Notes from the Environmental Audit Committee Meeting 23/07

Notes from the Environmental Audit Committee Meeting 23/07

On Tuesday 23rd July, Rt Hon Lord Deben, John Gummer, former Secretary of State for the Environment and now Chair of the Committee on Climate Change, and Tony Juniper CBE Chair of Natural England, provided evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, chaired by Mary Creagh MP. 

Committee hearings, which are cross-party and open to observation by the general public, aim to interrogate and scrutinise the role of and work carried out by leading corporations and individuals within the given sector, in order to hold them to account for their actions (or occasionally, lack of).

Lord Deben chairs the Committee on Climate Change, which is an independent non-departmental public body, formed under the Climate Change Act (2008) to advise the United Kingdom and devolved Governments and Parliaments on tackling and preparing for climate change. 

Tony Juniper chairs Natural England, a non-departmental public body in the United Kingdom sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. 

Both the Committee on Climate Change and National England are advisory bodies, therefore despite pursuing and publishing their own research, their strategic advice is non-binding. 

Rt Hon Lord Deben, John Gummer, opened the meeting by reiterating his distaste at the current Government’s ‘ramshackle, Dad’s Army’ approach to the issue of climate change, arguing that they are failing to sufficiently plan or adapt to the impending consequences of climate change, such as flooding to elderly people’s homes, or droughts. 

The meeting focused largely on the Committee on Climate Change’s recent report - ‘Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’. The publication concluded with three key recommendations; for the UK to achieve net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050, for Scotland to achieve this by 2045 (reflecting their greater relative capacity to remove emissions than the UK), and for Wales to strive towards a 95% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050. 

When asked how these targets should best be achieved, Gummer insisted that it was imperative for governmental departments to unite, to share goals and resources in order to combat climate change which will eventually affect allsectors. Whereas the environment is currently viewed as the exclusive responsibility of DEFRA or BEIS, all governmental departments should form and follow individually tailored environmental programmes in order to contribute to preventing climate change. In order to assess their efforts, Gummer announced that there would be a report in the upcoming year measuring the success or failure of the independent departments. 

Juniper also enlightened listeners on alternative solutions to achieve net-zero. Juniper spoke about natural areas of ‘carbon compensation’ such as Peaklands, Woodlands and Coastal Ecosystems which are utilised in order to compensate and take in any greenhouses created. In order to ensure that these areas are achieving their optimum capacity for carbon compensation, Juniper urged the need to invest in their restoration. 

In order to display the importance of coastal ecosystems, Juniper added that 1 hectare of salt marsh (found in coastal ecosystems) can hold more carbon than 1 hectare of tropical rainforest.

The over fertilisation and failure to sufficiently care for natural sites has not only hindered the minimisation of carbon, but has also had negative effects on the nutrients within the soil. Gummer stated that due to the declining biodiversity of soil, that “your 5-a-day today won’t be as nutritiously beneficial as it was ten years ago”

However as mentioned by Dr Matthew Offord MP of the Environmental Audit Committee, currently 47% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), those which can be utilised by environmentalists in the plight against climate change, have been left unreviewed in last six years. With only 39% of the reviewed SSSI’s being in ‘favourable condition’. Therefore overall, in total only 20.67% of possible SSSI’s are reviewed and sufficiently favourable for carbon compensation.

Lord Deben and Juniper continued, discussing how ‘net zero’ should also be achieved by changes to housing infrastructure. Referring to the Committee on Climate Change’s publication ‘UK housing: Fit for the future?’, Lord Deben explained how the Committee had recommended a current target for all new builds to be ‘passive houses’ (those which have almost no demand for energy and are not connected to the gas grid) by 2025. However Lord Deben highlighted a flaw in this recommendation, as housing associations are not willing to invest in efforts to making ‘passive houses’ as they personally will not benefit financially, with energy and economic savings being made by future tenants. 

The evidence session concluded with Juniper highlighting further hindrances to achieving ‘net zero’, due to the relentless declining investment and funding which DEFRA has endured over recent governmental budgets. In 2008, DEFRA received a generous £3.1 billion, but funding has since been slashed repeatedly. In the year 2017-18 the department only received £1.6 billion, however there is a further reduction to £1.5 billion for the next two years, meaning the DEFRA budget is now currently less than 1% of the overall government budget. 

This has resulted in a £40million gap between the current budget, and what is actually needed in order to comprehensively implement measures to halt or reverse climate change. In order to implement the government’s 25 year Environmental Plan, Juniper estimated they would require an extra £100-300 million.

For Natural England - sponsored by DEFRA - insiders say that their grant-in-aid has been cut by 47% over the last five years. This relentless reduction of funds has resulted in; a reduction in staff expertise, a reduced capacity to work with NGOs due to less funds to offer grants, a reduction in staff numbers, having to combine areas of expertise, being hugely under-resourced and increased numbers of staff suffering from mental health issues. 

Despite cross-party politicians demanding a Climate Emergency, 71% of the British public stating that environmental wellbeing is more of a pressing issue than Brexit and green activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion rapidly increasing their support base, it became evident from the Environmental Audit Committee hearing that environmentalists and governmental institutions continue to endure immense pressure by being squeezed financially, and are ultimately failing to be treated as a government priority. 

Despite a plethora of impassioned individuals leading the fight against environmental degradation, such as Gummer and Juniper, without sufficient funding their environmental goals and endeavours will struggle to achieve full fruition.

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