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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:56 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Viscount Hanworth Viscount Hanworth Labour 4:56 pm, 6th February 2020

At this late stage of the debate, I am bound to repeat much of what has already been said. For a start, it must be said that unless, in a very short period, humans can forgo the activities that emit greenhouse gases, they will unleash forces beyond their control that will eventually overcome climate change. These would include the inundation of low-lying croplands, drought, famine, pandemic disease, industrial collapse and large-scale human mortality. In the process much of sub-Saharan Africa and much of the continent of Australia would become uninhabitable and there would be an unprecedented migration of human populations.

It may be doubted whether such eventualities can be averted by the foresight and abstinence advocated in the UK FIRES document we have been discussing. My fear is that we may run out of time before most people will be prepared to accept the stringencies being proposed. Indeed, some of the measures proposed are liable to cause an economic collapse in advance of the otherwise inevitable one. For that reason, they are liable to be resisted.

The report dismisses the possibility that significant technological advances will be available to redress climate change within the time at our disposal. It has identified activities that must cease if the 2050 target of zero emissions is to be achieved. These include terrestrial, marine and aerial transport, which contribute largely to our current emissions. Land vehicles will have to be powered exclusively by electricity. Flying must cease. International shipping, which depends largely on diesel fuel, must be curtailed.

Among the significant industrial sources of carbon emissions are the production of steel and cement. Electric furnaces must replace furnaces fuelled by coke. The emissions from steelmaking come from both the coke and the limestone or calcium carbonate employed in the processes. In future, steel would have to be obtained by recycling scrap metal within electric furnaces.

Cement, which consists of anhydrous calcium oxide, is produced by heating limestone to a high temperature to drive off the carbon dioxide. Its continued use in a decarbonised world would require carbon capture and storage, a technology about which the report is sceptical. Without an abundant supply of cement, and in the absence of other materials, building would have to be curtailed. Finally, mention should be made of the substantial quantity of methane that is emitted by grazing domestic animals. This is a potent force for global warming. We are told that to avoid the effect, we must forgo our consumption of beef and mutton.

To achieve the objectives of the report, there must be a plenitude of electric power. The report is curiously silent on how this will be provided, and the impression is given that it is expected to come from renewable sources. It is estimated that if we continue to increase the amount generated from renewable sources at the current rate, then by 2050, if we exclude all fossil-fuel generation, we will have 50% more power than we have today. This would be enough to satisfy 60% of our current energy-consuming activities. Thus, a substantial reduction in economic activity is implied, even though this has not been explicitly proposed in the report. This would amount to the economic collapse that I have mentioned previously.

We can do much better than this if, without delay, we espouse a nuclear future. I am surprised by the reticence of the report in this connection, and by its failure to recognise some of the resulting advantages, not least of which would be the ability to store energy in the form of hydrogen. This could be generated by electrolysis, if nuclear power was sufficiently abundant. The storage of energy in hydrogen would overcome the problem of the intermittence of renewable sources of power. Much of our transport could be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and the two-tonne Tesla electric car—of which a quarter of the weight comes from the battery—would be seen as a white elephant.

The question arises of whether our nation can afford to go it alone in staunching our emissions of greenhouse gases. The authors of the report assert that if there is to be any chance of averting the catastrophe, we must take the initiative. We must give a lead to others, regardless of how unwilling they might be to follow us. In the process, we are bound to seek technological alliances to promote the development of, for example, fourth generation nuclear reactors and the use of hydrogen for the storage of energy, for heating and for powering our transport.