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Climate Change - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:22 pm on 6th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 5:22 pm, 6th February 2020

My Lords, as expected, this has been a wide-ranging debate, covering a great many aspects of energy.

I have before me a big lump of coal, which I picked up on the beach of St Andrews when I was studying geology there many years ago. This has powered a revolution, changed the world and brought poverty under control. It has also begun to create the very issues that we are dealing with right now—some of the most serious issues this planet will ever have to deal with. It sits as a bookend on my desk. I put this piece of coal before me as a reminder that, back in 2015, we said that we would phase out coal by 2025. Today, in 2020, we are going through several weeks at a time with no coal whatever in our electricity generation. Setting a target further away does not mean that you wait until that date arrives; it means that you set your ambition and try to achieve it before then. There is every possibility now that we will reach a situation in which no coal is used in our electricity generation at all, nearly five years ahead of that scheduled date.

I have tried to think of a way of summarising the report. It is like fashion in the 1970s: good in parts, shocking in parts, and in some other bits, not so good at all. The reality is that the things we see in it shock us. They are a reminder that we cannot be complacent. A number of noble Lords today have spoken of their fear of our complacency. A number of others have said that we cannot rely on these breakthrough technologies because—goodness me—they will take so long to reach that point at which the reality of what they can deliver will be manifest. But we have to recognise, as we have with offshore wind and some of the other technologies that we are seeing now ,that we do seem to move them forward faster than expected. I appreciate the challenge in aviation, but I note that the distance between the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and having significant fleets that could cross the Atlantic was far less than 30 years. We are finding that we can see technologies moving faster than expected.

We are not talking about breakthrough technologies. The noble Lord, Lord Ravensdale, reminded us that, as we look at something such as carbon capture and storage, the real question is often one of scalability. The elements of the technology are in place; what is required now is commitment to deliver against them. If we start looking at bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, we begin to see the movement we might even make towards the negative emissions world. This will not be easy, and it will require investment. Right now, our Government are committed to investing in carbon capture and storage; we have to do that as part of the solution. Look again at the IPPC’s report: it says that carbon capture and storage will be part of the solution. This country is slightly guilty, having put forward £1 billion to address this, but then no one took it up and the £1 billion disappeared. You might therefore think the UK was particularly bad but, as a former MEP, I can tell you that a significant sum of money was put forward for carbon capture and storage across Europe—and no country took it forward. We missed a trick some time ago, but we cannot miss it again and will not do so. This Government are committed to making sure that carbon capture and storage is a significant part of what we do.

Equally, when we look at the emergent technologies within nuclear, it is easy to talk, as many do, of fusion as always being over the horizon. However, we can start looking at different sorts of nuclear now: the small modular reactors and advanced modular reactors. We are putting substantial amounts of money into them, and there is a remembrance that doing so can also begin to change the paradigm. If we set off with the assumption that we cannot do it with these particular technologies, then the report may well be accurate; but the problem is that it is not accurate if these technologies can be developed at scale. We have to grasp that with both hands, particularly in the year of COP 26 in Glasgow. I am struck by how important that event will be for us here in this country to send a message elsewhere.

I was also struck by some of the words of the noble Lord, Lord Judd. He is right to remind us of the question of social justice across the globe. It is easy for us here, who dug out the coal and hewed it from the pits to build an Industrial Revolution, to look across the globe at those who still have those resources but will not be able to take them out without the climate experiencing problems. Look at Africa: Botswana sits atop one of the largest untapped coal reserves in the world. Can we tell them “Leave it in the ground”, and that their electricity must therefore come from other sources? Bear in mind that, right now, most of their electricity comes from over the border. It does not even get generated inside that country. The reality is that most of that country does not have electricity at all; people create their energy by burning wood. We have to recognise that there needs to be a fair transition and a just transition.

We in this country have not just talked the talk; we have walked the walk. Since 1990, we have seen a 42% reduction in our emissions. It may be argued that these are low- hanging fruits, but we have still done more than anybody else, alongside a 73% increase in our GDP. That is the message India wants to hear: that they can have economic development and growth by decoupling from emissions. What they do not want to hear is that they will have to put a depressant upon their ability to grow. One of the most frightening things to have in the developing world is for this nation or others to say, “You shall go no further; you must rest where your development is now, because that is what we dictate it must be”. We cannot do that. It will not surprise your Lordships to realise that no country will follow our lead if that is what we say. We must be able to show how to decouple our energy and emissions from our ability to generate economic growth. If we can do that, we will make significant progress.

As we look at the calendar year ahead, this Government will be making statements about the way forward that will take us towards net zero by 2050. I say again net zero, not absolute zero, based upon what the Committee on Climate Change says. That committee was established to advise the Government—whichever party happens to occupy the Government—and we rely upon it to give us the advice that we will go forward with. We will have a number of strategies.

In housing, we will look at the domestic decarbonisation approach and our strategy to deliver this. We will need to do so in tandem with fuel poverty; again, there is no point in decarbonising while making people cold and sick. We need to make sure we go hand-in-hand with that just transition for all the people.

