The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill (CEE Bill) is a private member’s Bill, tabled in September 2020, signed by 77 MP’s, led by Caroline Lucas, yet to be debated. Also in the offing is COP26, the next international climate conference, in Glasgow, in November, under the presidency of the UK.
The pandemic notwithstanding, now is the time for our government to put its money where its mouth is, time to do something about its much vaunted green credentials.
The Motion before the House of Commons says:
“This House expresses profound alarm at the climate and ecological emergency. ”
It refers to wild fires in many parts of the world and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica melting in line with worst case predictions for consequent sea level rise. It recognises that rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society are needed in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C and is concerned that the target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050, as set down in a legally binding commitment in the 2008 Climate Change Act has already been overtaken by the accelerating crisis.
It requires the UK to take account of its entire carbon footprint, including emissions released overseas as a result of goods manufactured abroad for consumption by the UK.
The CEE Bill seeks the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly to recommend measures for inclusion in a new Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy.
It calls on the government to demonstrate real climate leadership ahead of Cop26.
What better way to show some leadership than by doing something, at last, about the government’s commitment to plant 30,000 hectares of trees each year by 2025?
Our current planting rate is a pathetic 136 hectares per year. The UK is the least wooded country in Europe, at only 13 per cent of coverage. Even a modest aim to double this would require a planting rate of 1,200 hectares per year, equivalent to an eight-fold increase on the present snail’s-pace rate, a considerable challenge for the Johnson government, which at present has no specific plans or budget for woodland increase.
Earth’s plants and soils, forests and peatlands, known collectively as the terrestrial biosphere, absorb around one-third of all human-caused Carbon emissions. The oceans absorb another quarter.
Over millions of years, plants have evolved in a relatively stable climate, so that the optimum average temperature for their carbon dioxide uptake is 18 degrees C. If emissions continue on their present track, over the next 30 years, the global average temperature will rise to such an extent that up to half of plants could be pushed out of their optimum temperature zone, decreasing their ability to absorb carbon. In areas of extreme temperature rise, whole biomes could deteriorate and die out.
(A biome is a community of plants and animals, the members of which have evolved together over millions of years, adapting to a particular climate, e.g., Tropical rainforest, temperate forest and grassland.)
If forests die, rather than being an absorber of carbon, as the plants decay, they become emitters of carbon. That becomes a vicious feedback cycle. As plants take up less carbon dioxide, there remains more in the atmosphere, which leads to more warming and more plant death.
The dire situation calls for dramatic action. As I have said in the little book, The Wilding of Chislehurst: “Creating more woodlands across the whole country will take a lot of work. Past mistakes should not be repeated. There should be no more monocultures of conifer plantations. Broad-leaved seedling trees would not be imported, bringing in alien species and risking the importation of plant diseases. Rearing our own seedlings on a massive scale would be a useful contribution to an afforestation programme, but for large tracts of countryside, patience and nature would suffice”. Nature would provide the seedlings and plant them.
The government’s stated aim is to plant 30,000 hectares each year by 2025, which is equivalent to 30 million new trees each year. The Woodland Trust has calculated that, if the UK is to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, then at least 1.5 million hectares of additional woodland is needed by that date. Just as important as new planting is properly caring for the trees we already have. At present we are losing mature trees faster than we are planting new ones. The chainsaw massacre of which the Prime Minister complained when he was London Mayor, remains in full swing. Local authorities are so starved of cash that they quite simply cannot afford to employ the trained staff needed to protect the health of street and municipal park trees. It costs less to cut down any diseased or damaged trees than to conserve them. Local councils lack the staff to investigate thoroughly all applications for tree felling from householders and developers. Councils cannot afford to pursue through the courts the illicit chainsaw wielders and cowboy ‘tree surgeons’.
We have heard from Westminster much laudable talk about trees, but we have seen little or no money and action.
Now is the time to take bold steps and, in the process, establish a new industry, which could help give a kick-start to a post-pandemic green economy.
