COP26 Conference Priorities — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 1:31 pm on 22nd July 2021.

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Photo of Simon Clarke Simon Clarke Conservative, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland 1:31 pm, 22nd July 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the priorities for the COP26 conference.

I want to place on record how grateful I am to the Backbench Business Committee for awarding us today’s debate and likewise how much I appreciate the support of my cross-party co-sponsors, especially Wera Hobhouse, who addressed the Committee in my absence.

In a year dominated by coronavirus and the brilliant efforts of our scientists and the health service to overcome this terrible threat to our way of life, we must not lose sight of the huge importance of what lies ahead of us this autumn. In November, COP26 in Glasgow will be the biggest international summit the UK has ever hosted, on a subject that remains the single most significant long-term threat to our security, economy and environment. This is the first full debate that we have had on it in the House.

The extraordinary weather events that we have recently witnessed in Germany and Belgium have reminded us just how serious the threat of climate change is. The facts are clear: if left unchecked, climate change will render vast swathes of the world, including parts of our own country, uninhabitable and trigger a huge upsurge in poverty, mass migration and political instability that will have ramifications across the whole planet. On current trends, the world economy could be 10% smaller if we do not hit net zero by 2050. It is not just for the sake of our environment that we need to act; it is for the sake of our economy and security.

This is our problem, and it is the challenge of our generation. In that context, we should all be delighted that the UK, and specifically my right hon. Friend Alok Sharma, has assumed the COP presidency at this vital time.

Six years ago in Paris, the world came together and agreed a robust framework for action on climate change, committing to limiting temperature rises to an absolute maximum of 2° above pre-industrial levels by 2050 and to pursuing efforts to limit those rises to 1.5°, which would avoid the very worst effects of climate change. COP26, under our presidency, represents the first raising of ambition envisaged by the so-called ratchet mechanism of the Paris agreement, whereby each nation must submit updated emissions reduction plans covering the period to 2030. The decisions we take this year are therefore absolutely crucial to keeping that 1.5° cap within reach, and I hope today’s debate will focus on what those decisions need to be. We do not need a big, new global deal—the Paris agreement remains the right foundation—but at home and abroad it is time to turn promises into action, and COP26 is our forum to make that possible.

I know that our country will lead by example. We can be rightly proud of what we have achieved so far. Our emissions have nearly halved since 1990, while the economy is 75% larger. We were the first major economy to legislate for net zero emissions by 2050. We have world-leading plans to cut emissions by 68% by 2030 and 78% by 2035. We have announced the almost total removal of coal for power generation and boast a raft of important policies in the Government’s 10-point plan for green growth.

However, we cannot rest on our laurels. What we have done has allowed us to keep pace with the seriousness of events. We will have to continue to stretch ourselves if we are to get ahead of the problem and deliver net zero by mid-century. On decarbonisation, for example, the trickier half of the battle is still to come. With home heating and insulation, heavy industry, agriculture, aviation and shipping, the clean solutions we need cannot simply be left to work themselves out. There is a clear case for the Government to take a lead, to mandate priorities and enable solutions, as has happened so successfully with the contracts for difference mechanism, which has delivered a market-led solution whereby offshore wind is now cheaper than new gas-fired electricity generation. That is a really good example of how Government and the market can work together to deliver the most effective solutions at the least cost to the consumer.

In that same spirit, we need leadership from the Government now to support more research into new technologies such as green steel and to back technologies such as heat pumps, helping to reduce costs and enhance performance, as well as protecting those who cannot afford them.

This whole process will undoubtedly generate costs. It will also create economic opportunities. The UK has been adding low-carbon jobs at nearly three times the rate of the whole economy in recent years, and these are sustainable jobs in sectors with huge growth potential and are disproportionately in parts of the country with high historic unemployment rates.

