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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:55 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 2:55 pm, 6th February 2020

My Lords, in opening this debate, I am conscious that I am neither a scientist nor an engineer nor an economist. I claim no expertise in any of the many diverse issues that climate change raises and which will raise their head in this debate. My aim is to spark a broad debate that includes those with such expertise but embraces all stakeholders and, at the same time, to encourage the Government and indeed ourselves, the political classes, to provide honest and brave leadership to that process. The message of Absolute Zero is strongly that, without honesty and bravery, we will see the manifestation of a genuine existential risk, and our children and grandchildren—if they survive it—will never forgive us.

The authors of Absolute Zero—a recent report by UK FIRES, a consortium of UK academic experts—have done us all a great service by authoritatively and painstakingly exposing the degree to which we are being misled by a techno-optimistic approach to the climate change challenge. This may explain why the report, despite being funded by government money, has not really surfaced since its publication. The report poses some deeply uncomfortable questions for the Government about their strategy and about tactics. The noble Lord the Minister knows that I admire and respect him greatly; he is, in my view, the ideal Minister to face the challenge that this report presents. The House has faith in him because we have confidence that he will give straightforward answers to the many questions that the report poses. I intend to ask only the major ones in my opening remarks, but I am sure that other noble Lords will draw attention to others that also deserve a government response—I know that from conversations I have had already.

I am exceedingly grateful that so many noble Lords want to speak in this debate and I look forward eagerly to their contributions. But, in a sense, I feel the need to apologise in advance because, although it has been increased, the time available is insufficient for them to raise everything that they might want to say on what I think is the most important issue of our time.

I thank all the organisations that have circulated briefing papers to speakers and more broadly. They are all of value and, like the excellent House of Lords Library briefing, have increased my knowledge and have added to our debate even before a word has been spoken in this Chamber. On that point, let me take just a few seconds to repeat a suggestion that I made in a debate on knife crime in your Lordships’ House in June last year. As I cannot do justice to any of the briefings I have received, which are all full of great stuff, and as we are searching constantly as a House of Parliament for ways to make our deliberations more relevant to a wider audience and to embrace others, can we not open a web-based portal for every debate? I understand that it would have to be moderated, but it would both allow people who wish to engage with us to post their briefings in real time, having them preserved with the debate, and expand the debate out into society. Along with the Library briefings and other relevant papers, it would create a much more inclusive context for our work and allow us a significant amount of outreach.

Despite climate change being a pressing existential threat, leaders have so far preferred a series of long-term grand targets and few, if any, of the grand policies needed to achieve them. On Tuesday, Boris Johnson revealed why. The Prime Minister, like many other leaders, believes that technological advances will do the job for him. He is, in his own words, a self-confessed techno-optimist. It is clear from his speech on Tuesday that Mr Johnson, who may not “get” climate change, certainly knows the scale and nature of the challenge and can accurately catalogue our failures to date. He also set out a policy for achieving the goal set in bringing forward by five years the ban on the sale of petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles. So far, so good.

However, he thinks that on the macro-target we are making good progress; in his words

“since 1990—cutting CO2 by 42 per cent … through sheer determination and technological optimism”.

It is 42% only if you ignore emissions from aviation and shipping and those associated with imports and exports—and do we import. If these numbers are included, the true figure is more like 15%. The most significant contributors to this success are a cleaner energy mix based on gas and renewables instead of coal and the falling demand for energy across homes, industry and business. It is difficult to see how techno-optimism has played any significant role at all, unless Mrs Thatcher’s policies on coal were driven by techno-optimism—but that may lead me down a path where I do not want to go.

While our leaders talk about future technology—none of which has yet been delivered at any scale able to make a significant difference, never mind a sufficient one—cars are now heavier, internal temperatures in our houses and where we work are rising and we are purchasing more stuff and flying more than ever. In each case, we must encourage the opposite behaviour.

Clearly, not every Minister agrees. The comments made by Health Secretary Matt Hancock in response to questions about the government proposal to bail out Flybe pushed back directly on the need for us to fly less. Asked whether he should be giving a different message, he simply replied “No”, going on to say that we should continue to do so but

“use technology to reduce carbon emissions” as

“electric planes are a potential in the not too distant future.”

The Prime Minister made the same claim on Tuesday. Apparently, he has been assured that we are

“within a couple of years of having viable electric passenger aircraft.”

Technically, he may be proved right. At the Paris Air Show last year, a manufacturer unveiled an electric-powered plane that he promised would be flying in a couple of years’ time. We will see, but, even if it performs to the manufacturer’s optimum promise, it will carry nine people for a maximum range of 650 miles. Welcome as this is, there is no sign that this can be scaled up into a deployable technology that meets the scale of the aviation emissions challenge. Some 80% of such emissions are from long-haul passenger flights—flights of over 900 miles—a distance no electric aircraft presently in development could ever achieve, and none will unless there is a fundamental paradigm shift in electricity energy storage, which is not even on the visible horizon.

