Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:51 am on 2nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 11:51 am, 2nd May 2019

My Lords, I say at the outset how I pleased I am to notice that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown of Cambridge, are on the speakers’ list. Global warming is the ultimate world crisis with specific national dimensions. A warning 30 years ago spoke of the “insidious danger” of,

“the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, the oceans, to the earth itself … by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases … at an unprecedented rate … It is mankind … changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways”.

That was Margaret Thatcher at the United Nations in November 1989. I recommend to noble Lords a read of the entire speech.

More recently, in 2006, the specific dangers were spelled out in a government-commissioned report. It stated that all countries would be affected by climate change, but that,

“the poorest countries … will suffer earliest and most … Climate change … is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”,

and, crucially, that,

“the benefits of strong and early action far outweigh the … costs”.

That was the substantial Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, conducted by the then head of the Government Economic Service, Sir Nicholas Stern—now the noble Lord. He included a host of recommendations, including carbon pricing, technology policy and energy efficiency.

Carbon emissions are made by all countries. The top emitters are China at 30%, the United States at 15%, the EU 28 at 10%, India at 7% and Russia at 5%. Two-thirds of global emissions therefore come from the top five emitters. I fully accept that, looked at per capita, by emission intensity or in terms of cumulative emissions, the order changes, but not fundamentally. It is clear that the large emitters will need to reduce substantially to affect the global situation.

In this month’s journal of the Institution of Engineering and Technology—I declare more than 50 years’ membership—there is a worrying article asking:

“Is China returning to coal-fired power?”

It is based on a recent study by Global Energy Monitor, Boom and Bust 2019, which indicated that, while the number of coal-fired plants under development worldwide dropped steeply for the third year in a row, and coal plant retirements continue at a record pace, there is a glaring exception in China. It is claimed that observation by satellite shows that developers have quietly restarted construction on dozens of suspended projects. The China coal capacity cap has been reset at 1,300 gigawatts. This would allow an extra 290 gigawatts of new capacity—more than the entire coal fleet of the USA at present. The report warns that global climate goals cannot be met without a full halt to new coal plants and rapid retirement of existing operating plants.

The Sierra Club, a US environmental organisation with over 3 million members, says that the US is on course to phase out coal by 2030 and transit to a clean energy economy. However, more than half the world’s new oil and gas pipelines are under construction in North America, the bulk in the United States. Global Energy Monitor points out that these pipelines are locking in huge emissions for 40 to 50 years, when the scientists say that we have to move in 10 years. It is a worrying story from two large emitters. The UK started all this, of course, with the Industrial Revolution. The UK is obviously a low emitter on the world scale, but we are part of the third largest and we will remain part of the European Union integrated electricity market. We have responsibilities from a historical perspective as well as to the next generation.

How are we doing? The science is world class, but I am not so sure about the performance. The scorecard against the actions recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Stern, does not look great. The special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a wake-up call. The problem is it might be the final call. We are only 11 years away from 2030, which is a tipping point. The main consensus is that if the temperature rise is not limited to 1.5 degrees centigrade by 2030 there will be long-lasting, and in some cases irreversible, changes to the planet’s ecosystems. Rapid and far-reaching changes are required for all society, with faster development and application of new technology, as recommended in the Stern report, followed up by today’s publication of the report by the climate change committee, I am pleased to see.

We cannot rest on the fact that we were the first nation with a Climate Change Act with legally binding targets. We and the world have continued population growth. We have doubts about new nuclear build for clean energy, which must carry the baseload in the future, even if we maintain gas with carbon capture and storage. We have abandoned wind-generated power on land. Energy efficiency via insulation is less than what it was. We have given planning permission for a new coal mine. I will repeat that: we have given planning permission for a new coal mine. It should be stopped. Listed building consents continue to stop the use of certain clean energy techniques. We continue with the third runway and fracking, on both of which I have changed my mind.

