On Wednesday 10 May, the Climate and Ecology Bill (CE Bill) was reintroduced by Olivia Blake MP (Labour) and co-sponsored by MPs from every major political party, including Wera Hobhouse MP (Lib Dem), Derek Thomas MP (Conservative), and Caroline Lucas MP (Green) in a positive show of cross-party collaboration.
What’s in the CE Bill?
A full briefing on the Bill is linked here. If made law, the CE Bill would ensure that the UK nations, working together:
- Create a joined-up plan—the crises in climate and nature are deeply intertwined, requiring a plan that considers both together.
- Cut emissions in line with our Paris Agreement commitment—ensure emissions are reduced rapidly, for the best chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C.
- Not only halt, but also reverse the decline in nature—setting nature measurably on the path to recovery by 2030, in line with our COP15 commitment.
- Take responsibility for our overseas footprint—both emissions and ecological.
- Involve the public—giving people a say in finding a fair way forward through a Climate & Nature Assembly, an essential tool for bringing public opinion along with the unprecedented pace of change required.
Why we need this legislation
Humanity is at a crossroads, facing the increasingly urgent climate and biodiversity crises that threaten irreversible changes to the global environment, which will profoundly impact the wellbeing of billions of people around the world. To successfully address these intertwined crises, our societies must quickly transition to a sustainable, nature positive future. In this blog, we discuss how such a transition requires actions across all sectors of society and needs to be underpinned by smart development policies that integrate the needs and constraints of the climate change and biodiversity agendas. We argue that the Climate and Ecology Bill provides such a legislative framework, offering a comprehensive, whole-of-government emergency plan to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and reverse the destruction of nature.
A world in crisis
Our environment is breaking down, taking with it the foundations of our economies, food security, health and quality of life. Scientific advice from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) could not be clearer: we need rapid, bold, collective action to transition economies to a low-carbon, sustainable, biodiverse future. The climate change and biodiversity loss crises that underpin the breaking down of our environment are indeed fundamentally connected. Changes in climatic conditions are impacting biodiversity; and the loss of biodiversity is deepening the climate crisis. Reduced species abundance, local extinctions, as well as the rapid degradation and/or loss of ecosystems such as mangroves, tropical forests, peatlands and seagrass are indeed having a major impact on our planet’s ability to store carbon, while reducing nature and people’s ability to adapt to and/or cope with changing climatic conditions.
Addressing the breaking down of our environment requires fundamental shifts in how we live. The climate change crisis, for example, is directly powered by our dependency on fossil fuels for energy and increased appetite for meat products and dairy foods. Efforts to stabilise our climate and conserve biodiversity are currently underpinned by a patchwork of international goals, national-level plans, and local interventions that, overall, are not delivering on their promises. Rather than getting out of fossil fuels and into clean energy, many wealthy nations are for example reinvesting in oil and gas, failing to cut emissions fast enough to match the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to well below 2°C. The UN Emissions Gap Report highlighted that, since the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, “inadequate progress on climate action makes urgent transformation the only option” to keep temperatures within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels.
There are many reasons why the current approach to tackling the biodiversity and climate change crises is not working. These include a lack of specific, relevant and measurable targets associated with high-level, global goals; deficiencies around the development of effective monitoring and review processes to ensure transparency and accountability; a lack of integration between the international, national and local agendas; a lack of clarity around how to incorporate contributions of local and non-State actors, such as individuals and businesses; and a lack of broad joined-up thinking as to how to best integrate climate change and biodiversity actions.
The UK perfectly illustrates some of these issues. The Government has recently introduced the Environment Act and Environment Improvement Plan to “restore natural habitats, increase biodiversity, reduce waste and make better use of our resources” and “halt the decline in species by 2030”. It also developed voluntary Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs), which, it hopes, will deliver substantial nature gains in farmed landscapes. However, the proposed nature target in the Environment Act committing to: “increase species abundance by at least 10% by 2042, compared to 2030 levels” has been criticised by both the Climate Change Committee and the Adaptation Committee, with both chairs pointing out that species abundance target expressed relative to a future reference period is likely to result in a target level below the current, heavily depleted levels. Similarly, ELMs are expected to create or restore up to only 300,000 hectares of natural habitat by 2042 (about 2.3% of UK land area and 3.8% of England); this estimate is based on an optimistic “wide take-up” of the schemes. There is no provision within ELMs for livestock reduction, and, more broadly, no coherent plan for meeting the country’s commitment to the Global Methane Pledge, which is absolutely key to avoid missing the 1.5°C target.
