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Green Economy - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:37 pm on 12th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Giddens Lord Giddens Labour 4:37 pm, 12th March 2020

My Lords, I join the queue of those congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, on introducing this debate so ably. Creating a green economy is an absolute exigency, and within a limited timescale too. The overwhelming reason is the trans- formation of global weather patterns, as other noble Lords have said. Put bluntly, human-induced climate change is an existential threat.

People like to talk about saving the planet—several noble Lords have done so today—and I understand why. However, it is not a question of saving the planet; the planet will survive whatever we might do. The question is instead one of saving our civilisation of 8 billion people, which is currently heading up towards 10 billion. I remind noble Lords that, until 1850, there were never more than 1 billion people in the whole of human history. We live in a world which you could say has moved off the edge of history. We face problems that no other civilisation has had to deal with. Fortunately, we also have some unusual and different solutions.

For this reason, I suggest that now is a time at which we should discard dogmas on all sides. There is a long-standing and sometimes bitter debate between some in the green movement and those who call themselves—forgive me for being academic—eco-modernists. One thinks for example of the Renaissance Foundation in the US and the controversies swirling around it. If the Minister has time in his winding up, it would be interesting to hear his views on the impact of the Renaissance Foundation, because it is in some ways very interesting. The eco-modernists place a strong emphasis on technology and innovation in nuclear power, hydro-electricity and other areas. These ideological divisions must simply be cast aside at this point. It is good that the Government have committed to the construction of new nuclear capacity. The Prime Minister has expressed his passionate support for nuclear energy and added:

“It is time for a nuclear renaissance”.

Yet is it not the progress on Hinkley Point and other projects painfully slow? What is the state of play with the promised investment into small modular reactors?

We are largely or wholly dependent on overseas companies to do the build. Is that not because we simply have not invested nearly enough in skills training in the past? Should we not urgently and actively redress that deficiency now, through direct government involvement? Far more forward planning is needed in a whole range of other domains too. Academic research and expertise are crucial to most cutting-edge advances in technology. What plans do the Government have to foster research into areas such as energy efficiency, hydrogen for heating, transportation and the circular economy and geoengineering? Geoengineering is especially controversial and fraught with problems, but the fate of, again, not the earth but human civilisation may come to depend on it. What is the Government’s position on this?

The huge oil and gas corporations have traditionally been regarded by ecologists as the villains of the piece, and such a view is by no means wrong. The same is true of international capital more broadly. Yet the scientific evidence about the imminence of possible climate catastrophe is now so strong that these views are changing quite dramatically. There are huge changes going on in the strategic thinking of many such companies, as well as in corporate finance. On 19 January this year the CEO of BlackRock, a company with assets of more than £5 trillion, declared climate change to be a structural “crisis” and backed this with a series of investment pledges. What kind of dialogue are the Government carrying out with corporate capital in such respects? Can the Minister comment on the importance of impact investment? This is a sort of novel trajectory in investment more generally, which comprises in some part a reorientation towards green objectives.

This is global Britain, so are the Government looking around the world for avant-garde strategies? The EU recently set out its version of that now fabled enterprise, a green new deal. It was immediately pounced on by Greta Thunberg who, with some justification, called it “empty words”, since its targets refer to 2050. Politicians quite like this date because it is comfortably far off. Could Finland be a useful model to learn from? It has quite an avant-garde programme. The Government there have pledged to end their dependence on fossil fuels and reach carbon neutrality by 2035. They have a pretty impressive plan to do this, which enjoys wide public support.

California has recently overtaken the UK in terms of GDP to become the fifth largest economy in the world. It is also a place of dramatic innovation. Some 14 years ago, the then governor set out an ambitious programme to generate a third of all its energy from solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy by 2020. What was the result? It has already been accomplished—two years ago. Are we tracking such examples and learning from them? If not, as other noble Lords have hinted, the phrase “global Britain” will just be another empty catchphrase.