Paris Climate Change Conference — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:26 pm on 17th December 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 3:26 pm, 17th December 2015

My Lords, the Statement on Tuesday gave this House the opportunity to congratulate all those involved in the COP 21 talks: Laurent Fabius in particular and the French presidency in general, and of course our own UK team, including the noble Lord the Minister, and I am delighted that he is replying to the debate this afternoon. He has come back hot-foot from Paris, and I warmly repeat those congratulations formally in this debate.

Today is also an opportunity to explore in a little more depth the big questions for the UK that follow on from those successful talks and just how the Government will build on the successful outcome of COP 21. I am especially looking forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Sheehan, as I am sure the whole House is.

Paris has given tremendous political momentum that we must capture. It has been a very long time coming. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, is in his place, and I am sure that he feels it has been a really long time coming because he put so much personal effort into making sure that it stayed a live issue.

I will take a quick glance back and then a slightly longer look forward. I am sure that all noble Lords remember the time when climate change was labelled a “green” issue for scientists only. Although politicians talked about it, and NGOs mobilised people around the issue, it was not considered a “serious” issue like defence, foreign affairs or the economy. It was the noble Lord, Lord Stern, who focused attention on the fact that climate change affected all those serious issues fundamentally. He made people understand that economically it made absolute sense to tackle the issue. That enabled a position in the UK where the draft Climate Change Bill enjoyed all-party consensus and was passed as the Climate Change Act. The private sector began to ramp up its investments in a low-carbon future, but the financial woes of 2008-09 meant that momentum slowed to a crawl. It was only the valiant efforts of a few, such as my friend the right honourable Ed Davey, that kept it alive at all.

With a successful COP 21 we can again look to the future. I do not think that that future is a fantasy; it really it very nearly a reality. In that future your home could be its own powerhouse. It could be a flat in a building that is both a powerhouse and a green lung. Solar and ground source energy will mean that being cold due to fuel poverty will shortly be as unthinkable as not having running water in your home is now. Battery technology is moving on apace and storage will no longer be a problem. There will be a smart home that regulates itself according to your wishes. I welcome the Minister’s statement about the ambition for smart meter rollout in the near future.

The town and city of the future will have clean air and lots of green surfaces absorbing rainfall. Its businesses will have a circular economy where the waste from one process will be material for another and transport will be clean and green. This is not a fantasy future. The technologies are either in place or in development.

It is not only about new build. The BRE briefing paper just out shows how simple changes to the homes of older people could save the NHS £600 million a year. However, this future needs investment in research, skills development and support for private investment that moves us in that direction. I am sure my noble friend Lady Parminter will mention the solar power debacle. This future has to happen fast, of course, because our country urgently needs hundreds and thousands of affordable homes.

My first question to the Minister is: why do the Government think that affordable housing is incompatible with developing zero-carbon homes? Various organisations, such as Cardiff University and the BRE, have developed models of homes that are incredibly energy efficient and cost £1,000 or less per square metre to build. So the models are out there and they are coming in at the right price.

Some of the technology is incredible. Let us take as an example an everyday product such as cement. I have learned that cement as your Lordships know it produces about 5% of the world’s carbon emissions. But the new-style cement being developed will be carbon negative because it will be able to sequester carbon dioxide as it ages, and that is in development now. So there are lots of very exciting things going on.

There are many things we need to do differently to address the climate change issues. We need, for example, to farm differently. We need to look after the soil, which can absorb much more carbon if it is full of organic matter. Soil that is rich in organic matter not only can grow more food but can absorb more water and suffers less erosion—and yet the UK has no soil strategy.

Looking abroad, one of the great success of COP 21 was that the final draft positively mentioned forests, particularly those in tropical areas. Your Lordships will know of the critical role that forests play. The UK can be rightly proud of its contribution to the REDD-plus programme which supports forested nations to restore millions of hectares of lost or degraded forests. It is another win-win programme because it not only has great climate change benefits but will restore habitats to many of the species that the human race has driven to the edge of extinction through the loss of their habitats.

This future will not be easy. Funding, of course, will be a major issue, as has been highlighted and spelled out by the IMF, which talks of the need for an international agreement on carbon prices and the sort of deal that would generate substantial fiscal revenues by eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and by charging for the damage caused by emissions. It is pretty complicated stuff and I am not going to try to address it today.

This picture is set against the background of falling prices for fossil fuels. While that will certainly bring joy to the motorist at the pumps, it will bring its own difficulties and make it harder to invest in renewable technologies in the short term. That is where the Government come in. It could also have a destabilising effect on some of the big oil-producing countries and, again, we will have to consider that in more detail later.

The noble Lord, Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee, said recently that the UK should be proud to have created a vehicle such as the Climate Change Committee, giving long-term certainty within a short-term democratic political system. He hit the nail on the head and was quite right. Without that committee, the momentum from Paris would inevitably dissipate as other political issues came up the agenda, not least Europe. So we warmly welcome the fact that we will have the fifth carbon budget in the first half of next year. It will be a chance to highlight the practical measures that the UK can take to get it back on track to meet its targets. At the moment we are not even on track to meet existing targets, let alone the new ambitious ones.

As I mentioned, the low-carbon future is not just about meeting targets: it offers so many win-win opportunities for a cleaner, healthier future for people. It is essential that the Government resist the old, tired siren voices that decried the debate on the Statement by calling it a love-in. Those voices have no place in the sort of future we are trying to build for our children. We all have a responsibility to wholeheartedly seize the opportunities, ramp up the targets and invest in all our futures.