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House of Commons

Wednesday 22 April 1998

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Energy Policy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Dowd.]

9.34 am

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I am pleased to be able to open this debate on energy policy following the Kyoto summit. I do so as part of an effective parliamentary conspiracy known as the GLOBE group, which stands for Global Legislators Organisation for a Balanced Environment, which has members in all Parliaments in Europe and, indeed, in many Parliaments throughout the world. We view effective lobbying in national Parliaments as part of our work, but also aim to ensure that major events such as the Kyoto conference are followed by effective parliamentary action, so that all national Governments keep to their targets.

It could not be more appropriate that we are debating this issue today because, tomorrow, the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry will sit before the Environmental Audit Committee, which will question him at some length about the methods by which the Government will carry out the policies that were agreed at Kyoto. That is a step forward: this Parliament now has a Select Committee where such questions can be raised.

In the past, environmental policies were entirely linked to the Department of the Environment, which was obviously heavily dominated by local government interests. Because of that domination, environmental matters tended to take a back seat. It would be useful if Parliament as a whole had a specialist environment Committee--as opposed to a Committee linking other Departments--in addition to the Environmental Audit Committee. There is a strong case for that.

In June, European Union Ministers will meet in Aarhus in Denmark to discuss the continuation of environmental policies, but we must take other things into account. For example, there are headlines in all today's newspapers about the transport of plutonium waste from Georgia to Britain. That exposes the dangers of nuclear waste and nuclear reprocessing, and effectively challenges all those who believe that the nuclear option is somehow safe and environmentally sustainable, and will ensure clean energy supplies.

I do not believe that there is anything clean about nuclear waste or nuclear power. If anyone proposed that we should start a new energy source that would be dangerous for more than 1,000 years, people would think that they were completely mad. It is time that we seriously challenged the whole nuclear argument.

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This Friday, the House has the opportunity to complete the stages in this place of the Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Bill, which has been through Committee. It is a great tribute to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis) that it has got that far. I just hope that certain members of the Conservative parliamentary party do not go on yet another outing of trying to destroy an environmental Bill, as they have unfortunately tried to do on various other occasions. The Energy Efficiency Bill is also coming up this Friday. It is important that the House puts together all those issues, so that we have joined-up thinking and joined-up actions in improving our environment.

In many ways, the Kyoto conference was a great milestone in this planet's history. Before Rio, many people throughout the world had been arguing for a more sustainable attitude towards our environment, energy consumption and energy production, but it had not come together. The Rio summit was a major turning point. Likewise, the New York meeting and Kyoto were a major step forward in recognising the limits to growth and to what we can do to our environment and planet, and placed requirements on each country to carry out the work.

However, the background to Kyoto was raging fires throughout south Asia, which were caused partly by drought, but partly because people were seeking to clear forests by burning them down. The news now is that, despite all the campaigning by so many people throughout the world over the past 20 years, the rate of destruction of that huge carbon sink otherwise known as the beautiful Amazon rain forest is proceeding at an even faster rate than ever before. There is no room for complacency in energy policy or environmental protection matters.

The world might look with great hope to Kyoto, post-Rio and all that goes with that, but all Governments appear to be accepting that there is an uncontrollable global economy and that growth is the order of the day. The environmental damage done by excessive transportation, excessive destruction of forests and excessive use of fossil fuels appears to be viewed as the necessary consequence of the eternal growth theory. Therefore, humankind has a long way to go in trying to control what it does to this planet, as, at present, it is merely trying to mitigate the effects on the globe of a free-market economy. Those issues must be brought together.

Having said that, I found the British Government's approach to Kyoto very welcome, especially as they sought a large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The result--an 8 per cent. agreement--was not good enough; much better could have been achieved. I do not blame the British Government's representatives at the conference, but I am laying some blame on the United States, which is the biggest consumer of energy and the biggest global polluter. Many of the right-wing think tanks in the USA say, "The problem is caused by the third world", but the reality is that every American consumes 10 times as much energy as every person in Bangladesh, south Asia or China. That is the reality of what is happening to this planet. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies to the debate, he will tell us what steps the Government intend to take to cut CO 2 emissions.

The global economy is having disastrous effects on the environment--for example, the destruction of the rain forests and the fires in south Asia. However, we can also identify and measure global warming. I am aware that there is a scientific argument, of sorts, that there are

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normal climatic variations and changes anyway and that we just happen to be moving into a warmer period. The truth is that the speed with which global temperatures have risen over the past 15 years is astronomical. The link with the large-scale and increasing burning of fossil fuels around the world suggests that we are doing something dramatic, dangerous and possibly irreversible to our climate. That must be reckoned with.

The many surveys carried out in the Antarctic allow us to measure the degree of pollution throughout the globe. We can date and almost time where the pollution comes from and see what we are doing to the climate. We can also look at the way in which ice caps are melting in the northern and southern hemispheres. Traditionally, the northern hemisphere ice caps have been melting while the southern hemisphere ice caps have been expanding--now they are both retreating, so there is bound to be a rise in global sea levels. That is the consequence of not doing anything.

Although Kyoto was an important step forward, other measures need to be taken. After the election last May, the Government correctly presented themselves as concerned with environmental policies. They reflected what a large number of ordinary people thought, because people recognise what is being done to their environment. Those concerned with protecting the environment live not just in rural communities; they are not only the people trying, rightly, to preserve woods, forests, hedgerows and habitat vegetations--protecting the environment is just as much a concern to people growing up in council estates in inner London or anywhere else. They want a decent environment and clean air to breathe. That is why our energy policies matter.

I am an active member--indeed the chair--of my local Agenda 21 group in Islington. The effort made by so many ordinary people is quite moving. They are desperate for a better world and a better environment to leave to future generations. That is a fairly new phenomenon in politics throughout the world, but especially in this country.

We need to make a number of important changes in policy. Currently, our primary sources of energy are coal, oil and, to a more limited extent, hydro and other forms of renewable energy. Oil prices, if not at an all-time low, are certainly somewhere near that. Even with North sea oil, which is expensive to produce, there is still a profit of about $10 a barrel between production costs and sale prices, despite the current low oil prices. Oil companies are busy stocking up huge amounts of oil, either in large storage spaces or by keeping it under the ground, having gained prospecting licences.

On the figures produced by Greenpeace--I agree with that organisation, as do many others--the maximum amount of carbon that we can burn on our planet without causing major climatic changes is 225 gigatonnes. The amount in storage or available for exploration is far greater than that. When my hon. Friend the Minister replies, will he tell us the rationale behind continuing to grant exploration licences in the north Atlantic, knowing full well the environmental damage that will be done? It is unsustainable, in world terms, to start a whole new round of oil exploration when we should be looking towards sustainable energy sources rather than fossil fuel sources. We must protect the environment.

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The world managed to change course on the Antarctic. I have been in the House long enough to see the issue go full circle, from the Antarctic being a place of scientific exploration, to being a place of mineral exploration, and then a place of preservation of the natural environment and prevention of any mineral exploration and exploitation--of the Antarctic shelf itself, but not of the sea around it, unfortunately. Surely we can do the same with the north Atlantic licences that the Government are considering granting. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will give us some hope that the Government will not grant those licences.

My hon. Friend may know that I have tabled a number of questions to the Foreign Office about Rockall and whether Britain actually has the right to grant licences for the sea surrounding Rockall. It is not clear who owns Rockall. Would it not be better to reach an international agreement to preserve that pristine stretch of ocean from exploration and all the damage that goes with it? It should be used as a signal, a pressure and a catalyst for moving towards a more sustainable energy policy.

Britain does not do very well in the new European renewable energy league. In 1990, 0.5 per cent. of our energy came from renewable resources. By 1995, that had risen to the fantastic amount of 0.7 per cent. I suppose people could argue that that is a huge increase, but it is meaningless because it is growth from a very low base. Every other country in Europe does considerably better, the best being Sweden with 25.4 per cent. Much lower down, even France manages 7 per cent. Germany is rather low with less than 2 per cent. The country nearest to us in the league is Belgium, with 1 per cent. There is no excuse for Britain's position, other than the attitude of previous Governments and, within that, attitudes towards Government spending, investment and tax regimes.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister recognises that enormous strides could be made. Indeed, I know that he wants to promote greater use of solar, wind-powered and wave-powered energy and much less reliance on fossil fuels and all the damage that comes with them.

