Net Zero Carbon Emissions: Uk’S Progress

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:07 pm on 28th February 2019.

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Photo of Mary Creagh Mary Creagh Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 3:07 pm, 28th February 2019

I totally and passionately agree. We in the Environmental Audit Committee are privileged to have global thought leaders appearing before us and giving us the best available science. It is sometimes rather chilling, however; for example, Professor Jim Skea from the IPCC told us that our assumptions about how quickly we can decarbonise are perhaps based on over-optimistic assumptions and new technologies that have not yet been invented. So perhaps the discount rate for future technologies needs to be lower than at present. There are some truly profound moments in our Committee, and I am sure my hon. Friend would be very welcome to join it; we also have a couple of spaces for Conservative Members, so I hope we can get some volunteers following today’s discussion.

We have been leaders in this, and people still look to the UK for both thought leadership and policy action leadership. We provided that under the last Labour Government with the Climate Change Act 2008. A weakness in that Act has become apparent, however: there was no review process. We set up the Committee on Climate Change, which advises the Government—all well and good—but then it is up to the Government to heed that advice or to ignore it, which is less good, and there is no review process, so now if we do need to set this zero net emissions target, we will need to re-legislate, and I will be interested to hear from the Minister about the necessary policy mechanisms.

We have signed up to the 2015 Paris agreement and to the UN sustainable development goals to create a more equitable, sustainable world. Our Government will subject us to a voluntary national review at the UN this year, and I urge all Members of this House to participate in that process. It is about how we end poverty, violence and hunger in every aspect of our communities. Our Committee has looked at the hunger aspect, and I welcome the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Office for National Statistics will now start to measure hunger in our country. Real sustainability comes not just with social justice, but with climate justice as well.

I want to talk about why net zero emissions matter. In October 2018, the UN’s leading scientists—some of whom were British—showed what could happen if we do not get to net zero. Extreme weather is already happening; the warming is already with us, as we are seeing with the tragic events on Saddleworth moor, the heatwaves in the Artic last year and the fact that we have had the hottest February day on record. The Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the planet, and in February 2018 temperatures at the North Pole rose above freezing during the polar nights, which is when the sun has not even started to come up; it was 30° higher than normal. When we talk about an average of 1.5°, that means a 7° rise at the North Pole. That is catastrophic for the melting of the sea ice.

We had a deadly summer last year, and we also had the highest number of excess deaths last year because of the beast from the east; we had 40,000 excess winter deaths in this country. So when we talk about climate, we are also talking about ourselves; we are talking about the fact that we are conducting a vast experiment on the only system on which our life depends. We do not what we are doing; we do know how to stop it, but there is a kind of collective passivity around the action needed. When we see cities such as Cape Town in South Africa running out of water, and when we see power stations in Australia unable to work because it is too hot, we have to ask ourselves what a 1.5° or even a 2° warmed world will look like.

The IPCC also showed us what the difference is between 1.5° and 2°. At 2° sea levels will be 10 cm higher. That means 10 million more people will be affected by flooding and coastal erosion. That is what the difference between 1.5° and 2° means. At 2°, all coral reefs die. Our children will never see a coral reef at 2°. If we keep the increase to 1.5°, one third of reefs might survive. We have cold water reefs on our shores that we do not know about. We do not value what is beneath the ocean.

Our species are becoming extinct at a rate that has not been seen since the last global mass extinction. We have just been hearing about the insect Armageddon. Our planetary health inquiry found that rates of extinction are between 100 and 1,000 times higher than what is considered to be natural diversity loss. This affects our food systems, because if pollinator populations are devastated, we will have to pollinate our fruit trees by hand, as is already being done in parts of China.

Soil is the only carbon sequestration system that is known to work at scale and for free, yet we keep treating our soil like dirt. [Laughter.] That was my little joke. Soil is the Cinderella ecosystem. We like clean air and clean water, but what we should really like is dirty dirt. The more dirt that is in our soil—I do not mean bad dirt; I mean organic content—the better it is. In Paris, we signed up to increase our soil carbon content by four parts per 1,000, but I have not yet seen any policy to support that, either in the public goods debate around farming or from the Minister. I would be grateful if we heard something about how we will incentivise farmers to achieve that and to incentivise urban guerrilla gardeners such as myself to achieve it in our own homes. If I knew how to do it, believe me I would.