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International Climate Action

Volume 799: debated on Thursday 26 September 2019


My Lords, with your permission I will repeat a Statement currently being made in the other place by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I am delighted that my first Statement as the Business and Energy Secretary is on a subject that matters so much to every Member in this House and to every person on this planet. As we heard from a 16 year-old girl, Greta Thunberg, it is vitally important to act now so that our children and grandchildren have a bright future ahead of them. We have only this planet and it is the duty of all of us to do all we can, cross-party and cross-industry, to leave it in a better place than we found it. So today, I would like to make a Statement on the UN Climate Action Summit in New York on Monday of this week.

The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for International Development joined the UN Secretary-General, world leaders and key figures from business, industry and civil society at the UN Climate Action Summit on Monday. The science is clear about the speed, scale and cost to lives and livelihoods of the climate crisis that is facing us all. Costs show that total global damages from climate-related events were more than $300 billion in 2017 alone and we know that, globally, emissions still continue to rise year on year. And with tragic impact, we also know that the world’s most vulnerable are being hit hardest by the impacts of climate change: natural disasters are already pushing 26 million people a year into poverty, with hundreds of millions of people potentially facing major food shortages in the coming decade. The Prime Minister and other world leaders met because they wanted to take decisive collective action to cut emissions and improve the resilience of countries and communities.

The Prime Minister showed clearly what decisive climate action looks like at home and abroad. In the UK, we have cut emissions by 42% since 1990 while growing the economy by 72%, cutting our use of coal in our electricity system from almost 40% to only 5% in just six years, and leading the world in deployment of clean technologies such as offshore wind. In just one renewable sector, the UK is home to almost half the world’s offshore wind power. We became the first country in the G20 to legislate for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and we already see thousands of jobs being created as part of this transition. Almost 400,000 people are employed in the low-carbon sector and its supply chains, a number that we plan to grow to 2 million by 2030.

We are also playing a critical part on the world stage. In his closing speech, the Prime Minister set out his determination to work together with others to tackle the climate crisis. He called for all countries to increase their 2030 climate ambition pledges under the Paris agreement and confirmed that the UK will play our part by raising our own nationally determined contribution by February next year.

To help developing countries go further and faster, we also committed to double the UK’s international climate finance from £5.8 billion to £11.6 billion over the period 2021-25. This funding will support some of the most vulnerable communities in the world to develop low-carbon technologies and to shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. This will help to replace, for example, wood-burning stoves and kerosene lamps used by millions of the world’s poorest families with sustainable and more reliable technologies like solar power for cooking, heating and lighting.

This new funding will also help protect our incredible rainforests and mangroves, which act as vital carbon sinks, and help restore degraded ecosystems, such as abandoned land, which were once home to forests, mangroves and other precious habitats. So many of us have been glued to David Attenborough’s incredible “Blue Planet” and “Planet Earth” series, which really brought home the scale of destruction and the need for global action. Doubling our international climate finance will help those most vulnerable deal with the damaging effects of climate change and become more resilient. It includes support for early warning systems in communities vulnerable to extreme weather events like droughts or floods, giving people vital extra hours, days and even weeks to prepare.

On Monday, as a part of the international climate finance commitment, the Government clearly put technology at the heart of our response with a new £1 billion Ayrton fund to drive forward clean energy innovation in developing countries. The fund is named after the British physicist and suffragette Hertha Ayrton, whose work at the beginning of the 20th century inspired the Ayrton anti-gas fans that saved lives during the First World War. This is new funding that leading scientists and innovators from across the UK and the world can access.

Our Prime Minister was not alone in taking action. We led on the summit’s adaptation and resilience theme with Egypt, and delivered a powerful call to action joined by 112 countries. As part of this we launched a first-of-its-kind Coalition for Climate Resilient Investment to transform infrastructure investment by integrating climate risks into decision-making, ensuring that schools, hospitals and other buildings are built taking into account climate risk. We also launched a new risk-informed early action partnership which will help make 1 billion people safer from disaster by greatly improving early warning systems of such dangerous events as floods and hurricanes. We were delighted that 77 countries, 10 regions and 100 cities committed at the summit to net zero by 2050. We saw the incoming Chilean COP 25 presidency announcing a Climate Ambition Alliance of 70 countries, each signalling their intention to submit enhanced climate action plans or nationally determined contributions.

