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House of Commons Hansard
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Transition Towns and Fossil Fuels
18 March 2019
Volume 656

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Quin.)

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Last week on the Radio 4 “Today” programme, one topic was covered every day several times. I am of course talking about Svalbard—no, not that other topic, which is taking our attention away from virtually everything else, but Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic ocean roughly midway between mainland Norway and the north pole. As well as beautiful tundra, fossils, rich geology, incredible flora and fauna, including polar bears, there are glaciers as far as the eye can see, but climate change is happening much more rapidly in the far north, and as temperatures rise, the ice melts, with serious consequences for us all. The international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, Kim Holman, who lives in Longyearbyen on Svalbard, says of climate change:

“this town is certainly the place where it’s happening first and fastest and even the most.”

Holman notes that Svalbard used to be where students came to observe Arctic conditions, and now it is the place they come to study climate change.

Svalbard is indeed a hotbed of scientific research. In just one month last year, there were more than 600 scientists from 23 countries doing research on and around Svalbard. One of those scientists was my very own niece, Aliyah Debbonaire, who is researching the microbiology of those melting glaciers for her PhD. Understanding these microbes may help us to solve other urgent global problems, such as antimicrobial resistance, but her research is a race against time—against the global emergency which is climate change.

There is little doubt that fossil fuels are responsible for the vast majority of UK and world carbon emissions, which make up the majority of greenhouse gases causing climate change. If we limit average global temperature rises to 1.5° C by rapidly reducing our use of fossil fuels, that would avoid some of the most catastrophic effects. That is the goal our Government have committed to in the Paris agreement on climate change, and I applaud them for that. The current Climate Change Act 2008 target is an 80% reduction of carbon emissions by 2050, but we can and we should increase our ambition—perhaps to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, or even sooner. Transition towns can help, and I will speak more about that shortly.

I recently visited our Aliyah’s old school, Cotham—in my constituency of Bristol West—which inspired her scientific future, to speak to the current students and answer their questions. Almost all of them said that what they were worried about most was climate change. One student asked, “What would happen if we banned fossil fuels?” I really loved that question, and I promised to bring it up today, because it is the obvious question to ask. If fossil fuels are the main source of the problem of carbon emissions, why are we still using them? Of course there are many reasons, and we all have to think about what we are prepared to change to end the use of fossil fuels, and that is where transition towns come in.

I believe that the abolition in 2016 of the Department of Energy and Climate Change has removed governmental focus. That Department was established by the last Labour Government, along with the world’s first Climate Change Act and the world’s first legally binding carbon emission reduction targets. Unfortunately, the Committee on Climate Change says that the UK is unlikely to meet its fourth and fifth carbon reduction targets from 2023 onwards. I would be interested to know the Minister’s thoughts on that.

Meanwhile, transition cities, transition towns and other groups are trying to lead. The first transition town was Totnes in Devon in 2006. Transition towns are communities taking responsibility for creating sustainable ways of living, including by addressing climate change, starting locally. There is now a global network of towns, cities, villages and universities in more than 50 countries.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to the House. I spoke to her before the debate to associate myself with her ideas. Does she agree that it is essential that all communities consider the ethos of transition towns, try to be more environmentally aware and seek to change their impact on climate change? Does she further agree that wonderful initiatives like my local council’s recycling community investment fund, which puts the money saved by achieving recycling targets into community projects to raise environmental awareness, are examples of councils doing exactly what she is referring to?

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The hon. Gentleman is right that that is a very good example of a local initiative and I applaud his council.

Transition Bristol was founded in 2007 and is the longest running city transition initiative in the world. I am sure that the example given by the hon. Gentleman is leading pioneering work like Transition Bristol. Transition Bristol is a network and an initiator of city-wide and local projects that are helping us transition away from fossil fuel use and towards a sustainable future. As the Transition Bristol website says:

“Decreasing our use of fossil fuels is not negotiable. We have a choice—to make this shift in a way that builds community.”

Transition towns are not just about the why and the what of becoming carbon neutral; they are about the how.

The activities and organisations within Transition Bristol include Bristol Energy Network, which is supporting communities to build an energy system that works for everyone.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that organisations such as like Plymouth Energy Community, which is crowd-funding solar panels to go on primary schools, have a huge rule to play not only in providing low-carbon solutions, but in engaging members of the public in the process?

