially decomposed organic matter of peatlands makes them the most carbon-dense terrestrial systems on the planet, storing approximately 550 gigatonnes of carbon, which is twice the amount stored in the biomass of all vegetation in a far smaller land area. When disturbed, it releases carbon. In a near-natural state, UK peatland is estimated to hold 11,700 metric tonnes of CO2. Although the precise figure is not known, there is consensus that peatlands are the UK’s largest natural carbon stores, holding 40% of UK soil carbon. Causes of degradation are drainage for agriculture, forestry, air pollution, fires and extraction of peat. Disturbing the peat releases carbon.

It is obvious that restoring peatland should be a matter of urgency. Priorities for policy should be to protect intact peatlands and to restore degraded peatlands. The Government’s peatland code is a good initiative and could ensure good practice.

I have the following questions for the Minister. First, lowland peat used for agriculture accounts for 7% of UK peatland but is responsible for 32% of all peatland emissions. Will the Government commit to developing specific targets for lowland peat in their net-zero strategy?

Secondly, planting trees on peaty soils results in carbon emissions. The Forestry Commission’s current policy allows free planting of trees on such soil types. Should the Government require the Forestry Commission to keep its policy of planting trees on peatland under review?

Thirdly, while the Government’s ambition to restore peatlands is admirable, a skills shortage needs addressing —the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, mentioned that several times. What plans do the Government have to assess the skills needed and for the provision of training of those undertaking peatland restoration?

Fourthly, what plans do the Government have for long-term monitoring of the Peatland Code to assess its success in greenhouse gas reduction, carbon sequestration and enhanced biodiversity status?

Fifthly, peatland restoration delivers a range of co-benefits. Will the Government commit to establishing a research programme to quantify the co-benefits of projects under the Peatland Code and to ensuring that payments for other ecosystem services are included within current and future carbon codes?

Restoration of peatlands should be a matter of urgency if the Government are to meet their net-zero targets. If done successfully, it will deliver more than carbon capture on the road to net zero.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate, as it was to be a member of the inquiry into nature-based solutions. It is a real pleasure to follow both the committee’s current chair and its recent past chair. I do not know what this means for my future preferment, but No. 3 is certainly a good place to be.

I will cover three areas and have three asks. Those areas are trees, seas and bees. In our inquiry, we rightly spent a lot of time on trees and woodland. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that it is important to consider trees and woodland not just at the beginning of their lifecycle—planting—important though that is, but across the story of that most vital resource, post harvest and right the way through its lifecycle? Would he also comment on the current situation regarding planting trees on peat and pseudo-peat boglands, and any current research on it? We spent a lot of time on this in the committee and there seemed at times to be some cloudy thinking around it.

We concluded that much more attention needs to be paid to the potential role that the seas and oceans can play. A whole blue marine programme fully to assess all the elements that the ocean could contribute to nature-based solutions would make a great deal of sense. Does my noble friend agree that a whole lot more work still needs to be done? It is extraordinary that we have the excellent “Blue Planet” on the TV but possibly not enough focus on this area when it comes to nature-based solutions. Similarly, does he agree that a lot of work could be done beyond what our inquiry covered in partnership with the British Overseas Territories, a number of whose environments could be particularly beneficial for ocean-based, nature-based solutions?

Bees were not covered by our report, but it is a universal truth that everything we can do in nature-based solutions must be good for bees. As we know, what is good for the bees is good for us all.

I turn to my asks. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that not only do we need a universal, horizontal approach to nature-based solutions but that it must go across all government departments? For example, I and others put down amendments in Committee and on Report of the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill to put nature-based solutions in that Bill, to give them the necessary level of importance in the potential investments that the UKIB would make. The Government did not accept those amendments. Does my noble friend regret that? Does he see that it would be important and a positive force to move forward on that in future?

My second ask echoes the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, on ELMS. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that we still need increased clarity and communication around ELMS? For a lot of farmers and landowners, it seems clear that it is difficult to see the wood for the ELMS.

Finally, as has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, in a sense all of this goes to the critical importance of a universal, coherent, connected land use strategy. Does the Minister agree that we all need to focus more, and that the Government need to put more effort into bringing this about?

So much focus, attention and commentary is rightly around net zero, but as our report demonstrates, net zero is an important part but it is not the whole story. It has to be seen alongside nature-based solutions because even if we reach net zero, we still need, and should welcome, the benefits that nature-based solutions should bring. When she sums up, will my noble friend the Minister give full-throated support for everything that the Government can, should and will do on nature-based solutions?

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, the committee and the staff for having produced the report we are debating today. I pay tribute to the previous chair, the noble Lord, Lord Patel. I did not know until he spoke a moment ago that this is a wholly Covid-based report. I think this is the first debate I have taken part in that is based on a Covid-only investigation.

It was only yesterday that the Lord Privy Seal came to the Dispatch Box in the House and moved a Motion that will allow the Government to take priority over business on Thursdays from now until the end of Session —which is many months away—in order to allow more time in part, he said, to enable debates to take place on Select Committee reports because of the backlog that builds up. That is true in this case, as it has been more than a year since the report was published.

This Select Committee, which one day I hope to join, has produced an interesting and worthwhile report, and I do not need to add anything to the excellent introduction provided by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown. More generally, I think it is important that the House as a whole grasps that one of the committee’s most important conclusions is that there remain “significant scientific uncertainties” about not only the nature of this report but in general. Life and science are full of uncertainty. How much carbon is stored in habitats? We do not fully know. How much can be sequestered by different habitats in future? We do not fully know. For how long might carbon remain sequestered in those habitats? We do not fully know. I agree with the previous speaker, and add that there is still an enormous degree of uncertainty about the role of the world’s oceans in carbon sequestration, which is another point made by the committee.

Another key point was to question whether the Government have an effective plan for resolving the

“many competing demands on the land”,

whether it is producing food or materials or providing space for nature or housing, or, as the Government pledged earlier this week, access to green space or blue water within 15 minutes of where we live. I look forward to the Minister’s reply. I should have added that I welcome the Minister to what may be his first science debate, and I hope that there are many more. I look forward to him saying a bit more about the “spatially explicit analysis” which the Government have promised in their reply.

In this contribution, I want to convey the views of the Royal Society of Biology and its science team. In the interests of transparency, I ought to say that I worked for the Royal Society of Biology for 10 years, and I look back on those years with great fondness. I should add that I have been elected a fellow.

I want to make six points, briefly. First, investing in the workforce and technologies involved in creating and implementing nature-based solutions is crucial to unlock the solutions needed to achieve the Government’s environmental goals. The committee recognises that the UK does not yet have the range of skills required to deliver nature-based solutions at scale. Effective training and recruitment can allow the development and capture of a broad range of ideas, talents and experience, which can in turn better implement the required solutions. There is a story in the Times today reporting that citizen science is leading more people to nature, and I hope that in future that feeds through to more people taking an interest in this subject.

