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Extinction Rebellion

Volume 800: debated on Thursday 31 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the demands of Extinction Rebellion.

My Lords, the UK is taking world-leading action on climate change informed by independent expert advice provided by the Committee on Climate Change and other bodies. This ensures that decisions such as legislating for net zero by 2050 are based on robust scientific analysis. Climate change is an emotive issue, but a cross-community consensus will be required to ensure a transition that works for all.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many organisations are saying that a target date of 2050 is far too far away, that we should be treating this as a major emergency and, at most, 2030 should be the target date? There is going to be a catastrophe. We cannot leave it to the next generation to deal with the mess that we have left them. Surely, we have to deal with this more urgently. We are sleep-walking into a terrible crisis.

We are the only economy to have legislated for net zero by 2050. We have done so on the basis of science from a committee that is independent of thought. The important thing to recognise is that we as a nation are responsible for only 1.2% of global emissions; China alone is responsible for 30%. We have doubled our climate finance to address where the serious problem lies, which is indeed beyond our shores.

My Lords, one of the key objectives of Extinction Rebellion’s recent activities in London was to close down Westminster. Does the Minister agree that recent moves by the Government to achieve exactly that end suggest some sort of membership of the group’s committee at a high level, perhaps the highest level? More seriously, how can the Government continue to support fracking while simultaneously preparing for the elimination of fossil fuels in their entirety by 2050?

It is important to recognise that, in the US, gas has been a bridge in moving towards decarbonisation. The key challenge for this globe right now will be addressed where serious emissions take place. Extension Rebellion has drawn attention to the issue but in a way that is not always helpful. It needs to be very careful to make sure that it brings alongside the people, because it is the people who will have to do the heavy lifting on this matter.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with the recent report from Policy Exchange, co-authored by Richard Walton, former head of Counter Terrorism Command at the Metropolitan Police? It said that:

“Extinction Rebellion is an extremist organisation whose methods need to be confronted and challenged rather than supported and condoned”.

Will he condemn, along with responsible scientists, Extinction Rebellion’s falsehoods and exaggeration, which have unnecessarily frightened young people, and will he stand with the good people of Canning Town in their determination to get to work rather than indulge campaigns for permanent austerity?

As I said a moment ago, China is responsible for one-third of global emissions. I think that if Confucius were to comment on this he would say, “To address climate change, do not glue yourself to an electric train”. I do not believe the work of Extinction Rebellion in this regard has done credit to it or to the cause of emissions reduction, and I stand beside those at Canning Town who have been frustrated when trying to use public transport.

My Lords, we invented the combustion engine, but I take the Minister’s point about emissions from China. But this is a climate emergency, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said. Why can we not make an agreement that the next Queen’s Speech, whether it is written by the current Government or another Government, will include climate consideration in all legislation, as New Zealand has done and as many other countries are doing? Just yesterday, we heard revised figures about sea level rise, and there are fires in California and droughts in South Africa which will render whole areas uninhabitable. Surely the sensible thing is to do this and then next year, at the COP in Glasgow, we can lead the world, as we should do, on how to deal with this emergency.

To be clear, we do lead the world in this area: our legislation is world-beating. The important thing right now, on the glide path towards COP, will be several more announcements to show exactly how we can take that leadership role and encourage others to walk in our steps.

My Lords, the Minister was right to call this a cross-community challenge. We are going into an election, and there will be all sorts of attempts to outbid the others with different dates and different policies, but when we come back here in December decisions will have to be made that will take a great deal of money and cause an awful lot of change in our country. They can be made only if they are made across Parliament and beyond one Parliament. Does the Minister agree that delivering our targets on climate change needs a cross-parliamentary approach in which the Government work with all parties across Parliament?

The important aspect is that the work we are doing is based on the work of the Committee on Climate Change. It is an independent body advising on these matters. No matter who comes in over the next decade or so, that body will be integral in ensuring that science is at the heart of our decarbonisation.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that investment in fossil fuel subsidies for fracking and a massive road-building programme will make the climate emergency worse?

It is important to examine the words of former President Obama on unconventional hydrocarbon recovery in North America. Had America not moved in that direction, its carbon footprint would be considerably higher. We need to look at all solutions to try to take us forward, and the gas bridge is one of them.

Does my noble friend agree that this problem arises primarily because there are so many human beings on this planet? We are making the problem, not the other creatures that live on this planet. What conclusions does he draw from that?

I am not quite sure which conclusions I can move towards. As a geologist, I note that we are now entering into a new geological period, which is known as the Anthropocene. Our influence on this world is now much more significant than we could ever have imagined.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that trees have a major role to play in combating the problem? Will he continue to pressurise his colleagues for us to plant more trees? More importantly, will he stop the willy-nilly felling of trees, bearing in mind that it takes 50 years for a tree to grow into a situation where it is absorbing carbon?

I believe trees are an essential element of this. At COP 26, I would like to see every world leader who comes to Glasgow plant a tree. As a result, there should be a forest that stretches from Scotland through all the nations of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, nuclear reactors are one of the biggest contributors to climate change, unlike thorium reactors. What are the Government doing to encourage the use of thorium, which is a much safer and less-polluting form of energy?

I do not think that nuclear is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but I recognise that thorium-based nuclear is certainly a way forward—its half-life is considerably shorter. Decoupling nuclear from the wider weapons question might well be a way forward for us all.