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My hon. Friend is right. That is a perfect example of what is great about transition towns and the energy networks and other organisations within them. I salute what they are doing. I would be interested to visit his project.

Bristol Energy Network supports communities to build those energy systems and Bristol Food Network helps people to grow, eat and cook seasonal locally grown fresh food. Neighbourhood groups, including the Montpelier, Bishopston, Easton and Redland groups in my constituency, help to carry that right down to the hyper-local level.

Bristol is well known for its environmental ethos. Last year, the city council declared a climate emergency on a motion proposed by a Green councillor, Carla Denyer—thank you, Carla—pledging to become carbon neutral by 2030. Similar motions have been passed by many local authorities across the country, including, I believe, the Minister’s own county council. Will the Minister join me in commending those councils for their actions, which help to support the focus of transition towns?

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My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that one of the most disappointing aspects in this area is the stalling of the renewable industries?

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Nonsense!

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We had a very good record until quite recently, but that seems to have gone somewhat into reverse. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is disappointing?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I can only say to the Minister and her colleagues that whatever is happening in renewables, we need to double or triple it if we are to meet our carbon reduction targets. My experience is that we have seen it stalling, whereas we need to be increasing it. I will be interested to hear what she has to say in her remarks.

What commitments will the Minister make to policies and resources to support and expand the impact of transition towns to end our use of fossil fuels? The rapid development of renewable energy sources over the past few decades had helped to reduce hugely the UK’s carbon emissions. Transition towns show how emissions can be reduced in practice by involving people in sustainable energy choices, but individual and hyper-local actions can only go so far. They need Government leadership and support.

The Transition Bristol linked organisation, the Bristol Energy Co-operative—this is similar to the example cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard)—has raised more than £10 million to build solar farms in our area. These projects reduce emissions and build support for transition, but, frustratingly, recent Governments have cut support for the feed-in tariff introduced by the last Labour Government for small-scale renewable energy and changed planning laws, which apparently makes it harder to get planning permission for onshore wind.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister ought to be made aware of the places where onshore wind was planned but, because of the changes in the financial regime, has been dropped, such as the two large turbines just south of Ipswich?

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I was not aware of that particular example, but I am sure that the Minister will be interested to hear that and will perhaps have a response to it in her summing up.

I understand that the deployment of solar and new onshore wind has fallen drastically since 2016. I am also worried by the interest in fracking, because that is surely pouring fossil fuel on the fossil fuel fire, when we really should be doing everything that we can to put that fire out. Does the Minister agree that we should support transition towns by leaving fossil fuels in the ground?

On a study fellowship that has been organised for me by the Industry and Parliament Trust, I have learnt about the potential for expanding renewable energy. That includes the potential for energy from wave and tidal—from marine sources. I believe that it is the Government’s job to help to fund, invest in and support emerging technologies precisely at the point when they cannot yet turn a profit but have the potential to do so. Only by supporting these early stages can this country become a world leader in these technologies, allowing us to export them, as well as to create jobs and reduce fossil fuel use. This reflects the transition towns’ spirit of involving communities in the transition away from fossil fuels. For instance, in Swansea, everyone seems to be very knowledgeable about and supportive of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon project and the science behind it.

Other forms of marine energy are of course available, as I know the Minister knows from a recent meeting that she and I were both involved in. I would be interested to know whether she has had chance to reflect on what we learnt in that meeting, because the UK has massive untapped potential for marine energy generation, but it needs investment and support. Will the Government commit to investing in helping emerging renewable technologies to move from the developmental stages to being fully commercially viable, with subsidies or other support, especially in industries of the future?

One of the most striking places that I visited was the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult in Blyth. That area, devastated by the collapse of the traditional coalmining and shipbuilding industries, is now helping to creating the jobs of the future as it tests the biggest wind turbine blades in the world—I have been to see it and it is pretty impressive. This is transition in action, but I would like to see more. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to invest further in renewable energy industries, such as wind, tidal and wave, especially in the most deprived parts of the UK?