Secondly, increased investment in research and development is vital to generate more efficient, effective and responsible carbon sequestration techniques, the improvement of which is vital in addressing the climate crisis. This investment should also address funding discrepancies in areas such as research funding opportunities and infrastructure development.

Thirdly, as recommended by the committee, it is crucial that the Government’s plans for nature-based solutions, such as carbon sequestration schemes, are considered in tandem with their other environment-related polices, such as championing the 30 by 30 target and the commitment to halt and reverse biodiversity loss as outlined in the Environmental Improvement Plan 2023. It was only this week that the Minister came to the Dispatch Box to answer questions about the EIP. Biodiversity loss is one of the great themes of our century and a great deal depends on the COP biodiversity conferences.

Fourthly, although initiatives such as increased tree planting are positive, they should be implemented with due consideration of the pre-existing habitat, such as avoiding planting on areas such as peatlands and species-rich grasslands, with the aim of maintaining and restoring the natural habitation of the UK landscape. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I wondered what that noise was. I now realise that it is me hitting the microphone.

This should include the types of environment and specific tree species present as opposed to the sole objective of maximising carbon sequestration. Failure to consider those in tandem with the net-zero objectives will lead to a greater problem in the long term, including further biodiversity loss.

Fifthly, as highlighted by the British Ecological Society, which is a member organisation of the Royal Society of Biology, it is important to understand that nature-based solutions are not the only answer to solutions on climate change.

Sixthly, it is important that nature-based solutions are implemented through effective public communication, dialogue and incentives, and that a combination of public and private investment will help to fund and facilitate nature-based solutions provided that they are effectively regulated and monitored. In short, we need more research; who would not say that?

Finally, in the moments I have left I turn to something that arose this week: the government reorganisation of the machinery of government at the centre, which is an important thing for us to touch on briefly today. The Prime Minister’s restructuring will have a considerable effect on government activity, including the subject that we are addressing today. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to say anything about this, but I am sure that anything he says will be very welcome and of interest.

I take the view that the break-up of BEIS will not be mourned. However, more importantly, the creation of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology could provide this Government, and indeed any future Government, with a renewed sense of purpose and focus on making the UK the science superpower that we all hope to see. Of course, the change in the machinery of government will also take time to bed in. I mention this, because I think this committee might want to look that subject. It is certainly a worthy subject for a future report and a debate, but that is for another day.

In the meantime, I commend the committee’s report and I hope that it will prove a real contribution to the future success of nature-based solutions for climate change.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Viscount. I must compliment the noble Lord, Lord Patel, who so expertly chaired the committee, on which I was privileged to serve, and produced such a fantastic report. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, for so comprehensively introducing the report; there is very little left for us to say, especially on land use. I echo her thanks to the clerk of the committee and the staff, and to the special adviser, Professor Pete Smith.

Planet earth supports life above and below ground through the intricate web of independence of all living species, flora and fauna, in balance with the essential physical cycles of water, carbon and nitrogen. The biggest takeaway for me from this report is how woefully incomplete our understanding is of these forces and how they interact with each other. For example, we are only now beginning to understand the vital role of soil, be it onshore, in ancient rainforests, tropical or temperate, in mixed woodland, in peatlands, in grasslands or mangroves, or offshore. For the first time, we are beginning to appreciate the effectiveness of seagrass meadows, kelp forests, the seabed floor and algae as essential carbon sinks.

This report makes many recommendations on how much better we should be doing in understanding how to manage our land in the UK to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. I know that other noble Lords will cover that aspect, so I will concentrate most of my remarks on recommendations 6, 7, 8 and 9, which all relate to the marine environment and the gaps in the evidence base about carbon sequestration in marine habitats.

In the report, we recommend collaboration between Natural England, the Crown Estate, the Marine Management Organisation, academics and other relevant bodies, and we asked Defra to support research on establishing the current and historical extent of marine habitats, their carbon sequestration rates and their long-term potential for carbon storage. In their response to the report, the Government cite a slew of collaborative efforts, and it is clear that in the run-up to COP 26 that was indeed the case. I thank the Government for their work on raising the profile of the marine environment. However, can the Minister tell us in what way that momentum has been maintained since November 2021?

Lastly on this issue, an important point was raised in recommendation 9 about the effects of bottom trawling on the decline of marine habitats. This was not addressed in the Government’s response, so can the Minister update your Lordships on research programmes by the MMO to look into this vital issue?

We are at a crucial point when global emissions need to be falling fast, yet they are in fact still rising and have not yet peaked. To reduce or even stabilise concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the world needs to reach net-zero emissions. This requires fast reductions in further anthropogenic emissions, and I hope that the creation of the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero will bring greater emphasis on energy generation by renewables and end the preferential treatment of oil and gas producers in the North Sea, so that we can proceed with the phase-out of destructive greenhouse gases as fast as possible.

However, it is increasingly being realised that a huge expansion in global carbon removal capacity is required to deliver on global climate goals, and time is of the essence. Novel techniques such as carbon capture and storage; BECCS—bioenergy with carbon capture and storage; direct air capture and enhanced rock weathering do not yet deliver at scale. Indeed, an Oxford University study found that all current carbon removals —that is, 2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per annum—come from conventional nature-based approaches, and nature-based solutions remain far more cost-effective than high-tech versions.

We are in such dire straits that it is essential that research into the newer emerging carbon removal techniques continues apace, but we must grasp what we know works today and protect existing carbon sinks wherever we find them in order to minimise emissions, such as from deforestation, and increase our efforts to create more of the carbon sinks that we know work—for example, planting the right trees in the right place—as fast as possible.

That is where carbon offsets come in, because they are a way of getting the trillions of pounds of investment that the World Economic Forum says is needed to reduce emissions. However, carbon offsetting schemes are open to abuse. The Climate Change Committee has recommended putting stronger regulation, guidance and standards in place to ensure that the purchase of carbon credits is not used as a substitute for direct business emissions reductions. This is the thrust of recommendation 39, which asks BEIS, as was, to provide clarity about what companies must do to claim net zero emissions.

The Government’s response, unfortunately, is not very satisfactory. The Minister will know that I have my name to a number of amendments to the Financial Services and Markets Bill that are designed to deliver a functioning green taxonomy, sustainable finance disclosures plans, mandatory transition plans and clean supply chains from resources from deforestation, as an example. That would give the UK the momentum it needs to become a net-zero financial centre with reduced opportunities for greenwashing.

In conclusion, the report emphasises the importance of nature-based solutions in meeting our net-zero targets and points a way forward for the UK to be at the forefront of this opportunity. I recommend it to noble Lords.

My Lords, it is my pleasure to take part in the debate this afternoon, and I add my congratulations to the committee on such an excellent and thorough report conducted in very difficult circumstances. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, for her introduction and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for his excellent chairing of this inquiry.

