Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



Mr Jack

  80. It is the Grimsby man.  (Mr Meacher) Some of the NGOs have been asking for that: WWF and others have been stressing the need for that. We are looking at our role in terms of marine stewardship. The Government is giving some quite high profile attention to that this year. If there is justification for something like legislation in terms of our responsibility towards the wider oceans then we are perfectly prepared to look at it. As I say, I am not making any commitment here at all. I am saying it is an important issue and if there is an issue it is one which I think needs to be raised in the international forum.

  Chairman: Blue Planet, 9pm, BBC1, David Attenborough, every Wednesday, big on plankton.

Mr Borrow

  81. I want to follow on from what Patrick has just said. I think Patrick has raised issues which are not at the heart of the Kyoto Agreement and obviously at the meeting in Marrakesh you will be focussing on the Kyoto Protocol and what follows from that. I wonder to what extent you are looking now, or will be looking in Marrakesh, or when you will be considering the need for another protocol to take the whole process forward from Kyoto? It may be looking a bit too much in the distant future. Are we beginning to think about what follows on from Kyoto?  (Mr Meacher) Well, Kyoto is, I think, historic in the sense that I cannot recall any other precedent where there is agreement which is worldwide, with the possible exception at the moment of the United States, which of course is a very important exception, but they did sign up at Kyoto in 1997 and they still may come back. There is no precedent for an international agreement of such overriding importance with such profound and detailed implications on which there has been a global consensus. Having achieved that I think we would be very cautious about casting it on one side, maybe that was not what you were suggesting. We clearly need to advance further but I did refer to an article which—I forget the number—is about the adequacy of commitments. The five per cent agreed at Kyoto is merely the start. We can expand the coverage of Kyoto and we can amend the Kyoto Protocol as long as we get consensus. I think the potential for developing it towards the ultimate target of stabilising CO2 in the atmosphere is quite consistent with the Kyoto Protocol. Given the difficulty of getting agreement with the umbrella group, who have never been very keen, the G77, who are probably still more concerned about growth than they are about world climate, Saudi Arabia and OPEC, who have their own very powerful vested interest, Sub-Saharan Africa which is desperate to get more done in terms of poverty, I mean the disparate interests are so great that if we have got a consensus for that I think we should stick with it and develop the existing mechanism.

  82. If I could move on to what is the more difficult issue, you have touched on it slightly, which is the concept that if we are seeking to limit carbon emissions across the planet then you could have the argument that every man, woman and child on the planet is allowed a certain amount of emissions and, therefore, there are per capita emissions for each nation state and the extent to which the developed world at the moment have emissions per head way above those in the developing world. Now obviously there is going to be an argument that the differences in terms of emissions between the developed world and the developing world needs to narrow.  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  83. And to what extent we could reach, if you like, an ideal stable situation where carbon emissions in each nation state are the same on a per capita basis. We are looking very much in the long term but is that a concept which appeals to you as something to aim for, even if we never achieve it, or is it a philosophical argument that you would prefer to ignore and not engage in?  (Mr Meacher) I find it an appealing concept. It is obviously absolutely profound in its implications. It is normally known under the title of Contraction and Convergence, in other words the developed countries contract their emissions, which is what Kyoto is all about, and we get convergence with the developing countries as they industrialise and increase their emissions. So in a sense we are in that process already. The question of whether it should be pressed as a serious negotiable proposal has not been discussed. I am one of those who share the view that whilst we are moving remorselessly and inexorably in that direction, it is not practicable politics now. If the most important thing in the process is to get the United States back into the process, I think if we were to say that we are proposing that within a certain timescale every citizen of the United States will have no more, on average, carbon emissions permitted than in Bangladesh, I do not think that would be very appealing to them. I do not think it is immediately negotiable but I do think that its time is coming, it is a very powerful idea. The level of global emissions in 1990 was about five billion tonnes of carbon and that was consistent with about 370 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere. If that doubles or trebles that level in the atmosphere is going to rise remorselessly. There is a view which is not scientifically precise that if we get over the 450-500 parts per million level we are in serious potential trouble. Therefore to find a way by which we can ensure we do not get above that level, in the pre-industrial age in the 18th century it was about 280, so the question is is it safe for the world—where it has been at 280 for millennia—within a very short period of time to double that and to go beyond it, bearing in mind that we continue to accelerate at an unstoppable rate if we take no action. It is not a cyclical matter where you go up and at some point you start coming down, that is not the point, it can go on increasing indefinitely. At what point, therefore, do we try and limit the damage and the general view is 450-500 parts per million. Now if we are going to do that and the developing countries are going to industrialise, we are going to have to make exceedingly sharp cuts, not just 60 per cent but in terms of the developed countries there are arguments for 80 to 90 per cent cuts. If we do that we are beginning to force down the level of per capita emissions to something beginning to approach what convergence and contraction wants. I do not think it is pie in the sky, it is certainly not just a conceptual philosophy. It is for real but it has to organically develop and I do not think it can be enforced on the umbrella group at the present time.

