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Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:16 pm on 2nd June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Layard Lord Layard Labour 4:16 pm, 2nd June 2015

The Government said in the gracious Speech that they will seek effective global co-operation to combat climate change, including at the Paris negotiations in December. That is very welcome, and of course Britain has a great reputation as a world leader on climate change. But suppose this Government, or any other, commit themselves to a target for the reduction of greenhouse gases; how can they be sure of delivering the target? By far the surest way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is for clean energy to become less costly to produce than dirty energy. That is the central proposition: clean energy must be cheaper to produce than dirty energy. It is a purely technological problem; in fact, it is the biggest single technological problem facing humanity today.

On current forecasts, the world’s rise in temperature will exceed 2 degrees centigrade within the next 30 years. Once that happens, it will eventually lead to a 6-metre rise in sea level. It is that scary story that has made world leaders commit to stopping the rise in temperature before it hits 2 degrees centigrade. But of course that can be achieved only by an unprecedented rate of technical progress in reducing the cost of clean energy. At present, we are mainly relying on the private sector to deliver that. However, given the urgency of the situation, we have to say that the progress being made is simply not fast enough. The forecasts are terrifying.

In the past when nations have been faced with existential crises, they have called on the scientific community to engage in major, focused, publicly funded programmes of research and development. Good examples are the Manhattan Project and the Apollo moonshot programme. That is what we need today—that kind of focused, publicly led research and development effort to tackle climate change. That is why seven authors, six of whom are Members of this House, have come together in recent months to propose a so-called global Apollo programme to tackle climate change. The Government are taking that on board, in a way that I will describe in a moment, but let me first describe the proposal.

The proposal is not dissimilar from the moonshot and has three components. First, there is a 10-year target: within 10 years we must have base-load electricity from renewables that is cheaper than it is from coals. Secondly, there is the scale: all nations are being invited to join, but any Government who join must commit to spending, each year, 0.02% of GDP within the framework of the programme. Our country is in fact spending about that amount at the moment, which is £350 million per year. Thirdly, there is the framework within which the money is to be spent.

This is being based on what has happened, in a way that many people do not realise, in the semiconductor industry over the past three decades. It is not a mystery that the price has come plummeting: it is the result of a concerted effort. The Semiconductor Technology Roadmap Committee makes an international technology road map for semiconductors each year that identifies the blockages to reducing the price, and it commissions research to unblock those obstacles. The majority of the money has come from the public sector, but the whole effort is a public/private partnership in which allocation is done jointly by government and businesses. It has been enormously effective and is obviously the only way in which we can have a chance of averting the disaster that faces us. The main areas for research are renewable energy generation and, even more importantly, the storage of it for the times when it is needed, the market and the methods of distribution.

The Government have adopted this proposal, I am happy to say, except for the scale of the expenditure, on which they are at present reserving their position until the comprehensive spending review. With that reservation, they are putting the proposal to the G7 leaders meeting in Bavaria this weekend. Of course, it is vital that they commit themselves to that expenditure as soon as possible, and it is really important that that happens before the October date of the comprehensive spending review, or whenever it is. Unless we have a government commitment on this issue, we cannot provide the leadership that would turn this into a major British initiative of real world historical importance.

I quote Sir David Attenborough, who argues that this is at last,

“an authoritative, practical and comprehensible plan that could avert the catastrophe that is threatening our planet”.

I earnestly hope that the Government can give it the highest priority and act on it within the next few weeks to give it their complete backing.