The summary of this document is excellent; it is very clear. It states that, although there are possible benefits from deploying nature-based solutions in tackling our growing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there are significant scientific uncertainties about how carbon is stored in habitats now and how much will be sequestered in future. I will focus on that uncertainty in the few minutes that I have today, because it is fundamental to understanding how we can deploy capital into nature-based solutions without jeopardising our efforts to mitigate climate change.

I will explain why it is so important. Before Christmas, when the UK’s first deep coal mine was approved, the Minister said that it was going to be the world’s first carbon-neutral coal mine. The cynicism of that statement beggars belief. Not only was the very group that was supposed to be supplying the off-sets to the mine saying, “Please don’t count on us. We don’t want to sell you these credits. You’re going to damage our reputation”, but the coal mine was counting its emissions only from processing the coal, not from the actual content of coal being burnt.

I stress this, because it is wonderful to look at nature-based solutions, and this is an admirable report, but, on the other side of the ledger, if you sell a nature-based solution or a carbon sink, in many cases you are allowing a carbon emission to occur. They are totally different in their characteristics. It is not true to say that a tonne is equal to a tonne. That was the lie from the carbon market 20 years ago, and we know now that that is not the case. We know that when you burn coal and release into the atmosphere carbon that has been stored over millions of years in the earth, it will stay there for approximately 1,000 years, with a very high degree of certainty that it will cause impact. In fact, there is ever more evidence that it will cause impact the longer we go on, because it is a cumulative problem: these emissions build up over time. When we release tonnes now, they are even more damaging, because the carrying capacity is that much reduced.

Compare that certainty with the complete uncertainty of a nature-based carbon store. There is simply no equivalent. The report is excellent in pointing out that we need far more research and investment in infrastructure, monitoring, reporting, verification and regulation to make sure that this market does not lock us into a self-defeating cycle whereby we rely on nature to try to soak up the emissions from carbon dioxide but we allow the fossil fuel emissions that are driving climate change to continue, making our forests, land and soils that much more unstable and that much less resilient and durable. We are basically locking ourselves into a highly changeable system with high degrees of uncertainty and using false equivalence to tell ourselves this very seductive lie that we can carry on burning fossil fuels.

The report is clear that this is not a “get out of jail free” card and that it should be used only for residual emissions, but nowhere have the Government defined what they are. There is nothing here that points to the rules that need to be set that state how these things can be used and what can be used to claim against them. That is fundamental to this. We are in a brilliant position in the UK to address this, because we have the world’s best scientists located here, including atmospheric chemists. I am delighted that we have an atmospheric scientist in our midst today, Professor Ray Weiss from the University of California San Diego, an atmospheric chemist of long standing, who understands this far better than me. We have our own experts in this area, and a tall-tower network of sensors and monitors that allow us to know in great detail what is happening to our biosphere.

Those are the sorts of investments that we have to double down on, and I hope that the UK will join up its thinking on how it approaches the measurement of what is happening in the atmosphere. Again, the report is excellent. It states that we must have

“long-term research and monitoring … overseen by the relevant departments”

that will allow us to see the fluxes on a range of different sites around the country, so that we are not just using inventories and guessing whether these actions are delivering a carbon saving but measuring it, and over the long term, so that we have certain sense of whether we are making progress.

We cannot allow this to continue as business as usual. We have been trying to solve climate change for 30 years or longer and, in that time, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have simply got ever higher. We cannot afford a misstep where we allow the fossil fuel industry to make use of the seductive phrase “nature-based solutions” to carry on with business as usual.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to go back to the department and ask how we are using the infrastructure that the UK already has in its tall-tower monitoring system to backstop anything that we do on the opening up of private finance and markets into this area. We also have our public funding from ELMS and the reform of the agricultural subsidies, which is a safe space in which to look at, and experiment with, what works.

Let us do that first, get the groundwork done and be certain that this works before we say that it is open season for the private sector to use this and to develop a carbon market. I have studied carbon markets for far too long, and every one that I have looked at booms and busts, for good reason: this is difficult to do. So let us not rush into it and allow this to be abused by those who would seek to get off lightly from their contributions to climate change. I am delighted that this debate has been kicked off, and I again commend the report.

My Lords, I declare my registered interests as a co-founder of a natural capital trading platform—one of many seeking to address some of the issues raised in this report—as a developer of natural capital projects to sequester carbon, as an investor in natural capital-related businesses, and as a land and forest owner. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, and the committee for this excellent report and debate.

I congratulate the Government on the Woodland Carbon Code and the Peatland Code, which are world-leading certification standards. The later edition of the woodland carbon guarantee scheme was a masterstroke in creating confidence in future value. These schemes are uniquely high quality in the strength of the data, the strict qualification requirements and the conservative assumptions. The world has very few reliable certification standards. The Verra avoiding deforestation standard, REDD+, has been attacked by the Guardian for its limited reliability. The New Zealand scheme has led to the blanket planting of radiata pine, although at least this is admissible in its emissions trading scheme’s underpinning values. These codes already place the UK in pole position in this emerging industry. Many of the issues addressed in this excellent report are solvable by private capital, with government support needed in critical areas. In turn, that should lead to much lower financial calls on the Government to enable these outcomes.

High-credibility standards, which private capital is willing to invest in, are critical. The woodland and peatland carbon codes are done, but we await the soil and blue carbon codes, as well as helping to quantify the co-benefits. The crucial question of how to measure and value these co-benefits is raised very effectively in the report. For market acceptance, consistency with the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market’s principles and assessment framework, due during Q1 2023, will be necessary.

The second point where the industry needs government help is in creating profit incentives. The Woodland Carbon Code and the Peatland Code are voluntary standards with limited tangible value. The industry needs improvement in the standing of these units and to see the creation of market demand for other aspects of natural capital, such as biodiversity, water management, cultural heritage, education, public access and visual impact.

We can bring down the cost and increase the transparency of delivering nature outcomes over time by creating that profit incentive, drawing entrepreneurial talent and capital. Even at this early stage of development, and without clarity around market structures, a plethora of start-up and established companies is improving the cost-effective baselining, monitoring, measuring, managing and analysing of these projects. Most of these use innovative hardware and/or software to create scalable and cost-deflationary solutions.

In ELMS, there is progress on many of these fronts, but three questions are unanswered for landowners. First, do the resulting goods belong to the landowner? When the Government fund actions such as afforestation, peatland restoration or natural habitat restoration, will these benefits belong to the Government or to the landowner? Only one entity can claim them.

Secondly, will the additionality qualification remain intact, even with government funding under ELMS? Expert buyers require that the scheme has the additionality of the units they are buying in order to go ahead. If the Government have financially incentivised the scheme, additionality may be compromised.

