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Climate Change (Net Zero UK Carbon Account)

Volume 659: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2019

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require that the net UK carbon account by the year 2050 is zero.

This Bill would create a legal obligation, the first in any G20 country, for the UK to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Let me be clear: the Bill is radical, and necessarily and unapologetically so. The circumstances of climate change are so serious that nothing less will do. Importantly, however, its central target is achievable.

Climate change is not some future, theoretical possibility; it is a present, practical reality. The five warmest years in recorded history have been since 2010. Here in the UK, Easter Monday was the hottest on record. In January, Australia experienced its warmest month ever, causing power outages after fuses overheated. Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere in the world, from the Alps to the Himalayas. The Ross ice shelf in Antarctica, which covers an area about the size of France, is melting 10 times faster than expected, according to Cambridge University scientists. Last year, wildfires broke out as far north as the Arctic circle. Some Members have seen changes with their own eyes. During a debate earlier this year, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) spoke powerfully of going back to the great barrier reef after 25 years to find magnificent corals bleached and dead.

We can choose to dismiss these events as a coincidence, ignoring the fact that they have taken place alongside soaring levels of greenhouse gases. We can choose the comforting observation that the Earth’s climate has shifted in the past, ignoring the fact that those shifts have tended to happen slowly, over hundreds of thousands of years. Alternatively, we can listen to the overwhelming majority of climate science—to all intents and purposes, a scientific consensus. The conclusions are clear: evidence of humankind’s influence on the climate is compelling and established beyond all reasonable doubt. We therefore need to act.

Although the Bill seeks a new radicalism in the way in which this issue is tackled, it is only right to recognise that it would not be proceeding from a standing start. The United Kingdom has a strong record of global leadership in this regard. That includes the moment when a British Prime Minister and trained scientist, Margaret Thatcher, went to the United Nations and, unequivocally, made a link between human behaviour and environmental harm. She said:

“It is mankind and his activities which are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.”

She did not retreat behind the convenient excuse that the UK is responsible for only a small fraction of world emissions—about 1%. That would be weak and evasive, and it is not the British way; nor, in fairness, was it the British way under a Labour Government. In 2008, the then Government introduced the Bill that became the world-leading Climate Change Act, which enshrined in law a commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 80% from 1990 levels. That Bill was passed by a huge cross-party majority, with only a handful of objections.

Indeed, since 1990, we have cut our emissions by a full 42% while our economy has grown by two thirds, which means that, on a per capita basis, we have reduced emissions faster while also growing our economy more than any other G7 nation. That is not my verdict, but the verdict of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Last year, a record amount of UK power was generated from renewable sources, with more than 30% coming from renewables and more than 50% from low carbon sources overall. As the sun shone over the Easter weekend, the UK went for 90 hours and 45 minutes without generating any electricity from coal, smashing the previous record of 76 hours. Meanwhile, our country is making huge strides in protecting biodiversity through, for instance, marine conservation zones.

However, despite that strong track record, we know that we have to do so much more if we are to keep control of our climate. Although our current trajectory sets us on course for an 80% reduction in our emissions from 1990 levels by 2050, the science is now clear: if we continue to pump even that remaining 20% of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it is very likely that climate change will accelerate, and with it global temperatures. Indeed, if we stay on the same path, our children can expect to grow up in a world of surging sea levels, more insecure food supplies, degraded wildlife and destroyed coral reefs. We also risk the deeply alarming prospect of hitting climate tipping points—such as the melting of arctic permafrost and the subsequent release of huge stores of frozen greenhouse gases—which could cause us to lose control of our climate for good.

All this presents a heightened risk of conflict over scarce resources. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) has made the point that one of the biggest future risks to international security is the climate fence around Bangladesh and the possibility of rising waters forcing tens of millions of people up towards the border with Kolkata.

