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Science and Technology Committee

Volume 664: debated on Thursday 5 September 2019

Select Committee statement

We now come to the Select Committee statement. Mr Norman Lamb will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, the occupant of the Chair will call right hon. or hon. Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee to respond to these in turn. Members as per usual can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Those on the Front Bench may take part in questioning. I now call the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, who I regret to say I am wrongly advised is Norman Lamb. The Chair of the Science and Technology Committee is, of course, Sir Norman Lamb.

You are very kind, Mr Speaker. I rise to make a statement following the publication by my Committee, the Science and Technology Committee, of our report last month, “Clean growth: Technologies for meeting emissions reduction targets”. These technologies are essential to confront the climate emergency that we face.

I start by thanking the more than 80 organisations and individuals who provided us with written evidence and the 27 individuals who gave evidence. I would also like to thank my fellow Committee members, many of whom are here today. It has been an enormous pleasure working with hon. Members from across the House and also with the outstanding staff on our Committee. I particularly want to thank the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), who took a lead on this inquiry. This is an evidence-based report, and it would not have been possible without the input of the many organisations and individuals who have given evidence to us.

This summer, the UK had its hottest day on record in July and the hottest August bank holiday on record. This pattern was repeated across Europe. Weather is always variable, but trends in global climate are becoming clear. Global temperatures are rising and extreme weather is becoming more extreme and more common. To avert a climate catastrophe, the United Nations has agreed to keep global warming to within 2% of pre-industrial levels and to aim to keep it within 1.5° C. The Committee on Climate Change has determined that the UK’s contribution to this target should be to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The Government rightly adopted this target by amending the Climate Change Act 2008, a move that was widely supported in this House and recognised by the Committee, but it will take more than targets to achieve this ambition.

The UK can point to some historical success in cutting emissions. Since 2000, the UK has achieved greater decarbonisation than any other country in the G20, but we must look to what is needed going forward, not dwell on past successes. We need to compare ourselves not with other countries but with what we need to do to restrict global warming. On these measures, we risk falling short. The Committee on Climate Change has warned that the UK is not on track even to meet its fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which are interim targets designed to achieve only 80% decarbonisation by 2050 and not the net zero target that is now legally binding. That is why my Committee launched our inquiry to examine what the Government should be doing to put us on track.

The first thing we identified were 10 key areas in which Government policy to support the implementation of low-carbon technology has been delayed, cut back or undermined. For example, the plug-in grant for low emission cars has been scaled back and the feed-in tariff for low-carbon power generation has been closed. We have witnessed a dramatic fall in the number of new solar installations, for example, as a result. There has been no new policy to encourage those who can afford it to improve the energy efficiency of their homes—an absolutely essential ambition to achieve net zero. Despite a consultation on the topic in 2017, no action has followed since. Following the cancellation of the zero carbon homes policy in 2015, the Government said that they would consult on changes to building regulations in 2019 to improve energy efficiency, but no consultation has been launched, so we are building new homes that we will have to retrofit to achieve net zero. Fuel duty has been frozen for nine years in a row, while bus and train fares have been allowed to increase every year over the same period. There are even rumours that the Chancellor intends to cut fuel duty in the Budget. I urge him to consider improving public transport and incentivising people to use it instead.

What should the Government be doing? Much of the media coverage focused on just one aspect of our report—the future of car ownership—but I urge colleagues across the House to carefully consider all my Committee’s proposals for change. Some key priorities include the fact that transport emissions have barely changed since 2012, with transport now bring the heaviest-emitting sector of the UK economy. Indeed, emissions from new cars appear to be going up. In the near term, the Government should be using vehicle excise duty to encourage the purchase of lower-emitting models and working to make electric vehicle charging points much more widely available and interoperable. In the longer term, the Government should bring their proposed ban on sales of new conventional cars and vans forward to 2035 at the latest, and they should also move towards a future transport system that no longer requires widespread car ownership. Incidentally, this is not an imposition on people not to have cars, but there needs to be a national discussion about what our future transport system will look like and how we can get about without mass car ownership

The Government must also develop a strategy for decarbonising heating—absolutely vital to achieving net zero—and a mix of different low-carbon heating technologies is probably required. Large-scale trials of different technologies, such as hydrogen and heat pumps and heat networks, are needed now to gather evidence for future decisions. Whatever technologies are used, there will be massive benefits from having energy efficient homes. The cost of housing and of heating our homes will reduce substantially if we make them more efficient. The Government must ensure that regulations deliver new buildings ready for a net zero future. They should also learn from past policies to encourage homeowners to improve energy efficiency in their existing homes. My Committee recommended that the Government should consider amending stamp duty to provide the incentive and introduce a “help to improve” scheme, like Help to Buy, to help provide the finance for such improvements.

