Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:05 pm on 14th May 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Donoughue Lord Donoughue Labour 6:05 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, I agree with every rapid word from my noble friend Lord Prescott, but I wish to focus on the energy section of this debate, bearing in mind the threat of a new Energy Bill. I will concentrate on the Government’s decarbonisation agenda, pursued with little concern for the competitiveness of our economy and with its accompanying pressure to prevent the exploitation of our rich shale gas reserves, which threatens to produce a serious energy crisis in this country.

Last week, a global warming campaigner from this House denounced those who question green orthodoxy as, revealingly, the “forces of darkness”. I say revealingly because the language is religious or religiose. Much of this debate is conducted in those terms. The greens claim the high moral ground, pursuing the virtue of—ambitiously, I must say—saving the planet. “The end of the world is nigh”, they say. Those of us who question them are evil sinners.

Perhaps with the decline of Christianity and the fall of Marxism, our chattering classes need a new faith. As a Roman Catholic, I respect faith but I am aware of its scientific limitations. I have always—including when I was my party’s spokesman here on energy—supported a healthy environment, limiting pollution and using energy efficiently. At first, I accepted unquestioningly, as was wrongly claimed, that there was a unanimous consensus among scientists supporting the global warming case and that only a tiny lunatic minority questioned it. But then I found a serious number of questioners, including scientists, on the internet and in this House, although many spoke in hushed tones for fear of denunciation as deniers—like neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust. Nasty that. Now the polls show that at least half the nation is sceptical. Even media commentators have started to question, although not of course the BBC, which is still a propaganda branch of the green faith. The Met Office also remains true to the faith that the planet will boil, forecasting mild winters and barbecue summers, which never appear.

The basic facts on global warming are that the planet has recently been in a warming phase and since 1880 has warmed 0.8% of 1 degree. However, in the past 16 years, there has been no further warming, and the Met Office forecasts that the globe will not warm further in the next five years. Beyond that, the warming trend may resume. We do not know. The strict link between carbon emissions and the degree of global warming has been questioned, given that emissions still increase while temperatures do not, and atmospheric carbon levels were much higher in the last ice age. We need better evidence.

The problem is that our Government are committed to spending scores of billions of pounds on policies that assume that the alarmist beliefs are already proven facts. Those policies involve a massive switch to uneconomic renewable energy. The costs threaten to make some of our industry uncompetitive and fall disproportionately on the poor, and the number of those in fuel poverty has reached new peaks. Nearly 20% of recent energy price increases come from green imposts.

The massive investment in wind power, despite producing barely 5% of our electricity generation, is a particular folly. Environmentally, wind turbines can have many negative effects, as set out in DECC’s 2010 appraisal. Financially, they are a disaster. The cost of subsidies and integrating them into the grid—ultimately borne by consumers—will reach £5 billion a year by 2020 and by 2030 will have doubled again, totalling well over £50 billion.

Onshore wind costs double and offshore wind costs treble the cost of a combined cycle gas plant. This huge cost is because of their inefficiency. They often do not work in very cold, windless weather. In the severe cold spells of 2010 and 2011, they at times contributed less than 0.5% of Britain’s power. They need some 80% of back-up capacity from the fossil fuels they are supposed to replace. So wind does not replace fossil fuels; it embeds the need for them and drives up the price of power generally.

A further burden imposed on our society, and especially on the poor, by the green agenda has been the obstacles put in the way of developing our rich reserves of shale gas, estimated to meet our needs for the next 150 years. This abundance, as the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, said in his excellent maiden speech, could help to generate huge tax revenues and to rebalance the economy by boosting manufacturing, especially with jobs in the north.

We should note that in the United States shale has provided tens of thousands of new jobs and reduced gas prices by two-thirds, while the green jobs bonanza has proved a mirage. In the States it has created only 2,800 jobs at a cost of nearly $12 million a job. The prospect for green jobs may be just as thin here, with most windmills built abroad.

So why is the shale revolution not happening here? It is mainly because of ideological hostility to shale exhibited by greens in DECC and especially by Liberal Democrat Ministers. Scaremongering about shale fracking, alleged to cause so-called earthquakes and water contamination, was well publicised in the media—less so the later inquiries by the Geological Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, which showed that fracking has never caused any human or structural harm and will not do so if conducted, as it must be, according to established safety and environmental rules. Yet the alarmists continue their opposition. They do not want safe shale; they want no shale. This is economic madness.

What should be done? My own Labour Party is rightly attached to environmental values and should continue so, but in a balanced way and not with excessive green faith and global warming ideology. It should remember our historic concern for jobs and not damage the competitiveness of the economy, and it should show concern for poor people freezing in winter with rocketing energy bills. Labour should be wary of elitist green policies which pay rich Scottish and Welsh landowners and big corporations billions, derived from green taxes on ordinary people in tower blocks in Glasgow, to rent out their estates for wind farms. This could involve the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich since the 18th century enclosures. It is not clear to me that it should be a central Labour policy.

As for the Government, the Prime Minister should remove Liberal Democrat Ministers of extreme faith from the energy department. Right now, he should ensure that the Energy Bill meets Britain’s critical energy needs and stop littering our countryside with a blight of windmills.

Finally, for the wider issues of climate change, the importance of which I do not deny but the causes of which are not scientifically clear, we should monitor climate developments in a measured and non-ideological way. We should react on proven evidence, not on hysterical alarmism and not by assuming that Britain, with barely 2% of the world’s carbon emissions, should lead some imperial moral mission to save the planet, and certainly not by damaging our economy and the living standards of our people. That is not the responsibility of any sensible and mature Government.