  84. On a related point. The developing world themselves, most of the developing world as they develop, will obviously increase carbon emissions. Part of the protocol is to provide a mechanism whereby resources are transferred from developed countries to developing countries to enable them to become more energy efficient. Do you think it is going to be more difficult to get the developing countries to sign up to an agreement which could lead them to limit their own emissions if we have not actually got the United States signed up on the developed side? Do you see the United States being crucial to getting long term commitment from the developing countries to the whole process?  (Mr Meacher) The absence of the United States obviously inhibits the whole process, there is no doubt about that. I think the developing countries are far more concerned about the increased levels of funding under whatever heading it might be than they are about whether the United States is part of the process. I perhaps could take this opportunity to make clear if I did not before that there is no agreement yet on burden sharing aid to developing countries. I did say in my earlier remarks that it is a political declaration and the signatories of the political declaration will have their first discussions on the formula in Washington in December as Sarah Hendry said. The important thing is the amount of this money. I do think at each successive Conference of the Parties the developing countries will probably up their bid and we will just have to see what we can afford and the justification for more money whilst they still are not signatories to the target. The point is the Americans are very strongly opposed to giving money unless countries sign up to the target. The developing world will not sign up to the target but is still insisting on money in order to give their consent at each annual meeting, that is the problem.

  85. I have one final question that is unrelated but I wanted to find a slot to put it in. The Kyoto Agreement did not say very much about what would happen for the transport system, particularly aviation and sea transport, and certainly whereas fuel used in cars and on the roads is taxed, and heavily taxed in some countries, it is not taxed in terms of aviation. I recognise that the aviation industry is going through a difficult period at the moment and no doubt there will be a reduction in emissions as a result from aviation over the forthcoming period but do you think that the question of emissions from the aviation industry in particular is something that needs to be examined? Certainly I am aware that work is taking place in terms of research working on more fuel efficient passenger aircraft and rather than simply targeting fuel there may be scope internationally for actually putting in place mechanisms to bring about more fuel efficient aircraft rather than seeking simply to reduce the total volume of aircraft movements. Is that something that you think needs to be looked at in the years ahead even if it is not something of immediate importance?  (Mr Meacher) The Kyoto Protocol has not given sufficient attention to the impact of aviation, I think that is certainly true. Carbon dioxide is something like two-thirds of greenhouse gases but there are the other ones: nitrous oxides, methane and then the smaller ones, chlorofluorocarbon, hydrofluorocarbons and sulphur hexachloride. The nitrous oxides are the key ones with regard to aircraft. The latest figures I have seen suggest that as a proportion of all greenhouse gases the aviation sector is responsible perhaps for three per cent at the present time but within the first commitment period that could be expected to rise to five or six per cent. These are all fairly uncertain estimates but I am sure that is of a reasonable magnitude. It is something that we do need to take seriously. How do you do that? Either by a tax on aviation fuel on the ground that in order to get civil aviation off the ground, literally, in the 1950s they were exempted from a tax on aviation fuel, but that might seem rather odd today. That is one way. The European Union has been pressing the United States for consideration of this issue through ICAO without much success, the Americans remain wholly opposed. Another way of proceeding, of course, would be by having some cap on aircraft emissions. These have been suggested. I am not saying the UK Government is coming forward, let us be quite clear, this is an idea that has been proposed, but one way or another we do need to look at ways of reducing the contribution of the aviation sector, which is also increasing exponentially, that the number of passengers is causing to the global environment in terms of CO2. It is an important issue and it is unresolved. I would hope that once we have got COP-6 bedded down and COP-7, in COP-8 and COP-9 I think it is one of the most important issues to look at.