Finally, will the tax treatment of these assets be disadvantaged when focused on natural capital, rather than on agriculture or forestry?

I turn to some of the specific points in the report. There is a statement that commercial forestry carbon calculations are dependent on the use of harvested wood, but that is not the case under the Woodland Carbon Code. The code calculations assume that commercial forestry is clearfelled at maturity and the carbon lost, which means that only the average standing carbon over multiple rotations is recognised. Productive forestry captures carbon more rapidly than broadleaves and creates jobs for decades into the future, but it is handicapped in carbon forecasts by this clearfelling assumption. The primary use of hardwoods remains firewood. Are the Government’s calculations based on the code assumptions, or do they use a different methodology for carbon capture within a new forest?

Different industries have different opportunities to eliminate carbon, making a blanket 10% cap unreasonable. Usage discrimination through market pricing that incorporates all methodologies of reaching net zero is likely to provide the most efficient solution for allocating these off-sets to the appropriate sector. It is more than two years since the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets issued its final report. Have the Government considered its recommendations?

The report raises two other points that I will address briefly. UK forestry standard schemes are handicapped by a limited menu of tree species, as highlighted by the report; I believe there are around 60, when there are 3,000 to 4,000 species globally. Our narrow palette brings greater biological and climate risk, and largely references species reintroduced since the last ice age. I agree with the report that work needs to be done to extend this.

In response to the comments on planting into 30 centimetres of organic matter peat,, and I would like the Forestry Commission to stipulate methods of planting depending on soil types and conditions. Mounding is too widely used in the industry, and I would like to see techniques that are less disruptive to soil condition encouraged to minimise carbon emissions during planting and establishment. I would also like the Forestry Commission to look further at its yield class tables, which place caps at yield class 24 on Sitka spruce, for example, which can achieve well into the 30s. I believe that Ireland has already made that step.

My Lords, as a member of the Science and Technology Committee, it gives me great pleasure to support the excellent opening remarks by our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge. She has chaired the committee with great skill and good humour, as did the noble Lord, Lord Patel. Both handled our many witnesses, including Ministers, with tact and diplomacy, as well as firing penetrating questions when we needed to cut through to hard evidence.

One of the problems in this inquiry was the evidence available in quantifying the relative benefits of these approaches as against others. It became clear that more research was needed to be able confidently to assert that some solutions were more beneficial than others and thus where the country needed to focus its efforts. Others have mentioned research. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government are satisfied that adequate resource is being allocated for this essential research?

Our inquiry into nature-based solutions to climate change follows a number of related inquiries seeking to understand the role that different approaches and so-called solutions can play in responding to the climate and biodiversity crises we face as a society, as well as the UK’s path to net zero. A central issue for all these inquiries has been quantifying and assessing the UK’s skills gap, which must be bridged if we are to make any serious progress to net zero. Indeed, we chose to highlight this in one of our most recent reports. The deadline for the Minister’s response is next Wednesday, so I hope the Minister will gently remind his colleague George Freeman. The new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology will hopefully bring another view in support of a STEM skills agenda into the Cabinet.

Even if we are confident about the way forward, do we have the skills to be able to follow through? This has been an intractable problem in the UK despite new policies being developed by every Government ever since I became involved in the education and skills area. We still have major challenges in developing in our people the skills that will enable the country to grow the economy in the way that we all want and need. I will focus my brief remarks on this aspect of our report.

We recommended that, to match their ambitious targets, the Government should establish equally ambitious skills and training programmes for land managers, authorities developing local nature recovery strategies and public delivery bodies. We also urged the Government to expand urgently training in the very specific areas where it was clear that there were gaps: surveying, monitoring and verifying, carbon accountancy, forestry ecology, and planning and carrying out nature-based solutions.

In their response to our report, the Government said that the Green Jobs Taskforce had helped to inform the net-zero strategy published in October 2021, yet this said nothing about these specific skills. They also said that they had invested £80 million in the green recovery challenge fund during Covid and £10 million in the natural environment investment readiness fund, but they did not address the committee’s recommendation that DfE and BEIS must allocate some of their funding to specific schemes for land managers and provide sufficient skilled personnel to meet the Government’s ambitious targets. Is it surprising that I remain concerned about the lack of urgency or even focus on this issue?

Our witnesses reflected those concerns. Our report states:

“The support of local authorities for the Local Nature Recovery Strategies will be essential, but the Association of Local Government Ecologists noted that fewer than a third of local authorities have ecological expertise. The Institute of Chartered Foresters said that a skills gap in tree-planting could undermine climate targets, and we heard from Professor Henderson that forestry skills ‘have deteriorated in the country over recent decades’. Richard Lindsay told us that, for the heavily emitting lowland peats, ‘the hoped-for strategy/solution’ is ‘this new concept of wetland farming’ but the skills required for that do not exist. Professor Stead, Chief Scientific Adviser, Marine Management Organisation, told us of marine nature-based solutions for which ‘the training and capacity building is not at a mature stage.’”

Our report notes that, when speaking for the Government,

“Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park acknowledged the scale of the skills challenge”,

saying that

“‘it would be wrong to pretend, at this stage, that the skills that will be needed in the medium and long term have been fully mapped out and identified, and that our workforce of the future, based on where we are today, will be ready for that challenge.’”

Despite the ongoing talks between Defra and the DfE to address these skills gaps,

“he acknowledged that the urgency of the agricultural transition leaves little time: ‘to hit the 2030 targets on biodiversity, we cannot wait until 2028 to have people doing that work.’”

That seems to be the Government’s position: they have set targets that they know they cannot meet. We have excellent further and higher education bodies, as well as public delivery bodies such as Natural England, that could fill that gap in training land managers and others to implement nature-based solutions. Will the Minister say why the Government are not harnessing this resource urgently? What route do they see for providing training in the timescales required for a transition over the next decade?

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, for the thoughtful way in which she has introduced this report and my noble friend Lord Patel for the thoughtful, imaginative and determined way in which he chaired your Lordships’ Science and Technology Committee in undertaking this important inquiry.

It is particularly appropriate that we take this debate a few weeks after the Royal Society published its report Multifunctional Landscapes: Informing a Long-Term Vision for Managing the UK’s Land. It is an interesting and informative report that identifies the opportunity for a data and science-driven approach to ensuring that we understand the capacity of UK land, the competing demands on it and how they might be addressed. Of course, as we have heard from noble Lords’ contributions during this important debate, this is a critical issue. Nature-based solutions are not a panacea for achieving net zero and addressing the climate change challenge, but they offer an important opportunity to make a fundamental contribution to achieving those net-zero targets.

Do we really understand the nature base? Are we properly informed about the sequestration capacity of different habitats? Do we understand the impact that our adjacent land use behaviour in total currently has on these different environments? Do we understand how much carbon is already stored in these habitats? Do we understand what behaviour and activity are doing to degrade these habitats and subsequently release carbon? These are all important issues that need to be informed through an appropriate knowledge base, database and science base. Of course, the technology for us to be able to do this in a systematic fashion becomes increasingly available.

