Energy and Climate Change and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 6:17 pm on 24th November 2009.

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Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour, Plymouth, Sutton 6:17 pm, 24th November 2009

Indeed, and I shall come to that. I shall also wish to touch on the Bill in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on water. I will explain why the Bill is so important, although that is clear from the events we have witnessed this week. I cannot understand how anybody could possibly say it is not prescient for such a measure to be in the Queen's Speech.

I wish to cover five issues. The first of them is about a specific aspect of climate change that is little spoken about, perhaps because it emerged on the agenda only at the 2005 conference at the Met Office in Exeter while we were holding the chairmanship of the G8: ocean acidification, or the other CO2 problem as it sometimes referred to. Secondly, I will welcome some of the measures in the Energy Bill. Thirdly, I will anticipate the long-awaited final report of the Walker review on water metering and charging. Fourthly, and alongside that, I will welcome measures in the Flood and Water Management Bill. Fifthly, I shall raise one small, but very important, issue that brings both water and energy together in a way that could lead to a reduction in water bills, fuel bills and the carbon footprint.

First, let me turn to ocean acidification-the other CO2 problem. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently visited Plymouth. When we were walking from the railway station to the university-yes, we walked there-to attend a question-and-answer session, I said to him that I must represent one of the most environmentally literate constituencies in the country, as there are 450 marine scientists working in it and some 1,400 to 1,500 environmental students at the university. Some of these people serve on international forums and work with scientists across the globe, including, particularly, Dr. Carol Turley of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, who has served on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and who plays a leading role in the ocean acidification reference user group.

Even before the Secretary of State arrived, I was receiving e-mails from disappointed people who could not attend the question-and-answer session asking me to make sure the Secretary of State was fully seized of the importance to climate change of the other CO2 problem of ocean acidification. He went away with a heavy load of papers. I promised to let him have a CD of an animation that the Ridgeway school at Plympton made, and which has been shown at Copenhagen international conferences. It outlines this problem, graphically setting out the consequences and the way in which the sea has acted as a buffer for 25 per cent. of the CO2 produced since the industrial revolution. A key consequence is that the seas have become more acidic as carbon dioxide absorbed in the ocean becomes carbonic acid, and the sea water acidity has increased by 30 per cent. over that period. Without the steps proposed to limit our carbon emissions, this will accelerate and by 2060 sea water acidity could have increased by 120 per cent., an increase greater than any in the past 21 million years.

This matters because at the bottom of the food chain in the oceans are many tiny creatures: zoo plankton, which have tiny shells and skeletons; shellfish, which are slightly larger; and molluscs, which play a very important role in daily diets across the world, and particularly of those of some poorer communities. The very existence of these creatures is threatened, as ocean acidification dissolves their small shells and skeletons.

The air we breathe depends on a healthy ocean for the production of oxygen, and the productive layers of seas stimulate clouds that help to shade the planet. These are just a couple of a cocktail of essential processes in the ocean that will be impacted upon by carbon emissions if the climate change talks do not come to a successful conclusion. If unchecked, carbon emissions could progressively affect whole ecosystems and trigger a chain reaction through the food chain. Apparently, there remains a degree of uncertainty in some people's minds about the impacts of climate change. The chemical changes in the ocean are much more certain and predictable, however. Although they are relatively minor at present, the impact of unchecked carbon emissions will be incremental, and the acidification process adds considerable weight to the arguments for immediate and significant cuts in CO2.

If my city is one of the most climate-change and carbon-emission literate, I believe the south-west region and the United Kingdom will be among the most literate at Copenhagen. We have big responsibilities to lead, and to persuade not only that we have a problem, but that it must be tackled as a matter of urgency. It is characteristic of what happens in any period of change that there are leaders, early and late followers and laggards. If there are any late followers and laggards during the Copenhagen discussions, I hope our hon. and right hon. Friends who will be representing us there will tell them of the other CO2 problem, which is about not the sometimes too benign sounding "global warming", but the acidification of the oceans, which cover 70 per cent. of the globe. I hope they will tell them about the 80 years of long-term plankton data recording science at the second oldest marine laboratory in the world on Plymouth Hoe, which is the basis of the work of the current scientists who are leading globally in their field and of some of the eight Nobel scientists who have been based at that laboratory.

Of course, we have to walk the talk. The Energy Bill does further work in that regard in implementing elements of the UK low-carbon transition plan in important ways, and by changing the remit of Ofgem in a way that is essential to the implementation of that plan by making sure that not only competition but climate change and the transition plan feature in the important decisions Ofgem makes in regulating the market. There are important measures at the other end of the spectrum as well, such as putting in place statutory protection for vulnerable customers. I would like that to extend-I am not sure it does this in its current form-to making sure some of the poorest customers do not have to pay higher tariffs.

A number of Members from both sides of the House attended a National Housing Federation reception yesterday, at which we were reminded of the continuing prepayment rip-off of the difference in respect of dual tariff from many of the big providers. The difference between prepayment and the average direct debit cost is £106 for British Gas, £77 for EDF, £105 for npower, £99 for E.ON UK, £108 for Scottish Power and £102 for Scottish and Southern Energy. These still amount to very significant sums of money for some of the poorest households in the country, and I wish the Bill had touched on that. No doubt a measure to deal with that problem is one that a Member who is fortunate enough to be drawn in the private Member's Bill ballot might wish to try to take forward, if that is not achieved through this particular Bill.

At that reception, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend Mr. Kidney, heard about how more is being done in his constituency to encourage low-income families to switch to the best tariff. I was particularly struck by the work the Stafford and Rural Homes housing association is doing to ensure that any incoming tenant to a new home is encouraged to look at the best tariff for them. Among lower income households, not nearly enough use is made of the ability to switch from one provider to another who will often offer them significantly better tariffs.

I took the opportunity to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look at one way in which fuel poverty, water poverty and water use generally overlap. I know that our colleague, my hon. Friend Mr. Woolas, was well seized of the links when he was water Minister. I believe that his successor, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies, is also taking these issues on board. Our all-party group report "The Future of the UK Water Sector", which was published last year, points out that

"around 40 per cent. of energy used in households is to heat water".

There is, thus, an enormous potential for saving both energy and water. Pipe runs between the point of heating and the point of use are often long, which means that water is drawn off and hot water left in the pipes. There is a big job to be done both on retrofitting and on ensuring that the new building standards deal with that effectively. I am pleased to see that the potential for such savings is acknowledged in the interim report of the Walker review on metering and charging. I hope that when its final report is published-I hope that will be before Christmas-it will hold out real help for the too long hard-pressed water users on low incomes all over the country.

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