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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Birt Lord Birt Crossbench 4:03 pm, 6th February 2020

My Lords, the UK has already made much progress on the path to net zero, and we should not diminish that. CO2 emissions per capita are now well below comparable countries, as is our energy use; greenhouse gas emissions are down by over 40% in 20 years; half of our electricity is now produced, carbon-free, from renewables and nuclear; and coal burn will soon come to an end. However, 75% of our energy at point of use is still petroleum or gas-fuelled. Half of all our energy is consumed by households and is currently 85% carbon-generated. Transport consumes the most energy of all and is 98% carbon-fuelled.

The route ahead is mighty challenging, but we should be bold and not incremental or hair-shirt in forging a way forward. We can be optimistic, not pessimistic. However, only 1% of cars are currently electric or hybrid, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, reminded us. Can the Minister tell us how we will ensure readily available, easily accessible, rapid charge points for electric vehicles in our cities, towns and countryside? Only one-third of our rail network is currently electric: what is the plan for a zero-carbon railway? How will we move to electric or hydrogen heating in our homes, which are currently 90% powered by oil or gas?

These transformations are likely to need three to four times the level of electricity that we produce now but, as we all know, renewables are intermittent and cannot reliably produce energy exactly when it is needed. Currently, we store only a miserly 6% of peak electricity demand. Will we massively increase our storage capacity? Will we build more nuclear power stations to ensure a carbon-free baseload? We and other countries are stumbling badly in our nuclear plans. Will we adapt our approach to sharing risk with contractors on these advanced technology projects?

Newer technologies may—or may not—overtake us and offer better solutions. We should remember that technology has improved enormously in respect of renewables in the last 20 years; they are very much more efficient than they were in the past. However, any plan that we forge is likely to need regular revision. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, reminded us, nuclear fusion may ride to the rescue. Battery technology, which is currently sluggish, may experience a breakthrough, or we may learn to extract carbon cost-effectively from the air.

The noble Lord, Lord Reid, a moment ago, amusingly raised the issue of what the impact will be on our economy, which is a hugely important question. Philip Hammond talked of a bill of £1 trillion spread over 30 years. Who will pay—the consumer or the taxpayer? What will be the impact—this is a massive issue—on other public spending? How will we protect the poor? Will net-zero investment stimulate growth or stifle it? Britain is a small country, responsible for only a tiny fraction of global emissions. How will we ensure that we march in step with the whole world, and especially the big emitters? I thought that the contribution on that matter of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was very effective.

We will not carry people with us through this transformation if we move well ahead of the pack; that was the warning of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. How can we focus public debate on what most matters? One day, air travel may be electric, or powered by sustainable fuels, but it is the biggest technical challenge of all. International air travel, however, is currently responsible for only around 1% of emissions. It cannot be our first priority and crowd out far bigger and more easily achievable carbon-reducing solutions.

We cannot expect the Minister to answer all these questions today, but I hope that he will tell us how the Government plan to get a plan, and when we shall see it.