I should declare some specific interests in that I was a member of your Lordships’ Science and Technology Committee and that I serve as a member of the advisory board of the Royal Society and chairman of the 1851 commission. In your Lordships’ report and in that of the Royal Society, it is recognised that we need common standards, an approach to appropriate metrics, a data standard, methodology protocols and, potentially, the development of a common evidence platform available to inform all land use in our country. That would subsequently help us to understand where nature-based solutions sit.

Beyond that, we need more fundamental research to characterise those different habitats. Do we really understand the nature of our forests? Do we really understand the interplay of the age those forests’ different tree habitats, the broader biodiversity attending the soil and the importance of the different species of trees available in those habitats? Are we properly informed about the true stored carbon content and the ultimate sequestration capacity of peatlands and wetlands? What do we really understand about the marine environment even in our own coastal waters? It is a protected environment that we are proud of, but only 5% of it bans trawling of the seabed. How can that be logical and why is it tolerated? Do we have a science base that helps us properly to understand the implications of that?

When we think about broader land use, are we conscious of the impact of land use adjacent, for instance, to a protected marine environment? What impact does land use for building and for other purposes have on that environment, its biodiversity, its potential destruction and therefore the erroneous assumptions that we might make about that environment making an important contribution to sequestration and ultimate storage of carbon?

Is the Minister content that His Majesty’s Government have a proper, whole-government, holistic approach to establishing a research and evidence base that helps us to best understand the true potential and capacity of our nature base to provide nature-based solutions for net zero and address the climate challenge? In supporting the establishment of an appropriate science evidence base, are we also cognisant of the opportunity to drive innovation in this area—innovative technologies that allow us to map these environments appropriately, bring those data together and make them readily available for all who are responsible for land management? Are we clear that that science base will be used to develop government policy appropriately? We pride ourselves on having an informed science base informing the development of policy. Are we content that is happening with regard to policy to drive the opportunities for nature-based solutions?

My Lords, I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak in the gap, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, for her excellent introduction to this report, and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, for his chairmanship of the Science and Technology Committee.

This valuable, forensic and detailed report identifies that in this area of climate policy, as in most of them, the Government have rhetoric but no plans for delivery—as the title suggests. First, the report, says that

“the UK does not have the requisite skills to deliver … solutions at scale”

and no plans to create them. Secondly,

“there is huge uncertainty about the details of policies that will incentivise nature-based solutions”.


“more funding is required in several key areas”.

However, I want to focus on one crucial sentence in the report:

“Nature-based solutions are not a get out of jail free card.”

We have both to stop emitting greenhouse gases and to restore our natural world. No trade-off is scientifically possible. Offsetting is a con, a cheat, a fiction. I am building here on the comments, in particular from the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, but also from the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan. One way of explaining this is by looking at the difference between biology and geology.

First, as the report says, there is scientific uncertainty about how much carbon is stored, and how it can be stored in different habitats, and how long it will remain. The timescale of ecosystems—of biology—is, if you are lucky, years, but it is often months, days, or even minutes. A wildfire sweeps through a forest—I grew up in Australia, and I have watched bushfires all too close up—and, within a blink of an eye, a lot of the so-called stored carbon is in the atmosphere.

By contrast, geological timescales run to hundreds of millions of years. Up to around 400 million years ago, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were up to 6,000 parts per million. We are now at less than a 10th of that, albeit 50% up from the level at the start of the industrial revolution. Over hundreds of millions of years, geological processes locked vast amounts of carbon underground, mostly deep underground. It was never going to emerge, at least on our human timescale—if you take a 24-hour timescale, we as a species have been on this planet for just one second—until we started to dig it up. The best possible carbon capture and storage is to leave the coal in the hole, the gas in the ground, the oil in the orb. That carbon capture and storage is free, certain and essential.

Secondly, biological systems are living systems. They are flexible, ever changing, adaptive, complex far beyond our current understandings. Unlike claims still sometimes made, just dropping a lot of organic matter into the soil—as good an idea as that is for both biodiversity and food security—will not necessarily increase soil carbon. To quote a recent journal article,

“Persistence of organic matter in the soil depends on chemical, physical, environmental, and/or biological factors.”

It is complex.

The fact is that biology is not going to rescue us, which means that we have to stop growing our economy. We have to operate within the physical limits of this one fragile planet. We have to rescue ourselves by transforming our economic and social system from a way of life built on carbon emissions to one that will stabilise this planet.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to start the wind-up speeches in this debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, and all involved in producing this report. It was an honour and a pleasure to serve on the committee. The evidence we heard was compelling—sometimes shocking, in particular on bottom-trawling—and the recommendations that we made are important.

Our findings gave us much cause for concern. We heard about major gaps in the research and data needed to give confidence to the decisions and measures that we need to take to reduce emissions and sequester more carbon in our land and marine environments. For example, we wanted to see more on-farm trials and more research on sequestration in marine environments. However, we found that there is enormous potential in the UK to do better and to take full advantage of the potential of nature-based solutions to help us to reach net zero. While we wait for more evidence, it should not stop us taking action; the precautionary principle must apply.

We heard that we do not have enough people with the appropriate skills and knowledge to do the science, design the programmes and put them into practice. Neither is there a plan in place to achieve the skilled workforce that we need in the numbers that we need when we need them.

We heard about many problems related to farming and land use. The various government land management schemes have been too late for farmers and land managers to plan for the future of their business, and there has too little information and help on eligibility for and accessibility to the schemes, too little advice for farmers and very serious issues for tenant farmers. We heard that, although there is growing interest in investing in natural assets and environment schemes, these need to be properly regulated, on the one hand, and give greater certainty to investors about returns on the other.

Finally, we heard that there is currently no effective plan to resolve the competing demands on land. Indeed, a recent report suggested that to honour all the demands on land, we would need double the land mass we have.

Let me look at some of our recommendations, the Government’s response and ask some questions. There are many players and organisations involved in this massive mission. Two of the key ones are Natural England and the Environment Agency. We recommended that, given the growing demand for their services to fulfil government policies, they need more funding. In response, the Government tell us that they have given an uplift of £1.4 million to Defra over three years—less than £500,000 per year. How much of that will go to those two agencies? They will need more funding as the need for mitigation rises due to the increased number of extreme weather events we are seeing. I refer particularly to flood risk.

We asked for a coherent plan for skills training. The Government established a task force whose work informed the net-zero strategy of October 2021. We are told that there is £40 million in the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, of which £10 million comes from the nature recovery fund and £30 million from Nature for Climate funding. There is also a £10 million in the Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund. All this has to be applied for and is allocated competitively. I have three questions for the Minister. How much of that will go into relevant skills training? How much of it is new money? How are all the recipients of these pots of money being co-ordinated to ensure that a coherent plan for skills is developed and delivered?

