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Climate Change: Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What discussions the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has had with the Government of the United States about climate change and the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions since her appointment earlier this year.

My Lords, following her appointment, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has not yet had direct discussions with the Government of the United States about climate change. She looks forward to visiting the United States in the near future to discuss climate change and other issues of mutual interest. She has announced that the FCO will play an increasing role in delivering the Government’s international objectives on climate change.

My Lords, I can see that the Minister shares my bemusement that climate change is not regarded as being equally important to what happens in your Lordships’ House. However, does he think that, when the Secretary of State has had these discussions, a measure of success would be that Independence Day was no longer celebrated and “Interdependence Day” in our globalised world was celebrated instead? Before that stage is reached, would he agree that, as Al Gore told the noble Lords and MPs who went to hear him, the US Administration still have a mountain to climb in recognising climate change as a serious issue and in taking policy action on it? Will the Government make that issue their number one Foreign Office priority?

My Lords, as it is Independence Day, I certainly shall not do anything other than congratulate the United States on one of their great celebrations. There are areas of policy where we disagree with the United States, and we say so. Kyoto is an obvious example, as are the International Criminal Court and the death penalty. We will continue to work with the United States wherever we can and wherever we disagree—perhaps that is the most important place to work with people. It is best that we do so, and it is best that we build a trusting and close relationship on these issues, because, in the final analysis, the United States will be critical in achieving global targets on climate change. I think that that is the burden of the point made by the noble Baroness, and I agree with it.

My Lords, when the Secretary of State discusses issues with the American Administration, might the most practical course be to concentrate on energy security? Is it not the position that the Americans are, at last, beginning to take very seriously the need to reduce radically their oil consumption—both oil imports and oil production generally? Of course, that is a first achievable step, which, if successful, will vastly reduce carbon emissions in the long term and achieve two objectives in one: it will increase energy security and give our children and grandchildren better control over climate change.

My Lords, I agree. There is conspicuous evidence that energy security has risen rapidly up the agenda of the United States. At state level and often at municipal level, leaders in the United States speak about the issue with increasing frequency. President Bush himself has described the reliance on oil as akin to an addiction. The reality is that the United States will have to look at ways in which their use of energy not only is secure and more efficient but accords with the need to decrease carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that part of our problem with the United States is that substantial chunks of American opinion, including in Congress, are still in denial about climate change and pollution? I understand, for example, that half the world’s car emissions come from within the United States. Given that we have a special relationship with the United States, is it not important that Ministers, including our Prime Minister, appeal to American public opinion, rather than just consulting the US Administration?

My Lords, the public campaigns about climate change and carbon emissions have been prominent. That may be—I hope that it is—one of the reasons why so many states, including California and its governor, have taken such a robust position on the question. There may be many in all countries who believe that economic interests could be damaged by having stricter rules about carbon emissions, but the reality is that the way in which carbon emissions—particularly from the United States, but also from China, India and other countries—are poisoning the atmosphere will be a far greater problem than anyof the perceived economic problems that people sometimes plead in aid.

My Lords, is it not possible to explain to the United States that it is to their advantage to acknowledge the problem? The United States are, if nothing else, extremely technologically inventive. There are already buses in Washington and Sacramento which run on hydrogen. The Americans are on top of the problem; we ought to encourage them to make money out of cleaning up the atmosphere, rather than lecturing them on Kyoto.

My Lords, we have advocated that everyone should adopt and abide by the Kyoto agreement—it is an important international agreement—but I think that the noble Earl will find that there has been a direct appeal to the inventiveness, commercial opportunities and changes that may well boost parts of the United States economy if it proceeds in that way.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that at the recent Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Edinburgh the United States delegation refused to accept the words “climate change” in the final communiqué and insisted that the phrase should be “climate volatility”?

My Lords, I was there for the beginning of that conference but unfortunately did not stay long enough to hear that extraordinary turn of phrase. I rather regret that, because I suspect that I would have left in better humour. Whatever words they choose, the United States must come to recognise that carbon emissions, at the current rate, are probably doing the most serious harm of almost any threat or challenge to our globe.