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Green Economy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:28 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 4:28 pm, 12th March 2020

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lady Parminter for securing this important and timely debate. It is clear that the urgency of embracing a green economy that promotes zero-carbon usage is borne out by the increasing frequency and ferocity of recent global climate events, from out-of-control fires in Australia to sustained flooding in parts of the UK.

A report in National Geographic cites a misbehaving ocean circulation pattern as a trigger for the

“weird confluence of events” that has caused the city-sized plague of locusts in east Africa. Worryingly, it says that the same weather disruption that is behind the locust plague has also been linked to the devastating bushfires in eastern Australia. It is evident that we humans are truly interconnected. All of us will suffer from the devastation of extreme climate events, but none more so than the poorest people in the poorest parts of the world. The NASA website paints a vivid picture of the flagging vital signs of the planet’s health; it points relentlessly to the fact that we are living life on the edge.

The climate change deniers have, for the most part, been silenced. At least, their unsubstantiated messages are no longer given equal credence by the BBC and other media. This is to be welcomed, because politicians can now move apace. Here in the UK, the Government declared a climate and environment emergency last year. In the dying days of her Administration, Theresa May added legislation committing the UK to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

However, what have we done since declaring a climate emergency? Have we acted with commensurate urgency? We have not. Let me quote parts of the letter sent by Claire O’Neill, the former Energy Minister who had been appointed to lead the COP climate talks in Glasgow later this year but was relieved of her duties last month. Here are some extracts from her letter to the Prime Minister:

CO2 levels are over 415 ppm and climbing. The last time we saw numbers like this was three million years ago when sea levels were 20 metres higher than now and beech trees grew in Antarctica … emissions are 4 per cent higher than in 2015 when the Paris agreement was signed … The world’s attempts to get to grips with this epic Tragedy of the Commons are failing.”

Her letter is a sad indictment of this Government, which has much work to do to get COP26 back on track, whatever the challenges of the coronavirus.

If current developed reserves of fossil fuels are realised, we will easily pass the aspirant 1.5 degrees centigrade rise in temperature agreed in Paris. In fact, we will hit the 2 degrees rise in global temperatures that the IPCC has said will be catastrophic for our planet. To put things into perspective, currently global temperatures have risen by 1 degree centigrade. According to NASA, the last five years are, collectively, the hottest on record.

We need to act with urgency, and grasp the opportunity of our leadership and agenda-setting ability to re-energise the COP26 talks. We owe this to our citizens who, on almost a daily basis, tell us that they want urgent action to safeguard our planet’s future and their children’s futures. There is a palpable sense of urgency from the very youngest of our society to canny money men who can see which way the wind is blowing.

The inescapable fact is that virtually every sector of the global economy, from manufacturing to agriculture to transportation to power production, contributes greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. All of them must evolve away from fossil fuels if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

The good news is that not only do we know what we have to do; we have the means to do it. The science is clear: we must stop burning fossil fuels and tackle emissions of methane and nitrous oxides from land use. In addition, we must use proven nature-based solutions to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. For example, stopping methane emissions will make a measurable difference. Carbon capture and storage is not proven to work at scale; let us stick with what nature has shown us it can do.

We have alternative, increasingly cheap sources of renewable energy ready at hand to deploy. The challenge is to move Governments away from the comfort zone of reliance on fossil fuel extraction to feed our industries. Governments, including our own, must take heed of changing attitudes. For example, in 2017, the World Bank announced that it will phase out finance for oil and gas extraction. BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager, with more than $7 trillion under management, announced in January its intention to exit investments that

“present a high sustainability-related risk”.

Mark Carney, when he leaves the Bank of England in just a few days’ time, will take up a new role as UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance. He has already penned articles warning that divesting in fossil fuels by large institutions is happening too slowly, and that up to $20 trillion of “stranded assets” could be wiped out by climate change.

There is growing acceptance that an economic transition is already under way; we ignore it at our peril. It is a fact that companies are under growing pressure from investors to disclose climate-related risks; 75% of investors are using disclosures to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures to guide their investment decisions. To quote Simon Nixon’s column in the Times on 13 February,

“money is pouring into so-called ESG funds, which target Environmental, Sustainable and Governance criteria”,

and investment behaviour last year

“fuelled talk of an ESG bubble”.

Our Government must act on their commitment to the Paris Agreement and to achieving net zero by 2050. It is excellent news that they have reopened the Contracts for Difference subsidy scheme for onshore wind and solar energy. However, it would really speak to their commitment to net zero if they were to lay out a plan for how they will scale back oil and gas production in the North Sea, as well as their plans to retrain and reskill workers who currently depend on those industries for their livelihoods.

Therefore, I ask the Minister, have the Government given thought to how to transition away from fossil fuel dependency so that the least pain is inflicted on the regions of the north-east? Does he also agree that continuing generous tax allowances to oil and gas companies is unjustifiable? Can it be right that petroleum revenue tax is now charged at 0%?