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Climate Change and the Environment

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:18 pm on 8th February 2005.

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Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport) 3:18 pm, 8th February 2005

I am grateful for being called to speak immediately after that invitation from Alan Simpson, as there is one political party that will make climate change a priority at the election. I agreed with almost everything that he said, and I can assure him that he will sympathise with many things in our manifesto. I am afraid, however, that people will not have a chance to vote for us in England.

I am very pleased indeed that the Liberal Democrats have called for this Opposition day debate. I acknowledge that they have used such debates to introduce such matters in the House, whereas the Government have been rather remiss in providing debates on climate change. The usual suspects are in the Chamber. [Interruption.] Indeed, people can see for themselves where there are gaps on the Benches. We have reached consensus on the science of climate change, but we do not have consensus on the political tasks needed to deal with the problem. I shall get the political bit over before I address more consensual matters. If any party, MP or member of a party thinks that we can achieve a carbon-free future without using wind energy they are shutting the door on a solution to climate change. Anyone who thinks that that is a realistic prospect will let down severely the people of this country, the environment and future generations.

The Conservative party has said no to any wind farms whatever in Wales. That is totally unsustainable and I simply cannot accept it as a policy with which to tackle climate change. It is possible to discuss the right mix and the need to invest in wave, solar and other forms of renewable technology, but it is impossible to talk seriously about achieving the 20 per cent. renewable target without including both onshore and offshore wind power.

I also have to say that there have been no significant wind farm proposals for Wales that the Liberal Democrats—whether a parliamentary candidate in my own constituency, a Member of Parliament or an Assembly Member—have failed to oppose. Indeed, Liberal Democrats of some significance and seniority have opposed all those plans. Norman Baker is not in his place now, but I acknowledge the important work that he has done on these matters. I hope that he can lead his party in securing a more proactive acceptance of the need to use wind on our journey towards the carbon-free future. The wonder of wind energy is that, if we do not need it in 20 or 30 years' time, we can take the structures down and leave the environment as it was—virtually, though not completely, unchanged. That aspect is so different from other forms of energy generation that we need to swallow the pill. I am prepared, and have long been prepared, to swallow it in my own constituency in Wales, and I hope that other parties will, too.

Let us consider what is happening with the environment at present. The public at large, newspapers and the media tend to talk about climate change as if it is something that is going to happen, but it is important to emphasise that it is happening now. We are already very close to the tipping points—the points at which climate change becomes disastrous. A UK voluntary network is run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and it observes changes throughout the calendar year. It is easy to see from that research over the past 30 years that spring is definitely arriving earlier. I had roses in my garden at Christmas, and a fig tree that is starting to shoot.

We all know what is happening, but it is good to have confirmation. Swallows are arriving a week earlier than they did 30 years ago, and butterflies are also appearing much earlier. One consequence is that species, particularly bird species, are hatching after the glut of caterpillars has gone. The birds are unable to capitalise on the caterpillars, as it were, that have already been and gone in the early spring. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has provided figures, and it puts in context the occasional bird strike against the wind farms. That happens occasionally, and there are sometimes bird strikes against my house. At least one bird a year dies flying into my windows—more than died in the wind farm recently in Ceredigion. The occasional bird strike has to be placed in the context of mass bird extinction under climate change.

Within Wales during the past 14 months, the valley of Conwy alone has had three serious breaches of its flood defences. The villages in the valley had three occurrences during the last 14 months that should happen only once every 20 years. Furthermore, the key statistics for Wales, published only a fortnight ago, clearly show a 1°C rise in average temperatures over the past three years compared with the 1960–1990 period. That is important.

The latest report on climate change has come from the international climate change taskforce, chaired by the former Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and I was pleased to hear him repudiate—on Radio 4 when he launched the report—many of his transport decisions. Let us hope that the current Department for Transport will follow suit. The report states:

"Above the 2 degree C level, the risks of abrupt, accelerated, or runaway climate change also increase. The possibilities include reaching climatic tipping points leading, for example, to the loss of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets".

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South made a similar point. The report goes on to refer to

"the transformation of the planet's forests and soils from a net sink of carbon to a net source of carbon", recommending that at least 25 per cent. of our electricity should be generated from renewables.

