Argument over semantics of long-awaited legislation divides peers
The government’s long-awaited environment bill contains too many usages of the term “biodiversity”, where “nature” could be used instead as it is a “sexier word … with more public traction”, the House of Lords has heard.
According to Conservative former minister Lord Blencathra, the term “nature” commands greater understanding than “biodiversity”, and people can more readily relate to it.
He said the term “biodiversity” appeared more than 141 times in the legislation.
But the criticism has created a backlash within his own party, with environment minister Zac Goldsmith suggesting people need to become better acquainted with the term “biodiversity”.
The bill, which is currently at the committee stage and is being scrutinised in the House of Lords, will replace much of the legislation on the environment decided by the EU following Brexit. It will allow the government to set out long-term targets for the UK’s natural environment, including on air quality, water, biodiversity and waste reduction.
It will also set out policy for environmental improvement measures such as recycling and protecting ecosystems.
Lord Blencathra said: “Everyone talks about nature and not biodiversity.
“We all use the word nature because ordinary people, councils, media, companies, can relate to it.”
He added: “I submit there are overwhelming presentational reasons to use the word nature.
“[One] cannot argue that biodiversity is a sexier word than nature with more public traction since it clearly is not.”
Lord Blencathra’s position was backed by Conservative peer Lord Trenchard, who said: “Biodiversity is one of the worst examples of a pseudo intellectual word which most people do not understand and would never use in speech.
“In the main it would be much better if we used the easily comprehensible word nature on which there is universal agreement on what its meaning is.”
He added: “I completely agree that it is highly desirable that the bill should use language with which the public identify.”
But independent crossbencher Lord Hope of Craighead, a former deputy president of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, said: “I suggest that the word biodiversity, although not so widely used as the word nature, is the one to use because it is more precisely targeted on that aspect of our environment.
“It achieves that much more than the word nature. It reaches out across the entirety of the ecosystem on which the natural environment depends and the diversity which gives it its life.”
Leading Oxford University scientist and independent crossbencher Lord Krebs said: “One could argue that what is good enough for Sir David Attenborough is good enough for this bill.”
He pointed out that the TV naturalist’s programme Extinction in which he talked about biodiversity was watched by 4.5 million viewers when first broadcast and many more since.
Lord Goldsmith said: “We want people to understand and engage in nature, but it is also important to increase recognition of and engagement with the term biodiversity.
“Biodiversity is an internationally recognised term that is gaining popularity. It confers a direction of travel toward greater diversity.
“Nature is a more expansive term than biodiversity often taken to include non-living elements and is potentially more open to interpretation.
“It is perfectly possible to enhance nature with limited or no value to biodiversity.”
He also questioned whether the public would be “devouring” the legislation en masse and basing their understanding on it.
“It feels to me that what really matters is delivering the measures within this bill and the wider communications that will support (them),” he said.
Additional reporting by PA