Businesses are also taking action. More than 50 financial institutions pledged to test all of their $2.9 trillion in assets for the risks of climate change. Nine multilateral development banks have committed to support global climate action investments by targeting $175 billion in annual financing by 2025.

The Climate Action Summit was, however, by no means an end in itself. It was a call for global action: one that the UK and many others heeded. But we cannot and will not be complacent. Coming out of the summit, the combined commitments of all those countries and all that good will still does not put us on track to meet the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement. People right across the country and right across the world are every day sending a clear message that we all must go further. As the Secretary-General said, “Time is running out”.

Globally, much more is needed. The UK, as an acknowledged world leader in tackling climate change and as the nominated host for COP 26 in 2020, now has a unique opportunity to work with countries and businesses across the world, to build on the foundations laid at this week’s summit, to drive this action agenda forward and to turn the tide of emissions growth. There is no other planet: this is it, and we must look after it”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement that has just been given in the other place. Unfortunately, I was not able to get an advance copy of the Statement, so that is something that we could try to work on in the future.

The climate emergency is the greatest danger facing our planet and all its inhabitants. It threatens our livelihoods and our lifestyles, and could soon, if not checked, put our very existence in danger. I am therefore pleased that the international community came together at the United Nations Climate Action Summit to recognise not only the threat that we collectively face, but the immeasurable suffering that is already happening across so many parts of the world. Through increasing temperatures and precipitation, diseases are being spread, homes are being destroyed and infrastructure and services are being disrupted. We should not treat the climate emergency as merely a current threat, but more as an immediate crisis that is currently leading to death and suffering across so many communities. We have only to look at the number and force of recent weather extremes, as extremes that were once a rare, once-in-a-generation occurrence now seem to happen far too regularly. It is important to understand that this can be tackled only through international co-operation. I am, therefore, disappointed by the themes that constantly thread through the Prime Minister’s speech, and indeed those of many of the other world leaders: it was full of empty rhetoric rather than commitment and action.

In the Statement that has just been read, the Minister said:

“Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister and other world leaders met because they wanted to take decisive collective action to cut emissions and to improve the resilience of countries and communities”.

Can the Minister give the House some details about what that decisive collective action is? In the following paragraph—I am not making light of this at all—the Minister rightly mentions that,

“we have cut emissions by 42% since 1990 while growing the economy by 72%”.

The Statement then explains that the cuts in emissions from electricity production have come from a reduction in the use of coal from almost 40% to only 5%. Of the 42% overall reduction in emissions, how much is due to the reduction in the use of coal in electricity and power production?

The international community is still a long way from meeting the targets of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on limiting global warming. It is time to take concrete steps to address this. Some of the world’s largest economies—India, the US and China—are lagging far behind on their commitments, and give little indication of a serious change in direction. While I welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement about furthering our national contributions and efforts relating to international development, I ask the Government also to focus on how the UK economy may be adding to global emissions at home. The UK must urgently invest in green technology to rapidly decarbonise domestically in a way that could usher in a green industrial revolution. We have created some jobs, but creating more jobs and delivering more on this will reduce our carbon emissions at a far greater speed. Looking at the wider world, we must consider how our trade relationships can best be utilised and adapted to minimise emissions and meet those global targets.