Power generation has already achieved impressive decarbonisation, but that must continue. However, the deployment of onshore wind and large-scale solar power has fallen drastically since 2015 as a result of planning policy and their exclusion from financial support frameworks. The Government must ensure that there is strong policy support for building new onshore wind power and large-scale solar power projects and repowering existing ones where there are projected cost savings for consumers over the long term and local support. Decisions are also needed on future funding mechanisms for nuclear power and the careful monitoring of the new smart export guarantee for renewable generation, which must provide a proper incentive.

To meet the Government’s original 2050 target, reaching net zero emissions will also require the active removal of significantly more greenhouse gas from the atmosphere than envisaged in any of the previous illustrative pathways. The step change required will necessitate a significant increase in current support for greenhouse gas removal technologies, and the Government should increase funding for their research, development and demonstration, ensuring that they are seizing currently available opportunities for greenhouse gas removal.

Carbon capture, usage and storage has been widely identified as a key technology for decarbonisation in several sectors. The Government must provide greater clarity on the details of its CCUS action plan and learn from previous carbon capture projects to ensure that a sufficient number of them, of sufficient scale, are undertaken and that the knowledge gained from publicly funded work is publicly accessible. The scale of the challenge ahead should not be underestimated, nor should the imperative of succeeding in it. Our report makes a wide range of recommendations, and I urge the Government to act on all our recommendations.

Finally, it is disturbing and worrying that this is one of the big challenges we face as a society, yet the Brexit quagmire that we are in is distracting the attention that this Parliament should be giving to how we confront this enormous existential threat. In many ways, it is sad and rather depressing that not enough people are in the Chamber today to debate such an important issue. At some point soon, this Parliament needs to get back to focusing on such issues, which are critical to the futures of our planet and our society.

As both a former member of the Science and Technology Committee and a member of the Conservative Environment Network, I very much welcome this report. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that reducing emissions from people heating their homes is not only good for our climate change targets, but will reduce costs for people and enable us to end the scourge of fuel poverty?

The hon. Lady makes an absolutely central point that is a real win-win. We can achieve the essential decarbonisation of our economy by confronting the problem of how we heat our buildings, particularly our homes, but we can also achieve affordable housing. We often talk about affordable housing and the vital need to increase access to it, but housing is not affordable unless energy is cheap. We have the potential to minimise and, indeed, to eradicate the cost of energy in our homes if only we were to follow the objectives set out in this report.

I warmly welcome this report and congratulate the Chair of the Committee and its members on the assiduity with which they have gone about their business and on the comprehensive and compelling report that they have produced as a result. Following the House’s decision to change the target for greenhouse gas removal from 80% by 2050 to net zero by 2050, it is clear that several of the actions that had previously been proposed, which were based on the carbon budgets and Government ambition relating to the 80% target, would have to be changed. Did the Committee take any evidence on the extent to which documents such as the Government’s clean growth plan should be amended or extended as a result of the change of target?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for that contribution. It is fair to say that the legislating for net zero came towards the end of our inquiry, so much of the evidence was received before that, but the consensus was clear that we need to significantly up the ambition of the policies that are in place in order to deliver net zero or, indeed, even to deliver the previous target of 80%. We not only have to will the end, but we have to will the means to get there.

As a member of the Committee, I thank our Chairman, all the staff and all the people who gave evidence on this incredibly detailed and important report. I completely agree with him that not enough time is being devoted in this place to climate change, which is our biggest challenge.

It is fantastic news that we set that net zero target, but does the Chairman agree that, when targets are at risk of not being met, action needs to be taken to address it? It is important to recognise that the Government have taken action in some of these areas, such as saying no fossil fuel heating in new homes by 2025. We have seen extra electric vehicle charging points pop up in Chelmsford and in other parts of the country, and some of our recommendations are already in place.