We also recommended that a direct and independent expert advisory service be created to assist farmers to apply for schemes, reduce their emissions, produce food more efficiently and sustainably, sequester more carbon in their soils and protect biodiversity. The answer was another fund. It is the Future Farming Resilience Fund of £9 million, and it goes to organisations that will give free advice to farmers and support their transition towards net zero. How will farmers themselves be involved in the design of this support? Have they been asked if they want the workshops which are to be funded? Given that all farms are different, would they not find one-to-one advice more useful, based on information about their particular land, soil and business plan? Although land sparing such as tree planting can sequester more carbon, there are many effective land-sharing approaches, such as silvopasture and hedge planting. When can we expect to see the results of the relevant research on these systems?

We also recommended that the Government should be clear about what companies must do to claim that they are net zero. There seems to be a lot of greenwashing about, but there must always be additionality. Some companies claim that they have reduced the emissions from how they produce their goods or deliver their services but are allowed to ignore what happens to those goods afterwards. I am thinking of plastic goods or fossil-fuel producers such as coal mines. Offsets cannot be a substitute for reducing emissions. When can we expect to see the strong framework of standards and rules for investment in ecosystem services promised in the Government’s response? When will we see flexibility for aggregating multiple projects and combining public and private funding?

Finally, two big things stand out for me. First, we recommended that the Government produce a land use strategy. I accept that that is very difficult, given the competing demands, but someone has to do it and I should like to know from the Minister who that will be and on what scientific and policy basis. Will the Government be implementing the recommendation of the Committee on Land Use in England to create a land use commission?

The other big thing was the issue of tenant farmers. So many witnesses outlined the barriers to tenants participating in schemes to reduce their emissions and increase biodiversity that we became very concerned about their role in reaching net zero. Rents are rising, as is the cost of inputs; the security of basic payments is being withdrawn with too little certainty about what is replacing them, and tenant farmers are being asked to deliver more for the environment without impacting food security.

Tenant farmers are a large and important part of the farming community, so the Government set up a working group, under our committee colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, to review the issues and make recommendations. I was surprised by some of the figures on the very first page of her report. Sixty-four per cent of the total farmable area in England is either wholly or partly rented, a very large part of the whole. Secondly, the average length of new farm business tenancies in 2021 was three years. With a tenancy as short as that, how does anyone expect a tenant to invest in the long-term health of his soil and the productivity and biodiversity of his land?

The noble Baroness, Lady Rock, unfortunately is unable to speak today. However, her report made many excellent recommendations about how government schemes should be designed to make them “tenant proof”, to involve tenant farmers and to enable both tenants and landowners to benefit from schemes designed to fulfil government’s environmental policies. Unless those things happen, participation will be poor, farmers will go out of business and government policies will not be achieved. Could the Minister outline the Government’s response to the Rock report? The noble Baroness asked for

“an open and collaborative approach between tenants and landlords”.

This exists in some places, but by no means all. What can the Government do to make schemes fair for all and encourage this collaborative approach?

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to contribute to this excellent debate about this extremely timely and important report. I join others in thanking the members of the Science and Technology Committee for their contributions today and for all the work that they have done over a significant time. I thank in particular the former chair, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, for her excellent introduction to the report.

Timing is everything in these debates, and it is particularly worth noting that this report is being debated in a week when Whitehall has seen a significant change in the arrangement of departments. We hope that separating energy policy and net zero from the former BEIS is a reflection of the Government’s recognition of the urgency, expressed so much today, of this agenda. I hope that the Minister will be able to indicate to us that that message around urgency has been heard and how it will translate into practice. What we need to hear is that the change will lead to more policy output, but Defra’s recent suite of environmental targets has given some of us the impression that the Government do not fully appreciate the urgency of the matters we are discussing today.

The contributions today have been striking, with the noble Baronesses, Lady Brown and Lady Sheehan, each coming in on this agenda. Of course, the discussion has focused inevitably on the areas of uncertainty. I pay tribute to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, and my noble friend Lady Warwick. There is little doubt that nature-based solutions are recognised as having an important role to play in the transition to a cleaner, greener future.

My noble friend Lady Warwick stressed, as have others, the importance of the skills agenda. In so many of the areas that I speak on, the skills shortages that this country is facing are reaching crisis point. In acknowledging the lack of skills in this area, I will pick a specific example. The Government recently announced the Forestry Training Fund, offering free training to those who want to move into the forestry industry. Of course we welcome the initiative, but where is the follow-up? Why has it taken so long for Ministers to bring it forward? How many people do the Government expect to come forward, and do they think that it will generate more interest than their failed Pick for Britain campaign of several years ago?

We have discussed the other major concern about land use, an area which the House explored at length during the passage of the Environment Bill, with the Government unfortunately resisting calls from my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone for the publication of a dedicated land use strategy. We will not scale up nature-based solutions without buy-in from the private sector, whether in the form of finance or delivery capacity. That is why, during the Lords stages of the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill, Labour supported an amendment to expand that legislation’s definition of infrastructure to include nature-based solutions. If the Government are so keen to ensure private sector involvement in important projects, why did they overturn that sensible amendment in the House of Commons?

Finally, the committee drew attention to the need for landowners and farmers to have certainty about future funding arrangements, including, as we have heard, through the Government’s ELMS. Could we ask again—I hope we will get a response to the Minister—how the Government aim to settle the important question from the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, about competing demands on land use? It is now several years since the Agriculture Act was passed and, although there have been announcements on ELMS in recent weeks, the process has been fraught with delays, miscommunications and other difficulties.

We have so much consensus in this area. The questions that we are all asking is why there is so much delay and why so much opportunity is being missed. We understand the need for research programmes. As we have highlighted today, the uncertainty is there, and more research and more funding are required to make sure that that takes place. We understand the need for extensive consultation when so many key players are involved, but the clock is ticking. Can I borrow the report’s excellent title and say that we need to turn rhetoric into reality?

My Lords, I declare my interests in farming and land management, as set out in the register. I take this opportunity to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, on securing this debate, and I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the points raised and to provide an update on the actions that have been taken since the publication of the Science and Technology Committee report. I agree at the outset with the noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, and other noble Lords about the urgency and extreme importance of tackling climate change.

As was acknowledged following the report’s publication in January 2022, the Government are grateful to the committee for the report and pleased that our ambitious plans for nature-based solutions have been recognised. Nature-based solutions are key to tackling climate change and averting its impacts. They deliver multiple benefits for climate, biodiversity, and people, and play a critical role in our plans to tackle the interrelated climate and biodiversity crises.

