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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:16 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 3:16 pm, 6th February 2020

My Lords, I agree with page four of the report, which states that in reality, most UK cuts in emissions have been the result of Mrs Thatcher’s decision to switch from coal to gas-fired electricity generation. We must remember that both the Labour Party and the Liberal party fought tooth and nail against those reforms.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, for instituting this debate and for saying that he wants a wider debate on these issues. What is confusing to start with is whether we are going for net zero or absolute zero. Both are heading in roughly the same direction, but they will take us to different points and will affect our lifestyles and livelihoods very differently. So we need to be clear which one of the two we are going for and we also need to be clear that the rest of the world is following in the same way. We cannot go down one route by ourselves while the rest of the world goes down another.

I will focus on one key message, which is set out on page 2 and covers the food and agriculture industry. It states:

“Beef and lamb phased out by 2050 and replaced by greatly expanded demand for vegetarian food.”

That statement is contrary to the message that was put out by Dr Debra Roberts, the co-chair of the IPPC working group in August last year, that we would include sustainably sourced food as part of our diet for the future. Which of the two are we to go for? What the report also does not do is mention any of the consequences. What are the consequences of this action for the rest of the environment and biodiversity?

The report focuses on cattle because they produce methane. Cattle are not the biggest producers of methane in the world, termites are—but we are not talking about termites because we do not farm them. What the report does not tell us is that beef cattle raised on deforested land produce 12 times more greenhouse gas emissions than cattle reared on natural pastures; there is a huge range of emissions from the same animals, depending on how you feed them. One must remember, of course, that our cattle greenhouse footprint in the UK is currently about two and a half times lower than the world average. That is because most of our cattle are on pasture.

While we are on cattle and sheep—which they want us to abolish—the report also says, on page 4, that absolute zero means absolute zero: there cannot be any emissions. So you can give up your beef and lamb, but you also have to give up your farmed prawns, farmed fish, pork, chicken, cheese, beer, dairy milk, eggs, coffee, tofu, nuts, pulses, rice, beans, carrots, barley, wheat, potatoes, oats and maize. They all produce emissions and they all have to go, if we believe this report. It is worth pointing out that a bar of chocolate from a deforested rainforest emits more in greenhouse emissions than a serving of low-impact beef—so let us treat the report with a little care.

So far as the UK is concerned, it is worth noting that our cattle numbers in England and Wales are about the same today as they were in 1932. In 1974 they were about 56% higher in the UK than they are now. So far as sheep are concerned, we graze about the same number of sheep in England and Wales now as in 1868. Sheep numbers are well down from their 1992 peak.

The report also says that we ought to reduce our cutting down of trees. The number of trees cut down in the UK in the last 100 years is not that many. In fact, in England and Wales the amount of forestry has doubled in the last 100 years, so there has not been any cutting down of trees. There is also a new report which says that, because of the increased annual rainfall, the forest and forest floor are not as good at absorbing carbon as they used to be. That is from a study in America. A lot more work needs to be done on that.

Despite the fact that this report has produced a very gory headline that appealed to the press—getting rid of lamb and beef—it needs to be treated with a certain amount of caution.