Environment Bill is for the UK’s future, not just COP26
The Lords must act to strengthen further an Environment Bill written in 2019 that never was, and certainly in 2021, is not fit for purpose without further amendment.
We learnt from the Sunday Telegraph yesterday that the government is, or is thinking about - hard to say since the headline and story are contradictory - not taking the Environment Bill through all of its parliamentary stages before the COP26 climate talks start in November.
The man in the hot seat, Alok Sharma, faces “embarrassment” if an Environment Act is not in place, claiming the problem is that the House of Lords has passed too many amendments to it: that’s seven amendments in total, so far, with only half of the allocated days for consideration of the Bill completed.
They are declaring a climate and nature emergency, making soils a priority area for action with water and air, strengthening air quality targets, making interim environmental targets statutory (an amendment moved by a crossbench member of the independent Climate Change Committee), making the armed forces and Treasury subject to environmental principles, ensuring the office for Environmental Protection is independent, and ensuring the government is subject to its own laws.
Not much in the way of “embarrassment” there for a nation and talks chair seeking to be “world-leading”. Indeed, you’d think these changes would strengthen the hand of a government that tells us it understands that the crises in biodiversity and climate are closely interlinked.
Trying to rush a bad Environment Bill through for COP would be disastrous
But the Telegraph story says that the government plans to refuse to accept all of those amendments when the Bill returns to the Commons. That will set up a potential period of “ping pong”, taking proceedings past the start of COP26.
Of course, there could be an alternative approach: the government could accept the Lords amendments. That would be quick and easy. That would mean, by any objective measure, strengthening the Bill, strengthening our environmental action, and so strengthening the hand of Alok Sharma as talks chair.
But perhaps the Telegraph story isn’t really an account of the government’s plan, rather a shot across the bows of the House of Lords, an attempt to ensure that it doesn’t pass more amendments, or at least many more amendments. That exposes the story as an attempt not to address the position of Mr Sharma, but rather the embarrassment of the government itself, exposed for the utter inadequacy of the Bill.
For there are many more amendments scheduled for today and Wednesday that are highly likely to be put to the vote and pass. Ranking top - the subject of more lobbying emails than I’ve ever seen for a single amendment before - is that proposed by the Duke of Wellington (hardly a radical green figure), calling for action to address the 400,000 unauthorised discharges of sewage in England in 2020.
There’s also two amendments on pesticide use, powers for local authorities to act on air pollution, protection for the rare and hugely valuable habitat of chalk streams, ensuring that “biodiversity gain” from development is long-lasting, protection for Habitats Directives, protection for our precious ancient woodlands, backing a tree strategy and agroforestry, demanding a statutory national food strategy, and backing moves towards the creation of an international crime of ecocide.
And it is really worth stressing that the Environment Bill is not about COP26. It is to be the law of the land, the legal framework that should start to clean up our filthy air and water, restore our soils and wildlife populations, create a healthy, truly prosperous nation. The effects will be long term. Trying to rush a bad bill through for COP would be disastrous.
So fellow Green peer Jenny Jones and I will be making the case in the House that members must not be swayed by a speculative article in a Sunday newspaper. That it must act to strengthen further an Environment Bill written in 2019 that never was, and certainly in 2021, is not fit for purpose without further amendment.
Baroness Bennett is a Green Party peer.
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