Kerry McCarthy Labour MP for Bristol East
Loopholes in the Environment Bill must be closed if the UK is to take responsibility for its global footprint. Kerry writes for Business Green, 11 September 2020.
The climate and nature emergency is a truly global crisis. While we focus on reducing emissions at home – which are calculated according to what we produce, not what we consume – it can be easy to forget the contribution we make to environmental destruction overseas.
One of the most devastating aspects of our overseas footprint is UK investment and trade linked to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. This week, after growing pressure from environmental groups, the government finally announced a consultation on deforestation in UK supply chains. I welcome this as a first step, but looking at the detail of the proposals I fear this may be too little too late.
This year the Amazon is suffering the worst start to the fire season in a decade, threatening a vital carbon sink and the home to around one in 10 species.
Twenty per cent of the Amazon has already been lost to deforestation, with the land used for intensive crop-growing and livestock farming. Losing another five per cent would push the ecosystem past a disastrous tipping point from which there is no return. Without a functioning Amazon, which is home to so many species and acts as the lungs of the Earth, we will lose the global fight against the climate and nature crisis. The stakes could not be higher.
Although images of burning rainforests may feel distant, the uncomfortable reality is that habitat destruction like this is driven partly by UK consumption. A recent WWF and RSPB report found that between 2016 and 2018, an area of 21.3 million hectares of land was required to supply UK demand for just seven commodities; including beef, cocoa, soy and paper. That is equivalent to 88 per cent of the UK’s total land area.
This destruction is hidden in plain sight. It is in shampoo containing palm-oil, in the soy we use for livestock feed, and in meat purchased from Tesco. These everyday items can all be traced back to deforestation around the globe and yet they continue to permeate UK supply chains.
The most effective tool we have to prevent our contribution to habitat destruction is legislation. However, the consultation launched by the government on its proposed due diligence law demonstrates a severe lack of an ambition on the issue.
The proposal is for an obligation on UK firms to reduce deforestation based on legality in the producer country. In other words, unsustainable forest commodities linked to devastating habitat destruction could still be imported to and sold in the UK so long as their production was not technically illegal. At a time when legal protections against deforestation are being slashed in Brazil, it’s clear this will simply not go far enough to address the problem. Worse yet, this obligation only applies to the largest firms, meaning small and medium-sized businesses will still be able to import goods linked to illegal deforestation.
Rather than launch a lengthy consultation on an urgent issue, the government should embrace the immediate opportunity presented by the Environment Bill when it returns in the coming weeks. The Bill represents an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen environmental protections and allow the government to live up to its much-advertised commitment to leaving the environment in a better state than in which we found it. But the Bill, as drafted, currently falls short of this ambition for many reasons, not least due to the unacceptable silence on our environmental impact overseas.
I have tabled an amendment to the Environment Bill which both improves the Bill and addresses the loopholes in the government’s proposals. My amendment would place an obligation on firms to act on deforestation in their supply chains – regardless of legality and the size of the business. I urge the government to now recognise the flaws in its own proposals and support my amendment when the Bill returns to Parliament.
While it is always encouraging to see the vital issue of due diligence on the political agenda, we cannot address the scale of the threat against our natural world unless we go further in ensuring that no commodities linked to environmental destruction can enter UK supply chains, even where local environmental protection is inadequate. My amendment, in comparison, offers a more comprehensive and timely means to address the pressing issue of deforestation.
Our international credibility in the fight against environmental destruction is dependent on our ability to ‘lead by example’. With just 16 months remaining until we host COP26, we must step up and get our own house in order. This means taking our international contribution to climate change seriously.
Nature is not a luxury or an optional extra, it is a necessity. The government has finally shown it understands the need to act on our overseas footprint, but it must now present proposals that live up to the scale and urgency of the challenge.