At the time of publication, the Government acknowledged the challenges and risks raised by the committee and set out the action being taken with our delivery partners to address these issues. Following the important announcements in this area since the publication of the report and in recent weeks, I welcome the opportunity to provide an update on the key themes raised in the report and in this debate.

First, I will provide an update on our overarching targets and progress being made. We have stretching nature-based targets that set out the Government’s strong ambition to protect and improve our landscapes. We are working tirelessly to ensure that our targets become a reality and that progress is being made.

Starting with forestry, the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, raised the need for more action in this area. We have full confidence that our targets are achievable and have increased tree planting and woodland creation in England from 2,700 hectares in 2021-22 to now investing £750 million through our Nature for Climate Fund, which will support England’s contribution to our UK-wide target of planting 30,000 hectares of new woodland annually from May 2024. Tree planting is a key priority in the environmental land management schemes, which I will provide more detail on shortly.

On support for nurseries, also raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, the Government committed in the England Trees Action Plan 2021 to 2024 to provide funding for UK public and private sector nurseries and seed suppliers and to set up the sector capacity project. In addition, £879,000 has been provided through the Tree Production Innovation Fund to encourage the adoption of innovative ways of working in the nursery sector. Last year, a new tree production capital grant opened for applications, providing capital support to nurseries and seed suppliers to modernise facilities and improve the quantity, quality, diversity and biosecurity of planting stock available for planting in England.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, raised the subject of tracking marine biodiversity. In English waters, we have established a network of marine protected areas across more than 35,000 square miles. We have just created a new statutory target for 70% of designated beaches in marine protected areas to be in a favourable condition by 2042, with the remainder in recovering condition and with an interim target of 48% of designated beaches to be in favourable condition by 31 January 2028, in line with the trajectory required to achieve the long-term target.

On peatland, we are delivering on our commitment to restore 280,000 hectares of peatland in England by 2050, which is supported by funds such as the Nature for Climate Peatland Grant Scheme and the new environmental land management schemes. Through the development of the peat restoration road map, to be published in 2024 by Natural England, we will be able to set out a trajectory for restoration over the next 20 years.

The noble Lord, Lord Patel, raised the subject of lowland peat used for agriculture. I thank him for highlighting this important issue of peatland restoration and, in particular, for highlighting the focus areas for the Government. In 2021, the lowland agricultural peat task force commenced working with stakeholders to deliver recommendations for a more sustainable future for lowland peatland in England. Its aim is to identify ways of extending the usable life of our agricultural peat soils to preserve the carbon stored in them and to ensure that profitable agriculture can continue for decades to come. The task force will report to government in the summer.

To meet our global climate target under the Paris agreement and our commitment to net zero, we need peatland restoration and opportunities for woodland expansion to happen without one compromising the other. Our commitments are reinforced in our recently published Environmental Improvement Plan 2023, which is delivery-focused and sets out the actions that will drive us towards reaching our long-term goals. It includes stretching interim targets to be achieved by the next review of the plan, driving progress towards our new long-term targets as required by the Environment Act 2021.

The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, raised the issue of skills and research and development. Of course, action to meet our headline targets must be underpinned by research and development and the necessary skills to deliver, issues which the committee report highlighted in detail.

The Government recognise the importance of investing in these areas. In the net-zero strategy we committed to £75 million on net zero-related research and development to inform our pathway to 2037. Defra is involved with many research and development projects to address evidence gaps and inform policy-making on agroforestry, lowland peat and hedgerow planting. Projects cover areas such as: understanding how climate stress will affect tree species in the future; the £5.6 million Paludiculture Exploration Fund, which looks at tackling barriers to developing that farming practice as commercially viable; and further modelling to estimate the potential benefits of hedgerow creation on carbon storage and sequestration.

A focus of the committee was on the need to build a stronger evidence base on blue carbon habitats in the UK, and a number of actions are being taken in this area. The UK’s recently published UK Net Zero Research and Innovation Framework identifies research needs on coastal wetland habitats to support improved greenhouse gas accounting and reporting as a priority. Research and development was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar.

On agroforestry, Defra is currently involved in several agroforestry research projects that are looking at different evidence gaps, including expanding agroforestry in an evidence review and gap analysis to fill in key evidence requirements. Furthermore, Farm Tree will develop decision-support tools for integrating trees on agricultural land and Agroforestry Futures will identify opportunities for, and barriers to, an expansion of agroforestry into peri-urban areas and rural parts of the UK. The Agroforestry Pollinator Plantations project aims to understand how climate stress will affect tree species and which tree and shrub species growing in the UK will be suitable for future climates.

In the England Trees Action Plan, we committed to an ambitious research and development programme which includes building more evidence for the reintroduction of woodland species such as the pine marten, supporting the development of innovative wood products and building the evidence base on how best to protect and enhance ancient woodlands.

Defra has committed £1.2 million from the net-zero research and development allocation over the spending review period to further build the blue carbon evidence base. My noble friend Lord Holmes and the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, asked about work on the seas. In 2022, we established the UK Blue Carbon Evidence Partnership, through which UK Administrations are working together with BEIS, as it was, and Defra to address key research questions related to blue carbon policy, advancing our commitment to protect and restore these habitats to support them as nature-based solutions. An initial aim of the partnership has been to set out key research questions related to blue carbon by producing an evidence needs statement, which will be published in spring 2023.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, raised the issue of bottom trawling, which can cause carbon dioxide to be released from sediments. However, the processes are complex and the impact of trawling on carbon dioxide remains uncertain. That is why Defra is actively progressing the evidence space to better understand the resilience and recovery of sea biodiversity stores in sediments in response to human practices and management interventions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, raised the issue of skills and growing the workforce. This will be essential to delivering on our targets. We are taking action across key sectors, such as scoping out options for a research project on peat-restoration sector capability. We continue to develop new educational routes and career opportunities around skills in the forestry sector. A new Forestry Commission development woodland officer apprenticeship has been launched jointly with the University of Cumbria and the Institute of Chartered Foresters. It is the first time a degree-level forestry apprenticeship has been offered in the UK. In addition, through the Forestry Commission, we are supporting the Forestry Skills Forum in refreshing its action plan for England, which will raise the profile of forestry careers among school leavers and career changers.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe and Lady Walmsley, asked about green jobs and job opportunities. Last May, the Government established the Green Jobs Delivery Group, bringing together Ministers from BEIS, Defra and the Department for Education with leaders from the green economy, skills sectors, academia and trade unions to ensure that the UK has the pipeline of people needed to deliver our climate and environment ambitions. The new Environmental Improvement Plan 2023 reaffirms our commitment to this continued joint working to address skills needs in priority sectors, including sustainable land use and nature.

Advancing our research and skills allows us to develop and deliver targeted policies to support our key sectors in taking collective action. We recently set out plans for the environmental land management schemes designed to support the nation’s farming sector to be profitable and resilient as it produces food sustainably while protecting nature and enhancing the environment. Key announcements to support our ambitious nature targets covered the following.