We can also do much more to make our homes more efficient. Labour’s zero carbon homes standard was designed to reduce energy use in new houses, but unfortunately, the standard was scrapped in 2015, causing great disruption to industry preparing for it to implemented. It would also have saved families living in new properties around £200 a year on increased energy bills. Labour policy is to reinstate the zero carbon homes standard, but in any case, new standards only deal with new houses. What about existing homes, which are some of the poorest insulated in western Europe? Our cold, damp homes lead to recurring illnesses that Age UK and the Institute of Health Equity have warned are costing our NHS over £1 billion each year.

Transition Bristol members have taken on that challenge, insulating existing homes and making them more energy-efficient, but unfortunately, we have seen a Government cut to the energy company obligation, resulting in a 97% fall in the installation of new boilers and home energy-efficiency measures under this scheme and a significant fall in funding for cold homes. Labour policy is to bring all homes up to a good standard by 2035, with all fuel-poor homes fixed by 2030. I would love that to be something that the Government decide to take on, because frankly, we need this now. Given that insulating homes reduces fuel poverty and energy demand, what are the Government doing to reinstate energy-efficiency measures?

Transition Bristol and campaigners have been very effective in changing our ideas about travel, and I am proud to represent a constituency where people walk and cycle more than almost anywhere in the UK. However, freezing fuel duty for almost a decade has effectively subsidised car use by tens of billions of pounds, while train fares have gone up by approximately twice the rate of inflation. I therefore ask the Minister what more can be done to encourage more sustainable transport use, thereby supporting transition towns in their efforts to reduce fossil fuel use further.

There are many other ways the Government could support and build on transition towns’ excellent work, and I would like the Minister to consider some suggestions, which are meant in the spirit of generosity. Recent analysis from the European Commission found that the UK gives the most subsidies to fossil fuels of any EU country, while equivalent subsidies to renewable energy industries were apparently much lower. I would like that to be rebalanced. If the Minister wants to correct me in summing up, I would be grateful.

We also need to stop supporting polluting projects abroad. UK Export Finance has a record of financing fossil fuels in low and middle-income countries. It is estimated to have provided £551 million in support of fossil fuel production overseas per year between 2014 and 2016, and that must stop.

Currently, the planning application fee for a large solar farm is the same as that for developing a shopping centre covering the same surface area. That should also change. If we continue to support the excavation of fossil fuels, and fossil fuel power stations, these fuels will continue to be burned. The barriers are no longer technological or even financial; they are political.

On Friday, I met some young women at the climate change demonstration on Parliament Square. Rosa, Rebecca, Tilly and Grace were all so inspiring, and they made so many great suggestions, such as a real ban on single-use plastics. I know that that is the Government’s intention, but they would like a real ban, and they would like it right now. They told me they want that sort of leadership from the Government; they do not just want to see individuals being made responsible for making all the changes. They also said they wanted the net zero carbon emissions target to be met by 2025 and that they did not want us to wait to 2050.

As I draw to a close, let me say this. For all the young people demonstrating in Bristol, in Parliament Square and everywhere else against climate change; for the people of Bristol West who tell me how much this issue matters to them; for their children and grandchildren; and for my own nephews and nieces and their children—the next generations, for whom the Minister, myself and all hon. Members come to work every day to make the world a better place—I ask the Minister: will she consider declaring a national climate change emergency and work with Members on both sides of the House to do everything she can to support the local work of transition towns through Government action and take a lead internationally as well as nationally?

To conclude, I return to Aliyah and to Svalbard. Svalbard and its extraordinary geography and ecosystem need us to act right now. Meanwhile, Aliyah has recently finished all the field and lab work for her PhD, and she gave birth earlier this month to the first Debbonaire of the next generation—baby Olive Emilie Debbonaire-Crabb. I am going to meet Olive for the first time this weekend, and I cannot wait, but she and others of her generation also cannot wait for us to act. I know the Minister will share my ambition, because children being born now in Bristol, in her constituency and across the country depend not just on transition towns but on businesses, scientists and us politicians to protect them from climate change.

When new baby Olive turns 18, I want to be able to look her in the eye and I do not want to say, “I tried to stop climate change, but I failed. I’m sorry.” I want the polar bears on Svalbard to survive, and I want this beautiful planet to thrive for her. I want to say to Olive, and to all the next generations, “My generation of transition town campaigners, businesses, scientists and politicians in the House of Commons and in local councils everywhere, motivated by our love for you and for our beautiful planet—from Svalbard to the south pole—stopped climate change.”