So why 2050? To answer that question, we must recall the Paris climate accord, under which Governments across the world committed themselves to keeping global warming

“well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”,

and making efforts to limit it to 1.5°. However, the special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in October 2018, states that if there is to be a realistic chance of meeting the 1.5° target, global carbon dioxide emissions will need to reach net zero by about 2050, with net zero for all greenhouse gases reached in future years. The report warns that there are only a dozen years in which to take action. It also states that the impact of 2° warming versus 1.5° is profound. At 2°, more than twice as much wildlife faces a major shrinkage in range. At 2°, sea levels will be 10 cm higher. At 2°, the number of people exposed to water stress would be 50% higher than it would be if we kept to 1.5°.

If we are to apply the brakes on what could easily become the runaway train of climate change, we have to reduce emissions drastically, and do so as soon as feasibly possible. Our young people realise that, as I know from speaking to them in Cheltenham and beyond. Only last week, I met Balcarras students who have set up Sustain, a Young Enterprise team promoting environmental education. Their energy and sense of mission is inspiring and uplifting.

Although this Bill was conceived before the Extinction Rebellion protests, those demonstrations were a timely reminder of the growing democratic drumbeat across the generations for the new radicalism about which I have spoken. That has been reflected in this place, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) compiled a letter calling for net zero, which was signed by 191 right hon. and hon. Members.

Importantly, this Bill would create a framework for a project of national economic renewal that is credible and realistic, and one that can generate opportunities for future generations. Unrealistic targets create false hope. The Energy Transitions Commission is a coalition of business, finance and civil society leaders, chaired by the former financial regulator Lord Adair Turner, and its members are drawn from across the spectrum of energy-producing and using industries. In its impressive report, entitled “Mission Possible”, it indicates that it “strongly believes” that the objective of limiting global warming—ideally to 1.5°, and at the very least below 2°, by 2050—is achievable in developed economies, so it can be done, and I look forward to reading the conclusions from the Committee on Climate Change report on Thursday.

There is growing enthusiasm from business, too. Tesco and Unilever back the move to net zero. The National Farmers Union is advocating net zero for agriculture by 2040. Vattenfall and ArcelorMittal are building facilities to make emissions-free steel. In cement—a notoriously energy-hungry sector—experts believe that improved building design can reduce total demand by 34%. Hydrogen could potentially be used as a heat source in steel and chemicals production.

British ingenuity from Brunel to Dorothy Hodgkin has placed the UK at the cutting edge of technological advances in science and engineering. We have the talent and the vision, and we need the political will. There are those who say that not all the technology is there yet, and up to a point that is true, but it does not mean we should not start the project.

It is time for what some have referred to as “cathedral thinking”. When Sir Christopher Wren started St Paul’s, he did not have a definitive design for every last aspect, and the dome ended up being radically revised as improved building technology made a more ambitious design possible. We need to start the project, and then row in behind the target with an ambitious programme of policies on issues ranging from house building standards to transport, agriculture and planting more broad-leaved trees. In due course, the rest of the world will need this technology. Ours can be the country to develop it, perfect it and sell it. This shows the real power of net zero—not just a project of moral necessity, but one of economic renewal, too.

Of course, we cannot do this alone—that is why the UK is bidding to host the vital UN climate change conference in 2020, so that we can leverage our climate leadership—nor will this be easy, but there is the great prize of a healthy planet, teeming with life and echoing to the sounds of rich and vibrant biodiversity; the prize of a society united in a common purpose of preserving our environment and holding back climate change; and the prize of an economy at the cutting edge of scientific and manufacturing technology. Let us go for net zero.

I think it is important that an alternative point of view should be expressed in this short debate, and that is what I intend to do.

I was one of the Members of this House who voted against the 2008 Climate Change Bill on Third Reading, and I have no regrets whatsoever about having done so. Indeed, the line that those of us who voted against that Bill took has been endorsed in a very important report, issued last year to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Climate Change Act 2008, in which it was described by Rupert Darwall as

“History’s most expensive virtue signal”.

That was obviously an expensive virtue signal, but what my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) is proposing would be an even more expensive and extravagant virtue signal. [Interruption.] It would be well to remind my hon. Friends—some of them are right honourable—of somebody whom I think they held in high esteem. In 2011, the former Member for Tatton the right hon. George Osborne told the Conservative party conference:

“We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business. So let’s at the very least resolve that we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.”