We need to look at a decarbonising strategy inside transport. There, we have a challenge that will not be easy to meet because, in truth, most people do not have an electric car, and we are nowhere near the tipping point where that car will become affordable. Again, we need to find that tipping point and we have a strategy coming out in order to help us deliver that.

There will be an overarching energy White Paper that will look at the bigger decisions that we have to take. Decarbonising domestic heating will be a real challenge. Shall we electrify the entire grid? If we do so, bearing in mind that electricity tends to be more expensive, we need to address fuel poverty head on if that is the case. Or are we looking at putting hydrogen into the grid in a hybrid or pure form? We will resolve that question this year. We will make a decision to determine that and to support the way forward. It will not be an easy transition, however. Underpinning all the things that we have spoken about today is the question of who will pay. The answer is that we will all pay. Either as consumers or taxpayers, the same individuals will pay, whether through the tax code or ultimately through bills. We need to recognise that.

Also this year we will have to address the issue of agriculture. My noble friend Lord Caithness was very clear. He basically asked what message we were seeking to send to our own farmers. If the message as we approach the distant point of 2050 and have not met the target is simply that there will be no more sheep on the hillsides and no cattle at all, we are not sending a message that helps them build and grow. So, again, we must look at what the EU will do and what the UK will do. There needs to be a support structure in place to help our farmers address the emission challenges. We need to recognise that that will not be straightforward. It will not be easy and there will be a cost that will need to be met. But we have to encourage them to do that. Again, the Agriculture Bill coming forward will be necessary to do that.

There will need to be a peatlands strategy. The last thing we want in Scotland, Wales or the north of England is our peatlands drying out. We sometimes forget how important the carbon sinks are. A number of noble Lords spoke about that. If we find ourselves in a situation where that is possible, we need to find a way of addressing it. There will be an English tree strategy—which sounds slightly niche, but it is about not just one tree but a whole, wide forest. The Government have made a commitment to plant the Northumberland forest.

Some may say that forests are a little like the notion in the Catholic Church of someone praying for your sins on your behalf—I look to the right reverend Prelate on that, although I am not suggesting that it is perpetuating it. But we have to recognise that afforestation will have a significant part to play, not just in the sequestration of carbon but in biodiversity. Restoring quality forest will matter—not just plantation forests. That could make a significant difference.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said that we were sometimes guilty of not speaking enough about Italy. Of course, we are co-hosts of COP this year and it is important to stress that we are working in collaboration with Italy. We will be doing significant events with Italy, whose focus this year will be on Africa and youth. We are working in collaboration with Italy to ensure that COP 26 going forward recognises both those things.

The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, posed a question about ice and seeing the end of ice. The albedo effect is absolutely critical in the way that we address warming and we need to ensure that we do all we can to preserve the ice structures that we presently have. That will perhaps be the biggest test that we have, and some will say that it might be beyond our ability because of the systems inherent in the ice itself. I do not believe that that is necessarily true.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, was very helpful with a number of the points that he raised. He was supportive of the Government. I am not sure his Chief Whip will be smiling at him, but I none the less recognise that the statements he made were helpful. The Government have done a significant amount, particularly in relation to companies and the register at Companies House, to ensure that people are now on track to record the wider question of energy usage. He asked whether that could be done electronically. I see no reason why it cannot, so I will give a tentative commitment to say that I will explore that as strongly as I can to see if we can do it. I am sure that I will quickly receive a letter from the Box if I am wrong, but I happily commit to that in the short term.

The noble Lord, Lord Reid, is often very specific in the way that he puts his points. He spoke about the dislocate between what a scientist might say and what an economist might say. I remember an old joke. When different people on a desert island were asked how they would escape, the scientist explained how he would build a boat. When asked the same question, the economist said, “First, assume you have a boat”. The problem with economists is that often they have a very different way of looking at things. We need to be talking about science, and the Government’s policy needs to rest on science. It cannot rest on the idea that economics will drive this forward. There needs to be a balance between them.

I have been told that I have one minute to finish, which seems a limited amount. I will say two things to end: the net-zero approach is important and we are a global leader in that. The challenge will be to get others to come alongside in this year of climate action, not least the European Union to join us in the same endeavour—that will be important. We need to be able to show that our technologies are scalable at home and deliverable abroad. They need to be available to the rest of the globe, so that the globe can enjoy the benefits of our technological achievements and scientific advances. If we can do that, we can make progress.

The important point—the Banquo’s ghost of this discussion—is that finance will be at the heart of decarbonising the globe. In doubling our commitment to the International Climate Fund to £11.7 billion, we are making a substantial commitment. We invite other countries to do the same. That money will be used for mitigation and adaptation, in order to address the climate and also climate consequences. We need more money to do that going forward, otherwise it will be a very different world a lot sooner than 2050, because we are living through real change now.

I fear that I have not been able to answer all the questions that have been put today, but I am against a tighter timetable than I had anticipated. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I have not. I am happy to commit to writing at any point in answer to these questions. I will give the rest of the time to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, whom I thank for bringing the debate before us. It has been a useful discussion and I hope that he will be able to use the time I can give him to complete his journey.