As is touched on in the Statement, our planet is facing a grave predicament. I end, therefore, with a warning. The House may be aware that several other world leaders pledged ambitious net zero emissions targets. Many of those nations are smaller states already facing the worst consequences of the climate crisis. The world cannot afford a situation in which nations take emergency actions only when they are in immediate danger. We must all act now and take whatever recourses are possible to end the suffering that many already face. If we do not, the devastating results of volatile weather extremes will wreak havoc, through flooding and wildfire damage. The effects on food production, water availability and public health will be disastrous. The Government, and indeed the international community, must be more ambitious and begin to take action now, by aiming for net zero emissions by 2030.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. He has made me feel like a climate criminal because part of his Statement was on replacing wood-burning stoves internationally. I have two of them, I am afraid, but I burn my own wood—it takes three years to dry—and I replace the trees on my very modest property. I hope he will forgive me.

I do not mean this negatively, as everything the Labour Front Bench said was true, but it is easy to sermonise on this stuff. I know this from my own experience: I have solar thermal panels to heat my water; I have wood-burning stoves; and there are various other things that I do. Even I, as an individual, can criticise hugely in terms of the agenda set by Greta Thunberg at that conference. Her speech—my goodness—is not the sort we would make in this place. It was very different—not a politician’s speech—but it was very hard-hitting and absolutely bang on in terms of what we have all managed to do so far. We can congratulate ourselves on our 42% reduction, which is good in terms of other international indices, but we have a long way to go. The Government, since 2015, have lost pace on this, but they have started to pick up again.

I welcome this Statement. I welcome the fact that our Prime Minister went to New York, went to the United Nations, spoke with other people and made this announcement about international aid when, so often within the government party, there is a lot of criticism of how much money we spend abroad as opposed to in the UK, so I give him full credit for that. It is good to hear that the United Kingdom was seen as one of the positive countries trying to push this agenda forward. I also welcome from his Statement a fact we knew already: that we have captured the COP 26 conference, which is at the end of next year. That puts a pressure on all of us as parliamentarians here and at the other end to push that agenda consistently, not just when it is fashionable—over the period at least leading up to 2026. It was being advertised as a joint Italy-UK conference, so I would be interested to understand from the Minister how this will happen.

What representations are the Government making to President Bolsonaro of Brazil about the Amazon—not necessarily in New York, because I understand the Prime Minister’s visit there was cut short for some reason? The President has has made very strong statements that the Amazon is a completely sovereign issue for Brazil. As it is an ex-colonised country, I sort of understand that, but how are we making representations there? I would also like to understand where the money is coming from—I do not mean this negatively. Is this additional money or is it part of the DfID budget? I would be very interested to hear where those funds come from and over what time they will be expended.

Those are my questions, but I want to be positive here. I welcome that we have this emphasis on green growth. I also welcome the commitments made at the Labour Party conference in terms of climate, green growth and green package—we did a similar thing in the Liberal Democrats’ one. What has been quite clear is that, over the last three or four years, this topic has not been very often debated in this House. We now need to make sure that this remains a permanent part of our agenda—and in Parliament generally—over the long term and is not a one-off.

My Lords, I welcome the contribution from both noble Lords. Tackling climate change will be, perhaps, the most significant challenge that we as a planet face. It is important to recognise that there is work to be done at home and abroad. That is why the UN conference in New York was important, because it gave us an opportunity to talk to the wider communities about not just what we want them to do, but how we can demonstrate what we have been doing ourselves. That is how we will make the difference. We have to able to show that we are not just talking the talk but walking the walk.

I will address some of the key issues brought forward by the two speakers, beginning with the noble Lord, Lord McNicol. The commitment made by the Labour Party to reach net zero by 2030 is quite an ambitious claim. We have taken advice from the Committee on Climate Change which says that we can move there by 2050. We would welcome the Labour Party submitting its proposals to the Committee on Climate Change to establish whether indeed they can be realised in that time available. The advice we have just now from that committee is that that is not possible, but we will welcome any information that Labour is able to supply on the functional pathways which have been explored by the Committee on Climate Change.

This is an area in which there is rhetoric all too often. That is why it is important to look at commitments here. We are the first major economy to commit to net zero by 2050, following the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, which has again set out the clear pathways we can follow to achieve that. We have committed to increase our individual commitments to climate change. We have doubled our international climate finance, which is a not insignificant amount of money. We have committed to align all our overseas development aid with the Paris agreement—one of the first major nations to do that. There is clearly much more that we have to do, but that is at least the beginning of the process.

When it comes to international support, our climate finance has so far helped 57 million people cope with the effects of climate change in the adaptation and mitigation sectors. Some 26 million people will have improved access to clean energy; 16 million people have avoided or reduced their greenhouse gas emissions via the funding. We have installed 1,600 megawatts of clean energy capacity. Some £3.8 billion of public finance has been mobilised for climate change. As to where the money comes from, for the declarations we have made it has been new money, coming primarily from taxpayers. It is the commitment of taxpayers themselves that we need to be able to ensure as we go forward. As to what we are doing at home, it is important to recognise that there is a role for government and for individuals. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, raised wood-burning stoves, which have become very popular. We need to make sure that we address the sustainability issues of these, and the example that he gave suggests that his approach is sustainable.

We are making great headway. As the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, has pointed out, the decarbonisation of energy generation is extraordinary. In a very short period, we have moved towards certain days of the week when no coal is used in the generation of our electricity; that is extraordinary. In some respects, and this is where the gas bridge concept will come in, moving towards lower or lighter hydrocarbons is critical in helping us to decarbonise. This is seen in the Americas, where lighter hydrocarbons are easing out the use of coal. This is the first area in which we have achieved significant decarbonisation.

When we come to the concept of, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”, each household will have to answer particular questions. How well insulated are our homes and roof spaces? Are we moving forward considering the efficiency of different types of boilers? There will come a point when we will ask about the use of gas as a means of providing heat and energy in our homes. We have made substantial progress with the UK car fleet but that is quite modest compared against the journey yet to be taken. That is why we need to think about new technologies and ensure that the prices of the vehicles themselves are within the reach of the ordinary household. There is no point in trying to use a stick when modestly priced cars are not available to take this forward.

I could go on at some length, but I suspect that other questions will reveal some of the answers.

My Lords, I have a practical suggestion for how we can save the Amazon rainforest and similar areas. The international community, through the IMF and the World Bank, should take over a proportion of the government debt of the countries concerned, on the basis that the debt would not be liable to interest nor have to be repaid provided that these areas were conserved. To give a real incentive, the multiple of the value of the commercial exploitation of the rainforests offered would have to be considerable—probably five or even 10 times as much debt as the commercial value. If that were done, countries would have a real incentive to protect and preserve their rainforests.

My Lords, debt cancellation is not a new idea. It has had some currency and traction in the past. It is an area that bears further consideration. Going forward, we should not shy away from looking at it. It would have to be done very carefully. How to address this in the short term might be more challenging.

My Lords, I am happy to congratulate the Government on their achievements so far. This country is a leader—I accept that. However, even if we achieve everything we have said by 2050 and other countries do as well, we will still have a crisis on our hands. Research and development is now going on in a number of research institutes and universities into how we can take these emissions out of the atmosphere. Frankly, without that, we will be in trouble later in this century. As a next step, might the Government consider whether the UK institutions and universities could take a lead on bringing together organisations from a number of countries to start developing some of the techniques that are already known, but are in the very early stages of development, in order to take these carbon gases out of the atmosphere?

The noble Lord is right that the challenge will not be addressed on a global scale even if we were to achieve net zero in this country tomorrow, because we are responsible for around 1% of all climate-related emissions. There is clearly much more to be done by others. The atmospheric sequestration of greenhouse gases is an important area. I am less familiar with research on that, but I will inquire further into it and will write to the noble Lord with my findings. I would certainly hope that every possible avenue can be explored to ensure that we are able to address this global challenge?

My Lords, I too welcome the Minister’s Statement, in particular its acknowledgement of the seriousness of the crisis that we are facing. One of the many tragedies of our current political discourse is the way that it sucks the oxygen out of other debates, including this one, which is, in his words, the most significant challenge that we as a planet face. I also welcome that he said very clearly that the funding referred to is new. It would be a tragedy if this very welcome funding were to detract from the DfID programmes for health, women and education that are so important.

