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Green Finance - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:34 pm on 18th January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Fox Lord Fox Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 4:34 pm, 18th January 2018

My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Teverson for securing this debate and for proving that he is the very model of a modern eco-warrior. I will focus on two areas: resilience to climate change, and transparency; and—the Minister will not be surprised to hear—the industrial implications of this for the UK.

Starting with resilience and transparency, historically UK pension investments were dominated by fossil fuels, not least because of the position of Shell and BP in the FTSE. A managed retreat from that exposure to fossil fuels is in our interests not just societally but in terms of our pensions. Progress has been made but it should be noted that the value of local council pension fund holdings in fossil fuels has actually risen 15% to £16 billion over the past two years.

Planning and reporting decisions need to be made rationally. They need to be based on investment-grade analysis and backed by real data. London pension funds have been global leaders in pressing companies to report their exposure to climate change, as we heard from the previous speaker. We warmly support the Bank of England and its task force on climate disclosure and reporting requirements for companies because clearly, we need to do more. In that regard, does the Minister have any comments on my right honourable friend Vince Cable’s suggestion regarding reporting? He suggested that the UK should follow France’s lead in ensuring that disclosure applies both to companies and the flows of finance. That would include requiring investors to explain how their policies align with UK carbon budgets set under the Climate Change Act. As your Lordships know, transparency on sustainability, alongside transparency in financial reporting, helps investors make informed decisions.

This is a global trend and, as we have heard from other speakers, the UK benefits hugely from being an early adopter, helping to shape how the practice has developed globally. The Government can best help this by setting standards for transparency. Can the Minister reassure the House that the momentum injected into transparency by the coalition Government will not be lost over time? Reporting will also be assisted by common standards so we are looking forward to the output of the BSI, which is working closely with industry to develop a new set of green and sustainable finance management standards. The first standard will be produced, I think, early this year, but these standards will be voluntary. Can the Minister confirm that once the standards have emerged, the Government will put their weight behind getting business and other areas to adopt them? Without a standard approach, comparison becomes very difficult.

Turning to the industrial implications of this sector in the UK, as the Minister knows, importantly, the Government’s published industrial strategy includes a clean growth strategy. Clean technology must be an important element of our future industrial strategy. BEIS estimates that clean tech already employs about 430,000 people in the UK and is growing at double-digit rates. The very existence of the clean growth strategy is itself positive and we welcome it. Clean energy entrepreneurs have long felt that they were fighting for recognition. This starts that process. The Government have firmly stated that this industry is not a niche and that the clean economy is an important growth area for the UK economy. We welcome that.

Of course, the challenge is what happens next. This is a very broad sector that operates at many scales. It covers everything from a neighbourhood scheme to insulate homes, to a £1 billion offshore wind farm. Can the Minister perhaps devote some of his time to explaining the way in which the Government’s industrial strategy will vary across these different opportunities? Of course, progress turns not just on government but on access to finance, and we have heard strong interventions today from other speakers. Yet the UK’s Green Investment BankGIB—has been sold to Macquarie. Before the sale, GIB demonstrated the benefits of building a centre of expertise in green finance. My party regrets what we see as an ideological sale. While there are other games in town for those seeking finance, the Government must now further free things up, in particular by changing—as my noble friend, I think, pointed out—the fiduciary duties of owners of pension funds.

Place was another important, and very welcome, aspect of the industrial strategy. In that regard, the existing clean-tech industry is more geographically spread than many other industries: it is helping to rebalance some of the industrial activity around the United Kingdom. Much of this industry serves local people and is inherently distributed across the country, so it serves the “place” part of the industrial strategy agenda to continue to encourage it. In addition, the Government now plan local industrial strategies. Can the Minister say how these will incorporate the green element?

Funding for smaller projects is still a challenge. With the sale of GIB, we lost an organisation dedicated to this sector. It was, I repeat, wrong for it to be sold. We now need the Minister to explain how the Government will encourage more microfinance for the smaller, more locally based projects around the country. Perhaps the Government should also commit to allowing local authorities to borrow for green infrastructure improvements related to energy saving or other green elements.

I turn to business investment. Many businesses perhaps choose to spend capital on new plant, rather than fixing some of the environmental needs of their sites. The Government can do more on messaging the importance of efficiency—in the energy or environmental sense—to leverage higher productivity, and they can look at taxation. Will the Minister undertake to speak to Treasury colleagues about how tax can be further used to drive green investment in our industry?

Worryingly, the UK is becoming a less attractive destination for green investment. For example, the EY—formerly Ernst & Young—index measuring countries’ attractiveness to energy investment saw the UK fall from fourth place in 2013 to 10th place in 2017. Can the Minister tell the House how he intends to reverse this negative trend?

I expect that the Minister will mention the Government’s green finance task force, as have other noble Lords. We welcome it, but my understanding is that it will meet three times and disband after six months. Can the Minister confirm that and, if it is true, say what he hopes to get from such an ephemeral gathering?

Clean energy forms a significant part of green finance. Energy is complex, as the Minister knows. Heat, transport and power are inextricably linked. Any action on one element has a reaction elsewhere. Energy is badly served by decisions taken on political instinct or to grab headlines. Energy investments are long term, requiring investors to consider future policy for several Parliaments to come—often more than several. We need stable policy, developed collaboratively across the whole industry.

A clear pipeline of future work is the best environment for clean investment. Businesses that see a future market will invest in technology, facilities and the skills of their people. That helps bring costs down and hastens the transition to a clean economy. Furthermore, it will unlock the clean finance we need.

To conclude, the UK led the way on resilience and reporting. It has built great expertise in investing around the world, as we have heard from other speakers. As this debate reveals, there is cause for positive thoughts, but overall there can be no backsliding: it is a competitive world. Most of the success outlined here today is a result of decisions taken five or 10 years ago. We need to know that this Government understand today’s challenges and opportunities. I call on the Minister to convince us that he has that understanding.