Queen's Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:56 pm on 16th May 2012.

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Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative 7:56 pm, 16th May 2012

My Lords, I want to confine my remarks to environmental issues and I start with the case for the green investment bank. The gracious Speech refers to the introduction of,

"legislation to establish a Green Investment Bank", perhaps more accurately called a green investment fund. It is not universally welcome on our Benches. My noble friend Lady Noakes said that she certainly thought that was £3 billion wasted. I recognise that if we are to justify the green investment bank, it has to stand up to exactly the same resilience tests of value for money and doing a job with government funds that market failure might otherwise fail to deliver.

If we wish to move towards a green economy, at the moment we are clearly hopelessly over-reliant on policy interventions by government, which are usually very expensive. We have to define quite clearly what we mean by a green economy. I think we all recognise that we mean: moving towards low-carbon technology for greenhouse gas reasons; more sustainable use of natural resources; reduced environmental damage, which simply means that later generations or neighbours pick up the bills for what has not been adequately captured by the market; improved resource efficiency; resilience to climate change; and energy security from diverse low-carbon sources. My noble friend Lord Crickhowell referred to that and, I say again, he was absolutely right to point out that to deliver this green economy you must ensure that those definitions will deliver maximised growth and create high-value employment.

Environmental security, as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell pointed out, is simply getting less and less probable after Fukushima. The Germans have made the disastrous decision, as far as I am concerned, to remove support for their nuclear industry. In the United Kingdom, we have therefore lost a possible six nuclear reactors while, as my noble friend also pointed out, the French company EDF's project to build two reactors is at risk. That is because of the record that they have in France at the moment for delay, being behind schedule and with double the budget costs. We may get some nuclear capacity, but clearly, because of the terrible neglect over 20 years of our nuclear heritage and its skills, which my noble friend again referred to, we are simply a long way behind the curve. We are going to be desperately short of non-fossil fuel energy, whichever way you look at it, so we need new approaches for green investment to make a critical contribution to energy security.

I will give one example where there is a market failure at the moment. It is a modest proposal; it is not going to resolve our issues of energy security or anything like it, but it is a contribution that should be looked at: energy from waste. It is a mixture of mature technologies such as anaerobic digestion, which we know a lot about, and incineration, together with new technologies such as pyrolysis, gasification and plasma arc heating. There is clearly a great lack of confidence in the investment community with these new technologies. I can certainly see that a kick start from the green investment bank might be extremely productive, and in the long run establish new industries and certainly contribute towards these heroic non-fossil-fuel energy targets that we have set ourselves. It is a double win, because the current amount of biodegradable waste from the catering trade, shops and food manufacturers that ends up in landfill is scandalous-and landfill, of course, contributes to greenhouse gases. It is a resource. We talk about maintaining and using our natural resources sensibly. You simply would not allow waste to be put in a hole in the ground. If it can act as a fuel or as feedstock for energy, that is clearly what it should do.

Public perception is the reason why we in this country are so inefficient at putting in energy from waste. We have a horror of incineration. Perhaps this dates back to a time when we did indeed deal rather less efficiently with emissions of toxic materials, such as dioxins and ultra-fine particles. That is not the case any more; incinerators must now abide by much higher European Union standards than fossil fuel power stations anyway, so we need to ask carefully of any planning committee that rejects either anaerobic digestion, which still seems to happen quite regularly for reasons that are obscure to me, or certainly incineration with modern technology, on what basis they come to this perverse decision. These are the sorts of issues which Switzerland and Holland, for example, have never had any difficulty with. Switzerland, which we would consider to be a clean country in many ways, finds itself with an overcapacity to burn waste and imports it from Italy. Likewise, Holland is importing waste, so we need to change our attitude towards incineration and the new, advanced thermal treatments such as gasification. We need to invest in them, and if there is difficulty in attracting the funding we must ensure that the green investment bank provides the start.

We cannot possibly meet these targets for non-fossil fuels without carbon capture and storage. Again, as my noble friend Lord Crickhowell pointed out, it is quite a long way away. It will need massive investment, not just by us but by many other countries. America, Norway and many other countries are spending a lot at the moment. We simply have to be in there. If we do not get carbon capture and storage right, we can dismiss for ever the prospects of meeting these heroic targets. We need to recognise that an investment in this sort of technology is absolutely the only hope we have of achieving these targets.