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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:12 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Grantchester Lord Grantchester Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 5:12 pm, 6th February 2020

This has been an excellent debate on the imperatives of climate change. I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton for initiating the debate and throwing down the challenge with the report entitled Absolute Zero by UK FIRES, a research collaboration of five British universities. I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Oates, to his party’s Front Bench.

The report is an excellent critique, with a fresh look at what must be achieved to reverse climate change, set against the parameters outlined by the Committee on Climate Change in its advice to government on achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The vast span of these reports is reflected in the number of speakers today, and I thank all contributors for their thoughtful remarks.

It is also interesting to reflect on a third report called Zero Carbon Britain, recently published by the Centre for Alternative Technology, an educational charity dedicated to researching and communicating positive studies for environmental change.

The obvious realisation is how far behind the pace the Conservative Government are. They need to move forward from standing on the shoulders of the giants of the climate change transition movement, especially when they have reversed policies, cut programmes and cancelled projects in the 10 years they have been in unfettered power. Back in May 2019, the Committee on Climate Change reported:

“Current policy is insufficient for even the existing targets.”

That refers to the target of reducing emissions to 80% below the baseline of 1990 by 2050. The committee repeatedly points out that the Government are not even on track to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets.

The pace of climate change is quickening. The policy reports from the IPCC and others are piling up, and the Government are dithering. The UK now has the challenge of a net-zero target by 2050. The Government are yet to set policies to achieve this. They have secured COP 26 in Glasgow and are waking up to how vital it is for the international community to begin to make rapid progress on climate change action, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said in their remarks.

The Government must reset the dial after the weekend’s debacle and demonstrate determination by getting on with the agenda, publishing the long-overdue White Paper and the road map across all technologies and sectors of the economy. A wonderful achievement would be for the world leaders to sign up to announcements at the conference to bring international aviation and shipping within the scope of measures to combat climate change.

The international aspects and politics of climate change were reflected in the remarks of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and my noble friends Lord Lipsey and Lord Soley. New disasters can trigger conflicts in fragile settings, while climate-related disasters already displace 25 million people annually.

The importance of this report, so ably introduced my noble friend Lord Browne, is that it suggests a further, more ultimate objective. Over time, as progress is made, new horizons, possibilities and imperatives for further progress materialise. If the Government’s pace of response does not speed up, more will have to be achieved with more urgency. It will be a huge challenge even to meet the necessary parameters of the new net-zero legislation, which must be interpreted as a mere staging-post that will have to be replaced with better horizons even before these targets can be reached.

The second message of this report is that plans should build on existing and experienced technologies to be reliable, rather than expecting untried, theoretical technologies to come to the rescue. My noble friend Lord Browne calls this mindset “techno-optimism”. As advised by the CCC, the Government cannot reliably build on carbon capture utilisation and storage as achievable in time when they have not set up any trials or projects that could get the technology going.

That does not mean that the Government should not embark on this and other technologies: all will be needed to power past milestones set by targets such as net zero. The energy mix will change and advance. For example, the UK, a coastal state, has yet to make much progress on tidal power.

The comparison of net zero and the absolute zero of this report, coupled with realistic assessments of timing achievements, is startling. While it calls for incremental change, the report challenges the Government, business and the general public to make strategic change a priority. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, told us, the Stock Exchange and the CBI are already responding to investments set by environmental, societal and governance goals. Further returns to companies, pension funds and investors are being shown to be consistent with this new measure.

All sectors of the economy are assessing their future risk registers with climate change in mind. This includes their employees. As members of the public, they too want to be able to add their contributions through supporting renewable schemes. In this regard, I congratulate the Government on introducing the smart export guarantee scheme for solar PV and other technologies last month.

All speakers highlighted the extent of the challenge that societal changes will make to people’s everyday lives. It was hugely disappointing that the Conservative Government scrapped Labour’s zero-carbon homes. Energy efficiency of homes still remains a huge challenge after the failure of the Green Deal. Citizens Advice said that 92% of survey respondents would be happy to make their homes more energy-efficient to ensure that the UK meets its net zero targets, and 60% of them suggested that they would need support to do this. Some 79% said that they would be happy to change the way they heat their homes; of these, 76% also suggested that they would need some help. This is 60% of all homes—that is, 17 million households.

Still requiring insulation, improved lighting efficiency and a ramping up of the introduction of heat pumps, buildings account for roughly 34% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. My noble friend Lord Whitty reminded us that the Government have all the powers of persuasion through incentives and the tax system, as well as the stick of regulation. In this regard, mayors, local government and councils also have their roles to play. All needs to be bold on the huge challenge of decarbonising heat—a once-in-a-generation challenge, perhaps the biggest since North Sea gas.

While the UK has made progress on adapting and changing sources of power generation, especially through renewables and nuclear, it is way behind on transport, currently the largest source of emissions, which regrettably rose between 2013 and 2017. The Absolute Zero report argues that all transport must either be electrified or phased out. The report also sensibly calls on the Government to focus on scalable technologies and stop giving out mixed messages with contradictory actions. All forms of transport are still works in progress, including aviation and shipping.

To the public, Britain’s railways have been a shambles since the Government’s privatisation agenda, yet the challenge is to integrate not just the UK’s disparate rail network but that of the continent. There is no reason why rail journeys cannot replace all flights where journey times are less than five or six hours, including check-in and other time-consuming activities; travellers can already reach their destinations by rail and cut out these polluting flights. This is a new perspective on the requirement for high-speed rail.

The breadth of topics and areas covered by this report is extensive. It is impossible to do justice in the time available to all the important points drawn out by our speakers today. Climate change sets the parameters within which the Government need to keep up with policies that focus on reducing this one global threat. My noble friend Lord Reid set out the responsibilities of government. The Government need to make headway; they need to respond with ambition, tenacity and encouragement, and this cannot be soon enough. The challenge is to stop polluting the planet. No one can pretend that it will be easy.