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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:31 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Giddens Lord Giddens Labour 3:31 pm, 6th February 2020

My Lords, for the past few days I have been absorbed in the book A Farewell to Ice by Peter Wadhams, the head of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge and one of the world’s leading authorities on the Arctic. The Arctic ice has crucial properties in stabilising global temperatures, since it reflects a significant proportion of solar radiation back into space, and it is simply melting away. A “practical catastrophe” for humankind is how he describes what is happening there, since there is no way back.

What can the UK do to counter such destructive forces—a country of 66 million in a very large world? The answer is pretty clear. By being in the vanguard it can act as a role model for others and in the immediate future, as noble Lords have said, inject driving force into COP 26. Absolute Zero is a significant contribution to this endeavour, especially if it can be further developed and generalised. I like it partly because I am an academic myself and a whole range of very distinguished scholars and other figures are involved in it. The idea of a “living lab”, in which leading figures from different branches of industry collaborate with academic experts to chart ways forward, is compelling.

At the same time, we must think much more macroscopically. We must progress locally and globally. I support those who declare a state of climate emergency. Humanly induced climate change on a grand scale is unique to our era and a fearsome challenge. It is not a question of “saving the planet”—the planet will survive whatever we do—but of saving our civilisation. It is a challenge quite different from any which ever preceded it. No society ever in human history has had to face an issue like humanly created climate change on a global level before. It shows the immense task that there is.

Every crisis is an opportunity, or so they say, and the authors are entirely right to put great emphasis on this. I also endorse their optimistic tone, as long as it is balanced with the recognition of the absolutely huge nature of the risks. The authors say that we cannot depend on breakthrough technologies to get to zero emissions, yet we must surely continue to fund research into them quite heavily. Among the billions the Government are proclaiming they will spend on this and that, they must actively promote blue-sky research into technologies that might cut emissions and I hope at the same time have positive economic benefits. I would welcome a comment on that from the Minister.

This must include geoengineering, even if the risks and dilemmas around it are very large. Here we must return to Peter Wadhams. He says we have already passed the tipping point. At this point, we have to budget to at least investigate removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a large scale.

As it stands, the Environment Bill falls short of reaching absolute zero emissions, yet it will codify into law that the UK must reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Some 60 other countries have announced similar ambitions, including France and Germany—both sizeable economies. However, the sheer scale of the challenge is shown by the fact the three major countries standing on the sidelines—the United States, China and India—have a combined population of more than 3 billion people.

COP 26 will be the largest conference of world leaders that the UK has ever hosted. I ask the Government to involve our top researchers and scientists directly. I ask the political parties to put aside their other differences and work with the others in putting real substance into the calls for a green new deal. I ask my party, represented in front of me, not simply to bash the Government over the current difficulties with the COP 26 presidency but to be constructive and engaged. I hope the Government will listen and respond. This time, the whole world watches and waits.