It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and also a pleasure to follow Zac Goldsmith, who has a deep knowledge of this matter. He is someone we all listen to every time he speaks, because he speaks with authority and knowledge, and I thank him for that.
I am pleased that Darren Jones has brought this issue to the House. Last night, during a different debate, I said that the probable reason we are here in Parliament is that we might have different opinions—perhaps on farming, for example—but on this issue we are all in the same boat, if I can use that terminology, and, as always, we look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say and, in particular, to her response to our questions today.
In the last few years, we have experienced a great deal of adverse winter weather, often resulting in schools having to close their doors. In fact, there is concern in some schools about the number of days that children have to take off because of adverse weather. We can all think back to our parents telling us how they walked 5 miles to school, come hail, rain or shine, but it only takes seeing a sliding school bus once to realise suddenly that there is a safety issue and that safety must come first. I know also of churches that get funding to run programmes having to continue those programmes into the summer months to meet their allocation a certain number of weeks.
The weather is certainly affecting us. In Northern Ireland—and probably here on the mainland—the first thing someone says to a person they meet in the street is, “It’s a cold one today”, or “It’s very warm.” In any conversation, that seems to be the natural introduction before we get down to the nitty-gritty of what we are really talking about. The weather is a topic of conversation every day, and it has been more so in the last year because of the clear changes we have seen. We have to look at how best to create a better environment.
I will speak on a number of issues not raised by the previous speakers. The diesel scrappage scheme, which encouraged people to get rid of gas guzzlers, was a tremendous way of lowering carbon emissions. It was greatly encouraged by my council, Ards and North Down Borough Council. We are pleased that the Government supported and encouraged the initiative. Looking at some of my council’s initiatives, its new recycling and food waste disposal endeavours have taken the equivalent of 10,000 cars off the road. Councils have led the way.
When, wearing a previous hat, I was on the council—the Ards council as it was then; it is now a joint one—the recycling initiative came in. We were perhaps not all that sure of what it was, but we knew we had to do something. We set targets, because setting targets means that everyone tries to achieve them. The councils have achieved those targets, with the co-operation of local people. Something that came up in the Westminster Hall debate yesterday on the e-petition about plastics was the education of children at a very early stage—in primary and secondary schools—to get into their minds the importance of recycling, and that is one way in which the councils have achieved the targets. Very often, it is young children who come home and say to their mum and dad, “We should be putting that in the blue bin.” There is a bit of an education programme for parents, but it also comes through the children, which is great to see.
We must do that kind of thing to help our environment, and I congratulate those who have worked so hard with these initiatives. I believe in being a good steward, and to me that means doing the best we can environmentally. Burning less coal is good for our health as well as for the environment; we need companies to step up when it comes to reducing coal use. In 2012, coal supplied two fifths of electricity; this year so far it has provided less than 6%—a massive change.
In his introduction, the hon. Member for Bristol North West referred to something about which we must express concern: the President of the United States unfortunately seems not to be focused as much as other countries are on environmental issues. We would like to have that commitment by him and the USA. Other countries also have a responsibility. We are not pointing the finger and accusing other countries, but there is a strategy, of which they have to be a part. We look at China, the States, India and Brazil, to which the hon. Member for Richmond Park referred. In the press just last week there was a picture of Brazil from the sky showing how much of the rainforest has disappeared—an enormous amount. That cannot go on. Our incredibly fragile eco-system, which benefits everyone, needs the rainforest to be there as the lungs of the world, yet we see large tracts of forest being decimated and put to other uses. All countries across the world have a role to play.
Other energy sources have provided well, and if we use more renewable sources we can become more self-reliant and less reliant on other nations in a changing world and economy, which can only be a good thing. I look, again, to Government initiatives. Alan Brown is here on the Front Bench; his party, the Scottish National party, has shown a strong lead on wind turbines and has encouraged that through its own Parliament. The Government have done that as well, and we have seen some benefits in my constituency: the wind turbines there—they are probably smaller versions—have been incredibly important in getting the right mindset and providing renewable energy. We have also had a dam project. It is a smaller project, but it is enabled by Government money, and it feeds into the grid. We also have solar energy, which is another big benefit in my constituency. It is hard to envisage this, Ms Dorries, but focus on 10 acres of solar panels, with sheep grazing on the land between them—it is possible to have both things together. Farmers have diversified. We have a really good scheme just outside Carrowdore in my constituency, and a couple more up the country in Mid-Ulster and the northern part of Northern Ireland.
The Government could perhaps do more with tidal lagoons projects. In my constituency, through Queen’s University and others, and some private partnership moneys, we are looking at how we can better harness the tidal movements at the narrows between Portaferry and Strangford. The power of that water is incredible, and it could provide green energy. As technology increases, we will probably be in a position to provide such energy at a lower cost. Wind turbine energy was very costly at the beginning, but the cost has dropped now and it is economical.
There was a Government initiative announced in the Budget around electric cars; that was talked about yesterday in the Chamber, in debate on the Finance Bill. Electric cars will work only if the prices are right, the cars run well and there are enough charging points, but at the moment, there is a dearth of these. It is no good if we do not regularly have charging points across high streets, villages and rural constituencies. Only then can people depend on electric cars. I was listening to a story on the radio last week about people who have dual-purpose cars—those that run on both electricity and fuel—resorting back to the fuel because charging points are not always available. That is a real issue for the Government and, to be fair, I think that they, and others, recognise that it is something that we need to look at.
I would like quickly to refer to coastal erosion, because my constituency is subject to it. We have the very active Ards peninsula coastal erosion group, and I am very conscious of the good work that it does. The Government need to set some moneys aside—regionally, not from here centrally. There is erosion in 96 locations in the Ards peninsula. We used to refer to there being a one-in-100-years storm, but there is now one every three years.
It has taken time, but in my home county we have now bought into making changes to be more environmentally friendly, such as enforced recycling and no more free plastic bags, which has been a real success in Northern Ireland. Although the changes were difficult to begin with, we have come out better on the other side—more environmentally aware and proud of what we have achieved. That should be the goal of any environmental agenda—ensuring that people are brought in, buy in, and feel a part of changes that are good for us all in the long run.