The widespread use of personal vehicles is cause for concern. Does the Chairman agree that the report is not saying that everybody should no longer be allowed to own a car—we know that cars and vehicles are important, especially in rural areas and in many careers—but is pointing out that we need investment over the decades ahead to give people alternatives? Does he agree that what happened to the national grid this summer is a real wake-up call on the investment that is needed in this area? That investment needs to come from public and private sources.

Does the Chairman agree that carbon capture is vital not only to innovation but to protecting areas in the UK, such as our peat bogs, and overseas, like in the Amazon rainforest? Finally, does he agree that we will address this only when we work together with other countries and that next year’s global climate change conference, which is possibly coming to Britain, is a vital time for our future?

First, I thank the hon. Lady for all her work on the Committee during my time as Chair. This is probably my last appearance in the Chamber as Chair of the Committee or, indeed, as the Member of Parliament for North Norfolk, and it has been an enormous pleasure to work with her and other Committee members.

I agree with all the hon. Lady’s questions. We are right to applaud the Government for setting the 2050 target in legislation, but, as she says, to maintain public trust and to confront this existential challenge, we now have to get the measures in place to deliver on the target.

It is a pleasure to have been part of the Committee in drawing up this report, which is one of our most important reports over the last few years. Of course we need to take bold, ambitious steps. We cannot continue living our lives as we currently are, and we all need to look at what we are doing. With these bold steps, we also need to look at the bold, retrograde steps that have been taken, such as cutting offshore wind subsidies and removing feed-in tariffs. We could reverse those steps instantly, which would help to change the landscape of our energy use.

We all love our cars, and many journeys are currently not possible without them, but I recently got rid of my car after deciding to rethink my relationship with it. I live in a city, so that is possible, but it is more difficult in rural areas. Does the Chairman agree that we need to start thinking about whether our cars are necessary and whether our journeys could be taken another way, such as by bike, by walking or by public transport? Finally, will he commend the Scottish Government for our commitment to renewable energy? The majority of our electricity generation is from renewable sources, and we want to move that to 100%.

I thank the hon. Lady for her excellent work on the Committee, and it has been a pleasure working with her. I do think the Scottish Government have taken important steps in this context.

The hon. Lady mentions the areas in which policy has either stalled or fallen back, on which the report is clear. I pick out the zero-carbon homes standard, which was supposed to come in from 2015 but was abandoned, and the ludicrous situation—Lord Deben made this point in his evidence as chair of the Committee on Climate Change—in which we are building new homes that do not meet the standard we need to achieve and so will have to be retrofitted. How ridiculous and inefficient is that?

I also pick out the Government’s decision effectively to end new onshore wind in England, although obviously not in Scotland, where it is devolved. There are enormous opportunities to deliver cheaper energy to our citizens if we permit onshore wind, which is widely supported by the public provided we avoid areas with important and sensitive landscape.

I am also a member of the Science and Technology Committee, and it has been a pleasure to serve under the right hon. Gentleman’s chairmanship for the last two years. I am proud to have served with him over that time, and I wish him all the best for the future, wherever it takes him.

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will share my concern that road vehicle emissions have either stagnated or increased somewhat. Does he agree there is a role for the Department for Transport in incentivising migration to electric cars and for making progress on the use of hydrogen propulsion for large goods vehicles on our roads today?

I totally agree. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind comments, and I thank him for his excellent contributions to the Committee and for always being prompt and reliable. He has the prize for being the most reliable member of all.

I very much agree on the need to incentivise people to shift to ultra low emissions vehicles. In a sense, there is a personal story here, because I am due to take delivery of an electric car.

Absolutely, but I am conscious that, financially, it is beyond most people’s reach, so we have to find ways of making it affordable. By incentivising the purchase, we will start to bring down prices so that they become competitive. Alongside that, we need the charging points that provide for their day-to-day use.

Order. This is meant to be a 20-minute debate. We have now passed 20 minutes and we have quite a lot to get through, so if we could all speed up—I want to make sure everyone gets in.

I start by congratulating the Chair and all the members of the Select Committee on this excellent report, particularly its emphasis on the need to take action to address the huge, existential threat that climate change presents and the role that technology can play. Does he agree that such technologies, given the right framework, could also create hundreds of thousands of good high-wage, high-skill and high-productivity jobs and that the right Government, with the right investment programme, would see the decarbonisation of our economy as an opportunity to transform our economic and manufacturing base, creating hundreds of thousands of good jobs and sharing prosperity around the country in the process?

