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Pandemics and Environmental Degradation

Volume 810: debated on Wednesday 24 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the relationship between the emergence of pandemics and environmental degradation.

My Lords, my department has not made an independent assessment of the relationship between the emergence of pandemics and environmental degradation. However, Defra has been fully engaged in the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services work, including the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which highlighted the links between exploitation of nature and emergence of infectious diseases, and the subsequent IPBES workshop report on biodiversity and pandemics, which was published last year.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. This pandemic is a stark example of exactly what those pieces of research have found: what happens when nature is abused, whether through habitat destruction or the wildlife trade, can wreak stark things for humans. I know that the Minister, through his work with the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, is aware that evaluation and disclosure by corporates and the investment sector is very important, but does he agree that subsequent action is even more important? What lessons would he draw from all the work on carbon issues, so that we move from high carbon emissions to much lower carbon emissions and an ambition for net—

My Lords, there is no doubt that increased risk of pandemics is just one of the many reasons why continued destruction of the natural world is so short-sighted and damaging to our long-term interests. Ecosystem degradation and habitat disruption can dislodge pathogens; it can also bring wildlife into closer contact with humans and livestock; and climate change can lead to shifts in wildlife vector ranges and is likely to increase the risk of future pandemics by driving the mass movement of people and wildlife. This is a priority issue for the UK Government.

My Lords, this degradation is driven by pressure on resources, which is of course caused by demand and increasing consumption, with poorer countries understandably wanting to raise living standards to those of more prosperous countries. The elephant in this particular room is, of course, population growth. When I was born, the world’s population was approximately 2.5 billion; it is now three times that; and, by 2050, by which time I fear I may be dead, it will be four times that. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s policy to raise that issue internationally, to raise awareness and get action on overpopulation of the planet?

My Lords, whatever action is taken, it is likely that the global population will be in the region of 10 billion within a generation, so it is incumbent on us to find ways to work and live within nature’s limits. Through the upcoming Convention on Biological Diversity and the climate COP, which we are hosting, we are pressing for really ambitious targets on biodiversity and nature, mechanisms to hold Governments to account, finance for nature, and commitments to tackle the drivers of environmental destruction. We are also using our presidency of the G7 to help drive more activity in pandemic preparedness. The UK is at the forefront of this debate and is a world leader in tackling nature and climate change.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, on this Question: it is one of the most interesting I have heard recently. When will we break out of the idea that the environment is a cul-de-sac, something that we can take or leave? When will we lead in this country and spread the idea of the importance of the environment across every section of society—to the woman on the third floor of a block of council flats in Hackney, all that? I feel that we are always dealing with the very small amount of people who are very interested in it, and the vast majority do not give a toss.

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an extremely important point. I agree with him; the environment is not a niche concern. Everything we have, everything we are, everything we do comes from the natural world. As we destroy the natural world, ultimately we destroy ourselves. That seems an obvious thing to say but, unfortunately, it still needs to be said. A recognition of that fact runs through all departments of the UK Government. This is, as I said, a top international and domestic priority for us.

My Lords, we are increasingly reminded of the link between animal diseases and human health. Currently, I think of bird flu in Russia and a question over the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic itself. Do the Government intend to raise this very real problem at the COP 26 meeting under their presidency this November?

I can absolutely provide that reassurance—not just through the COP 26, which we are hosting, but via the biodiversity convention and the G7. The noble Lord makes an important point: 60% of infectious diseases are caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites that are transmitted between humans and animals. Numerous reports confirm the link between environmental degradation and the emergence of zoonotic pathogens—Hendra virus in Australia, Nipah virus, Ebola, Zika, yellow fever, Dengue, SARS, MERS, Covid-19 and many others besides—so this is a crucial issue.

My Lords, the Dasgupta review cautions that the Covid-19 pandemic may be just the tip of the iceberg if we continue to encroach on natural habitats. The Minister obviously agrees. Does he also agree with Professor Dasgupta that citizens must be empowered to make informed choices and demand change? One way to do that is to establish a natural world in education policy.

The natural world and climate change should certainly be a thread that runs through the educational curriculum, and I think increasingly it is. That is my experience from talking in numerous schools around the country, where climate change and the environment are the first issues that young people want to raise. The noble Baroness is right: Covid-19 has highlighted that link between biodiversity loss and human health. It is a stark reminder, but the terrible consequences of this pandemic are nothing compared to the consequences we can expect if we continue to degrade the natural world and destabilise the world’s climate.

My Lords, much of the spillover of viruses from animals to humans globally has been linked to intensive meat production, driven of course by human population growth and urbanisation. Can the Minister assure the House that we will apply these lessons to UK agricultural reforms by not incentivising the expansion of intensive livestock management in the UK?

There is no doubt that there is a very clear link between industrialised agriculture—factory farming, if you like—and the emergent risk of pathogens. This is very high on the agenda. Linked to that is the risk of misuse of antibiotics in agriculture to keep animals alive in conditions that are so squalid that they would not otherwise be able to survive. Our new land use subsidy system that replaces CAP will incentivise ecologically sensitive farming and farming that is in the interests of, and aligns with, human health concerns.

My noble friend will be aware that China has been reforesting rather than deforesting in the last decade and that the animals in the Wuhan wildlife market tested negative. At the moment, the only known connection between wild viruses that are closely related to SARS-CoV-2 and Wuhan is the collection of nine bat viruses taken by scientists from a mineshaft in Mojiang county to Wuhan—a distance greater than that from London to Budapest. Does my noble friend share the US National Security Advisor’s deep concern that the World Health Organization was premature in ruling out a laboratory leak and endorsing an unsupported claim by the Chinese Government that the virus came to Wuhan on frozen fish or meat?

There is no doubt in my mind that every stone needs to be overturned and every avenue explored before we reach firm conclusions—and that has not yet happened. I share many of the concerns raised by the noble Lord. However, in relation to his first point, wildlife markets have, nevertheless, been implicated in numerous outbreaks of zoonotic viral and bacterial infections, including SARS, MERS, avian influenza and swine flu. So that link is established and, irrespective of the broader concerns, it must be explored.

My Lords, as the Minister said, it is now accepted that many new diseases have emerged due to environmental degradation and animal populations under severe pressure—not only coronavirus, including SARS, but Zika, AIDS and Ebola. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to meet the goals of the 2021 to 2030 UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration and how is destroying 108 ancient woodlands to build HS2 compatible with that?

My Lords, the United Kingdom has played a leading role internationally in raising the profile and the importance of tackling nature loss. We co-drafted the unprecedented Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, which has now been signed by 80 countries. We run the Global Ocean Alliance and are co-leading the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, calling for 30% of the world’s land and ocean to be protected by the end of this decade. Through our presidency of the COP we have put nature at the heart of the global response to climate change. I do not think that any country in the world is doing more heavy lifting or more generally to push the need to reverse nature degradation to the very forefront of the global agenda.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We now come to the third Oral Question and I call the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw.