World Climate Change
the threat to the world climate and our global environment, including the ozone layer, requires urgent action, not more platitudes and declarations of intent ; believes that the Prime Minister has talked green but continues to act dirty, failing to meet the commitments of the Commonwealth Conference and showing indifference to the needs of the Third world.
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House holds an immediate inquiry into how rhetoric can be transformed into action to reduce emissions, clean up power stations, insulate domestic and commercial property, develop alternative and renewable energy resources, emphasise public transport over private, introduce lean burn engines, catalytic converters, and a wider differential between leaded and unleaded petrol, replant the world's forests, and establish a powerful energy efficiency agency in order to combat global warming, which threatens us all.
That is the petition from the people of Nottingham, and I forgo the opportunity to make a short speech.
To lie upon the Table.
Death Sentences (South Africa)
Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington) : With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to present a petition from more than 30,000 residents of the United Kingdom, which shows that they are opposed to apartheid in South Africa. They are
1. gravely concerned at the abuse of the judicial system in South Africa ;
2. highly alarmed by the significant increase in the use of the death penalty against opponents of apartheid ;
3. strongly believe that the use of the death penalty for political offences can only exacerbate the situation in South Africa. Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House will appeal to the state president of South Africa to halt the execution of opponents of apartheid.
I support that petition, which is in the same terms as early-day motion 1361, signed by 132 right hon. and hon. Members of all parties.
To lie upon the Table.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The conduct of the affairs of the House is under your direct responsibility. I believe that I am correct in saying that it is your view, both in private and in public, that the way in which we conduct our affairs has improved in recent years. May I therefore direct your attention to the relevant Hansard reports of 1971 when the then Isle of Wight Bill was passing through the House? I ask you also, to examine the proceedings and events late last night and early this morning.
After the prorogation of Parliament, our proceedings will come under the scrutiny of the lens of the television camera. We shall do ourselves no service if we continue to conduct our affairs as we did last night. I say this, Mr. Speaker, not from the barrel of sour grapes but in view of the way in which the International Westminster Bank Bill was treated last night. Britain is supposed to be the financial centre of the world, but I believe that we made ourselves a thorough laughing stock last night. I hope that you will address these matters during your day.
Mr. Speaker : The House knows that opposed private business is a matter for the Chairman of Ways and Means. I am aware of what went on in the Chamber last night and I shall look into the matter. I do not know whether there is anything that I can do personally, but I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the Bills which the House failed to debate.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. John M. Taylor.]
[Relevant documents : Sixth report of the Energy Committee, HC 192 of Session 1988-89, on the energy policy implications of the greenhouse effect, and the Government's observations, HC 611 of Session 1988-89.
First report of the Environment Committee, HC 270 of Session 1987-88, on air pollution, and the Government's reply, Cm. 552, as they relate to chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone layer, and the greenhouse effect.]
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier) : I am delighted that today we have an opportunity to debate an issue of vital concern to every individual in our country and, indeed, throughout the world. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that nothing we could discuss in this place could be of greater or more immediate importance.
I should like to apologise to the House at once for the fact that I shall be unable to stay until the end of the debate because I am due to present the Young Environmentalist of the Year Award at lunchtime.
Our knowledge of the environment that surrounds and sustains us has been expanding rapidly in recent years, and unfortunately--
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : I am aware that it is important to present the Young Environmentalist of the Year Award, but surely the House should take precedence when the House is debating what the Minister correctly described as an "issue of vital concern". Does not the House take precedence over the young environmentalist?
Mr. Trippier : I do not think that there is any difficulty about that. If I were to reply to the debate, I would have to be here. As it is, the Government have an arrangement with the Opposition that there will be two speakers from each Front Bench. I am delighted to say that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will be replying to the debate. I shall be here for the bulk of the debate. Our knowledge of the environment that surrounds and sustains us has been expanding rapidly in recent years, and unfortunately much of what we have learnt has not been good news. We are daily faced with more evidence that the activities of our species may be threatening not only the quality of life of ourselves, nor even just that of our children, but may be posing a danger to the very survival of life on this planet.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in her speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday--a speech which even The Guardian called profoundly impressive and moving--
"It is life itself that we must battle to preserve. The evidence is there. The damage is being done".
Across the globe we can see irrefutable proof of the damage that human complacency and arrogance about the environment has already caused. That proof is being stamped on the face of our planet by the destruction of tropical rain forests, the effects of acid rain and the thinning of the polar ice caps. Some predictions are that a change in the global climate in future could devastate crop yields, flood huge areas of land and threaten the viability of societies in many countries. But we must not move from
Column 1302indifference about the environment to paralysis about our fate. There is no need for us to regard disaster as inevitable of preordained.
Previous predictions of inevitable doom have proven false, from those of Malthus, who believed 200 years ago that mass starvation in this country was inevitable, to those erroneous forecasts that India could never feed itself. The key is and must be human ingenuity. That, in a sense, got us into this mess. Now it is time to harness it towards the goal of getting us out.
The first point must be a proper scientific basis for understanding the problems that we face. It may therefore be helpful to the House if I set out briefly what the current scientific consensus is about climate change, and the greenhouse effect. Changes in the world's climate are inherent to the very structure of the planet and to our place in the solar system. The history of the Earth shows clearly that such changes in our climate have occurred in the past and would occur inevitably in the future even if there were no men or women here at all. Climate changes may be caused by small, natural changes in our orbit around the sun. They may be influenced by volcanic activity or even changes within the sun itself.
Scientists have predicted that in perhaps 5,000 years we shall enter another ice age, which would not reach its furthest extent for another 60,000 years. In fact, the rise or fall in temperature which can cause such a momentous change as a shift to or from an ice age may be very small. It is part of the great complexity of this problem that we as yet find it very difficult to disentangle these natural changes from the man-made effects which may be accelerating the process of global warming.
Mr. Dalyell : People should understand that talk about an ice age is not fanciful. It is a fact that it was not tundra that was found in the stomach of the mammoth. The mammoth was quickly encased in ice. That is precisely what many of us are concerned about. That is a climatological flow into an ice age.
Mr. Trippier : I should make it clear that the passage in my speech to which the hon. Gentleman has referred has been included in the publicity which the Department of the Environment is making available widely. I am grateful to him for his intervention. His last comment seems to support the publicity that we are issuing.
The naturally present greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including water vapour and carbon dioxide, keep the average surface temperature some 30 deg C above the level that it would reach without them. In other words, if there were no greenhouse effect at all, we might freeze to death.
The problem lies in Man's activities since industrialisation which have created additional greenhouse effects. We have been producing and emitting gases, such as carbon dioxide, CFCs, nitrous oxide and methane, at rates at which the world's oceans and forests cannot absorb them. As a result these gases have been accumulating in the atmosphere and gradually building up a reflective capacity which retains heat from the sun which the Earth would normally lose to space. In the short term, this artificial global warming will continue whatever we do because the full consequences of gases emitted in the past have still to catch up with us.
We have learnt enough about the greenhouse effect to know that we should be worried about it, but we do not yet
Column 1303have all the information we need to devise comprehensive solutions. We still need to know by how much the temperature will increase, how fast this increase will occur and how high the seas will rise as a result. Most important of all, we need to know where these effects will be most severe.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Wednesday therefore announced a major step forward by the British Government. We shall set up an international centre for climate prediction as a focus for worldwide fundamental research on climate models. My Department will be providing more than £5 million a year to fund this important new initiative, which will build on the pioneering work of British scientists and meteorologists.
I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many British scientists, notably at the Meteorological Office and at the British Antarctic Survey, who have established this country as one of the world leaders in knowledge on climate change and damage to the ozone layer.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) : Does the Minister accept that there is a widespread view that initiatives are all very well but that more should be done? The Government are setting up initiatives so as to obtain more information while blocking specific measures, along with the United States, to deal with the problems and to set targets. How does the hon. Gentleman reconcile the apparent inconsistency?
Mr. Trippier : I shall be fascinated to learn to which precise targets the hon. Gentleman is referring. I led the British delegation at Noordwijk in Holland earlier this week, and there was no blocking whatsoever. I shall make it clear that the British delegation acted as a broker in pulling together the major countries, especially America, the USSR and Japan. It was our initiative and only our initiative that led to the inclusion in the declaration of the date that was agreed by all the countries represented at that conference.
Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle) : The countries which the Minister mentioned, led by Britain, took out of any proposed draft declaration any reference to targeting CO reductions by specific dates and substituted a vague statement about "taking action in the future", with statements from the Minister about waiting until we had found out the kind of facts which the hon. Gentleman has just said we did not have. Surely, if we believe in the precautionary approach, we should have targets. The Government have no targets for the reduction of CO emissions.
Mr. Trippier : I must caution the hon. Gentleman not to keep reading The Guardian. its account of what took place at Noordwijk was completely erroneous. The accurate account was given in The Times by the journalist Michael McCarthy.
Mr. Trippier : Yes, it is in the declaration. The date is the year 2000. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that he knows more about what is in the declaration than I do. The levels will be decided when recommendations are made to the second world climate conference by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We are
Column 1304chairing the scientific part of the IPCC. Earlier this week at Noordwijk, I asked the three major industrialised countries to which I have referred to agree to that date to achieve the levels, which will be based upon scientific information provided by the IPCC. As it is clear that Britain is very much in the lead in the scientific reasearch which is provided by the IPCC, and as the Government have paid the best part of £1 million initially to fund that scientific research, it is rather silly for the Opposition to devalue the currency of the IPCC in any way.
Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South) : We may puruse this matter later, but the Minister should be clear about the fact that the IPCC is not carrying out research : it is collecting research done by other people. The British contribution is not to chair the policy panel but to chair the research panel. Policy is a very different matter.
Mr. Trippier : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely wrong. I did not say that it had anything to do with policy. I said that the British are chairing the scientific panel. We must get this point right. We were flattered that, in recognition of the experience and success of British scientific research in these matters, we were asked to chair that sub- committee. It is chaired by Dr. John Houghton, the head of the Meteorological Office.
Mr. Allan Roberts : This is an important matter and we need to get it right. The Minister has confirmed that the British Government and other Governments at the Netherlands conference refused to accept the freezing of the amount of CO emissions at the present level and will wait for the year 2000 before making any decisions about what to do. Then the British Government might freeze the level. In the meantime they could double them.
Mr. Trippier : If the hon. Gentleman does a little more research, he will find that a whole new world is opened up to him. I must make it clear that it was the British delegation, led by me, which brokered the date which was put in the declaration. I have said that any 20 per cent. figure which was mentioned at the conference may be inadequate. It may not be enough : no one knows. What on earth was the point in setting up the IPCC if we were not going to listen to its recommendations, which I understand will come forward in only a matter of months?
Mr. Malcolm Bruce : I was advised by a first-hand observer who was at the Noordwijk conference that 11 of the 12 EC countries were prepared to sign an undertaking for that reduction in the year 2000, Britain being the only one that would not, with a caveat for Portugal and Greece. Is that true or false? Is the Minister saying that my observer's view of the meeting differs from his?
Mr. Trippier : There seem to be a number of different accounts. The hon. Gentleman is not in a strong position to speak with any authority, because he certainly was not at the conference. All the information which he is imparting to the House is very much second-hand. As it is clear that we are in the lead in providing the scientific evidence for the levels that will be agreed at the intergovernmental conference which will be held in 12 months' time, it is clear that, if we are supporting that initiative, the levels which are recommended should be the ones that are accepted. I can give a categorical undertaking to the hon. Gentleman that, when those recommendations are made to the second world climate conference, the
Column 1305Government will respond positively. We believe that, as a first step, we should be looking to the year 2000 as the date by which CO emissions are stabilised.
I have already paid a genuine tribute to British scientists, notably at the Meteorological Office, for all their work. The Government are spending over £15 million on research on climate change and the ozone layer through the Natural Environment Research Council, the Science and Engineering Research Council, the Meteorological Office and Government Departments. We have also more than doubled Britain's contribution to the United Nations Environment Programme, and I echo the Prime Minister's call for other countries to do the same.
The quality of British scientific work on climate change was given international recognition last year, when we were chosen to chair the working group on scientific assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This body, which was set up jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme and the world meteorological organisations, is the principal international focus for research and action on climate change. I stress once again that we are fully committed to the work of the IPCC and we are providing £750,000 to support its work.
Collecting the international information we need is only the first step towards tackling the problem of climate change. The next step must be to take effective action. We remain committed to international co-operation as the only way that we can meet this global challenge, and we have called for the work of the IPCC to be continued. We have therefore called for the negotiation of an international framework convention on climate change. This proposal has been endorsed in the Langkawi declaration on the environment which followed the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malaysia.
Britain has led international discussions on a climate convention and we were instrumental in securing the unanimous agreement of the nearly 70 countries represented at the conference on air pollution and climate change in the Netherlands for this initiative. I am certain that the strong endorsement which was given to the convention at the United Nations General Assembly following the Prime Minister's speech will help to focus minds on the benefits such a convention could bring.
It is vital that we recognise that action must be collective and international if it is to be effective. In particular, there would be no point whatsoever in securing an international agreement on reducing carbon dioxide emissions to which the major CO -producing countries--the United States, the Soviet Union and Japan--were not willing to subscribe. I hope, therefore, that some of the more short-sighted critics who earlier this week berated the British Government's attitude at the Noordijk conference-- and in at least one case wholly misrepresented it--will recognise the significance of the agreement reached there, brokered by the British delegation, which I was proud to lead, and which was signed by all attending countries. That sets out in clear terms an agreement to recognise the need to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions and to study the feasibility of a 20 per cent. reduction in emissions by industrialised countries by the year 2005. It is a major breakthrough in international efforts on climate change
Column 1306and I pay tribute to all the members of my delegation who helped to achieve it, and whose efforts were publicly applauded by our hosts. Our efforts in the international sphere to secure multilateral agreement on what action is needed builds on Britain's successful leadership role in securing action to protect the ozone layer. Earlier this year my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister hosted the international conference on the protection of the ozone layer and in 1990, Britain will host the second conference of the parties to the Montreal protocol, which we hope will strengthen the existing protocol commitment of a 50 per cent. cut in emissions by the year 2000. As the House will know, Britain is 10 years ahead of schedule on its Montreal obligations and that is all the more important because chlorofluorocarbons are an important greenhouse gas too. As well as the important role we can play internationally, there are important steps that Britain can take on its own to tackle climate change. There is our aid programme to other countries. The Overseas Development Administration is already promoting projects on forestry in nearly 30 countries and I am sure that all sides of the House will want to welcome the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister this week that we will be providing a further £100 million bilaterally to tropical forestry activities over the next three years. I hope that we can build on the model of the memorandum of agreement with Brazil that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment signed in his capacity as Overseas Development Minister in July. I should add that in the United Kingdom itself we have increased our tree planting by 50 per cent. in the past 10 years.
"£100 million bilaterally to tropical forestry activities over the next three years."
The Prime Minister said :
"mostly within the framework of the tropical forestry action plan".
What discussion has taken place with our partners in the tropical forestry action plan on this and what is meant by "mostly"?
Mr. Trippier : I am not aware of the precise discussions with that body. However, the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be very much welcomed. We talk with our partners in that body regularly.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Although we all welcome any effort made to preserve and protect the tropical rain forest, are his Department or the Government proposing any changes in the trading arrangement by origin marking of tropical timber so that virgin tropical timber is not imported into this country or western Europe in large quantities and that, instead, what one could call farmed timber is imported?
Mr. Trippier : I am not aware of any such measures, but as the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter, I undertake to look at it myself. The Department of Energy has successfully promoted energy efficiency to the extent of securing recurrent savings of over £500 million a year since 1983. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State hopes to be able
Column 1307to deal with these matters in greater detail later. The electricity supply industry is investing £2 billion to reduce acid rain emissions by fitting flue gas desulphurisation equipment to six of our major power stations.
Mr. Allan Roberts : Are the Government saying that they are committed to the six and that the six will be desulphurised? As we understand it from announcements by the Central Electricity Generating Board and the private companies that are about to take over, before the next election only Drax B will be retrofitted, the decision on Fiddler's Ferry having been postponed.
Mr. Trippier : Having cleared that point with the Department of Energy, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that although the Department does not say when, it says that we are committed to fitting flue gas desulphurisation equipment to six of our major power stations. The statutory non-fossil fuel obligation embodied in the Electricity Bill is a further important commitment.
Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green) : It is a question of logistics. A £2 billion programme is in hand, but the implementation of retrofitting desulphurisation units to power stations can be carried out only when it is most convenient and proper. The equipment has to be available, and the power station has to be shut down and taken out of the grid for a period. That has an effect on electricity supplies, and all those practical considerations have to be taken into account.
The Electricity Bill has provided the vehicle for a new and unprecedented legal duty to be placed on electricity suppliers positively to promote energy efficiency. We shall continue to work sensibly and constructively with other countries, with British industry and with ordinary consumers to strengthen efforts to reduce the threat that global warming poses.
Unlike the Labour party, we do not advocate mindless and isolated public posturing in international forums. Agreements, not arguments, are what the world needs and agreements will not be secured unless the interests of all nations, industrialised and developing alike, are recognised and catered for. Unlike the Labour party we have no mandate from the National Union of Mineworkers to endorse coal-fired power stations, whatever the environmental consequences. We shall move ahead with an energy mix which is sensible for our economy and our environment. Above all, unlike the Labour party, we have the track record of economic growth and a long, firm commitment to the environment which alone can produce the green growth we need to fund the measures required both at home and abroad to tackle climate change. We are aware of the responsibilities these global challenges impose on us. We shall not fail to fulfil them.
Mr. Dalyell : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to make a House of Commons point, not a party political one. Will you formally raise with the Chair the question of the practice of some Ministers? Some Ministers are extremely courteous to the House and some Ministers have sat through the whole of a Friday debate. The
Column 1308Minister has been asked a number of questions and there are likely to be contributions from the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment and the hon. Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd), who has a long record of interest and expertise in scientific affairs. Having made such a speech, the Minister will then go off to an engagement, which, however attractive, is not more important than the House of Commons. There are many other Ministers who could present awards to the young environmentalist of the year. Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, raise with Mr. Speaker the acceptability of the Ministers' behaviour?