The first is accelerating the rollout of the Sustainable Farming Incentive, with six new sets of paid actions for 2023, adding to the three already in place. This will provide farmers with a range of paid actions to manage hedgerows for wildlife, plant nectar-rich wildflowers and manage crop pests without the use of insecticides. The SFI application window is continuously open, and applications continue to be received. This point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge. It has always been the intention to add more elements to SFI as funding is released from BPS reductions.

Secondly, expanding our popular Countryside Stewardship Scheme to reward farmers for action to support climate and nature will see around 30 additional actions available to farmers by the end of 2024.

Thirdly and lastly, applications for further rounds of the landscape recovery scheme will open in spring and in 2024. Round 2 will focus on net zero, protected sites and habitat creation, including landscape-scale projects creating and enhancing woodland, peatland, nature reserves and protected sites such as ancient woodlands, wetlands and salt marshes.

My noble friend Lord Roborough raised the issue of tax around assets focused on natural capital rather than agriculture or forestry. HMRC and Defra are considering the evidence that inheritance tax might be a potential barrier to the conversion of land from agricultural to environmental use in some situations. HRMC recently updated its IHT manual to help clarify the position, and further updates will follow in due course. Analysis, including discussions with external stakeholders, is taking place, and the Government are looking carefully at what changes may be required.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised the issue of landowner engagement. Agroforestry is an innovative practice that has a significant role to play in achieving the Government’s commitment to increased tree planting across the UK. Therefore, Defra is introducing agroforestry as part of ELMS; it will play a key role in increasing tree cover on farms. Agroforestry can provide a source of income to the farmer from both the marketable agricultural enterprise and forestry-generated products. This diversity will help reduce the risks from fluctuating agricultural markets and help stimulate and build resilience into the rural economy, without compromising the ability to produce food.

We know we will need to continue to develop our schemes, based on the learnings from our pilots, tests and trials and early rollouts. We will work with stakeholders across the whole sector to achieve this. There are many benefits to delivering nature-based solutions and they play a key role in our efforts to adapt to climate change. Defra is working across government to develop a third national adaptation programme for publication in 2023. This will include key actions for restoring nature and enhancing its ability to adapt to climate change risks, as well as maximising the benefits for communities.

As emphasised in the committee report, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, finance is a key enabler for meeting our climate targets. Nature-based projects need to be financially attractive to landowners and investors. The noble Baronesses, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe and Lady Walmsley, both raised the subject of investment. The Government have committed to maintain the farming budget for England at £2.4 billion per year throughout this Parliament, and I have outlined how we are repurposing funding for farmers and land managers as part of the agricultural transition.

We are already seeing progress. Currently, there are around 40,000 agreements in our countryside and environmental schemes, covering about 34% of agricultural land. There are 94% more countryside stewardship agreements now than in January 2020. By 2028 we plan to increase the number of agreements to at least 70,000 in our environmental land management schemes, covering 70% of farmed land and 70% of all farms, so that farmers and land managers can collectively deliver our ambitious targets for the environment, climate and food production. We are committed to being transparent about the budget and how it will be spent. We included in the Agriculture Act a requirement for government to publish an annual report about the budget, and we did this for the first time in 2022.

Alongside publicly funded schemes, the Government have set a target to raise at least £500 million in private finance to support nature’s recovery every year by 2027 in England, rising to more than £1 billion per year in 2030. To set the conditions to achieve this, we are taking a number of actions, including supporting the development of nature projects that can attract private capital through our £10 million Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund and accelerating the natural capital investment market by investing £30 million in a new, blended finance vehicle for nature: the Big Nature Impact Fund.

We continue supporting the Woodland Carbon Code and the Peatland Code to encourage private investment, with registrations continuing to increase. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Roborough for his recognition of these as world-leading certification standards.

Both my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, highlighted the importance of strong governance and standards in the current markets for nature-based solutions. The UK has championed initiatives to strengthen and scale up high-integrity voluntary carbon markets, including under our COP 26 presidency.

The noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, raised the issue of high integrity in carbon markets. We have launched multi-stakeholder initiatives such the Integrity Council on Voluntary Carbon Markets, and the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative, to establish the very highest standards.

We are developing plans to put in place a comprehensive suite of domestic standards for nature markets to provide assurances of high integrity, create confidence in the market and allow investment to flow at scale into a much wider range of ecosystem services and habitats. We will ensure that, as we develop new domestic standards, we draw on relevant international best practice.

Several noble Lords raised competing demands on land. It is vital that we make the most productive use of our land and strike the right balance between the many priorities that place a demand on land, including food security, sustainable development, action on climate mitigation and adaptation, and promoting nature’s recovery. The noble Baronesses, Lady Brown, Lady Walmsley and Lady Blake, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and my noble friend Lord Holmes all mentioned the need for a clear land use strategy, as did the committee’s report. The Government recognise the importance of this and of managing these trade-offs, and we have therefore committed to publishing a land use framework in 2023 to bring greater alignment in policies affecting land.

I thank all noble Lords here for taking part in this crucial debate and for raising many important points that I will take back to Defra and colleagues across Whitehall. I will look at Hansard and write to noble Lords to follow up on any questions that I have been unable to answer. The Government have committed to leaving the environment in a better place than we found it. There is no doubt that nature-based solutions play a vital part in achieving our ambitions, and, although we recognise that there is work to do, we are confident that we have a strong foundation to build on. With our recent announcements and ongoing commitment to action, we will continue working with key stakeholders in the sector and our delivery partners to deploy nature-based solutions to improve our natural environment and support the climate agenda.

I thank the Minister for his extensive response. I was pleased that he mentioned a lot of numbers and actions, and I too will study Hansard carefully—I will take them away and think about them further. At the moment, however, I fear I am still not convinced that they add up to an integrated solution to this issue.

I too thank all who have spoken in this debate—I will not repeat what noble Lords said so eloquently. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Worthington and Lady Bennett, for reminding us of what I will call the “zeroth” law of nature-based solutions, which is that they cannot be used as an excuse for not decarbonising rapidly. In that vein, the first law is that nature-based solutions are critical for achieving net zero for our residual emissions, as the noble Baroness, Lady Worthington, reminded us. The second law is that more research and training are needed. The third is that they will not work without robust monitoring and verification. The fourth is that this is not just a Defra issue; it needs the cross-government approach that the Minister mentioned. The fifth is that we must establish robust ways to fund them and we must have offsets that we can trust. The sixth is that our farmers are critical and need our help.

I hope that, as a result of today’s debate, the Government will reflect further—I think I heard the Minister say this, which pleased me—on whether the scale and pace of their current and proposed actions add up to a solution to the challenge of effective implementation and use of nature-based solutions in helping us reach net zero.

Motion agreed.