Delivering on the Environment Act ambition, against the background of a changing climate requires a coordinated approach across these targets and with other policy areas. Ensuring the levels set for England are appropriate for the UK as a whole makes close collaboration with the devolved administrations essential. An integrated response to climate change, the environment and food provision is needed to succeed within any one of these areas. To achieve this, the many benefits of the proposed outcome-based targets must be clearly linked to the suite of climate and environmental policies that support them, in England and across the devolved administrations. Yet, so far Defra has not set out how the Environmental Improvement Plans, the ELM schemes and the various policies for our seas, peatlands, trees, soils and nature will fit together under the Environment Act targets.
The Climate and Ecology Bill – an integrated plan to address the climate change and biodiversity crisis
There are two imperatives that each country must now deliver on to effectively address the climate change and biodiversity crises we face. First, countries, particularly rich nations, need to drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to fulfil obligations and commitments under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as the Paris Agreement. Second, countries need to address biodiversity loss and fulfil their obligations under the UN Convention of Biological Diversity and other global commitments, such as those set out in the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. To date, examples of national legislation providing a plan to address these two imperatives in a coherent and comprehensive manner are very rare.
The CE Bill is an exception. It is the only proposed legislation that ensures a whole-of-government emergency plan to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and reverse the destruction of nature. It was written by Zero Hour in collaboration with scientists and experts in constitutional law. The Bill is supported by more than 150 scientists working across climate and environmental sciences, social sciences and human health.
First tabled in the House of Commons by Caroline Lucas MP in September 2020, the CE Bill is designed to be transformative. It recognises that conservation approaches alone will not restore ecosystems to levels that will reverse the decline in biodiversity and help combat climate change without transformation of our economy, particularly the food system. There are clauses that place responsibility for ensuring the Bill’s main objectives are met, squarely on the shoulders of the Government. For example:
- Ensuring that steps taken to mitigate emissions, minimise damage to ecosystems, food and water availability, as well as human health
- Restoring and expanding natural ecosystems, and enhancing the management of cultivated ecosystems, to protect and enhance biodiversity, ecological processes, and ecosystem service provision, including climate change mitigation
- Limiting the adverse impacts, at home and overseas, of United Kingdom-generated cycles of consumption, trade, financing and production on ecosystems and human health
The CE Bill embeds a Climate and Nature Assembly, informed by scientists and policy experts, to involve the public in the creation of a strategy before it is laid before Parliament. This is based on the precedent of the Climate Assembly UK, created in 2020 by MPs and scientists to make recommendations for the Government’s net zero strategy. The Government had no legal requirement to adhere to the findings of that assembly and sadly, in spite of its success, it adopted few of the recommendations.
The CE Bill includes the Mitigation and Conservation Hierarchy
Nature recovery is key to addressing the multiple environmental challenges we face. To support rapid transition to a biodiverse future, countries around the world need to be able to translate ambitious biodiversity goals into actions across all sectors of society. This has however proven difficult, with, for example, a broad disconnect between actions to conserve nature and actions leading to loss of nature being previously reported.
In that respect, the Mitigation and Conservation Hierarchy (MCH) provides a framework to guide the delivery of net positive biodiversity outcomes. Developed by a coalition of academics, NGOs and private sector organisations, the framework is based on the well-established Mitigation Hierarchy (MH), which addresses the impacts of development on biodiversity through four sequential steps, namely (1) Avoid all impacts, (2) Minimise impacts as far as possible; (3) Restore/Remediate impacts that are immediately reversible; (4) Offset any residual impacts, to achieve a desired net outcome. The MCH expands upon MH by uniting impact mitigation with proactive conservation under a single framework, thereby encompassing “Four Steps for the Earth”: Refrain, Reduce, Restore and Renew. These can be implemented via two pathways: the Mitigation Hierarchy, for mitigating future negative impacts, and the Conservation Hierarchy, for delivering additional conservation potential.
The MCH thus expands on the MH in two ways: first, it is designed to be used by sectors and for impacts where the MH has not yet been widely applied; going beyond mitigating biodiversity impacts that are direct by-products of development (e.g. habitat destruction by an infrastructure project) to also address the impacts of resource exploitation (e.g. the effect of timber extraction on a forest ecosystem). Second, both conservation actions to address historical, systemic, and non-attributable biodiversity loss and actions to mitigate specific impacts can be accounted for in this framework. The MCH also expands beyond offsetting to encompass proactive actions beyond those directly tied to redressing current attributable impacts, to achieve an overall net positive outcome (such as greening cities).
The CE Bill is a legislative plan that builds on the MCH as a way to address biodiversity loss nationally. Recognising that almost every type of human activity has impacts on natural resources, the Bill states that ”all activities in the United Kingdom which affect the health, abundance, diversity and resilience of species, populations and ecosystems follow the Mitigation and Conservation Hierarchy”. It specifically emphasises the need for joined-up holistic action to striving for a nature-positive future, to avoid focussing entirely on particular actions such as tree planting. Importantly, the Bill references both specific impact mitigation measures and the broader actions needed to achieve net gains in biodiversity in a scalable and cross-sectoral way.