David Taylor

  86. A day or two ago, it being the tabling day for the Cabinet Office questions, I browsed the Cabinet Office website to check what the responsibilities of the Deputy Prime Minister were and I tabled a question linked, I thought unambiguously, to what it said there, which was that the Deputy Prime Minister will continue to have a role in international climate change negotiations and discussions on behalf of the Prime Minister. I was therefore a bit disappointed to get that question bounced back a day later saying it had gone on to DEFRA. Who is in charge? Who will be leading for the United Kingdom in Marrakesh? What is the rationale for a split responsibility between DEFRA and the DPM? Is there not the possibility that we will get some confusion and it will be fertile ground for recriminations in the event of any difficulties arising from your discussions?  (Mr Meacher) The responsibility for the climate change negotiations lies unquestionably and unequivocally with the Secretary of State for DEFRA. You have correctly described the role that the Deputy Prime Minister is playing. He does have, I think, an important role in international discussions and negotiations. When he was Secretary of State at DETR for the last four years he had contact with a lot of world leaders. He is a person who I think has a real close relationship with many of the key players in this and he continues to meet them, at the request of the Prime Minister, to improve the opportunities for the UK to exert world influence. I think he performs that role very well. I do not think it is incompatible at all with the fact, as I say, that DEFRA and the Secretary of State are responsible and in control of these negotiations.

Phil Sawford

  87. A recurring theme in science fiction is that of a dead planet and one where life ended in a way that was perhaps preventable. As we march lemming-like towards that doomsday scenario there are probably those who think it is futile to think that humankind can actually get to grips with this huge problem. On the optimistic side, assuming that we do, how would you like your contribution to be remembered?  (Mr Meacher) First of all, I do not think that we are marching lemming-like towards ultimate destruction. I think we are the main cause of it, the anthropogenic generation of this problem is now almost universally accepted, but if we are foolish enough to have caused this problem we are also intelligent enough to know how it happened and to be able to reverse it. There is no question that the Kyoto process is central to the future of mankind on this planet, I think, and I would put it in those terms. Whether in the absence of adequate action being taken the human species will survive over the next three to five hundred years I would say is a matter of doubt. The role of all of us who are privileged at this time to take part in this process is to try and increase awareness amongst all of our peoples in our own respective countries to the nature of this problem, to the responsibility that all of us without exception have, the need for a change in culture and in the running of our economy and, I think in the way the UK has, in the time of the Deputy Prime Minister in the previous four years and now, to play a lead role in these negotiations, not only in achieving the Kyoto process, where I think the UK responsibility was crucial, but also continuing to play a lead part within the EU which is itself, I think, the main player in the whole process. That is a tremendous challenge which I think, and maybe I am being immodest here, the UK has played extremely well and is determined to continue to do so.

  Chairman: You seem to be caught between Apocalypse Now and Professor Stephen Hawking who says we have got to migrate to the stars in order to survive. I think we might get back to something slightly less apocalyptic, which brings us to Austin.

Mr Mitchell

  88. Minister, if we migrate to the stars no doubt you will be responsible for it. Sorry, given ministerial responsibility for the process. In terms of meeting Kyoto commitments we seem to be the good guys but it has clearly got to be a European achievement, given the package, it will be a collective commitment. So how confident are you that the EU as a whole is going to be able to deliver on the reductions necessary? Please feel free to be as critical as you want of the EU in your answer.  (Mr Meacher) I have mixed views about the EU without the absolute clarity of Austin Mitchell. I think the EU will deliver in this. I have already earlier I think really answered this question. I think the bubble system, the allocation of responsibilities for each of the parties, the system for annual monitoring and tracking, the fact that the Commission is being instructed to take action where necessary to ensure that all countries meet the commitments that they have made, I do not see what more the EU could actually do. I do actually expect that we will deliver. It is always good to be in a position where you are over delivering yourself. The fact the UK has a legally binding target of minus 12½ per cent compared with 1990, I think it is good to record that we are on track to a reduction in the six greenhouse gases of around 23 per cent by 2010 and for carbon dioxide alone a figure not far short of the 20 per cent which we made a domestic unilateral target in 1997.

  89. Why did we stand with Spain in blocking the move to harmonise energy taxes?  (Mr Meacher) Because the UK Government has taken a view that taxation, as all Members of the Committee will be extremely well aware, is a matter for individual governments. It is not a matter for decisions at the EU level. I am sure that Austin Mitchell would very much agree with that view. Our view, however, is that it does make sense to talk about common policies and measures with regard to meeting the climate change targets and we do regularly have discussions within the Environmental Council about how we can standardise the mechanisms between us by which we do that, partly because it achieves, of course, a level playing field economically.