The Statement refers to offshore wind. Does the Minister accept that we are missing a trick in our reluctance to pursue onshore wind opportunities? Internationally, COP26 is a huge opportunity for action, but we also have the CHOGM meeting in Kigali next year. Are there plans to involve the Commonwealth in corporate action? Finally, the Statement speaks about cross-party working. A group of us in this House are committed to finding a way to do that. May I issue an invitation to him, with his new brief, to meet us as soon as possible?

The noble Baroness reminds us again that Brexit seems to consume a lot of the bandwidth. We cannot lose sight of these issues. Long after Brexit is resolved—whichever direction it is resolved in—this will remain a challenge for our country and for all countries.

On the question of onshore and offshore wind, we are certainly global leaders in offshore wind but we need to consider much more carefully the entire renewables sector and how we move it forward. Nothing will be ruled out. We need to be careful as we move forward and, again, every aspect of renewables needs to be considered on its own terms. Offshore wind has been very successful; indeed, pricing in the offshore wind sector has shown a remarkable change in a very short period of time. We are reaching the point now where it is all but self-sustaining, which is an extraordinary achievement given that we anticipated that being a much more distant prospect.

COP26 is an opportunity for this country to focus its attention but there are a number of international meetings. We are on the glide path to COP26 and we have to work out several things. How do we form the right alliances? How do we meet the right people? How do we offer the right advice? How do we engage directly with the right levels of funding? How do we ensure that we are all facing in the same direction? One of the biggest challenges right now is encouraging those countries responsible for some of the more significant current emissions, whether that be the US, China, India or wherever, to meet the net zero target by 2050. It is all very well for me to tell noble Lords that 70 nations have reached that level of commitment; if those 70 nations do not include the principal emitters then, while it is all very interesting to see how they stack up, in truth the impact on the global climate is modest.

The Commonwealth has a vital part to play in this because it represents not just those who can provide the support but those who need the mitigation and adaptation aspects as well. We have a perfect fraternity, if you like, for dialogue about what is most needed and best supported. I would love to come to the cross-party group.

It is generally agreed that new technologies will be essential to hitting these demanding targets. The Minister referred to the areas in which we are global leaders. Indeed, we are leaders in much of the research and technology in areas such as energy storage and the development of batteries, where advanced technology will be required, and carbon capture and storage, where after all we have a national advantage, having extracted oil from the North Sea and thereby having created storage. Is the Minister satisfied that we are giving enough priority to these two areas of research and development?

I am probably going to frighten my officials when I say that I suspect the answer is no. I think we need to be investing significantly in the technologies that are available. We also need to seriously consider how we move those technologies, given the way in which they are already used within the UK and the EU, to countries where they can do the maximum good. Carbon capture utilisation and storage offers us opportunities, if we use these methodologies wisely and carefully, in removing carbon. We have to remember that there are chemical processes—for example, the production of ammonia—where we simply cannot do without carbon dioxide because it is part of the natural chemical equation. We need to find ways of removing the carbon as best we can through those technologies.

Storage must be at the heart of where we go now. The progress that we make on wind will simply be blown away unless we can capture it and hold it in some form of storage. The pump hydro stations that exist in Scotland and Wales are a very useful example of that, and Norway has a significant number of those, but we need to think of other technologies as well, such as battery technologies, to retain that electricity.

We need to be global leaders in this area. In fact, the EU has to be a global leader in this area too, and we should be collaborating strongly through the Horizon programmes to ensure that we remain committed to technologies and ensure that they are available, not just here in Europe but wherever they can do good.

I applaud the Minister’s high productivity today—he must have been up all night—as well as his manner. Would that there were more like him.

