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Climate and Ecological Emergency: UK’s Response

Volume 689: debated on Tuesday 9 February 2021

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

It has been almost two years since this House declared a climate and nature emergency, and more than one year since Parliament last debated the climate and nature crises as an interlinked issue, yet the need for not only debate and declarations but ambitious action could not be more urgent.

The world is now hotter than at any time in the past 12,000 years, and 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have taken place since 2000. Record fires have raged in the Amazon and the US, ice caps in Greenland melt at a terrifying pace and Storm Eta wreaked havoc and unimaginable tragedy in central America. At the same time, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has set out the grim facts on nature and biodiversity: 1 million species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades—more than ever before in human history. Every warning light on the dashboard is flashing red. With the UK due to host the COP26 climate summit in November, and with the COP15 biodiversity summit also taking place this year, the responsibility to show honest and bold global leadership could not be greater.

That means acknowledging three things. First, our domestic climate policy is inconsistent and incoherent. To take just one example, the Government’s failure to call in the recent decision to allow a new coalmine in Cumbria prompted James Hansen, for 10 years NASA’s most senior climate scientist, to warn that the Prime Minister risks humiliation by showing such contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature. The UK cannot lead a good COP from a position of weakness and inconsistency.

Secondly, we are off course to meet both our fourth and fifth carbon budgets. Not only that, but those budgets are based on an 80% emission reduction by 2050, not net zero. The latest annual progress report from the Climate Change Committee highlighted that the Government have failed on 17 of their 21 progress indicators, and that only two of 31 key policy milestones have been met.

Thirdly, and most crucially for tonight’s debate, the science on which the target of net zero by 2050, and thus the revised Climate Change Act 2008, are based has moved on. It is time to update the legislation. Let me explain why. The climate does not care about target dates. What matters is how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere over the rest of this century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a global carbon budget—the total burnable carbon between 2018 and 2100—consistent with a 66% chance of 1.5° C warming is just 420 billion tonnes of CO2. It is currently being burned at approximately 40 billion tonnes a year. On current trends, that gives us until 2030 at the latest before that global carbon budget is used up. After that point, we would have to rely on costly and uncertain negative emissions technologies to avoid global heating of more than 1.5° C. Historically, the UK has been one of the world’s biggest emitters. We started the modern fossil fuel age with the industrial revolution. We are disproportionately responsible for the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere. Factoring that in alongside the need to allow space for poorer countries to develop, a fair carbon budget for the UK looks like around 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 over that same period.

If we calculate emissions on a consumption basis—that is, if we take responsibility for carbon burned overseas in the service of UK consumption—we are burning through our fair carbon budget at more than 500 million tonnes a year. That gives us just five years before it is gone. That is the reality, that is the inconvenient truth and that is why we urgently need to adopt the climate and ecological emergency Bill, a private Member’s Bill that I introduced into the House last year that so far has the support of 98 MPs from eight different parties.

The Climate Change Act 2008 was undoubtedly pioneering in its time, and many other countries have taken inspiration from it, but it is now hopelessly out of date. An emergency means that we need to act now, in line with what the science demands. The beauty of the climate and ecological emergency Bill is that it offers Government, Parliament and citizens a framework for the UK to play the fairest and most effective role it can to meet the crisis head on—a framework designed for coherence and integrity.

The CEE Bill follows the science; it represents the last best chance for the House to tackle the climate and ecological crisis that we all face together. It has been drafted with the help of expert scientists and has three primary goals: to ensure that the UK meets targets designed to limit global heating to 1.5° C, the point that we must not pass if we are to avoid catastrophe; to conserve and restore nature, ensuring that we protect this life-sustaining planet that is our common home; and to give people a real say in how we transition to a zero-carbon society, drawing on the creativity and ingenuity of the British people as we recover from the effects of the pandemic.

The Bill also seeks to fill in the holes of the 2008 Act in three key ways: first, by accounting for the UK’s emissions on a consumption basis, counting the emissions that we are responsible for overseas as well as those from international aviation and shipping; secondly, by setting out measures that tackle the climate and ecological emergency simultaneously; and thirdly, by involving citizens in what will need to be an equitable shift towards a fairer and greener society.

We need to tell the truth about our climate emissions. The Government like to say that they have reduced emissions by more than 40% since 1990, but that is true only on a territorial basis; one of the ways in which it has been achieved is by offshoring so much of our manufacturing and essentially outsourcing so many of those emissions to countries such as China. If we factor those back in, we have reduced emissions by much less than 40%—possibly by as little as 10% or 15%.

It is time for honesty and time to face reality. The Committee on Climate Change has now published its advice in relation to the sixth carbon budget for the year 2035 and specifically recommended that international aviation and shipping emissions be taken into account. I would welcome confirmation from the Minister tonight that the Government intend to heed that advice.

