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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:01 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 5:01 pm, 6th February 2020

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register, having worked until recently for the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, which is a major grant-giver to organisations working to tackle climate change.

It is daunting to speak from the Front Bench for the first time on this subject, amid the great expertise and knowledge that have been on hand in this debate. It has been made even more daunting by my Chief Whip walking in about a minute before I stood up. I hope noble Lords will bear with me.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, on having secured a debate on such an important report. As we have heard, the challenge facing us can feel overwhelming and insurmountable. The efforts required of our society, and of us as individuals, have been likened to mobilising for war. However, this is complicated by the fact that, to a significant degree, we are our own enemies. It is we collectively who are resistant to taking the actions that we know need to be taken. Unlike tackling an issue such as TB or malaria, here we will have to reduce doing some of the things that we like to do, such as flying. We must understand this.

As a political society, we are quite good at setting ambitious targets for the years ahead, and these are welcome, but we are much more reluctant to set out the detail of what reaching these targets will entail for us all. So long as the targets are a long way ahead and the detail of how we will reach them is not given, these are, to some extent, costless promises and, to a degree, worthless. However, this report is very important, because it starts to lay out the choices that will be demanded of us. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, said, this is not about telling us what we must do. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness said “they” want us to give up beef or lamb. I do not think they want us to do anything. What they want us to understand is the things that will have to be done if we are to meet that target.

As my noble friend Lady Walmsley and other noble Lords have said—and the report makes the point—we cannot focus simply on reaching net zero. We have to aim at absolute zero, and not just on the territory of the UK but in relation to the carbon that we are in effect generating. The scale of that challenge is enormous. It is matched only by the scale of our moral obligation to the generations who follow us. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, if we do not act with the urgency that the situation requires, our children and our grandchildren will, rightly, never forgive us.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, made the important point that we cannot think of these as just lifestyle choices that people make. We have to create the environment in which people are capable of making them and in which the choices are available. This will require significant attention from the Government because it requires action across the board. A lot of what is talked about in this report is incredibly challenging for us to deliver politically, which is why it is worrying that we are not doing even some of the things we need to do which are less challenging. For example, on transport, we are way behind on electrifying the whole railway system, and that would be relatively easy to do. Likewise, my noble friend Lord Stunell did a lot of pioneering work in government on emissions from buildings and established the zero-carbon homes standards, which were later allowed to lapse. We simply cannot go on pretending we can achieve the targets we set when we are not doing even the relatively easy things.

On our energy mix, I have a number of reservations about nuclear but I fundamentally believe that at this point we cannot afford to be ideological. We have to investigate all the options in front of us in a sensible, rational and scientific manner to ensure that we have the tools available to meet the challenge ahead.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Redesdale that this issue is far too important for us to allow it to become a partisan football. While I slightly disagree with him on George Osborne’s position—I spent quite a lot of time battling with him during the coalition Government when he seemed to want to block everything from the Department of Energy and Climate Change— I take the point that this is something that we have to tackle together, and I welcome the actions that the Government have taken, including the recent announcement of the phasing out of petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by 2035, and I welcomed the previous Government’s adoption of the 100% target. This issue lends itself to far-off political decisions without much political cost, and we must address that.

In this debate and in previous debates noble Lords have mentioned worries about costs falling on people on the most marginal incomes. This is a serious issue. We must urgently turn our attention to how we take the actions we have to take in a way that creates an equitable burden. However, the actions we need to take are not an option. We have to take them, so cost is not an excuse for not acting. We just have to work out how to take those actions. It is incredibly urgent that we do so because, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, this is not just an issue for the future; particularly for people in developing societies, it is a current issue. It is impacting on people in a devastating way and it is increasingly likely to fuel conflict and mass migration.

Although we must be prepared to understand the scale of the threat that we face and the significant changes that will be required, like the noble Lord, Lord Soley, I also believe that we should not think that fear is the best way to effect change. We have to inject hope into the debate if we are to effectively galvanise society to take the decisions that have to be taken. As the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, wrote in his excellent book, The Politics of Climate Change:

Martin Luther King didn’t stir people to action by proclaiming ‘I have a nightmare!’”

He gave people a dream. He did not try to pretend that there were not huge obstacles in the way of achieving that dream but he gave people a reason to seek to overcome them. I fear that in some of the language of despair, we give people a reason to think that there is nothing that we can do.

Luckily, as the report tells us, there are great opportunities, as well as threats. The report says that delivery of absolute zero within 30 years with today’s technologies requires restraint, not despair. It also sets out the tremendous opportunities that exist through committing to zero carbon. To borrow again from Martin Luther King, we all have to recognise the “fierce urgency of now”. We have to act but, in devoting our attention and efforts to acting, we have to look not just at the technical and practical steps but—perhaps as importantly, if not more importantly—as the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, at how we tackle the political challenges, which may well prove to be the most complex problem of all.