I strongly approve, as everyone who has spoken plainly does, of the Government embracing the net zero target. However, as the Minister has made clear in his answers already, finding the pathway to achieving that target is an enormous task. As he says, on the other side of Brexit it will be arguably the single biggest challenge that this country has to face. For instance, the previous Chancellor identified the scale of GDP that will have to be devoted to ensuring that our transport system, the heating of our homes and buildings, and our electricity generation is de-carbonised. It is an enormous challenge. The Government have declared their target. When are they going to set out the framework for achieving it—the multiple pathways which the Minister has referred to—and meeting that ultimate challenge?

The noble Lord is absolutely right: setting a 2050 net zero target is important as a point on the horizon to be reached, but it is the pathways we will take to get there that will be the challenge. He is right again when he reminds us that the Chancellor gave an estimate of how much he thought this might cost this country alone, but it is sometimes more useful to take it down to the level of the individual household. To consider what it will mean, think of a household that has one car and a central heating system using gas, and think of having to move that forward. There are different technologies that we may be able to use to increase the efficiency of the electricity going into the home, but when we begin to talk about the changeover, particularly with vehicles, we are talking about significant individual household investments, and we cannot shy away from that.

One of the greatest dangers we face today is the number of times people conflate the words “electricity” and “energy”. On some days you will hear that we are approaching close to getting 100% of our electricity from renewable sources, but if you put the word “energy” into that, you are absolutely wrong, because our transport system and the way we heat our homes are primarily hydrocarbon based. We are not one small step away, and unless the general public appreciate that, they will wonder why we are not going faster.

The challenge we need to map out is the one that the noble Lord rightly pointed out. Our plan as we approach the glide path to COP26 in Glasgow must be to set out very clearly not only the routes we are seeking to explore, because some need exploration, but the targets and milestones by which we can measure our progress. We must also set out how we can look at that as a means to encourage others to follow in our slipstream. In truth, as I said, if we achieve this ourselves, we will have done little at a global level: we must have others come alongside. Once we have seen the framework, we should probably gather together once again to explore the details of how it might work in reality and to look at the costs, because it will not be without costs, and commitments required from individual households to change their behaviour.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, I welcome not only the Statement but the fact that the Prime Minister actually got to New York and had some really good news on that front; I hope he will develop that side of his life. I was impressed that the poorest countries got a mention, especially because that is what our Department for International Development is for, but is it saying enough about this to the general public? Perhaps it needs the Prime Minister to get behind it. This is critical for some of the countries we are supporting, but nobody knows that we are supporting them. Should we be sending more delegations of Members of Parliament to see what is being done? I am not satisfied with that. There was a figure in the press this morning that the sea will rise 10 millimetres per annum by the end of the century. This is a horrifying statistic. Are we doing enough to support those particular countries? Can the Minister say any more about that?

That is an interesting point. How much more can we do using the intellectual resources of Members of this House and the other place to engage directly with countries at the sharper end of climate change? I accept that and I will take it away and give some consideration to how we can use the resources available to us. I think we need to promote more carefully the good work that we do overseas, not just in the area of poverty, which is perhaps better known, but in addressing wider climate change questions. Only by doing that can we ensure that our people retain a strong commitment to the 0.7% of GDP for the millennium development goals. We need to make sure that that is the bedrock on which we build, not a fight that we have to have every single time we look at it because it is simply being eroded.

On the question of the sea level rise, I had a meeting not so long ago with the ambassador of the Maldives. The noble Lord will appreciate that the highest point on the Maldives is actually lower than my height, so its people will experience this very quickly; even at that level of seawater rise, the land will disappear in very short order. We need to consider very carefully how we can help a country such as the Maldives, as well as other island states, which will be very much at the sharpest end of any sea level rise. We also have to accept that it is not just the sea level that is rising but the sea temperature. We will face a lot of challenges. We often talk about global migration issues. We will see that global migration in the water first; we will see it in the seas. The seas around the United Kingdom are shallower—we have the North Sea basin—and we will begin to see our fishing industry experiencing very different kinds of fish, potentially in very short order. We need to be on top of a whole range of issues and we need to be careful to ensure that people understand the challenges we face, not just at home but in supporting the wider global community in this area.

Sitting suspended.