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Paris Agreement on Climate Change

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:23 pm on 7th September 2016.

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Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test 4:23 pm, 7th September 2016

James Heappey described David T. C. Davies as an “oracle”. I cannot resist observing that the oracle at Delphi was a priestess known as the Pythia who raved incoherently under the influence of the noxious gases coming up from beneath the earth’s surface and whose comments were then translated by the priest for the delectation of the general public. I shall simply let that observation fall to the floor, for what it is worth.

Today’s debate is about not just the ratification of the Paris accords, but the consequences of their ratification for the UK, and the ability of the UK to ratify them in good faith and good order on the basis of what it recognises as the commitments it will undertake as a result of being a party to the accords. In that context, it is important not only to clarify one or two points about the ratification process, which we have already done to some extent today, but to review the process and how it relates to issues such as the existence or otherwise of a low-carbon programme that actually sets out what we are committed to. I would have thought that it would have been a particularly good idea—or should be particularly good idea—to make the low-carbon programme available at the same time as the consideration of the ratification process so that we could have the full raft of information in front of us, but I will return to that point in a moment.

It is clear that the ratification process has two stages, as we have discussed, and that the UK’s particular responsibility now is to put an order—the EU treaty converted into an order—in front of the House and to get our bit done, which, as I mentioned in an earlier intervention, France has managed to do. That is important not only to get the business done for our country, but to ensure that the EU ratification is made as speedy as possible by getting the full process undertaken, especially by the heavy-hitters such as the UK, at the earliest possible time.

It is also important to clarify what we are undertaking in our joint ratification with the rest of the EU. As my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband underlined earlier, we need to clarify our ratification position as the Brexit process is undertaken. As far as we are concerned, the INDCs that were put on the table in Paris form part of the European block for the international negotiations. We have a joint INDC with all other EU member states, and the commitments that come from that relate to ambitions not for 2050, but for 2030, given the 40% reduction in emissions between 1990 and 2030 that was jointly agreed among all participating EU states.

The INDCs will then be the subject of progress reports. The INDCs together represent a reduction in temperature of substantially less than the 2°/1.5°C ambition, coming in at 2.6° or 2.7° in the overall INDCs. Therefore, the conference of the parties progress reports on how the INDCs are going will not only consider whether countries have carried out their INDCs, but form part of a process of strengthening them over time to get further commitments and to move them down towards a reasonable target or ambition for global temperature stability.

In those circumstances, by my reading, we will be in the first review period just at the point when we will be undertaking Brexit, so the INDCs that we had negotiated jointly with the EU may no longer be seen as tenable for the UK. The question we may have to start to face in those international negotiations is: do we, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North said, seek to nail ourselves down in the EU discussions on the INDCs, or do we decide at some stage that we are somehow going to develop our own INDC, which will be recalibrated from whatever it is we think we have allowed ourselves to be put in line for within the EU? If we do that, does that recalibration indicate a lessening or an intensification of our commitment? Better still, is there simply an agreement that, whatever else Brexit may say, we are committed to that joint INDC on the basis of whatever is shared out by the EU as the process goes forward? I would value a thought from the Minister about what the intention on the INDCs might be, because that is important for clarifying our long-term commitment over the next period in reality.

Notwithstanding that, the ratification process will take place on the basis that we are committed to being part of the European basket of a 40% reduction by 2030 as our offer from Paris and beyond that. The question of the missing low-carbon programme therefore starts to loom large because, as a result of Paris, we need to know whether the UK is really able to deliver on that 40% reduction, be it separately or as part of that EU programme. The whole issue of ratification must have that as one of the questions within it—are we able to do what we said we would be doing at the time of the agreement?

At the time, it was welcome news that the Government went ahead and agreed to the fifth carbon budget, and that they did so without any suggestions that there might be caveats attached, unlike what happened with the fourth carbon budget. That sent a clear signal about what our overall ambitions should be. A question then arises about the fourth and fifth carbon budgets moving forward, and whether we can fit what we have agreed regarding the INDCs into the process of agreeing those carbon budgets and their consequences. That is where we start to have a problem. I am increasingly concerned about whether we have the policy instruments in place and the wherewithal to reach a position where we can say, hand on heart, “Yes, we are in this seriously.” Indeed, that concerns not only me but, more importantly, the Committee on Climate Change. Its recent progress report to Parliament on carbon budgets made the important point that although, as the Minister mentioned, our progress on tackling overall emissions has historically been looking pretty good over the recent period, with emissions falling by an average of 4.5% a year since 2012, that has been almost entirely due to progress in the power sector, not progress in the rest of the economy.

The Committee on Climate Change says that, in the rest of the economy, emissions have fallen by less than 1% a year on a temperature-adjusted basis. It specifically says that that is because of a slow uptake of low-carbon technologies and the behaviour of the building sector—low rates of insulation improvement and low take-up of low-carbon heat—as well as because improved vehicle efficiency has been offset by increased demand for travel. It also says that there is minimal evidence of progress in the industrial and agricultural sectors. The Committee is beginning to raise alarm bells about the extent to which we will be able to make the progress that is needed if we are to carry out those INDCs properly.

The Committee on Climate Change points out that, even as far as the energy sector is concerned, some areas have seen progress. It says that funding for offshore wind has been extended to 2026, which I very much welcome as an important step towards attaching the next stage of the levy control framework to offshore wind. However, the Committee says that there are backward steps in other areas, and Members will not be surprised to hear what they are: the cancellation of the commercialised programme for carbon capture and storage; the reduction in funding for energy efficiency; and the cancellation of the zero-carbon homes standard.

The Committee on Climate Change also says that other priorities have not moved forward. There have been no further auctions for the cheapest low-carbon generation, no action plan for low-carbon heat or energy efficiency, and no vehicle efficiency standards beyond 2020. It also says that progress on improving the energy efficiency of buildings has stalled since 2012. Annual rates of cavity wall and loft insulation in 2013 to 2015 were down 60% and 90% respectively from annual rates between 2008 and 2012. I cite these points from the Committee given its status as an expert body.

The carbon budget and carbon programmes have substantial ramifications for endeavours, aspirations and targets way beyond the size of what appears to be the policy put in place at a particular moment. I have a lot of sympathy with the Minister in his task of putting the new low carbon programme together over the next period. He inherits a number of issues that have percolated down to short-term policy decisions, which have substantial ramifications on climate change targets over the longer period. Like my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband, I would like to big up the Minister’s new post. It is a good idea to have a Minister for climate change who is completely onside as far as climate change is concerned. Not only is he onside, but he has a long record of being onside. His commitment to this cause is absolutely unquestionable.