Climate Change: Extreme Weather Events — [Ms Nadine Dorries in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:47 am on 13th November 2018.

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Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park 9:47 am, 13th November 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries.

I thank Darren Jones on initiating this hugely important debate. I share his disappointment that it has not attracted a slightly larger audience, although my colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee have a legitimate excuse: they are at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of a session looking at sustainable fashion.

It is always tempting to point to individual weather extremes and ascribe them to climate change. This year, we had heavy snowfall in March and the joint hottest summer on record. This is not about taking individual weather events and attributing them directly to climate change. That would be bad science, and would be easy to debunk and discredit. It is about looking at the overall trends, both here and globally, which do show a significant increase in extreme weather. The hon. Gentleman has given lots of examples, and I will briefly look at some additional ones.

The most recent Met Office report, of 2 November, which has already been cited, makes really depressing reading. It compares UK weather data from 1961 to 1990—30 years—with the 10 years between 2008 and 2017. It is pretty clear that the UK is experiencing an increase in weather extremes. The hottest days have become hotter, the number of warm spells has increased and the coldest days are not as cold. On average, the hottest day in each year over the past 10 years is 0.8° C hotter than it was in previous decades. The coldest days are also warmer: temperatures were an average of 1.7° C warmer in the past decade. So-called tropical nights, on which temperatures remain over 20° C, have also increased. In the 30 years between 1961 and 1990, there were eight such tropical nights. In the 10 years between 2008 and 2017, there were four, and we had two more this year.

The Met Office’s conclusion is that those extremes are consistent with overall man-made warming of the UK climate over the past 50 years, and the global trends are showing the same pattern. Globally, the five warmest years in recorded history have taken place since 2010, and 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded until 2015 and 2016. The warmest year on record was 2016, and eight months in that year were the warmest individual month recorded.

If the science is right and the trends continue, we will see appalling consequences: increasing food shortages, lands becoming uninhabitable, and refugees on a scale that we as a species have never had to deal with before. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tells us that already, on average, 21.5 million people are displaced each year because of weather-related, sudden-onset hazards. It describes climate change as a “threat multiplier” for people in conflict zones—and it goes without saying that it is bad news for the balance of nature as well.

The difficulty with climate systems is that they are so complex that no computer model on earth can fully capture and take on board the full range of feedback, positive and negative. That means that those who seek to pour doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject will always be able to do so, if that is what they want to do. The same goes for the consequences of climate change.

However, there is a fairly basic calculation to make. On the one hand, what would be the effect of listening to the sceptics, ignoring the overwhelming body of scientific evidence pointing to man-made climate change, and then being wrong? The turbulence and change would likely bring about an end to civilisation as we know it. The impacts on the natural world would be incalculable. It is not inconceivable that this fragile, precious planet that we live on would be altered to such an extent that it would no longer be able to sustain us as a species. That is the downside.

On the other hand, what would be the effect of listening to the scientific consensus, taking the necessary action and then being proven wrong? Accidentally, we would end up with a cleaner and eventually much cheaper energy system, protecting more of the world’s forests and ecosystems, and with an economic system that is more circular and less wasteful. It has always amazed me, in fact, that there is anyone who would look at that basic calculation and conclude that we are better off doing nothing. That just makes no sense. Indeed, almost everything that we need to do to tackle climate change are is something that we would want to do irrespective of climate change.

What is interesting or, rather, infuriating is that over the years that I have been engaged on this issue—20 years ago, I used to edit The Ecologist magazine—the debate has consistently and conveniently shifted. At the beginning, we were told for years that climate change simply was not happening. Then we heard from the same people, “Well, it is happening, but it is nothing to do with our species.” A few years later, we would hear from the same people, “Well, it is happening and we are probably contributing to it, but the cost of tackling it is just too great—it’s punitive—and, by the way, it’s great because we might get a bit of wine in the UK”—that is, better wine; we already get some wine here.

