Last night, the Environment Bill passed through its remaining stages in the House of Commons.
Labour abstained at Second Reading because whilst we accepted the need for a strong and comprehensive Environment Bill, we could not support a Bill that does so little of what is needed.
The Government’s rhetoric on the environment falls a long way short of what this Bill will actually achieve. It replaces the EU’s comprehensive framework of environmental protections with four simple long-term targets which the Secretary of State has near complete discretion to change at any time.
The Government is doing all it can to resist concrete protections leaving our environment as a bargaining chip for new trade agreements that would undercut Britain’s environmental standards.
The Government is ducking its responsibilities by ensuring that any legally binding targets will not bite for nearly two decades.
At committee stage, Labour proposed a range of amendments to protect and enhance the powers of the Office for Environmental Protection, write World Health Organisation air pollution limits into the Bill and highlight the need for comprehensive action on waste and recycling. All these amendments were defeated by the Government.
Labour’s amendments included WHO air pollution limits, strengthening chemical regulation and protecting bees from the reintroduction of banned pesticides. All these amendments were voted down by the Tories.
The Environmental Audit Committee called the draft Bill a “missed opportunity for taking a holistic approach to environment and climate change, placing them at the heart of Government policy”, and I agree with them.
The Bill now includes some welcome concessions in response to our concerns with the previous draft Bill (especially including climate change in the OEP remit), but still has several important weaknesses, already highlighted by green NGOs. The Government has also latterly committed to bring forward a ‘species abundance’ target aiming to halt the decline of nature by 2030 – but this amendment will not be brought forward until the Bill is in the Lords.
Yesterday, we proposed several amendments to the bill, but all were voted down by the Tories. These were:
• New Clause 25 – this amendment would require the Government to publish a tree strategy for England. Increasing woodland coverage is vital for the UK to meet its commitments on climate change and biodiversity.
The Government’s recent England Trees Action Plan (which is not the full long term strategy they committed to) sets targets for tree planting but contains little to protect and maintain new, and restore existing, woodlands. The amendment would ensure the Government produces a full strategy including targets for these areas.
• Amendment 46 – this amendment would ensure that Species Conservation Strategies contribute to nature recovery, and that SCS measures contribute to the enhancement of the conservation of the species which they concern. This could for instance ensure that effective strategies are put in place to restore bees and other pollinator species populations and protect them from pesticide use.
• Amendment 22 – this amendment would require habitats secured under biodiversity gain to be maintained in perpetuity, rather than the 30 years currently specified in the Bill. It would also ensure that the habitat secured under biodiversity gain should be secured in its target condition.
• New Clause 12 – this new clause would revoke current fracking licences and prevent the Oil and Gas Authority from being able to provide future licences for hydraulic fracturing, exploration or acidification.
• New Clause 24 – this amendment aims to prohibit burning heather on all upland peat. Degraded peatlands in England emit approximately 10 million tonnes of CO2 p/year and restoring them will be vital to meeting our net zero obligations. One cause of the deterioration is heather burning, a practice used by gamekeepers for creating ideal habitats for grouse that damages the underlying peat. The Government’s recent SI only covers protected areas and not all blanket bog, covering only 142,000 hectares (ha) of the total 355,000 ha of peatland (40%). The amendment ensures all 355,000 ha are covered.
Labour Climate Working Group Launched
Labour have launched a ‘just transition’ working group with unions, industry leaders and members of the climate movement to ensure fairness is at the heart of the party’s approach to decarbonisation.
The initiative’s aim is to provide a forum for dialogue with workers and trade unions, non-governmental organisations, business and industry leaders as well as communities on the process of decarbonising the economy.
Membership of the just group includes shadow ministers Pennycook and Alan Whitehead, representatives from Unite, GMB, UNISON, Prospect and Community, as well as from Green New Deal UK and the New Economics Foundation.
The group will consider the practical, feasible, affordable and fair policy responses required with a focus on what transition means for individual sectors such as oil and gas, steel, offshore wind, hydrogen, heat and buildings, and agriculture.