I also note that the CCC’s advice still leaves out the emissions associated with trade. I ask the Minister: will the UK commit to updating its consumption-based accounts and setting targets and budgets that take account of all the carbon emissions attributable to UK consumption, including those associated with imports? Does she agree that COP26 is the golden opportunity for the international community to start to co-ordinate action on consumption-based emissions with a view to ensuring consistent, robust methods of calculation, avoiding the risk of double-counting and getting the incentives right for different actors?

One of the most important policies in the CEE Bill is the inclusion of nature. Nature has been absent from these debates for far too long, and the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, failing right now to meet 17 out of 20 UN biodiversity targets. Yet climate and nature are two faces of the same problem. The CEE Bill places a premium on nature-based solutions, and on making change now rather than relying on speculative future technologies. Unless we change the goals of our economic system away from ever-increasing growth, as the Dasgupta review demonstrates, we will undermine both our own health and that of the natural world. As Professor Dasgupta says, we need to change how we think, act and measure economic success to protect and enhance our prosperity and the natural world. If anyone is in any doubt about that, consider that the global economy is set to nearly triple in size between now and 2050—that means three times more production and consumption.

It is hard enough to decarbonise the current economy in such a short time span; the idea that we will be able to do it three times over while protecting and restoring nature is, frankly, for the birds. Or quite literally not: not the birds, not for the bees and not for the thousands of species at risk from the impact of human activity on the planet. The UN biodiversity summit COP15, due to take place in May, is an immediate opportunity for the Government to raise the bar and demonstrate that they are listening to Dasgupta and others.

Finally, there is citizens’ engagement. It is important to recall that the Climate Change Act 2008 itself also started life as a presentation Bill in 2005, inspired by civil society’s “Big Ask” campaign. It is proof that by working together, with shared purpose, giving a voice to thousands of concerned citizens calling for change, global history can be made.

Likewise, the CEE Bill is the people’s Bill. It has sprung from the grassroots, with the intention of giving the public a real say on the climate and nature emergency. The brainchild of the CEE Bill Alliance—a talented group of campaigners, including those who previously fought for the Climate Change Act—it has also had input from scientists at the cutting edge of climate and ecology. My thanks go to them all and to all those who have joined the campaign. The campaign for the CEE Bill is broad and inclusive, working with allies from business, trade unions, faith groups, charities, local communities, the arts and individuals.

The Bill has participative democracy at its heart. The transition to a zero-carbon future is not something that should be done to the people; it is something that should be done with people. Only then will it be a just transition. There is an opportunity, too, for the process to give citizens fresh agency and hope—for our response to the climate crisis to renew our tired and failing democracy. Initiatives such as the Climate Assembly UK show that people have a huge appetite to be part of identifying and agreeing positive solutions. Assembly members came up with ambitious ideas such as free bus travel, a frequent flyer levy, and advertising bans on high-emission products. We are often told that the public will not get on board with bold policies, but that could not be further from the truth. It is also striking that alongside clear, proactive, accountable and consistent leadership from the Government, assembly members also wanted cross-party consensus and for political parties to work together.

The CEE Bill proposes a new and much larger emergency assembly to guide Parliament and the Government in their strategy to reduce emissions and restore nature—this is to help Ministers, not hinder them, and ensure that action reflects the boldness for which citizens are crying out. So will the Minister outline tonight whether the Government have plans to actively and meaningfully engage the people of this country in tackling the climate and nature crises? What role does she envisage will be played by a participative democracy?

To conclude, we are nearing a cliff edge of cascading Earth system collapse. The narrow window for limiting warming to 1.5° is closing fast. Leadership means telling the truth about what that means for people’s lives and livelihoods. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most consequential decade in human history. The experience of covid-19 has demonstrated that with a collective understanding of the nature of a crisis Governments can take radical, unprecedented action. The scale and ramifications of the emergency require us to set aside party differences, as happened in 2008, and reach for the new vision of human prosperity that we know is possible. With sufficient political will, we can co-operate to ensure we all thrive within the limits of our planet, but that is not going to happen without new legislation that gives us a framework commensurate with the science and with the reality. The CEE Bill is that new legislation. It brings the future into the present and our responsibility to the future into the present, too. I hope the Minister will grasp this opportunity to recognise that the climate crisis is bigger than any one political ideology, and will work with me and others on legislation that could be a new and desperately needed global first.

It is a real privilege to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), and I am very proud to co-sponsor her CEE Bill.

