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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:35 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 4:35 pm, 6th February 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, for bringing this important report to our attention. I agree with it on a couple of key areas: we must not be misled by techno-optimism. Techno-optimism leads us to think that we can have a business-as-usual approach and just change the technology behind it. It also suggests we can have a one-for-one replacement of fossil-fuel cars with electric cars when, instead, the vast bulk of the replacement has to come from walking, cycling and good, affordable, reliable and convenient public transport.

Some of that techno-optimism lies in the idea of carbon capture and storage, which, rather like nuclear fusion, is a fantasy that has been receding decades into the distance for a very long time. Similarly, there is the idea of off-setting. I was at the Bonn climate talks three years ago, where there was an understanding that off-setting was dead. We need nature-based solutions; we need to grow many more trees and to treat our land very differently, but that is as well as slashing our carbon emissions, not as an alternative. It cannot be a trade-off.

Where I disagree with this report is on the goal of either net-zero carbon or zero carbon by 2050. I know your Lordships’ House has found this a very stark message, but I would say, as the science and the IPCC say, that we have to get to those levels by 2030. We need much faster change. I also very much disagree with a particular aspect of the language of this report. It talks about “lifestyle change”, which suggests a focus on how individual people behave. In fact, many people have no choices in changing their behaviour, because they are forced by the system to act the way that they do now. There is no point in telling people to leave their car at home and catch the bus if there is no bus service; it cannot be done. That is true in so many cases—people cannot afford the locally grown, organic food because it is more expensive. What we need is system change.

Perhaps to add further to the pessimism, the climate emergency is just one of the planetary limits that we are running up against. We are also trashing our planet with the nature crisis—of biodiversity and bioabundance —we are filling our oceans with plastic and we are destroying our soils. Behind all that are, essentially, externalised costs. Our current economic system is built on some people—big multinational companies, by and large—drawing large amounts of profit, with all of us carrying the weight of the cost of the climate emergency. We need system change, not climate change. We have seen growth as an alternative to equality: the poor get the crumbs; the pie gets bigger and so they get a few more crumbs. That cannot continue. We cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet.

Instead of techno-optimism—and to shift in tone—I want political optimism. That is what we can offer. In a democratic system we can offer people a better life: the green new deal and a just transition. The Minister will be very familiar with the phrase “levelling up”. We are talking about levelling up for the inequality of the north and other areas of the UK. That has been seen to mean more stuff—more high-energy transport—but let us think about levelling up life across the UK with a four-day working week as standard with no loss of pay. That can cut carbon emissions and improve people’s lives. Let us level up with affordable, reliable, convenient public transport. Let us level up with warm, affordable homes for everybody. This is the political optimism we can offer the people in a democracy to make the change.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, for bringing COP 26 into this debate. This is the crucial position we are now in. What will the future remember about the United Kingdom? Almost nothing that has ever been said in this House, but if we deliver a successful COP 26 in Glasgow, it will be remembered as a crucial turning point in global history. If we fail, that also will be what history remembers about the United Kingdom. A number of noble Lords have referred to Donald Trump and Scott Morrison. To quote the Governor of Texas at the Bonn climate talks, “Donald Trump is not an excuse for any of you.”