I thank the hon. Lady for making that important point. She is right that we can generate economic growth in our country by greening our economy, but we also have massive export opportunities. We have the opportunity to assist the developing world in decarbonising its economies and in growing in a way that does not damage the planet. Unfortunately, through our development assistance, we are still not always consistent in that approach.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for what he has done and for this excellent report, and I associate myself completely with his initial remarks.

I understand that the previous Prime Minister took very seriously how we roll out electric charging points, but sadly it was right at the end of her tenure. Is the Chair any clearer on the Government’s strategy to increase the number of charging points?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments, and it is always a pleasure to see him as he comes and goes from this place over many years. He is right to raise this issue, and there is not yet clarity on the roll-out of charging points. Other countries, such as Norway, are well ahead of us in achieving that. To encourage people to buy electric, we have to assure them that they will be able to recharge without difficulty.

I am not a member of the Committee, but, for the record, I would also like to extend my personal thanks to my right the right hon. Gentleman for all his kindness over the short years I have been here. I am particularly interested in his statement on offshore renewable energy, which is a success story in my constituency. What consideration did the Committee give to the development of further sites around the British Isles where this might be appropriate?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments. There is clearly an enormous opportunity to help decarbonise our electricity generation capacity in this country. It is clear from the evidence we received that there is great opportunity to increase offshore wind capacity around our shores.

On a personal note, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his chairmanship, guidance and education during my short time on the Science and Technology Committee. It has been a great pleasure to serve under his chairmanship.

The report is hugely important and young people have managed to get climate change back on the front pages. Is it not the case that there is no single magic bullet to perfect what we need, but that the Government and all those involved must look at all the answers holistically and address all our suggestions and recommendations so that we can honour our young people for putting climate change back where it belongs?

I thank my friend for his massive contribution—when he has not been dragged away by HS2. It has been a great pleasure to work with him. He is right: this requires action on all fronts. There is a particular need to focus on the heating of buildings and on transport. We have made very little progress on those matters, and urgent progress is essential. Unless we attack where we put carbon into the atmosphere on all fronts, we will fail to meet the targets, and fail future generations.

I also commend the right hon. Gentleman for his report and congratulate him on his determinedness on the subject, for which I share his passion. Does he share my frustration that for so many years—since 2010—we have, through lack of tighter regulation, allowed housing to be built without energy efficiency or renewable energy provision in the regulatory framework? Including such provision would have transformed some of our communities. On the transport side, we need to invest more heavily in cycle routes and electric bicycles, which would transform our urban movement.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. More than a decade ago, a German teacher came to stay with us. He was building a zero carbon home in Germany with a ground source heat pump. That was more than a decade ago, yet we have made snail’s pace progress in this country on alternative ways of heating our homes. The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on the need to find ways of avoiding having to use cars. Cycling and walking are essential, and our urban areas in particular must be designed and adapted in such a way as to facilitate that.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for pointing out the importance of the report, not just to tackling climate change, but to bringing together the two questions of technology and climate change to achieve our net zero emissions. It was my privilege to lead on this in the Science and Technology Committee. Does he agree that the evidence across all policy areas in the report concluded that much stronger leadership was required from central Government—from the Prime Minister, with a cross-departmental and economy-wide mission—to meet the net zero target emissions? For whoever is on the Treasury Bench in the months and years ahead, the report provides an excellent evidence-based agenda of items that should be prioritised in achieving those targets.

I put on record my tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his excellent leadership of the Committee, which has been recognised not just by Members but by the science and technology community outside the House.

That is really kind. It has been an enormous pleasure working with the hon. Gentleman and I thank him for taking a lead role in this vital report. I entirely agree with his comments. The Prime Minister has said that he wants the Government to be the greenest ever. We have heard that before, but there now must be substance to back up that statement. That requires key policies that provide the incentives and the regulatory framework to deliver that essential target by 2050.

May I also wish you well? The tributes, which have come from all sides, show what a great man you are. We wish you well in your retirement. I am not quite sure that it is retirement, but we wish you well in whatever future venture you undertake.