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Climate Change and the Environment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:46 pm on 8th February 2005.

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Photo of Ms Sue Doughty Ms Sue Doughty Shadow Minister (the Environment), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 2:46 pm, 8th February 2005

I thank my hon. Friend for that very helpful contribution. Only this week, we heard about the potential for conflict over the Nile waters and the sources of that river.

We are aware that Sagarmatha national park in the Himalayas is at risk. Glacial lakes are melting, which has an impact on local communities because the water flows down on to the low-lying flood plains. Communities there rely partially on tourism and partially on their normal way of life, which includes the glaciers and the natural beauty of the Himalayas that so many people go to see. That impact threatens their whole way of life and there is a real fear in lakeside communities that those lakes will burst. That would be a catastrophe.

Major changes to the Arctic and the way of life of the Inuit people have been reported by the WWF, and the British Antarctic Survey has commented on the thinning of the icecaps and its implication for sea levels. The WWF website has a very useful half-minute summary: global temperatures have risen by 2oC in the past 150 years; 228 million people are now at risk from malaria; starvation affects 12 million people; 2 million people are short of fresh water; millions are forced to move inland due to coastal flooding; and thousands of species have become extinct in the past 50 years and we know that many more will do so in the next 50. This is not a criticism of current Ministers at all, but the website comments on the fact that Ministers did not take action 50 years ago. I do not know the source for that information.

We are experiencing extreme weather conditions: since Christmas there have been floods in Carlisle and in Scotland. There were hurricanes in Florida last year, which do not just damage properties and cause loss of life, but have a huge financial cost that must be recognised. Insurance claims after the hurricanes in Florida could reach $20 billion. That is a huge sum, and an example of the sums we mean when we talk about investing to save.

Closer to home there is more that we could do. On housing, we agree that we need more homes for people to live in. There are massive increases in the house building programme in the south-east, but we could improve the environmental quality of that programme. Members of Parliament in many parts of the south-east disagree with the Government's calculations on the number of homes needed, their location and how the cake will be divided up. Local authorities have to deal with that problem here and now, and they are already defining guidelines for development that must be sustainable and have Government support, because there are huge opportunities to make sustainable improvements through the housing that we are planning and designing for the future.

If we are talking about sustainable communities, we must ask what that means. It is very curious that we are unable to find out how the Government define sustainable communities. Everyone in the Chamber today would agree about definitions of sustainability and environmental sustainability, but we do not see the word "environment" flowing through into the definition of sustainable communities. Those house-building programmes bring huge beneficial opportunities such as district heating schemes and combined heat and power. However, after Christmas, the Environmental Audit Committee pointed out in its review of housing:

"We regret that in the case of housing the Department (DEFRA) seems to have been sidelined."

There are opportunities, however. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has a draft planning policy statement, PPS1, but it does not recognise the need to ensure that development occurs within environmental limits, as well as other sustainability measures. It does not recognise the need for the precautionary principle for environmental sustainability. Does that matter? Of course it does, because emissions from the housing sector are significant: current levels of such emissions are about 40 megatons of carbon a year. Current plans could reduce that to 30 megatons a year, which is an improvement, but when one looks at Government emission reduction targets for the UK as a whole—from 153.2 megatons of carbon a year in 2000 to 65 megatons in 2050—one sees that a reduction of 10 megatons will not be enough.

The houses we are planning to build now will be in place in 2050. It is important to note that housing does not go away. The foundations that we lay now, and their environmental impact, will be with us in 2050. That makes it sound as though we have a lot of time to get our act together, but melting icecaps and glaciers show that that problem is here now. We think of 2050 as the end of the line, but we have to seize the opportunity now. Considering what we could be facing, poor environmental performance in buildings will be a major contributor to carbon emissions in 2050, and the sector, as the Environmental Audit Committee report pointed out, could contribute more than 55 per cent. of UK carbon emissions—nearly double the current contribution.

In combination with aviation, that will substantially undermine the Government's ability to meet their reduction targets. We need to ensure that we stay on target, and set tougher targets, if we are to make the difference that will call a halt to climate change, which is desperately important.

Some areas that the Government are working on, and their change of heart on aviation emissions, are very welcome, but the "predict and provide" approach must be managed alongside what we can do about aviation emissions. Combined with the effects of building, they will cause a major difficulty. We need to conduct an urgent review now of sustainable construction methods to make an impact on not only the finished buildings and their carbon emissions, but the pollution that will arise as part of the building process.

I touched on flooding earlier. To return to the macro aspect, there are plans to build across the south-east. A village in my constituency has a road with a number of bungalows; it is on a wide flood plain. There is no big river, but we know that each of those properties is being expanded into a house, and such things as conservatories are being built. As the water runs down the hills into the village, instead of it being soaked up by the clay, people sometimes find 2 in of water lying on their lawn. In fact, people are giving up lawns in this village and growing vegetables because of the impact of the water. That is a very small example, but it shows how we are not getting to grips with this increased and sudden rainfall that we are experiencing so often.

How much worse will the impact be on the Thames gateway as we build on it and there is a displacement of water? We have no plan; we have no clarity about what is the purpose of Thames gateway development. On the one side, we are told that it is providing housing for a regenerated community, but Sir John Egan said to the Environmental Audit Committee that the development is intended to house people commuting into London. Are we therefore building a development with no clear idea about how people will commute into London? Will the railway infrastructure be in place or will they get into their cars? Although the Conservatives are saying that cleaner cars are good—we all agree with that, and cars have their place, but not every place—stationary cars in a traffic jam are no solution to climate change problems. We must do much more. It is sad that the Conservatives, who presided over the undermining of the railways, are now trying to claim the moral high ground. I wish that they had done something about it at the time.

When we examine the potential for flooding in the Thames gateway, on which many people have commented, we must ask who will insure the properties. For how long will the Association of British Insurers bail people out when things go wrong, or do the Government plan to be the insurer of last resort? I know that that is not currently part of their plans.