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I was hoping that the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) might provide some sugar-rich vegetarian snacks, as we are going on so late this evening, but we have been thwarted once again on a Monday night. However, I congratulate her on securing a really important debate.

I was hoping that we would hear a little more about transition towns, Bristol, of course, being my home city. I commend the very long-standing and active groups that have led to so many changes in that beautiful city. It seems very appropriate on Global Recycling Day to be discussing what some of these extraordinary communities have done. Of course, Bristol was one of the very early cities that set out on this path, and it has had some highly ambitious and really successful initiatives. In my constituency, the Sustainable Devizes group was set up in 2008. Most recently, it focused on a waste-free February. Similar groups are being set up in 303 other locations across the United Kingdom.

What is so wonderful about the network is that it is bringing people together to discuss problems, solutions and changes, many of which are easier to make on a local than on a national scale. It is coming up with creative ways of using local assets, innovating and making links with local universities. I see that happening throughout the United Kingdom. I recently attended a UK100 event in Leeds, a national green finance conference, which showcased the actions that various local authorities and groups were taking. The hon. Lady and I both love our railways. A group called 10:10, working with Community Energy South and Network Rail, is looking into how the railways can be decarbonised. Solar power and battery storage could be used to provide some of the current that the electric railway system uses at present.

We have talked about Bristol. It was amazing to see its City Leap prospectus, which moves away from some of the more “micro” initiatives and involves thinking, in a broad and holistic way, about how to build heat networks, smart energy systems, energy efficiency initiatives and renewable energy generation in a joined-up way. That joining up is very important. The Government are committed to building millions of homes, and we have an opportunity to include many system-integrated solutions in their design before that actually begins.

The hon. Lady made some slightly critical comments, with which I shall deal shortly. However, as she knows, I am passionate about bottom-up support. I have set up five new regional local energy hubs, because—as, again, she will know—some areas, including towns and cities, are very much in the lead in this regard, while others would love to try but are not sure where to start. Our aim has been to invest in the hiring of experts and to enable best practice to be shared. The hubs are intended to increase local capacity and to hire dedicated energy or sustainability officers to support local authorities and local enterprise partnerships.

We have talked about towns, but, as someone who represents a very rural area, I was keen to ensure that the rural community energy fund would continue to support rural communities. Through what is elegantly known as a MoG—machinery of government—transfer of Government assets, I managed to move it from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so that we could integrate it with much of the local work that we are doing. The fund will open for business again within a few short weeks.

The hon. Lady referred to the benefits of local action. That, of course, does not just mean reducing carbon dioxide emissions; it means warmer homes, people who are healthier as a result of cycling or walking, air quality improvements, and the creation of what I think we have increasingly realised is an incredibly exciting part of these changes through the green business opportunities that exist. About 400,000 people in the United Kingdom work in the low-carbon economy, which means that it is bigger than the aerospace sector in that regard. It is growing at between 5% and 6% a year. That is part of the global transition to low-carbon economic growth.

The hon. Lady tweaked me slightly about the shutting down of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. In fact, subsuming it in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has allowed us to understand far more about the opportunities and to broaden the conversation about low carbon. What was perhaps rather a niche conversation has become a fundamental conversation about how the economy should be working, and how businesses should be working. I hope that the hon. Lady was as pleased as I was by the Chancellor’s green spring statement last week. He made clear not only the desirability of, for instance, removing fossil fuel heating from new buildings, but the huge economic opportunities that it provided. I think that putting the two Departments together has allowed us to become much better at understanding those opportunities and attracting investment in them.

We are, of course, very focused on the leadership of the public sector, which can also be a major drive for many local transitions. The hon. Lady will know of the Salix scheme, a zero interest rate scheme enabling local authorities and devolved parts of the public sector to invest in their own low-carbon activities.