I want to be positive, but before that it is worth mentioning that the effects of careless land use have now led the United Nations to estimate we have only 60 harvests left before the world’s soils are too barren to feed the planet. Michael Gove has said that we are 30 to 40 years away from,

“the fundamental eradication of soil fertility”.

We need to take urgent heed of the science before it is too late. Young people are taking the science seriously. It is the facts they want—not fiction from vested interests. Earlier this year I spoke at a sixth-form college lunchtime meeting and when the students arrived they apologised to the lecturer for bunking off on strike in the morning as it was a Friday. They had been out in Hereford city centre campaigning on climate change. They are concerned. In the recess, my 11 year-old granddaughter asked us to be quiet while she watched and took notes from David Attenborough’s TV lecture on the facts of climate change for her school project. She is worried. An unnamed 10 year-old was quoted in the Times last week as asking the question:

“If the pollution goes on like now, how long have we got left”?

A few days ago I attended the meeting in Portcullis House to listen to Greta Thunberg. As I listened to this remarkable young woman I became more and more uneasy. I remembered that I moved the Second Reading of the then Climate Change Bill. Her reference to the UK’s “very creative carbon accounting” was powerful, and it does not really matter what your view of the statistics is, or who says what; the fact is that our figures are affected to a great extent by the closure of the old coal-fired stations, as ordered by the EU, and emissions from aviation and shipping are excluded, as are the emissions from our imports. Of course there has been progress, but we are unable to claim really serious changes in many of the issues, including carbon pricing. Where are the waves of new technology for clean energy and very substantial energy efficiency programmes?

The Climate Change Act, which started life in your Lordships’ House in 2007, was world leading then, but it now looks a bit modest. I might add that 2007 was the year I bought my first diesel car, on government advice. The Act allows for shipping and aviation to be included in the targets, so there is flexibility. After it has been more than 10 years on the statute book, these should be included.

As I said, I want to be positive. It is not too late. Governments, nations and individuals can all make changes. New technology is the key, and this has to include action on removal of the greenhouse gases that are already there, as set out in the joint report from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, for example. Policies should include such things as afforestation of 5% of UK land, restoring wetlands and ensuring that building practices include using wood and cement with carbonated waste. I understand, though I have not seen all the details, that this is covered in the climate change committee’s report, which we will hear more about. The solutions should be mainly market driven rather than flat subsidies, because we need to create a new kind of economy, which has to be sustainable. The new economy has to be regulated, of course; therefore, government must play a role. Investment will not flow into new products and new ways of working unless there is confidence in a plan.

Here I come to my final point. Climate change does not fit our political system nor the electoral cycle. As Minister Claire Perry said last week in the Commons, there has been cross-party support and consensus building. In my view, this needs urgent strengthening. We need to fit the political system to meet the challenge up to 2030 at least. The status quo is simply not tenable. It needs national leadership from a Prime Minister to change the machinery of government to create a Cabinet committee, to include the three opposition parties, business, finance, agriculture, and construction as a way of locking in actions across the electoral cycle and creating confidence for investment in new products and techniques which are going affect every home in the land. Of course it needs high-level commitment from opposition leaders as well. I do not think it is any longer acceptable to hide behind the current excuse avenue of one Parliament not binding another. We need to make some changes.

Such a process as I have broadly outlined will not work on its own. Therefore, I see a role for a commission of climate action oversight, consisting of, say, seven Members of this House with powers to report to Parliament, the relevant political parties and the public on failures to act by such a Cabinet committee as I have set out, and its members, in the interests of achieving targets and working across the electoral cycle in the public interest. It is only by such changes, which I fully accept are wholly radical, that we can get a message to the public that something is different about this—that it is not the same as the other political issues we have dealt with. I might add that I propose that Cross-Benchers should be in the majority on such a commission, because that would give it greater force when dealing with the other place.

The Government and the elected House have to be in the lead and give a lead, but too often, and we can cite lots of examples, there is inertia for political and other reasons. I think that an oversight commission from this House, with the necessary powers, could provide the clout. I do not intend to take any further time, I am very grateful to all those who are going to contribute and I beg to move.