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Climate Change and the Environment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:52 pm on 8th February 2005.

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Photo of Tim Yeo Tim Yeo Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:52 pm, 8th February 2005

I pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend's chairmanship of the Environmental Audit Committee, which has produced many constructive and thoughtful reports on the subjects that we are debating today. He is right that no inherent conflict exists between economic growth, business opportunities and commercial prosperity, and the measures that are needed to tackle climate change—indeed, the two go hand in hand.

Fiscal instruments have an important role to play. I am determined that the next Conservative Government will make greater use of fiscal instruments than the present Government. Unexploited opportunities exist to use our tax system to encourage people to make greener choices.

The starting date for emissions trading, 1 January 2005, was not a great surprise. It is difficult to reconcile the Government's failure to be ready for that date with their claim that they are putting climate change at the heart of the British EU presidency. I wonder how much satisfaction the Minister takes in seeing Britain among the laggards in that process.

Although participation in the scheme, when it eventually happens, will be helpful, it is not the whole answer to getting Britain's CO 2 emissions back on a firmly downward trend, which will require policy changes in four areas. First, energy efficiency may be unglamorous, but as a former Conservative Secretary of State for Energy put it, it is

"the cheapest, swiftest and most publicly acceptable way to combat global warming."

Even those sceptics who question the science of climate change can scarcely attack measures designed to save households and businesses money. For domestic energy efficiency, the Government rely on the energy efficiency commitment to incentivise consumers. A scheme that does not rely exclusively on promotion by electricity suppliers might excite a wider consumer market. We are studying changes to the energy efficiency commitment to allow more businesses to benefit from promoting domestic energy efficiency, a model that could be applied to business customers as well as households.

The second policy change concerns transport. I recognise that progress has been made in moving towards greener cars, and I am sure that that progress will continue, but transport still accounts for one quarter of CO 2 emissions. As is the case with energy efficiency, we must engage the public and help them to make more environmentally friendly choices. We should not use regulations or force people out of their cars, which is the Deputy Prime Minister's policy, because cars have enhanced the lives of millions of people. A car is the instrument that allows almost everyone today to enjoy freedoms that were confined to the rich 100 years ago.

One way in which to encourage greener choices by car users is to go much further than the Government in introducing variable rates of vehicle excise duty, which is the direction suggested by my hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth. That would be more effective than the colour-coded labels recently suggested by the Secretary of State for Transport. I am not against colour-coded labels, which sound suspiciously like a watered-down version of the colour-coded tax discs that I advocated last year as a way to make the impact that a vehicle has on the environment clear to the public.

An incentive to buying a greener car even bigger than the colour of the label in the showroom would be a wider range of vehicle excise duty rates. Even if such changes applied to new purchases only, they would influence the choice of new vehicles, and everyone would be helped to continue to enjoy driving while reducing the impact of motoring on the public. The Government's approach is far too timid: the difference in vehicle excise duty between a Ferrari and a Smart car is only £50.

Transport involves more than cars. Aviation, which has already been referred to, is the fastest growing source of CO 2 emissions in the transport sector, and I hope that it will soon fall within the EU emissions trading scheme. A possible tax on aviation fuel also seems to be back in the news. It could make a big contribution to capturing the environmental cost of aviation, but it will work only if it is introduced on an entirely international basis. If international agreement on aviation fuel taxing is eventually reached, some of the other taxes on aviation could be removed.

More immediately, I am concerned about how little understanding the public have of the link between climate change and aviation. In a survey conducted by the Department for Transport a couple of years ago, only one person in eight made the connection between climate change and flying. We would educate the public about the impact of aviation on the environment if we were, for example, to encourage airlines to show emissions per passenger on travel documents, which would remind people that in environmental terms short-haul flights do not compare well with alternative modes of transport. The more information people are given, the more likely they are to choose the environmentally friendly option.

The third area of policy change concerns renewable energy. The Government are in a muddle: their obsession with onshore wind farms, one of the least reliable and most unpopular forms of renewable energy, will ensure that they miss their own target for producing 10 per cent. of electricity from renewable sources by 2010. With only five years to go, it would be much better if they admitted that they will miss that target. We should develop a more coherent approach to renewable energy to exploit Britain's natural advantages as an island by using offshore technologies, including tidal power and wave power. In that context, I regret the Government's failure to introduce a marine conservation Bill to facilitate the establishment of offshore areas where marine-based renewable energy projects could flourish.