My home region of Teesside is a really good example of that. The recent announcement by GE Renewable Energy that it is creating 2,250 jobs in our new freeport zone, manufacturing offshore wind turbine blades, is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, 8 Rivers Capital and Sembcorp Energy UK announced the Whitetail Clean Energy project at Wilton, a 300 MW net zero power station, which will create 2,000 jobs during the construction phase alone. That is on top of the immense potential of technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture, utilisation and storage to create good jobs for the long term.

Moving to a nationwide focus, a proper home insulation scheme, a major heat pump roll-out and significant research and development in the hardest to reach sectors all have immense economic potential. We need to make bold policy decisions in these areas now, and we will reap the rewards for the environment, our quality of life, the economy and the wider world as we export good policy and technologies overseas. Set against that, we always need to remember that the cost of our taking action would be dwarfed by the cost of doing nothing.

I want to look more broadly at our wider strategy for carbon and how we will engage with our partners to encourage the most effective possible global response. The COP26 President-designate deserves huge credit for the clear increase in ambition shown by the number of major emitters, including countries and private companies, that have followed our lead and adopted net zero targets. It has been especially heartening to see countries such as the United States and Japan joining the many who have done so. We need to maintain intense diplomatic activity to encourage others to follow their lead and to show that it is possible to decarbonise without jeopardising economic growth. The targets and commitments really matter.

Hon. Members will also recognise that long-term ambition, while welcome, is meaningless without the action required in the intervening period in order to get there. The world is still falling short in that area. The UK, the United States and the EU can all boast strong 2030 nationally determined contributions, but too many other large polluters have insufficient near-term targets and, frankly, in some cases, no real plan as to how to achieve their goals.

To give some idea of how seriously off track we are, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that we would need to almost halve net greenhouse gas emissions from 2010 levels by 2030. However, before the pandemic struck, global emissions had continued to rise every year since 2010. The Paris agreement does not contain mechanisms to enforce action, so we rely on diplomatic carrots and sticks to persuade and cajole those nations hoping for a free ride to do their duty now and make significant emission cuts. Without a significant increase in the level of ambition and, especially, action during this decade, across the whole world longer-term net zero targets will fall at the first hurdle, and we will miss the opportunity to keep that 1.5° goal within our grasp well before we get to 2050. The urgency of the situation is clearly real. Every tonne of coal we burn, every hectare of forest we fell, and every house we fail to insulate in 2021 is part of the problem.

For many countries, especially those in the Caribbean, the Pacific and large parts of Africa, which make little or no significant contribution to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions but which bear the brunt of the impacts, action is going to be hard, and in some cases probably impossible, without our help. At the 2009 Copenhagen conference of the parties, developed nations agreed to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 in climate finance to support developing countries with adaptation and mitigation. Again, that pledge has not been met—estimates vary but they all show a significant ongoing shortfall. COP26 should be the moment that promise is honoured, and that should be a key negotiating target of the United Kingdom delegation. If we use climate finance wisely, we can help developing countries enjoy more jobs, better infrastructure and more trading opportunities. We should be clear that the UK is showing real leadership here, driving agreement at the G7 to end funding for overseas fossil fuel projects and doubling our climate finance to £11.6 billion over the next five years. However, we must use our COP presidency to ensure that our friends and allies follow our lead, because failure to do so would be a huge obstacle to progress.

COP26 will be a huge conference and it has a lot to live up to. There is more I could add, but looking at the call list for this afternoon, and it is great to see so many Members here, I am conscious that I should leave time for others to contribute. My main point in closing is to re-emphasise that we must rise to the level of events this autumn. It will be the last chance, frankly, that this sort of conference lands on our watch in the timeframe we have to deliver meaningful action.

The UK has a great story to share about our own progress, and we can set out a compelling template for the next stage of progress for other countries to follow, in a way few others could match. In a debate that sometimes becomes obsessed with targets, language and process, we need to show true British leadership at COP26 because it is the time for action and it is our chance to make sure that that clarion call is heard around the world.