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Green Economy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 4:03 pm, 12th March 2020

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, on securing this debate and commend her on her comprehensive opening speech. Opening a debate of this nature is a significant challenge; I have discovered that even speaking in one is. I congratulate her on managing to cover a significant part of the waterfront of it in an expert way. The noble Baroness also deserves thanks for convening a very successful meeting about plastic waste last Thursday. I apologise that I was unable to attend, but today I received a post-meeting briefing, which I commend to noble Lords, about how the Environment Bill could be amended to deal with it.

In many ways we have never had it so good, but equally we have never faced such world-changing challenges. Our way of life has generated unprecedented wealth and well-being, but at an unsustainable cost to the planet. As the noble Baroness said, the ecology that supports our very existence by absorbing the carbon and other emissions that we generate is under great stress, so much so that half the species alive today are threatened. Unless stopped, global warming will make large parts of the world uninhabitable and certainly unable to produce the food to sustain their present inhabitants—and they will move. We are on the brink of disaster. We must cut our greenhouse gas emissions to zero, or to net zero, as the Government prefer, by 2050. That is what the science tells us, it is what an increasing number of our citizens demand and, thanks to our own decisions, it is the law that we passed.

For the second time in a month we are debating issues relevant to this challenge in opposition time. When will the Government make time for us to debate this, the greatest of the world-changing challenges? On 6 February we debated a Motion designed to draw attention to the UK FIRES Absolute Zero report and its recommendations. This debate takes place two days after Energy Systems Catapult published a report entitled Innovating to Net Zero, which sets out what needs to happen in the development of products and services, and

“what needs to happen during this Parliament” to deliver the appropriate levels of investment for innovation in a green economy. These two reports come from distinctly different perspectives. Their recommendations are in many senses complementary but have different emphases. Both make clear what we already know: we are not on track to achieve the target that is the law.

As I made clear on 6 February, I have a bone to pick with the Government about whether it is unhelpfully misleading to describe our achievement of cutting emissions by 42% without going on, every time, to explain that they omit from the equation a substantial amount of carbon emissions that are clearly our responsibility. That aside, it is clear that the great majority of what we have achieved on any measure has been achieved by us stopping doing things. The major contributor to the percentage cut—whether 42% or, more truly, only 17%—is that we stopped doing things. Mainly we stopped generating electricity from coal and, almost as importantly, we stopped manufacturing and exported the responsibility for our growing consumption to the sovereign territory of others, which, of course, allows us not to count it and to celebrate our own success while criticising them.

For about 20 years we have tried to solve the remainder with new or breakthrough technologies that will both supply energy and allow industry to keep growing—that is the fundamental challenge—so that we do not have to change our lifestyles, apparently. The climate change committee’s assessment makes it clear just how essential the rapid expansion of carbon capture and storage is to the success of that approach. In almost every line it has to count in carbon capture and storage rapidly contributing, but the time has come to be honest about this technology and whether it is rational to expect it to make a significant contribution before the legal target date of 2050.

For more than two decades, CCS has been put forward as the technology both to allow continued generation of electricity from hydrocarbons and to provide the negative emissions element of the net-zero target. In about 2007, as Secretary of State for Scotland, I visited the decommissioned plant at Longannet, a coal-fired power station in Fife, in support of a project that was then bidding for the £l billion CCS cluster challenge. Longannet won, but the Government cancelled the project in 2011 and the challenge in 2016. I believe that this happened because the private sector could not price the risk and the Government were not prepared to underwrite it.

Until that problem is solved, and despite a well-funded lobby for this technology, it is, in my view, in the outer reaches of optimism to include it in any meaningful mitigation plan. The Government still think that CCS can make a meaningful contribution to the green economy. Yesterday, in the Budget, the Chancellor announced £8 million for two CCS clusters. Frankly, it is difficult to see how that helps when £1 billion for one project failed, but I am sure the Minister can explain. How will the Government overcome the obstacle of pricing the risk of CCS, which caused the failure of the £1 billion challenge? If there is no answer, we must conclude that we have come well and truly to the end of the argument that we can meet the zero-carbon target with just technology and not changing lifestyles. Even the techno-optimist report from Energy Systems Catapult makes it clear that “serious societal engagement is” essential to our ability to meet the target

“given the nature and pace of the changes required.”

Societal engagement means more than just talking about how difficult it is. It is a derogation of responsibility for us parliamentarians not to engage with what this really means. It means changing the way we live.

We are debating this at a time when we are experiencing the manifestation of a pandemic threat. If anything, this experience proves that we can make significant changes to the way we live when we need to. Without wishing to trivialise coronavirus, recently my attention was drawn to a tweet:

“Climate change needs to hire coronavirus’s publicist.”

That accurately describes the nature of the challenge we face.

On any view, a green economy that promotes resource efficiency and zero-carbon usage requires solutions to many challenges. For example, in the energy sector we need to expand non-emitting energy generation by a factor of three. In the construction sector, all newbuilds need to be to zero-energy standards. All existing forms of blast furnace steel production and of cement production are incompatible with zero emissions. The transition to electric cars is under way. At least in that regard we have a road map, but we need a similar road map for targets on a whole number of things, such as flying, cement and blast furnace steel. If the Government lead and network all other stakeholders in a process designed to find a common way forward in the development of a credible road map to the 2050 target, then the public will be with us as they will be with coronavirus. That is what political sensitivity is. I welcome the Government’s commitment, but perhaps it would have been better to have provided a road map before announcing it, rather than just identifying the destination.