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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:51 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 4:51 pm, 6th February 2020

My Lords, a key message of the UK FIRES report is that it is tough to meet even our declared 2050 targets without a drastic speed-up in the deployment of novel technologies. I argue that there is a more compelling motivation for prioritising and expanding such efforts: even if we meet our targets, it makes only about 1% difference to global CO2 emissions. Far more crucial for the world is what happens in developing countries, whose challenges are more daunting—as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, reminded us. We could surely aim to facilitate a bigger fraction of global emission cuts by collaborating with developing countries on meeting their challenges and targets.

We in the UK can realistically move to an economy that uses less energy, but the developing countries in Asia and Africa cannot reach what we consider acceptable living standards by 2050 without generating far more power than they do today. Not only must their per capita energy consumption rise, but they will by then harbour more than 1 billion more people. It is the CO2 emissions from these countries that matter more to the world’s climate, and indeed to us. We must hope that these countries’ growth will be far greener than Europe’s has been, and that they learn from our mistakes and follow the precepts of the UK FIRES report.

Unconstrained climate change, with the risk of tipping points leading to genuine catastrophe, is a threat to global security. Minimising this threat deserves the scale of sustained effort that we commit to our national defences. The urgency is appropriate to a national emergency.

We have a head start. For decades we have had the Culham laboratory for fusion research. The newly funded Faraday Centre to develop improved batteries is a welcome step. This should be the nucleus of a broader and larger venture encompassing other energy technologies—especially those where it is realistic for the UK to achieve a lead—and computational climate modelling.

If a scaled-up and wisely prioritised programme can give the UK a lead in more efficient and cheaper carbon-free generation, vast developing markets could afford to leap-frog directly to clean energy, rather than building, for instance, coal-fired power stations. Our efforts could thereby make far more than a 1% difference to the global effort to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

The optimum structure and governance for accelerating our national effort—hubs of expertise to spearhead innovation and development—deserve serious discussion. We need institutions with long-term missions devoted to a national goal, crucial supplements to product-driven research in industry and journal-driven research in universities. Should these be free-standing national labs or beefed-up versions of the so-called catapults with mixed public/private funding? In any case, a modest fraction of funding should be reserved for blue-sky exploration of speculative ideas, probably best done in universities, which is the idea behind the fashionable ARPA model. How can we best ensure that there is take-up from UK industry so that we accrue long-term economic benefits if we pioneer important new technologies?

Unlike R&D in a defence arena, we are aiming here to combat a shared global threat, so we should forge co-operation and alliance with other nations, especially the developing countries for whom the threat is most severe and most intractable. How best this can be done is a severe political challenge that should surely be addressed.

A key mantra for the UK should be “If we don’t get smarter, we’ll get poorer.” With bold reforms to our education and measures to promote an innovation culture, we could contribute far more than our pro rata share to solving these global challenges. It would be hard to think of a more inspiring challenge for young engineers than to deploy UK expertise to provide clean energy for ourselves and for the developing world, nor a better investment in the UK’s future.