The hon. Lady made a powerful point about the need to come off fossil fuels completely and the role of transition towns in doing so. I hope that the hon. Lady is as pleased as I am that we will be phasing out coal, the dirtiest form of fossil fuel, completely from our generation system. For a country that built its economic success on the hard-won mining of coal to be one of the first major countries to be phasing it out completely as part of its generation system is hugely valuable. That has allowed us to take our commitment to phasing out coal and turn it into a global movement, the Powering Past Coal Alliance, where we have now persuaded over 80 countries, cities and states to also commit to phasing out coal. If only the world would phase out coal, we would be in a substantially better place.

The hon. Lady mentioned the feed-in tariffs and the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) raised the challenge about renewables investments. We should not define success in delivering renewables energy just based on how much we subsidise it. The feed-in tariff we have provided has cost us about £6 billion to date and will continue to cost us several billion pounds over its lifetime at a point when subsidy-free solar is becoming a reality, particularly at the commercial level. While we might have seen a tail-off in some solar installations on domestic fittings, there is an enormous increase in subsidy-free solar in the planning system at a more commercial level.

We are up to 32% of our energy system from renewables. I was lucky enough to launch the offshore wind sector deal last week—on a very windy day where wind was picking up over 30% of the total on that day alone. We have set out a 10-year market horizon for offshore wind, with the confident expectation that we will be at over 70% zero-carbon energy in our energy system before baby Olive even gets to her 16th birthday. This is a major transition that we are undertaking, and we have the largest and deepest offshore wind market in the world and we continue to invest.

The hon. Lady asked me about tidal. I grew up a few miles from the Bristol channel; I have seen the power of those tides washing in and out every day. The challenge is that I have to invest other people’s money in the most cost-effective carbon reduction energy systems and also the ones that have the most global potential. I look at everything through the grid of asking what is the lowest cost, what is the carbon dioxide reduction potential and what is the competitive advantage. Sad as it is, there are some brilliant ideas for tidal and marine and we have lots of new ideas coming forward, but Tidal Lagoons at the price being quoted would have been the most expensive power station we had ever built in the UK, with quite limited global reach for that technology.

We are always looking for new ideas, however. My Department has about £2.6 billion of taxpayers’ money to invest in research and development in this clean energy area over the course of this Parliament, the largest R&D budget we have ever had in this area, and we see huge opportunities in many areas, including marine and tidal at the right price.

I want to briefly touch on where I think some of the community groups and local authorities can be helpful. I often think that it is difficult to sit in Westminster and try to pull levers, because situations are different on the ground; we have very different levels of knowledge, commitment and circumstances, and as in so many areas learning from innovation and vision at the local level and looking upwards is important. I am thinking in particular of Leeds. The work that Leeds City Council has done in introducing hydrogen into the heating system, a major opportunity to decarbonise heating going forward, should not be underestimated.

I know the hon. Lady does not think this, but somebody listening might think she had rather a dismal view of what we have achieved as a Government. She is right that we were the first country in the world to pass a climate change Act. It was brought forward with very strong cross-party support as quite a radical piece of legislation at the time. Since then, as indeed before then, we have led the world in decarbonisation. We have dropped our carbon emissions consistently, more than any other developed country, compared with our economic growth, because of course, as the hon. Member for Bristol West knows, what we want to do is grow our economy and reduce our carbon emissions. That has only accelerated. In 2016-17, our emissions were down 4.7%. This is happening in many areas.

We do have challenges, particularly in the housing space and in decarbonising heavy industry and transportation, but we are absolutely leading the pack with our decarbonisation story through continued investment, continued ambition and a legislative framework. I hope that the hon. Lady and her party will support our bid to help the climate change talks next year—the all-critical conference of the parties talks in 2020, at which countries will come together for the first time since the Paris agreement to show what the numbers will be, so that we can assess how on-track or off-track we are. The UK could also showcase much of the incredible innovation we have in this area. I hope there will be strong support from all Members for our bid, although we are cognisant that other countries also want to host the talks.

The hon. Lady will also know that we were the first industrialised country to ask for advice on a net zero economy, following the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We look forward to that advice.

What I would say to baby Olive and all the other young people—although she is a little young to come and protest, many others did—is that we should be proud of what we have done in the UK through a combination of ambition, cross-party working and some good policies. We have delivered a good track record and we know we have more to do. There is a strong commitment across the House to deliver more, and I heartily commend the transition movement on its impact, its vision and its ongoing commitment to stopping climate change.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.