I do not doubt that the challenge that we face is colossal, but action is well within our reach, and we now more or less know exactly what we need to do. The IPCC report, which has already been mentioned, lays it out pretty starkly. Almost the most alarming part of that report is the difference, according to the world’s leading climate scientists, between the effects of keeping the rise in warming to a maximum of 1.5° C, and keeping it to 2° C. They tell us that that half-degree would massively worsen the risks of floods, drought, extreme heat and, as a consequence, poverty for hundreds of millions of people. That half-degree is the difference between losing all the world’s corals, and managing to hold on to 10% of them. The number of people exposed to water stress would be 50% lower if we kept to a rise of 1.5° C instead of 2° C. That half-degree would mean hundreds of millions fewer people, particularly in the world’s poorest countries, being at risk of climate-related destitution. A half-degree of extra warming would lead to a forecasted 10 cm of additional pressure on coastlines.

Currently, we are not heading for that apocalyptic 2° C rise; more likely, we are heading towards a 3° C rise. We will have to change profoundly so much of what we do: not only how we generate electricity, but how we use it; how we manage land; and transport, food and industry. That will require profound change, and investment on the part of Governments, individuals and businesses.

We can be proud that the UK helped to make the Paris agreement more ambitious, and of the cross-party Climate Change Act 2008, which set the target of an 80% cut in carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. I am delighted that the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, my right hon. Friend Claire Perry, who has responsibility for climate change, is looking at how we can go further and make net zero emissions a reality. Renewable electricity capacity in the UK has quadrupled since 2010, and we are world leaders in offshore wind.

However, given the scale of the challenge, as outlined in detail in that IPCC report, clearly we have a very, very long way to go; at the current rate of progress, we will not meet our fourth and fifth carbon budgets. Domestically, that means doing absolutely everything we can now to encourage a transition to electric vehicles, and not waiting until 2040. It means saying no to infrastructure projects such as the third runway at Heathrow, which will increase carbon emissions; rejecting the Government’s proposal to allow fracking without proper local consent; and creating the friendliest possible environment for the accelerated development and roll-out of new, clean technologies.

There is a lot more that we can do globally as well. We need to build on the success of the international climate fund by using much a greater proportion of our overseas aid budget to protect nature. The IPCC maps out four pathways to capping the rise at 1.5° C, and reforestation is critical to all four of them. Apart from transport emissions, deforestation is the single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions; deforestation alone accounts for up to a fifth of all carbon emissions. Forests are, I think, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks; they absorb around 2.5 billion tonnes of carbon every year and they store billions more. However, we are losing 18.7 million acres of forest every year—the equivalent of 27 football pitches every single minute. That is lunacy; it is madness. Protecting forests means helping to protect the world and insulate it against climate change.

However, protecting forests is so much more important even than that. Around 1.6 billion people, which is about a quarter of the world’s population, rely directly on forests for their livelihoods, and many of them are the world’s poorest people. I do not like the crudeness of the calculations that we sometimes hear, but I will cite one all the same: we are told that forests provide around $100 billion a year in goods and services, such as clean water, healthy soils and the like. They are home to 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity.

Although the UK can be proud to be the only nation in the G7, or indeed the G20, to hit the UN’s target on overseas aid last year, and proud of being the third largest donor in the world after the US and Germany, a minimal fraction of that overseas development money—possibly as little as 0.4%—goes to nature. That is such a wasted opportunity. The aim of the Department for International Development is to tackle poverty; how on earth can we expect to do that if the very world on which we all depend is annihilated? Of course, the world’s poorest people depend much more directly on nature than richer people for the free services that it provides. If we destroy nature, we will plunge whole communities into desperate poverty. We have learned again this month of the sheer extent to which our species is denuding the natural world. Since 1972, which is more or less the year in which I was born, we have lost around 60% of the world’s animals.

I do not believe there is any real argument around the science of climate change, and I do not think that there is any argument at all around the annihilation of the planet that is happening right now, on our watch. Logically, this has to be the defining issue of our age. Very simply, if the scale of our response as a Government does not match the scale of the problem, we are failing. My plea to this Government, via the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend Kelly Tolhurst, who speaks today for the Minister with responsibility for climate change, is: let us be world leaders, as we can be, in restoring ecosystems on a scale that matches the problem.