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : The hon. Gentleman and the whole House know that the question of which Ministers turn up for a debate or how long they stay is not a responsibility of the Chair. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's point will be noted.
Mr. Corbyn : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Ministers should be accountable to the House. This is an Adjournment debate and there will be no vote at the end, so in that sense, the Government are not held accountable for their actions. However, there are few opportunities for Back Bench Members to question Ministers directly by intervention or through their own speeches. Surely something should be done to ensure that Ministers stay to respond seriously to the points raised by hon. Members.
Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South) : The whole House welcomes the opportunity to debate the important question of global climate change, but many Conservative Members were expecting the Secretary of State for the Environment to open the debate. To find that the Minister of State is unable to stay even over lunch is less than the House was expecting.
The Opposition welcome the attention being given to the global environment and to changes in the world climate in particular. However, the problem is to know what to do in the face of threatening, but uncertain future change. I want to underline that uncertainty by mentioning new research results which have been published in the past few weeks. In an article in Nature on 14 September, John Mitchell and his colleagues at the Meteorological Office, the group to whom the Minister of State referred, revised their estimates of the effect of doubling the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and on global warming from 5.2 degrees centigrade to 1.9 degrees. That reduction of more than one half was due to introducing into the Meteorological Office global general circulation model the effect of reflection and absorption of radiation by cloud with varying ice and water content. Further refinements could go either way, but the variation of 50 per cent. or more is characteristic of the problems that we face. Fresh light has also been shed on the question of where the carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel is going. It is possible to measure directly the amount produced, and the amount remaining in the atmosphere is about 50 per cent. of that produced. It had been assumed that the balance of 50 per cent. was dissolved in the oceans, passing through
Column 1309the marine food chain into ocean sediments and eventually becoming the coal and oil of future eras. Through deforestation, the land was assumed to add to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, not to absorb it.
On 2 November at an NERC press conference, Dr. Andrew Watson and his colleagues at the NERC Plymouth marine laboratory and the university of East Anglia announced that experiments in the North sea on the movement of gases between the sea and the air suggested that only 30 per cent. of the carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels ends up in the oceans, compared with the 50 per cent. previously assumed. The implication is that 20 per cent. of the carbon dioxide generated ends up in the soil and biomass on land. The figure may be 10 per cent. or 30 per cent. but it seems to be large and positive.
Sir Hugh Rossi : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could help me with the research to which he referred. I understand that it referred particularly to the capacity of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide that the the effect of plankton and pro-plankton in the oceans and their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen was missed out. There are tremendous masses of these creatures in the southern Atlantic ocean which may be affected by the hole in the ozone layer. That creates a wholly different dimension. Was that aspect dealt with in the research?
Dr. Bray : The research was covered in a NERC press release dated 31 October and published on 2 November. Work was done on the transfer velocity of gases between sea and air in the North sea. it did not deal with the bio -geochemical fluxes to which the hon. Gentleman referred. He is right that many questions about the accumulation of carbon in the oceans remain to be answered, but it has been discovered that the first stage, where carbon dioxide dissolves into the water, is less important than previously supposed.
Sir Hugh Rossi : The statistics should be treated with some caution because they omit the possibility and probability that other organisms are at work in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Dr. Bray : Tighter restrictions on the absorption of carbon by the oceans would make the imbalance even greater than the 20 per cent. suggested by NERC. Absorption in the oceans would be less than the 30 per cent. that it now proposes. There would be a greater imbalance, which would accumulate in the soil and biomass on land. The hon. Gentleman is right that the major uncertainties call for more research into every aspect of the problem. I shall come later to the problems of designing policy in the light of those uncertainties. We cannot do much about absorption in the oceans, but we can and should take measures to reduce carbon dioxide generation by improving energy efficiency and conservation. If casual and haphazard policies already lead to the absorption of 20 per cent. of the carbon dioxide generated instead of its release through deforestation, positive land-based environmental policies seem likely to contribute more to minimising global climate change than we thought a fortnight ago, before the NERC research was published. Such policies could help to feed an increased
Column 1310world population, preserve and enrich the natural environment and make our environment more pleasant for human habitation.
More observations, surveys and experimental work are required. Both the Met office and the NERC have said that theories about how carbon absorption on land is increasing include the extent of
re-afforestation in temperate zones--which has tended to be dismissed--and the fertilising effect of increased concentrations of carbon dioxide, which causes greater growth of vegetation throughout the world. No hon. Member believes that we can be certain about what is happening.