The emergence of coronavirus has thrown into focus the way in which environmental degradation can have profound impacts on society, and of course the escalating ecological crisis will make future pandemics more likely, so we must make sure that our recovery is a green one right from the start. We cannot wait until the pandemic is over to take these urgent steps. We cannot afford to lose sight of the climate crisis, because it threatens our very existence. The 2018 special report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that to stop runaway climate chaos we need “rapid and far-reaching transitions” that are “unprecedented” in scale, yet we have heard from the hon. Lady how little progress we have made on that.

The Bill really offers the most viable way for us to tackle the climate and nature emergency at a national level. It provides a clear framework to deliver the UK’s commitments to the Paris climate agreement. For example, the Bill would introduce measures to dramatically reduce our emissions, restore and regenerate our soils, biodiverse habitats and ecosystems, and lessen the negative impacts that we have on our environment. In short, it would mean that the Government would have to take immediate, radical action of the sort that the crisis demands. The Bill has been written by scientists, lawyers and climate activists. It is backed by a broad range of campaign groups, businesses, charities and individuals and, as will be evidenced today, it has huge cross-party support.

In May 2019 this House declared the climate and ecological emergency, but that means very little without comprehensive legislation. We cannot simply declare; we must also act, and the Bill is essential to ensuring the commitment that we made almost two years ago.

I am grateful for the opportunity to show solidarity with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), not least by taking the perch that she is quite accustomed to on these Benches. This is an important opportunity to demonstrate the cross-party and cross border ambition that exists to tackle the climate emergency. The Scottish Government and First Minister were the first on these islands to declare a climate emergency. I am still not sure whether the UK Government have declared an emergency in the way that the House as a whole has, but there is undoubtedly cross-party agreement on the need to raise our level of ambition and the level of action that we are taking.

The Scottish Parliament has already passed a second climate change Act, with genuinely world-beating carbon emissions reductions targets. Of course we have the opportunity to go further and faster, as technology and political allow us to. We are also committed in Scotland to a just transition, transforming local economies, and we have already committed to higher environmental standards and nature standards, including on air pollution —amendments of the type that the Tory Government were rejecting when the Environment Bill was debated last week.

We wish the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion well with her Bill. It is disappointing that the procedures in this place are not allowing it to have the proper debate that it deserves, but she has given an indication of how popular campaigning and determination can make these things work, so perhaps, beyond the Queen’s Speech, we shall see a further opportunity for proper debates and votes on the proposals, to test the will of the House on them.

In Glasgow, my city, we look forward to hosting COP26 later this year. I hope that, one day soon, Scotland will be able to become an independent signatory to the Paris agreement and whatever protocol arrives from Glasgow, but in the meantime the UK Government must lead by example. Talk is not enough, and we are demonstrating tonight that the cross-party ambition and the political will is there if the Government are willing to take that action.

It is a real pleasure to be here this evening to provide support to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) in this very important debate. I speak on behalf of all the Liberal Democrats when I say that we really support the Bill’s continued progress. While we have been discussing the climate and ecological emergency, for me one of the real priorities is that the Bill brings together the action needed both on climate change and on the environment. Both are absolutely critical, as the hon. Lady laid out in her excellent opening speech, but it is really clear that the current structure of government is not well set up to deliver on our objectives and the Government’s objectives in these areas. We see too much stovepiping between different Departments on both climate and the environment, and to bring everything together under one set of objectives that can be driven forward together is really important, and is the real strength of the Bill.

I have been involved in a number of digital events up and down the country to support the Bill and talk more to the public about it. It has become clear that we can use the platform that the Bill provides to speak to the public much more openly about climate and the ecological emergency. We all know that there will be a measure of individual behaviour change required, and it is urgent that we start talking to members of the public right now about what they need to do to deliver the change we need to see if we are to combat climate change and make a real difference to our environment.

Those are the reasons why I am supporting the Bill. The Liberal Democrats want to see the Bill progress through the Commons. I echo what the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) about the structures of the House not allowing that, but I believe that if a way could be found for more Members to have their say on the elements of the Bill, we would see a lot more progress.

Before I bring in the next speaker, it is important to say that Adjournment debates should not be about specific pieces of legislation. The debate is about the UK’s response to the climate and ecological emergency. References to a Bill are fine, but it is not a forum for discussion on a particular Bill. I am sure that Liz Saville Roberts will take that into account in her speech.

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lefarydd. It is an honour for me to work today in a cross-party spirit with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). I am sure that we are all trying to raise the sense of urgency by the best means we can and use this House and this Chamber to good effect.

Climate change and ecosystem degradation are already a pressing reality in Wales, from changing weather patterns to biodiversity loss, with a 2019 report concluding that 666 species are threatened with extinction and 73 have been lost already. It is clear that to address this issue effectively and quickly, we need to mobilise unprecedented levels of innovation and investment across our economy and society.