We must also consider the question of energy conservation. Energy requirements are dictated by industry, by transport and heating needs and so on, but we must bear in mind the fact that an initial investment means savings in the long run. About half my constituents live in local authority or housing association accommodation. Most of them complain to me about high heating bills, poor insulation and generally poor living conditions. Indeed, many people living in private accommodation say exactly the same.

Every time we neglect to install roof insulation, cavity walls or a more efficient form of heating, we might save a little on the construction cost of a house, but, in the long run, we are piling huge costs on the people who live in that house and we are doing enormous damage to the environment. A conservation policy is beneficial to everyone even though the initial cost is considerably higher.

In this country, 8 million people suffer from some energy deficiency, in that they are unable to heat their homes or keep themselves warm. Because of the inadequate heating in so many houses, there are 30,000 more deaths in winter than in summer, a fact which appears to be related to the conditions in which people live. Clearly, the attempts made by some hon. Members

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to introduce private Members' Bills relating to energy efficiency or heating conservation--we shall be debating such a Bill on Friday--are very important.

It is essential that the toughest possible energy conservation requirements are imposed for all new buildings. We must recognise that investing now in good-quality insulation and efficient heating systems means in the long run a saving not only to the individual but to the environment. Of course, if one marries that notion to the free market, there is a conflict between the needs of the environment and those of the gas and electricity companies, whose sole motive is to encourage greater consumption.

I know that several hon. Members want to contribute to the debate, so I move on to my final point, on transport. Transport is a huge but inefficient consumer of energy and is the single biggest source of pollution in most cities around the world. If one has a mind to do such things, one has only to go to the top of Canary Wharf tower to see the effect of transport pollution. There is very little industry left in London to cause pollution, but from the top of the tower one can see a pollution cloud or dome--it is like the millennium dome on a grander scale--stretching across central London. Most of that pollution is caused by transport, mainly cars carrying one person. It is preventable, but we must be prepared to invest more in public transport and reduce the energy consumed for transport.

On a more global note, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) made a good speech earlier this year about the concept of food miles and the amount of pollution caused by goods being dragged around the world. It is crazy that countries in central Africa, where there is a food deficiency and where many people do not eat terribly well, are being encouraged by international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World bank, of which we are members, to grow early vegetables that are air-freighted to Europe. One can imagine the enormous pollution involved in flying early strawberries grown in Zambia to London, Frankfurt, New York or Paris. When one sees beautiful strawberries, mange-tout and so on in the supermarket, one thinks that they are clean, pollution-free vegetables, but what about the fuel that has been burnt to bring them here and the consequent damage to the environment?

I recall going to a supermarket last year in Worcester. There were millions of apple trees only half a mile from that supermarket, but the apples on sale there came from New Zealand--what a crazy world.

The constant global effort to increase export production and trade is seen as a form of growth, but it damages the environment. Ships pass each other carrying washing machines from one end of the world to the other and back again, but that can hardly be called a sustainable form of growth.

I know that the Government are keen to integrate environmental and transport policies, but it has to happen quickly, or we shall not be able to make the 8 per cent. reduction in greenhouse gas emissions agreed at Kyoto, and we shall certainly not meet the much higher targets proposed by the Government. Parliament needs to be assertive and to keep returning to the issue. If various sections of the Government are not fully apprised of the need for joined-up thinking on the environment, they need to be encouraged to be so. That is Parliament's job.

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If, at the end of this century, we cannot turn things round and start to develop technologies that use the energy available from the sun, wind and water, but instead we carry on in the smokestack tradition, the damage to the planet's climate might be irreversible.

Some people say that those of us who look to a sustainable environment are backward-thinking and conservative. On the contrary; we are by no means anti-technology. We want the cutting edge of technology to be used to develop solar, wind and wave power and all the renewable and sustainable methods possible. We want to use that technology for better control systems and less polluting forms of energy use. Unless we get fully involved, we shall be losing jobs in the fossil fuel industries, as has happened already, but we shall not be gaining jobs in the sustainable industries, for which there is a huge global market. I am thinking, for example, of the production of solar panels.

There needs to be a change in attitude. Kyoto provided an opportunity for that, but if we do not recognise that poorer countries need help to develop sustainable energy, the enormous damage will continue. I hope that today's debate will be one of a series of regular debates, so that we can monitor what is happening, what the Government are doing and what pressure we can put on them.

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