At the 2017 election, many of my right hon. and hon. Friends were elected, as I was, on the basis of a Conservative party manifesto that promised there would be an inquiry into energy costs. Soon after the election, that inquiry was set up under the auspices of the Government, and the inquiry—the cost of energy review—was carried out by the distinguished Oxford energy economist Dieter Helm. I find it extraordinary that my hon. Friend made no reference whatsoever in his introductory remarks to the contents of the Helm report, let alone to its conclusions.

Dieter Helm supports, as I do, the objective of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but his overall verdict is one of the most damning to be found in any official report on any Government policy in any field. He concluded that continuing with current policy would perpetuate the crisis mentality of energy sector crises, which, he says, are likely to worsen. The report states that this is

“challenging the security of supply, undermining the transition to electric transport, and weakening the delivery of the carbon budgets. It will continue the unnecessary high costs of the British energy system, and as a result perpetuate fuel poverty, weaken industrial competitiveness, and undermine public support for decarbonisation.”

It is extraordinary that although the Government commissioned that report, they have in effect never responded to Professor Helm’s conclusions. It is almost as though there is a collective state of denial about all this. That is why I think it important, before we engage in any more expenditure on virtue signalling, to pause for a moment and think about the need to carry out proper cost-benefit analyses before we implement changes in legislation.

Nothing my hon. Friend said in his opening remarks spelled out the specific benefits that will accrue to people in the United Kingdom, as against elsewhere, as a result of this extraordinary act of self-indulgence, whereby we will unilaterally condemn our economy to problems that no other economy is prepared to suffer. He has not set out at all where the benefits will come from, so we have had neither the costs nor the benefits set out. That is exactly one of the problems there was with the climate change legislation in 2008.

I recognise that I may be in a minority in this House in articulating this view, as indeed I was in 2008, when a number of us voted against the primary legislation, but however emotionally charged this issue is, I do not believe we should ignore our responsibility as legislators to look in a hard-headed way at the costs and benefits that will accrue to our country. I am not going to seek to divide the House on this issue today, because—[Interruption.]

Order. It is very discourteous for Members to witter away from a sedentary position when another point of view is being expressed. The hon. Gentleman might not wish to test the will of the House, but if he wished to do so he would be at liberty so to do. He is entitled to make his speech and to be treated with courtesy by everybody, so those who are not behaving with courtesy ought to reconsider their behaviour.

I am grateful to you for that intervention, Mr Speaker. I am sure that none of my colleagues needs to be given lessons in how to conduct themselves in this Chamber, because I know that at heart they are all very polite people, but sometimes their emotions get the better of them. I fear that that is what has been happening today.

The reason why I will not seek to divide the House today is that, as a matter of principle, I believe that anybody who wishes to bring in a private Member’s Bill should be free so to do. They should not expect that Bill to go through on the nod when presented to the House, but I see no reason why we should not allow people to bring in private Members’ Bills, and that is what the motion seeks to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham seeks the leave of the House to bring in his Bill, and I certainly do not wish to deny him that right.

While I am speaking, I should like to remind the Government of something. Perhaps this is going to be a Parliament of only one Session, which could go on for two, three, four or five years, but let us remember that during each Session of Parliament, a proportionate number of days should be given over to private Members’ Bills. By extending this Session, seemingly indefinitely, the Government should be under a duty to provide more days on which we can debate the sort of measures that my hon. Friend has brought before the House today. As things stand, his Bill will not be able to be debated in this Session because no other days have been set down for private Members’ business.

Question put and agreed to.


That Alex Chalk, supported by Zac Goldsmith, Rebecca Pow, Mr Simon Clarke, Richard Benyon, Vicky Ford, Kevin Hollinrake, Sarah Newton, Paul Masterton, Jenny Chapman, Helen Goodman and Tonia Antoniazzi present the Bill.

Alex Chalk accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 384).