Wales is a nation committed to transition, with the principle of sustainable development written into our constitution, but to bring about real transition, the UK also has to change. That means devolving and decentralising power, rather than centralising the decision making and resources necessary for that transition. Critically, that means increased economic and borrowing powers for the Government of Wales to finance the pivotal transition with the rapidity that our climate and environment demand.

I welcome this debate, and I hope that the UK Government will consider how best to support this transition across all four nations of the UK, particularly in the upcoming Budget. No nation in the world can manage climate change alone, but neither can centralised command and control alone bring about the change we need.

Before I call the Minister, I should say that there have been a number of contributions, and it needs to be noted that this has left the Minister with a very short amount of time to respond; she only has six minutes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) on securing this Adjournment debate on such an important subject. I am really pleased that I was able to share some of my time with colleagues, because this issue speaks far more widely than this Parliament—it is a global challenge. How we act on climate change is the most pressing issue of our time; I completely agree with her.

While we find ourselves in the midst of this very difficult pandemic, which of course is our short-term priority, we must not abandon and have not abandoned our planet’s need for urgent care, because we risk so many further crises for our children. Climate change is happening now, and this Government are determined that the UK will be a world leader in ensuring that the Paris agreement takes root across the globe. We will demonstrate through our commitment to bring down our country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and acting this year as the president of COP, that we will be a global leader.

The Prime Minister has made a critical commitment to doubling our international climate finance to £11.6 billion, with £3 billion of that going to nature-based solutions. We were the first major economy in the world to set a legally binding target to reach net zero carbon emissions across our economy by 2050, and we have shown that rapid progress on decarbonisation is possible alongside a thriving economy. Our emissions are down by almost 44% across the last 30 years, and our economy has grown by 78% in the same period. We have been absolute in our commitment to power past coal over the last 10 years, with a reduction in electricity generation from coal from 40% in 2012 to less than 5% today, replaced by renewables. We have made significant progress in meeting our climate targets, meeting our first two carbon budgets and projected to meet the third by 2022. We exceeded the required emissions reduction of the first by 1.2% and the second by nearly 14%, but now is the time to double down and decrease our emissions further and faster. To do this, the Prime Minister set out his 10-point plan last year to lead the world into a new green industrial revolution. We set out ambitious policies, backed by £12 billion of Government investment. The plan will support up to 250,000 highly skilled green jobs across the UK and accelerate our path to reaching net zero by 2050 while laying the foundations for building back greener.

The 10-point plan will develop the cutting-edge technologies needed to drive down those emissions in industries across the UK through significant investment in hydrogen, new nuclear and carbon capture technologies. The 10-point plan will go further. We are backing our world-leading automotive sector, including in the west midlands, the north-east and Wales, with a £2.8 billion package to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles and transform our national infrastructure better to support that electric vehicle revolution. Working with industry, we will drive the growth of low-carbon hydrogen. As part of the 10-point plan, we are aiming for 5 GW of low-carbon hydrogen by 2030. That will see the UK benefit from around 8,000 jobs across our industrial heartlands and beyond.

Importantly for me, we are determined that this transition must be a just and fair one. The Treasury is conducting a review into the cost of net zero. In its review due to be published this spring, it will outline how the transition to a net zero economy will be funded and ensure that contributions are fair between households, businesses and the taxpayer. We must ensure that the net zero transition works for everyone.

Throughout the UK, more than 2.5 million highly skilled people employed in manufacturing make a huge contribution to the wealth and character of their communities. We must not take those skills away from people, so as industry changes, our lifetime skills guarantee will ensure that people are equipped with the skills they need to adapt to the new products and services that we want them to provide. We have also launched the green jobs taskforce, bringing businesses and unions together with skills providers and Governments to develop plans for new, long-term, good-quality green jobs by 2030.

This year, we find ourselves in the privileged position of being the president of the G7 and of hosting and holding the presidency of COP26. We are determined to use these key international events to promote ambitious action to deliver the transformational change required by the Paris agreement. I have the extraordinary honour of being not only the Minister for Energy but the international champion for COP26 for adaptation and resilience. One of the critical challenges that we have as a global leader is not only to ensure that we walk the walk in demonstrating our decarbonisation in the UK, taking our country to a place where our greenhouse gas emissions are no longer impacting on the planet, but to help those developing countries that need to be able to grow and support their communities in a green way, building back better after the traumas that covid has caused to so many of the very poorest developing countries.

We will bring forward our own bold proposals, including our net zero strategy, in the run-up to COP26 to demonstrate that we will be cutting those emissions, creating new jobs and bolstering those new industries across our country to lead on that global stage. We will make sure that the UK’s voice is heard, that we deliver on our commitment to net zero and that protecting our planet for our children and for theirs in the future is something on which we can deliver.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.