Lords 'make history' as government defeated in Environment Bill debate

Amendments to declare a biodiversity and climate emergency and to adopt new targets on soil health and air quality have passed in the Lords – despite government opposition.

The amendments passed - despite government Photograph: Nuwan/Getty Images

First to speak during a session of the bill’s report stage yesterday was Lord Teverson, the chair of the now-defunct Lords’ EU Environment Sub-committee. He expounded on what he thought should be at the head of the Environment Bill: a requirement for the government to make a formal declaration of biodiversity and climate emergency, both domestic and globally, to draw all its themes together.

He said that UN secretary general António Guterres’ description of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report as a “code red for humanity”, “is an absolutely accurate declaration to my mind”. He reminded peers of what had happened since the last debate: devastating forest fires in California, Canada and Siberia, deadly flooding, the Dasgupta review on biodiversity and the looming COP26 talks in Glasgow.

“We want this to be a landmark bill; in fact, the government declares this to be very much a landmark Bill, and we all want it to be so. But what I find difficult is that it is not yet that,” he told the chamber.

Environment minister Lord Goldsmith replied that the government fully recognises “the seriousness of both climate change and biodiversity loss, which… must be addressed in tandem if we are to protect the planet. There is no credible pathway to net zero that does not involve the protection and restoration of nature on an unprecedented scale”.

But he did little to convince the house – convened entirely in person, rather than fully or partially online – despite calling for a vote amendment.

“My Lords, in all my time in this house, this is the first time that I have got to a point where the minister is calling for a division on an amendment that he does not agree with. We have perhaps made history this afternoon,” noted Teverson.

The amendment was approved by 209 votes to 179.

It was not the government’s only defeat yesterday.

Baroness Sue Hayman – Labour’s environment spokesperson in the Lord’s – went on to call a vote on her air quality amendment. It makes a direct instruction for the government to adopt a target on fine particulate (PM2.5) pollution that is “less than or equal to” the WHO’s guideline level of ten micrograms per cubic metre as an annual mean, “with an attainment deadline of 2030 at the latest”.

Although repeatedly mentioning the guideline in papers such as the Clean Air Strategy, the government has also repeatedly avoided a firm commitment to adopting it.

Hayman’s speech drew on the sad story of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, mentioning that a report for the government had confirmed that attainment of the target was technically feasible, and the links between air pollution and the spread of Covid-19.

Goldsmith replied: “We are still working to understand the full mix of policies and measures that would be required to meet the WHO guideline… but we know that a range of restrictions on activities are likely to be needed in urban areas to meet any ambitious target. Meeting 10 micrograms would likely require policies, as I said in previous debates, including reducing traffic kilometres across our cities by as much as 50% and total ban on solid fuel burning.”

But his words failed to move the chamber, which voted to approve Hayman’s amendment by 181 votes to 159.

Environmental law group ClientEarth described the outcome as a rebuke to the government. Its air quality lawyer Katie Nield said: “Fine particulate matter is one of the most harmful pollutants there is – even at very low concentrations. The government has so far refused to commit to setting legal limits for this pollutant in line with World Health Organization recommendations, despite broad agreement from health experts, parliamentarians across all parties, local leaders and the general public that this is essential to protect people’s health.”

Nield added: “For the amendment to be included in the final version of the Bill and make it on to our statute books, the government really has to take responsibility and show leadership on this public health emergency.”   

There was only one more vote called yesterday evening, on former Labour Party chair Baroness Maggie Jones’ amendment concerning targets to reduce plastic pollution and the volume of single-use products in general. She said that the current target, set in the Resources and Waste Strategy, “is simply not bold enough” and that there is “huge frustration that the government are not being tougher on this issue”.

This time, the minister was more persuasive, condemning “the foam used to protect televisions, sachets and all the rest of it. I hope that we will be able to go much further than we currently have.” He added that the government’s view was, “that publishing a separate plastics strategy and setting a plastics target in isolation from the wider waste agenda risks detracting from the action that we are taking now to achieve our overarching circular economy ambitions”.

Jones’ amendment fell by 81 votes to 107.

The government received a third defeat over setting a target for soil health following debate on an amendment introduced by Green peer Natalie Bennett 

“In recent decades we have come to realise, in a way we had not before, that soils are complex ecosystems in their own right. The health element of this amendment very much addresses that biology aspect, whereas the ‘quality’ element speaks more specifically to the chemical and physical composition of the soil,” she said.

Lord Deben added that, “soil is crucial because it is getting far less useful—if we only want to look at it from a utilitarian point of view. The second reason is because we need it to be better able to sequester. That means we really have to bring the soil back to the kind of strength that it had before the war.”

But Goldsmith responded that, “without the reliable metrics needed to set a target, and then measure its progress, we could be committing to doing something that ultimately we cannot deliver or might not even know whether we have delivered it. We therefore cannot commit to set a soil target in the bill”.

Other amendments, including on light pollution and on species abundance targets, were either not moved or were withdrawn for lack of time. Debate will recommence tomorrow afternoon.