Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:28 pm on 2nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 1:28 pm, 2nd May 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on this important debate about critical decisions being taken by societies and Governments on the key issues of human-induced climate change and the important decisions that need to be made about the future. Yesterday’s report in the UK was certainly a significant contribution.

I declare my interest as a former head of the Met Office, which is a world-leading organisation for climate change research. I am also involved in UK universities, which play a world-leading role in climate science.

Decisions are greatly benefiting from the excellent explanations of the science from the BBC and other media and the many practical measures being taken. Even schoolchildren have been following this. Other noble Lords have referred to their grandchildren; I refer to my scientific granddaughter, who has also greatly enjoyed these programmes. These programmes and public demonstrations, and notices on French motorways, are explaining the need to reduce the artificial emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. We have to avoid the steady rise in concentrations of these gases to avoid a gradual rise of temperature in the atmosphere and on the ocean surface.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, emphasised, public debate and decisions are now focusing on the damage to societies and infrastructure caused by floods, fires, high winds and rising sea levels. The classic case of this is small countries in the Pacific which are likely to have to evacuate their islands as a result of sea-level rise. Environmental dangers to agriculture and industry will also have high costs, as other noble Lords have emphasised. Evidence of human-induced climate change is particularly visible in the polar regions, not only in the melting of sea ice and glaciers but also in the significant effects on weather patterns at lower latitudes, as we have seen with the varied jet stream and polar vortices now regularly referred to in the media. It is quite something when you have to use new expressions to explain the changes taking place.

Noble Lords might be surprised to hear that these models are also extremely important in reassuring about the future. As we learned at a Royal Society meeting in 2015, these models show how, if the rise of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases was to cease—as many noble Lords have talked about—the models show that this would actually lead to the climate patterns returning. In other words, for much of this century we are still in a situation where, if the policies are correct, we will see a return to the nature that we want.

We also need to continue science in order to debate with climate sceptics. There is still a problem with some leading newspapers, as I saw to my surprise on the central page of the Times yesterday. As has been commented on, critical policies for reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere depend on reducing emissions resulting from human activities such as industry and transport and on finding the direct, innovative responses that we need in industry, transport, deforestation and controlling the vast emissions from natural sources of hydrocarbons, such as high melting permafrost and fracking in the northern United States. Soil and water policies are also critical, yet the World Meteorological Organization, at which I used to represent the UK and in which we are very involved, has, regrettably, begun to consider the possibility of downgrading the historical importance of international water programmes. This is an important matter which I hope the Foreign Office will take on board.

Technological developments must minimise the dangers to society and enable new low carbon designs for societies, especially in endangered and highly populated urban areas where temperatures are threatening human health. For example, solar collectors are a new technology which can be used to minimise high temperatures in tropical urban areas, as large cities in China do now. Urban dangers are also important in coastal areas subject to extreme flooding. We must also consider the exposed, mountainous areas in Nepal. There are other examples where energy technology policies need to be combined with different types of electricity generation. This is why, in the UK, wind and solar have to be combined with other energy systems, particularly nuclear, that can operate in weather conditions when the renewables cannot.

In Asia, the generally low winds and cloudy conditions are driving the need for nuclear energy in, for example, Laos, Vietnam and Singapore. These countries are currently planning for future energy based on nuclear fission, but at the same time there is growing public and private investment in Europe and the United States in nuclear fusion which may be providing clean energy in the next 10 to 20 years. I declare an interest as a consultant to Tokamak Energy Ltd. Thanks to recent technological breakthroughs in superconducting magnetic fields, in which the UK is a pioneer, and plasma physics, we may see this. The great advantage of fusion is that it will not produce radioactive waste, mentioned by other noble Lords. Indeed, the technology will eventually safely reprocess waste, which is one reason why I am so interested in this advanced technology. I am confident that it will benefit society, as previous developments of science and technology have done.

Considering and explaining the benefits to society is an important role for world leaders. Mrs Thatcher, from long ago, has been spoken about. Let us hope that, when Mr Trump comes here in May, we give him an earful of what the House has been hearing this afternoon.