Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:41 pm on 2nd May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 1:41 pm, 2nd May 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, certainly knows how to get things done. No sooner did this subject for debate appear on the Order Paper than the streets of London were clogged with Extinction Rebellion demonstrators, yesterday the Commons voted to declare a climate emergency and today we have a 660-page report from the Committee on Climate Change. I think that that is tremendous. Another tremendous thing was how the Extinction Rebellion demonstration was received. I have some critical things to say later, but I thought that the tabloid newspapers would be full of “3 billion tonnes of CO2 released by cars jammed by Extinction Rebellion”, or “Ooh, look how this demonstrator travelled to London in a gas guzzler”, I thought that the establishment would turn on them, but in fact it has not. The demonstrators and their leader were received with great seriousness and respect, and I applaud that.

However, I do not entirely agree with the protesters, for two reasons. First—and this has even been a feature of your Lordships’ debate—we tend to forget how much progress has been made and in how many areas in this field: not just in public consciousness but in actual change. Some 47% of our electricity came from low-carbon sources in 2016: that had doubled since 2010. You can have Parliament sitting through every recess in history but you will not get faster action than that. I fear that campaigners tend to ignore such facts; they turn instinctively to the contemporary language and wisdom that Governments and politicians are fools and liars. Politicians have many faults—we have many faults ourselves—but we are not, on the whole, fools or liars.

Secondly, while applauding their motives, I think that some of the policies they seem to advocate are actually counterproductive in dealing with climate change. Take GM technology. We will have to be able to feed the world in more difficult circumstances in future, yet there has been a knee-jerk reaction against GM technology. I know that the greens are divided on nuclear power, but far too many people instinctively oppose nuclear power, which is the cleanest source of all. As we have heard this afternoon, new forms of nuclear power may emerge which combine safety and a big contribution to reducing CO2.

My final point is about fracking. I shall dedicate my remarks, at slightly greater length, to Nastascha Engel, who resigned as fracking tsar this week because the industry is being health-and-safetyed out of existence. I know that some noble Lords have spoken on this. My knowledge is confined to that which I gained when I was on the Economic Affairs Committee which completed, on your Lordships’ behalf, a very serious inquiry into fracking. The bottom-line conclusion is very simple: it halves the amount of emissions that would otherwise take place from fossil fuels and there are no serious risks involved. One witness who appeared before the committee complained that fracking meant using lots of chemicals. That is quite true: you use a lot of H2O in fracking. I asked him what chemicals he had in mind that he did not think were very good. His answer was that he was a hairdresser and could not be expected to answer such questions—this was the leader of the anti-fracking lobby in one area. It is great that he got involved, but we have to be careful that reason does not get lost in all this.

Another danger is that I am not sure that doing everything we can to reduce our emissions is going to solve the problem, particularly while we have a climate change denier in the White House. There may have to be new high-tech solutions which cut through. I commend the work of a former Economist colleague of mine, Oliver Morton, and his book The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. I will not go into the individual projects—iron fertilisation, for example. This is going to be a real challenge for those who believe, as I do, that we face a threat here. Are we going to take the attitude that these projects are welcome? If the scientists tell us that they will make a big contribution to reducing global warming, should they be embraced? Or are we going to get a lot of glib rhetoric about how this is just a way to get around reducing emissions, and lots of scaremongering about dreadful, and probably imaginary, side effects?

In the end, protests will not solve this crisis. Technological advance, mature policy-making and brave politicians will be needed for that. I hope that the demonstrators will in future deploy not just their hearts but their heads, in support of measures that really could avert this genuinely terrifying threat.