Just a week after the publication of that report came the report from the British Antarctic Survey, showing that the west Antarctic ice sheet is indeed in danger of collapse. If an international taskforce argues that 2° is the tipping point, and if the figures for Wales show that we are already 1° higher, we are already very close indeed to some disastrous changes taking place within the United Kingdom. That demonstrates why political parties should be placing these issues on top of the agenda, irrespective of whether the press want to talk about that in the context of posters, images or dirty campaigning. This issue should, in 2005, be the focus of all our political campaigning. We must do what we can in our constituencies, but hon. Members will know how difficult it sometimes is to get these essential messages across.

One important issue that has not been mentioned—we have mainly talked about political and public responsibility—is business and corporate responsibility. It is crucial to understand that we all have to pull together in tackling climate change. We have already heard a little about Shell and BP and their massive profits—bigger, together, than the entire budget for Wales in a year. Let us consider Shell—described by the hon. Member for Lewes as one of the better companies on the grounds that it had accepted the science of climate change. The company posted massive profits, yet is still asking for UK Export Credits Guarantee Department and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development support to help it develop oil and gas pipelines in Sakhalin in Russia. Shell is still involved in gas flaring in Nigeria, which produces more greenhouse gas emissions than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa put together. These "goodies", then, have accepted the science of climate change, but continue to exploit developing countries by using technology that we would not allow in this country, producing greenhouse gas emissions that offset any savings that the companies are making in this country.

To be honest, I am not certain that a windfall tax is the answer, but something has to be done to bring these companies to book and to ensure that their corporate social responsibility is dedicated to tackling climate change. They should use much of their massive profits to invest in other technologies. That is, after all, to the good of their shareholders in the long run.

The Government have made some progress in respect of the overall basket of greenhouse gases, but as we have already heard, they are seriously short of the targets on CO2 reduction. Indeed, if current trends continue, the projection for 2010 suggests a reduction of 7.7 per cent., as compared with the Kyoto obligation of 12.5 per cent., the manifesto commitment of 20 per cent., and indeed the Prime Minister's own commitment given to the House in December of 14 per cent. That was the commitment that he gave to the leader of the Liberal Democrat party.

It is also important to remember that the UK figures do not include aviation. It has been mentioned a couple of times in the debate, but needs to be emphasised. Aviation is not included in the national greenhouse gas inventories. If aviation were included, we would be talking about figures about 5 per cent. higher. I hope that the Minister will deal with the problem in his winding-up speech. I understand why international agreements mean that we cannot go ahead now and tax aviation fuel, but I also understand that it is possible to tax emissions. What are the Government doing in respect of emission taxation, which would help to drive better technology within the aviation industry without necessarily hugely increasing costs? The costs of the aviation industry need to be put on record. Research shows that the richer people in society are the ones who benefit from cheap flights, often to their second homes in Bayonne or the Navarre valley or wherever. Less well-off people do not benefit much from cheap flights.

Climate change is a huge challenge for political parties and the political consensus in this country, but there are also huge opportunities. This island is the part of Europe with the greatest renewable energy resources. Our solar energy may not be so good, but the wind, wave and tidal energy available to us is very great. We could power the whole of western Europe with energy from wind. The installations would not look very nice, but we have that potential, and we need to start finding creative ways to benefit our communities in that way.

For example, we could allow people to put small turbines on their homes. That would accommodate those who oppose wind farms. If we chose to do that, we should not make people fill out a 19-page form from Ofgem so that they could sell energy back to the network. Another possibility is to give council tax rebates to people who install renewable energy equipment in their homes. We should try to incentivise people in a different way. It is too complicated to convince people to go for the Clear Skies initiative. That is too remote: if we want people to choose renewable energy in their daily lives, we have to make it much easier for them.

Time is short so I shall end with a myth—the myth of Cantre'r Gwaelod. This Welsh folk tale harks back to a time when there was no sea between Wales and Ireland, and it is true that at one time the two countries were not separated by water. The relevant area was flooded as a result of the neglect of a politician, whose name has come down over the centuries. He was not called Blair or Howard, but Seithennen. If we politicians do not want future generations to think of us as the ones who neglected our environment, and if we do not want those future generations to live in caves remembering a time when a civilisation existed before the flood came, we need to be aware of the myths and stories of the past.

Climate change is no myth. What is happening to our environment is no folk tale. We should work to ensure that our reputation in history is a good one and we are recalled with approbation. To do that, we must tackle climate change now.