The high cost of neglect has bitten us yet again in the form of the widespread flooding in January 2021. Such inundations are no longer a once-a-century problem. Climate change is causing a once-every-two-or-three years calamity.
In a single major step, the government could order the removal of all sheep from the uplands of Wales, Northern England and Scotland. These areas may appear wild and natural, but are, in fact, ‘sheep-wrecked’ (to user George Monbiot’s very apt pun) distortions of their true selves. The hills are over-grazed and the soil is compacted by the constant treading of the animals, so that rainwater quickly runs off, rather than being absorbed. The grazers Prevent natural regeneration of trees, by nipping seedlings in the bud. With the sheep removed and any deer populations controlled, natural plant succession would soon bring in scrub and woodland composed of indigenous tree and shrub species, spreading from nearby hedgerows and woodlands, with little planting required. At the same time, drainage ditches would be blocked and ponds would be dug, so that, over time, peat bogs are created, which act as great sponges. These measures would assist in water retention in the hills, reducing flood risk in the valleys and riparian areas, a more effective and less costly option than engineered flood defences
Animal life would quickly colonise the new habitats.
There are 14,000 upland farms in Britain, so what would happen to the farmers and their families? The farming subsidies currently paid out for livestock rearing on all this marginal land would be diverted to employ people from the local communities to manage these massive new woodland areas and their increasing wildlife. With our departure from the European Union and its Common Agricultural policy (CAP), the government is already committed to ending the CAP’s Basic Payment Scheme, a rural grant largely determined by the area farmed. It is to be replaced by grants based on environmental and other public benefits, including measures aimed at mitigation of climate change.
The present farming communities would be neither displaced nor unemployed. The Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, the Pennines, the Scottish Highland moors and the mountains of Wales would still have their majestic hills, but they would no longer be the wildlife deserts we see today, monocultures of grass supporting a fraction of the biodiversity one would see in these areas if populated with their natural flora and fauna. No need to spend millions of pounds on the exercise; simply take off the sheep and cattle, stop the heather-burning carried out for the corporate grouse-shooters, leave the land unmolested and let nature take its course.
In January 2021, areas which suffered pluvial flooding (meaning flooding due to an episode of excessive rainfall or snow) in recent years have suffered yet again as a consequence of the above-average rainfall brought about by Storm Christoph.
Two rivers which rise in the Brecon Beacons have overflowed their banks downstream. The Taff has caused flooding in Cardiff and the Usk has flooded parts of Newport. The greater part of the Brecon Beacons National Park is common land. Its woodlands were cleared centuries ago and the land is now down to livestock grazing, with some arable farming.
The river Severn rises in the Cambrian Mountains of mid-Wales and quickly becomes the most voluminous river in Britain. It is frequently responsible for flooding Shrewsbury, Worcester and Gloucester, which lie on its course.
The river Trent rises in the Staffordshire moorlands. It has a long history of flooding. There are around 22 thousand residential and commercial properties currently at risk and this is expected to increase as our winters become milder and wetter.
The water of the river Mersey starts off in the moors of the Pennines, where it is clean. As it flows through industrial areas it becomes one of the dirtiest rivers in Britain, which makes it all the more unpleasant for the people of Warrington and Didsbury when it floods.
The Calder rises on the Pennine moors. It caused flooding in early 2021 and put at risk parts of Halifax.
The river Aire rises in the Beautiful Malham Tarn in the Yorkshire Dales. In January 2021 it overflowed its banks and caused flooding in Castleford and part of Leeds.
At least £20 million has been spent on flood barriers to protect the City of York, but the river Ouse has not been tamed. More could be spent, raising the level of the barriers, but there is a limit to funding and to what people find visually acceptable. The problem lies in the moors of the Pennines and north Yorkshire, where the Swale and the Ure arise and confluence as the Ouse.
Many of our flooding problems would be solved by re-wilding the upland moors of northern England. Millions of naturally regenerating trees would absorb water and carbon dioxide. They would stabilise the ground, enabling the soil to act like a sponge. The mitigation of flooding would come quickly. Future generations would revel in the gigantic woodlands we create and be fascinated by their rich biodiversity.