Amendment 119

Environment Bill - Report (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 15th September 2021.

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Lord Lea of Crondall:

Moved by Lord Lea of Crondall

119: After Clause 136, insert the following new Clause—“Economic and environmental goals Within six months of the day on which this Act is passed the Secretary of State must publish plans to incorporate a metric for reducing greenhouse gas emissions as a coefficient of GDP growth.” Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish plans on a metric for greenhouse gas emissions as a coefficient of GDP growth (i.e. the degree to which greenhouse gas emissions are growing more or less than GDP). The metric could be published alongside regular GDP updates with the intention that the coefficient should, over time, reduce.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Non-affiliated

My Lords, it is obvious that in the international system there is a bit of a crisis in knowing how to take the world consensus forward. We are looking forward to Britain making an active contribution leading up to Glasgow. I say this because the international system has at some point got to agree specific concrete parameters so that we do not have an endless debate about China, India, Indonesia, Russia or Brazil, as it were, not playing by the same rules as other people. There has to be an understanding, which I think is to be supported, and an acknowledgement that the third world will have different rules from the second and first world. You can imagine the difficulty of agreeing internationally how to define those ideas.

I have great sympathy with the Government for trying to put together a leadership role for the meeting in a month or so in Glasgow, but this is very relevant to what is in this amendment. In practice, it is narrowing down to the question of how we in this country decide how to set targets for greenhouse gas emissions. One very important way of doing it is to define those targets or metrics in relation to the growth of national income. Everybody knows that there is some connection between the growth of national income and the growth of greenhouse gases. If people say that it is not possible to have a reduction in greenhouse gases without doing something to reduce the growth of national income, I say that the fact is that one can do that. We are doing it in this country already, partly because of the accelerated reduction in emissions arising from the use of coal to generate electricity.

We have to come to some conclusions about what exactly it is that we are concretely proposing. In this amendment, we have an idea that a 1% increase in the national income should be associated with a 1% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases. That is a very crude example, but it is impossible to make progress on the short-term link to the long-term aspiration of zero emissions without trying to find some way in which people can go forward—ideally with international agreement—on how we are going to change this coefficient. That is what is in this amendment.

I am very pleased to have had the chance of an initial talk with the Minister of State last week about how these propositions can be taken forward. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. I am encouraged that some constructive thinking is emerging from the proposition in this amendment.

This also means that there has to be quite a big change in how Whitehall and government generally set targets. We do not have short-term targets at the moment. We have excellent reports from the Committee on Climate Change and associated budget work, but we have reached the point where we have to bite the bullet and look seriously at trying to acknowledge that we have to reduce the coefficient around the world, where climate change is a risk because carbon and greenhouse gas emissions are growing at greater speed than national income. We have to reverse that.

I hope the Minister will accept that work should be taken forward on the idea of these metrics to reduce that coefficient and give a positive response to the principle involved. I look forward to his response. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour

My Lords, I added my name to my noble friend’s amendment. When he first proposed it to me I was not quite clear what the intention was, but it is quite clear what it requires. It gives us a metric —a figure—to display to the public what is a central matter of political dispute in this and many other countries, namely the claim that to achieve green growth and a reduction of greenhouse gases is in direct conflict with the ability to grow and become more prosperous. This country is one of the few countries that has managed to resolve that over the past 20-odd years. In most years we have grown the economy and reduced our greenhouse gases. That will be more difficult in the future and it is more difficult around the world.

All the amendment is asking is that the Government, the Treasury and the Bank of England in particular adopt some metric as an objective of economic policy and turn the ratio between growth and the reduction in greenhouse gases into a forward-looking metric that reduces our dependency on fossil fuels while assuring the public that we are still increasing prosperity. It is possible that the econometricians, statisticians and everybody else can work out a more complex or a simpler figure, but we need one figure that on a rolling basis measures the past and gives us a target and a tool for the future, so that we can counter a very insidious position where the climate pessimists say it cannot be done.

Of course, the polemicists in this argument on social media and more broadly not only emphasise that position in this country; it is making life difficult in many other countries. It defined Trump’s America and to a degree still hamstrings the American Government. It means that, however sophisticated their regimes, the oil producers still trot out the conflict as an excuse for not doing anything that will lead to a meaningful delivery of either the Kyoto or the Paris commitments. Of course, the conflict and the political argument are at their most acute in the poorest countries, where constraints on fossil fuel-based energy are seen as a barrier to raising the living standards of the poorest and most wretched on the earth.

That is why having a clear metric might help us in international negotiations as well. At present, the post-Paris commitments of each signatory are expressed in different terms. Most of them are absolute reductions in greenhouse gases, some are reductions in what they call energy intensity, and others are just lists of particular measures. It is quite difficult to determine the relativity between these different commitments and impossible to compare the level of their commitment with what are supposedly the Paris objectives.

If we started here and the Government committed to getting the Office for National Statistics and the other relevant bodies to address this issue and to come up with a single, clear measure—one that carries at least the broad range of political opinions in this country —we could then move on to convince the OECD and the rest of the world. We can start here. Whether in this Bill or in some other context, the Government really need to commit themselves to having a clear metric here, and I hope the Minister can give some encouragement to that view tonight.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I rise briefly, in a slightly curious position, to speak on Amendment 119 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, and signed by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I continue to support this amendment while disagreeing with most of what they just said.

