Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:19 pm on 2nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Chair, EU Internal Market Sub-Committee 12:19 pm, 2nd May 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rooker for introducing this debate so passionately, and we have heard an even more passionate speech from the noble Lord, Lord Deben, whose work on the Committee on Climate Change is absolutely central to us getting this right. Some 11 years ago, I served on the Joint Committee on the Climate Change Bill, which brought in the very first legally binding targets. Some 20 years ago, I was working with my noble friend Lord Prescott in his department when he went off to Tokyo and was so instrumental in delivering the Kyoto agreements. I am glad he will speak later today.

Some of those earlier promises have not been fulfilled, either nationally or globally. Globally, we are not yet on course to achieve anything like the 1.5 degrees constraint of growth; it will be significantly worse than that, even if we adopt some of the measures that will be advocated today. Nationally, we have had a number of successes, but some of those have been by default. We have also seen the abandonment of policies that were delivering many of those successes, such as the premature ending of subsidies to the renewable sector, the abandoning of some R&D in tidal power and carbon capture and storage, the end of an effective programme of energy efficiency through the insulating of existing homes, and a pulling back on the regulations for new builds in this country.

We have had some success, but we need to be a little cautious about this. My noble friend Lord Rooker referred to Greta Thunberg’s assertion. Some people derided it, but she is essentially right that some of our claimed progress is a bit dubious. In particular, we have essentially exported the carbon emissions from our manufacturing industry to the Far East. Part of China’s escalation is because Britain and the rest of the West have moved their dirtier industries to the Far East. Therefore, an assessment of demand—including demand for imports—needs to be taken into account when we congratulate ourselves on our achievements in this area.

The Government have been clear that we need to do something about this, but the reality is that it has gone down the list of priorities. Brexit has dominated our lives. Other things impinge—the housing and social care crises and so forth—but this is the central issue that any Government need to tackle. Yesterday, at last, following Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough and indeed the report from the noble Lord, Lord Deben, the House of Commons declared this an emergency. It was pretty obviously an emergency 20 years ago. We now need to treat it as such and to upgrade the actions on climate change within our government machine, this House, Parliament and the national consciousness. It has been downgraded and it needs to be upgraded again.

I have not had the opportunity to read the climate change committee’s report yet—it is a bit long; I will have a go at it tonight—but I hope it gives us a blueprint as we go forward, and I hope the Government take notice of it. There are some big decisions on the immediate agenda, such as the decarbonisation of domestic heat and of our transport system; we have made some progress, but still a very small proportion of our transport system is decarbonised. We need to look at developing hydrogen for both those purposes, as well as at things that themselves have some environmental impact as they rely on current battery technology.

We also need effective government machinery. We need proper regulations and, above all, the effective enforcement of and compliance with those regulations. For all the good words from Michael Gove and others, which I support, when we come to actually proposing the future principles and governance of environmental policy, climate change is not centre stage and the proposed Bill, which is yet to reach this House, is completely insufficient to ensure that the whole public sector—let alone the whole economy—is prioritising the fight on climate change.

I will use my last two minutes to talk about two things that have been mentioned but are normally prioritised down. We talk about emissions into the air, but I want to talk about soil and water. The combination of poor water management, increasing heat, less water being available and the insatiable demand of individuals and businesses for water in our country means we have to take much more drastic measures to control our use of water, such as leakage controls, water efficiency measures and control of the energy content of water infrastructure. We need to retrofit our houses and businesses with energy efficiency appliances, and we need better water catchment management in the first place. That needs to be delivered with the industry and with effective government intervention.

On soil, three or four years ago, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, who is not in his place, asserted that we had only 50 harvests left in northern Europe. That is the most frightening thing I have heard. It was the first time I had heard it, and I followed it up and read the literature behind it. It is truly terrifying. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, described, if we do not do anything about it, all our grandchildren will face within their lifetime a situation in northern Europe, and probably the globe, where the soil does not deliver the food, the biodiversity and the environment needed for human life to continue. It is a frightening thought that, 50 or 60 years from now, we will no longer produce enough food from our soil because of climate change, to a large extent, and bad agricultural practice and land use over the years.

Let us put those two issues back into the equation. Let us ensure that the Government take the situation more seriously. It is an escalating emergency, and I hope that we act on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Deben.