As a lifelong environmentalist I long for the day our national conversation moves beyond Brexit, so that we can shift our focus to critical priorities like protecting our natural environment and tackling climate change.
Given the sheer scale of the crisis we face, I would never pretend any government in the world is doing enough to tackle it, but despite the political paralysis, I am proud of the leadership the Conservative Party has shown on these issues.
We were the first major industrial nation to make a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We generate more electricity from offshore wind than any other country, we are committed to phasing out unabated coal by 2025, and have cut our emissions faster than any G20 country. In the past decade, we have seen £92bn invested in renewable energy. And all this while growing our economy and creating half a million jobs in the low carbon sector.
And we are continuing to invest. We have committed £1.8bn to support high-energy intensive industry to go low carbon, to expand the electric vehicle-charging network and to establish carbon capture and storage clusters.
But technology is only one part of the solution. There is no path to the necessary emissions reductions that does not involve massive support for protecting and restoring forests. Despite this, less than 3 per cent of global climate funding goes towards nature-based solutions. It makes no sense.
That is why this week we announced plans to treble tree-planting rates in the UK to 30,000 hectares per year (roughly 30m more trees a year) and restore our natural peatlands, turning them into areas that absorb carbon rather than produce it.
We are designing a new system of land subsidies, away from the disastrous Common Agriculture Policy which has incentivised environmental devastation, towards a system of payments that are absolutely conditional upon good environmental stewardship. And our new world-leading Environment Bill will legally commit successive governments to leave the environment in a better state.
Together these measures will help turn the tide on the drastic biodiversity loss we have seen in the UK over recent decades.
But it’s not just in the UK that we are standing up for nature. We are providing world leadership.
Just a few months ago we saw the results of the most comprehensive assessment yet of the state of nature. It told us that a million species are facing extinction. In my lifetime – the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms – populations of animals, on average, have more than halved.
Global environmental destruction is a tragedy in and of itself, but it is also a human tragedy. A billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods, but every minute we are losing an area the size of 30 football pitches. A billion people depend on fish as their main source of food, but nearly a third of all fisheries are gone or are on the brink.
So I was proud that we announced at the recent UN climate summit that we will double our climate funding to £11.6bn, and crucially that much of the increase will be spent on natural solutions to climate change, like forests and mangroves.
We are also doing more to protect the world’s oceans than perhaps any other country, and we will do more. The prime minister urged world leaders at the summit to back our call to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030, and he committed to expanding our extraordinary blue belt network of marine protected areas (already the size of India).
We will invest in Seagrass meadows that capture CO2 35 times more efficiently than tropical rainforests, and mangroves which protect against flooding erosion at a fifth of the cost of conventional infrastructure.
And we will step up our efforts to stop the scourge of plastic pollution of our oceans, which is accelerating to such an extent that by 2050 they will contain more plastic than fish. At home, our Environment Bill will tackle single use plastics and shift the emphasis towards producer responsibility. Designing waste out of the economy is far more effective than cleaning up the mess it creates.
At the UN Summit, I launched a new government campaign to persuade other food producing nations to change the way they subsidise land use. Between them, they spend around £700bn on these subsidies each year, often incentivising environmentally destructive activities. If like us, they shifted their system to make subsidies conditional upon good environmental stewardship, the effect would be transformational.
In just a few months, we have done so much to address this epoch defining challenge. However, we will do so much more if we can break the gridlock in parliament. That is why I am campaigning so hard for a Conservative majority.
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