I will start with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, on prosperity and GDP growth. If we define prosperity as a good quality of life and a healthy life, GDP growth is profoundly not coupled to what I would call prosperity. In both these contexts I point noble Lords to an excellent, if now slightly old, book, Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, which started out life as a government report. Professor Jackson continues to work with the APPG on Limits to Growth to produce excellent further reports on that.

However, I am sure noble Lords will be pleased to hear that I will not reprise the whole growth debate at this stage of the evening. What I will point out is that we have people coming from different sides saying that we need a decent measure. Further, on the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, the figures we have for our reduced carbon emissions exclude emissions produced offshore and used by us. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said earlier, we are not counting the emissions associated with the blueberries we consume from overseas. We need to have counting. This is one measure of having true accounting of the actual cost.

Finally, on GDP, it is appropriate in the Environment Bill to look at how faulty GDP is as a measure. If you cut down a forest, you count the cost of selling the timber in GDP figures but not the cost of the lost forest. That really is a demonstration of how utterly faulty GDP is as a measure.

Photo of Lord Khan of Burnley Lord Khan of Burnley Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, for his Amendment 119; I will speak very briefly. He talked about having an international system of climate parameters, a uniform approach and targets ahead of COP 26. I listened very carefully, as I always do, to my noble friend Lord Whitty on the importance of having a metric that measures performance, past and future. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, put across a really interesting point about GDP growth, prosperity and making sure we do not lose that prosperity in economic figures. A lot of interesting points were made in this very important debate, and I hope to hear the answers from the Minister.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 9:30 pm, 15th September 2021

I will address Amendment 119, which was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall. I thank him for his time last week and also briefly earlier today. There is a lot of crossover in this debate between what we are discussing now and the debate led by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, in Committee, where we talked about GDP and its uses, weaknesses and shortcomings.

We agree that domestic accountability is important. As the noble Lord knows, the Climate Change Act 2008 already commits us to reaching net zero by 2050 and the forthcoming net-zero strategy will set out our plans for transitioning to a net-zero economy across all departments of government. We are considering the most appropriate way to monitor the delivery of the decarbonisation measures set out in the strategy. We are also encouraging private firms to disclose their climate impacts to investors and the public and to set out how they will achieve net zero by 2050 or before. It is at a much earlier stage, but we are doing what we can to accelerate moves by the private sector to identify, with a view to disclosing and then minimising, the risk to environmental harm generally, not just carbon.

Bringing other countries with us is obviously vital. In 2019, the Prime Minister committed to doubling our international climate finance to £11.6 billion until 2025. That will help developing countries to make the transition to low-carbon and climate-resilient development and more nature-positive economies.

The proposed statistic in the amendment can, I am told, already be computed using publicly available ONS data and OBR forecasts of economic activity, together with the data published in the Government’s greenhouse gas inventory. The noble Lord made the point very well that a simple relationship between economic growth and emissions is, in itself, insufficient to assess progress towards emissions targets and is not necessarily the best metric by which to compare every nation’s progress towards decarbonisation. Ultimately, we need to break the link between GDP and emissions, the use of scarce resources and extraction generally. To some extent the UK’s record in recent years demonstrates that that is possible, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, pointed out, but in a narrow sense relating purely to emissions. We have not yet demonstrated that in relation to use of natural resources and our wider impacts on the natural environment, but we must.

I assure noble Lords that we are carefully considering the links between economic growth and the environment. The independent Dasgupta review highlights how economic growth and activity has damaged nature and will continue to do so unless there is a substantial change, one that involves ensuring that we learn properly to value essential things such as natural systems—nature—and those things we depend on, and attach a cost to waste, pollution and plunder. The Government agree with the Dasgupta review’s central conclusion: nature and the biodiversity that underpins it is profoundly important to all of us and sustains our economies, livelihoods and well-being. We are actively supporting and developing tools to drive sustainability in the finance sector, including as part of our response to the Dasgupta review. Over the past three decades, we have driven down emissions by 44%, which is the fastest reduction of any G7 country—I am not sure that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, provided the figure, but he was hinting at it. At the same time, we saw economic growth and set some of the most ambitious targets in the world for the future, while driving forward net zero globally through our COP 26 presidency and associated diplomacy. We have an enormous amount more to do. The noble Lord makes an important point: we need to be able to measure and understand. I hope he accepts that that work is under way and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Non-affiliated

My Lords, I thank the Minister in particular for acknowledging the importance of understanding how we can set targets. It is very easy to accept the case for saying that GDP or some other measure should not be mentioned, but we live in a world where international agreements have to be made using consistent units. The OECD or the UN is not the place to argue that we can suddenly revisit the national income accounting methods created by John Maynard Keynes and others in Cambridge in, I think, 1944-45. There has to be some international agreement about how you measure the economy.

Some people say, “Let us measure the value of forests”, and I have very great sympathy with that, or the destruction of habitats and the elimination of species—the lion, the tiger and so on. We need a practical way to see how far—and this leads up to the Glasgow debate—there can be any agreed view around the world on how we break the link that we all know exists between economic growth and emissions, which are becoming a very dangerous trend in relation to extreme temperatures, to mention only one point.

In light what the Minister has said, there should be something more specific for people in the next few years. It has not been mentioned but it is important that the people of the country as a whole understand the answer to a widely stated nostrum that we cannot do anything about climate change or we will get poorer. We have to have a narrative, with the Government behind it, so that we can actually do something about it. Changing the coefficient is a technical way of saying it, but we must get to a position where the people of this country can ask, “How are we doing on this?” and the answer is that we are doing something here and now and helping it to become part of the standard world metric. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 119 withdrawn.