The CE Bill and the need to transform the food Industry
The Bill does not mention specifically the need for rapid changes in the food industry to deliver on its climate and biodiversity targets, as its aim is to create a strategy, with annual targets, to ensure that the objectives of the Bill are met satisfactorily. However, it is pretty clear that such a transformation is urgently needed (indeed it was an important part of the strategy resulting from the Climate Assembly UK), given that (1) the food industry is the biggest user of our lands and seas, being responsible for 35% of UK emissions, including imports, and controlling more than 70% of our land; and (2) the current food system is the primary cause of the destruction of nature through the control it exerts over agriculture. Without the rapid release of agricultural land for nature and the phasing out of destructive farming and fishing practices, conservation measures will indeed continue to fail overall. Farmers however are locked into an unsustainable food market and the majority cannot make the radical changes required to meet climate and nature targets within the current system, without substantial support and radical changes in food policy.
Shifting to a more plant-rich food system would help tackle the intertwined climate and biodiversity crises. Firstly, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, buying us time to decarbonise the rest of the economy. Second, by freeing up millions of hectares of land for the restoration of ecosystems that support biodiversity and can absorb CO2, while helping us adapt to the worst impacts of climate breakdown. This is why both the Climate Change Committee, and the National Food Strategy, are calling for a reduction of meat consumption of between 20%-30%, with the NFS saying that “Reducing meat consumption is the single most effective lever we can pull”.
Proposed changes in UK land use are often met with the argument that we need to focus on food production. But the vast majority of UK farmland feeds livestock rather than people directly. Around 65% of total land that produces UK food is used to graze livestock or produce crops to feed to animals. The growing market in meat products and ultra-processed foods drives demand for huge amounts of intensively produced commodity crops which in turn drive high emissions of CO2 and the potent greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, as well as pollution from animal waste and agrochemicals. Food is the UK’s largest manufacturing industry, dependent upon imports of commodity crops for people and animals. This evolution of the food supply chain makes it highly vulnerable to climate change and conflict, contributing to the current cost of living crisis and putting our food security at risk. Producing more vegetables, fruits and cereals at home, to feed people rather than animals, would improve our food security and ease the impacts of the cost of living crisis as well as improving the nation’s health, slashing the cost of dietary diseases to the NHS. It would also use much less land because, as the National Food Strategy points out, growing crops that feed people generates around 12 times more calories per hectare than livestock production.
Getting the Bill to receive Royal Assent and become an Act of Parliament, and Law, would undoubtedly put the UK on the right path to a sustainable future. It would also provide a concrete example of how interlinked international priorities can be translated into national legislation.
That said, for laws such as the CE Bill to be adopted by countries around the world, we need strong international commitments on the climate and biodiversity fronts – as the challenges we face require everyone, everywhere, to act. Global climate change and biodiversity meetings such as the Conferences of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) must deliver the solid governmental commitments we need to drastically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and support nature recovery everywhere, at scale.
Interestingly, food and agriculture were on the agenda for the first time at COP27 in Egypt, with a whole day dedicated to discussing the food system impacts on climate as well as land and sea use. This is clearly progress but, as with the fossil fuel lobby at other sessions, large agribusiness and food corporations had most influence over the agenda. We need to see governments start prioritising the reduction of emissions from the food system (including agriculture) by tackling root causes including unequal access to land and resources; the intensive use of synthetic inputs (fertiliser and pesticide); the removal of biodiversity in favour of monocultural farming; and the inefficiency of using so much of the planet’s land and resources for biofuels, livestock farming (especially animal feeds and monocultural grassland) and junk foods to feed western diets.
We know what we need to do; we have known for quite a while. But right now, we are running out of time to secure a future we all want to live in. The ball is firmly with rich countries, which are predominantly responsible for the climate and biodiversity crises; slow to transition to renewable energy while enabling fossil fuel giants to prosper; failing to acknowledge and address emissions from the food industry; continuing to subsidise damaging agricultural, forestry or fishing practices; and dragging their feet to pay for the “loss and damage” poorer nations have endured because of climate change. Let’s hope these countries will get their act together soon and start acting responsibly. Doing anything else will undermine the credibility of international processes and cooperation, drastically reducing our chances to avoid a global environmental disaster.
About the Authors
Prof. Nathalie Pettorelli
Nathalie is a senior scientist at the Institute of Zoology, the research branch of the Zoological Society of London. She heads up the Environmental Monitoring and Conservation Modelling (EMCM) team, which is interested in developing tools and methodologies supporting the sustainable management of natural resources.
Jane is a Senior Researcher at Zero Hour. She has a background in art-science collaboration, working with scientists to communicate the urgent need to regenerate the natural world, to help solve the climate crisis and to support all life on Earth.
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