The techno-optimists have placed their faith in massive large-scale engineering solutions, but there is no convincing evidence that we can rely on their development in time—and time is running out. However, the contrary evidence is convincing. Absolute Zero quotes research from Imperial College showing that no significant energy technology has ever reached 20% of its eventual scale within 30 years of its first deployment. We simply cannot wait that long.

Apart from the fact that Absolute Zero is the most accessible reading on this subject that I have come across, this report is important in three respects. First, net zero is a misleading concept. The true target is absolute or real zero. There are no significant technologies to create negative emissions. No matter how you choose to do it, it takes more energy to take the carbon out of the atmosphere than we gained when we put it there in the first place. This—as I have learned recently—is the second law of thermodynamics: the energy required to create structure is always greater than the energy released in the destruction of structure. You simply cannot take carbon out of the atmosphere without giving it structure. If energy created by a non-emitting source is available, using it to do this would be a waste of that energy while we still use fossil fuels. Increasing the number of trees on the planet reduces the amount of carbon in the atmosphere only once. For example, if we doubled the area of forest in the United Kingdom, that would negate two years’ worth of emissions only—and only if we protected that forest for ever.

Secondly, no matter what incentives are offered, there are limits to the rate at which technologies can become significant. It is worth repeating that the report quotes research from Imperial College showing that no significant energy technology has reached 20% of its eventual scale within 30 years of its first significant deployment—we have only 30 years. This is because these new technologies are highly regulated and deploying them would require new standards, regulations, land rights, public consultations and discussions over finance and local communities. We are beyond the 11th hour on this issue and academics are screaming for the Government to show more leadership in this regard. So what confidence can we have that the Government are up to the pace of dealing with the barriers to deployment any better than they are judged to be dealing with the barriers to research investment?

Thirdly, and finally, there is the question of opportunity. The report reveals that once you embrace absolute zero, you can see a wealth of business innovation opportunity. I will give four simple examples, although there are many in the report: electrification of all existing energy services—I accept that it is simple to say and difficult to do, but it is simple and we have the technology to do it now; improvement and expansion of video-conferencing to stop people flying all over the world unnecessarily; turning down our central heating and stopping heating empty rooms would make a significant difference to our use of energy; recycling powered by renewables offers great opportunity for growth, exploiting the fact that global supply of steel scrap will treble in the next 30 years as an alternative to what we do at present. In the UK, we collect 10 million tonnes of steel scrap per year and export 80% of it, while in the meantime operating blast furnaces with imported coal and iron ore.

The report is a serious wake-up call. As Professor Richard Templer said this morning on the “Today” programme—he is not an author; I suspect that he was brought on to the programme to contradict the report but found he could not—the Government need to get very serious about this and pay attention to everything in this report.

Now that we are awake and being honest with ourselves and the people we purport to lead, it is not all doom and gloom. The report makes it clear too that, by changing our behaviours in a positive way and with incremental change exploiting today’s technologies, especially those that can be scaled up and already prove their worth, we can engage with this challenge now in a significant way and enjoy the breakthrough technologies when they emerge later. However, they will not emerge in time to solve the problem.

Constraints of time do not allow me to go into much more detail on the report, but there is not much point in doing so as your Lordships can read it for themselves. In preparation for this debate, it has been a pleasure to introduce many noble friends to this way of looking at the challenge, though not always successfully. A proportion of them responded by saying, “This report requires us to give up flying. That is unrealistic and will not be possible.” It does not do any such thing. It just tells us what we do not want to hear, which is that on the current trajectory, there will come a time when we are so far short of the target we have voluntarily and legally imposed on ourselves that the only way to achieve it will be, among other things, to give up flying and shipping. The authors of the report are not responsible for that—we are. We should not shoot the messenger for returning the message to its sender. We passed the law and we are responsible.

I have many questions for the Minister, but I shall restrict myself to three. Given that all of the negative emission options require us to expend more non-emitting energy than using energy to replace fossil fuels, do the Government accept that the use of net zero is misleading and that the target we have created is absolute or real zero? Secondly, the Prime Minister’s reference to the imminence of electrically powered passenger flight was calculated to make us all think that this was just the beginning of a journey that would significantly reduce aviation emissions by 2050. Will the Government publish the evidence that supports that rate of deployment of electric flight? Thirdly, assuming that Her Majesty’s Government are not solely dependent on technology to meet the 2050 target, can the Minister confirm that their intention is to do just as this report recommends; namely, to encourage changes of lifestyle and the incremental development of existing technologies to address this issue with what we know works? If so, will they publish a list of the initiatives that will advance that agenda?