  90. So we will, will we, be supportive of the emerging European Climate Change Programme?  (Mr Meacher) That sounds to me like a slightly loaded question and I am trying to think what lies behind it. I think we are, yes.

  Mr Mitchell: Will we be supportive of it and will we go on to enact any necessary legislation internally which arises from it?


  91. Competence.  (Mr Meacher) We are, of course, a partner in the preparation of that programme. We would not agree, of course, to a programme where there were significant items which we did not agree with. For that reason I would expect that we would be behind it but in terms of taxation measures, that remains again a matter for the UK. The fact that we are not just achieving our target but on track to achieve almost twice as good a result is a reason I think why we should be content with our position. We will take the decisions on the basis of subsidiarity and we will deliver fully on our commitments.

Mr Mitchell

  92. Given the fact that half the Member States have some form of energy or carbon tax, are we going to be more co-operative in supporting the Community proposals for the harmonisation of minimum duties on energy products?  (Mr Meacher) Again, the same answer applies. Successive governments, including the one before the present one, have taken a very firm view that taxations and duties, including on energy products, is a matter for the UK Government. We have no intention of changing that but we are co-operative and supportive of the general effort. We have, of course, a Climate Change Levy, which is about improving energy efficiency in industry. We are just about to put in place next year an energy efficiency commitment in regard to households whereby energy suppliers have to provide gas or electricity on a more fuel efficient basis and there are a number of other drivers, not least the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme, whereby we are trying to achieve the agreed targets. What we do not accept is a taxation measure should be taken by Brussels.

  Mr Mitchell: Delighted to hear it.

Mr Jack

  93. Who is going to be responsible for monitoring if the Climate Change Levy is actually delivering?  (Mr Meacher) There will certainly be reports on its success. We will be looking on a sectoral basis for reporting by industry about its impact. We would certainly hope that companies would be extending their environmental reporting. I am constantly asking that there should be environmental reporting by all major companies on key issues, of which energy efficiency is one. I would expect them in their annual reports to talk about the efforts that they have made to meet the target, no doubt they will make their own comment about the effect it has had on them. We will try to draw that together on a systematic basis.

  94. That is very lordly in terms of what it wants to do. Are you saying that there is actually nobody responsible, if you like, for producing an annual UK report of target versus achievement for the CCL across all the areas where it applies?  (Mr Meacher) No, I am not saying that. We are keeping very careful track of performance in every sector and certainly in the industrial sector, of course, the impact of CCL is absolutely crucial. I am just trying to think. I am quite sure we will be looking for an annual estimate of the impact of CCL which, of course, will also be published.

  95. If I said to you bearing in mind next April is the first anniversary of it, what would you expect to achieve by that?  (Mr Meacher) The putting in place of the negotiated agreements under CCL whereby the main intensive energy users are able to negotiate agreements to get an 80 per cent reduction in the impact of the levy but only on the basis of improved energy efficiency plans which are acceptable to my Department. There are, as I say, in excess of 40 sectoral agreements which have now been agreed and we will be looking, of course, for those to be rolled out on the basis of the fine detail of these agreements. They are very detailed and technical agreements.

  96. Would you have preferred to have an agreement based approach to this whole matter rather than having to have a tax? Because it does seem to me, just looking a little wider, we have now got an aggregates tax, we have got the Climate Change Levy, whereas perhaps what we should be doing is a bit more carrots and less stick?  (Mr Meacher) The question is whether we could have on a carrots or voluntary basis achieved the level of reduction in carbon use by industry through those means. I would beg leave to doubt it. It has always been in industry's interest to do this, they have not done so. Energy efficiency is a sufficiently small part of their total cost that it does not feature, I fear, on the radar screen of many chief officers of companies. We do need to do something which requires them to take action. At the same time, when you say it is a tax, of course it is a tax. You called it a levy, it is a tax but it is not a tax which is designed to increase revenues to the Exchequer. It is a tax which is designed to change behaviour. It is being recycled back to business in the form of reduced employer national insurance contributions. I accept that varies between sectors and it varies between companies so it is the case that some companies are only going to get back a small part of the outlay that they make. That simply shows there is a lot of room for improved energy efficiency.

  97. Do you want it to remain fiscally neutral as a tax for the lifetime of the Levy?  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  98. Can I just ask you one other question about the strategy in the UK. This line of questioning illustrates that we are well on track to meet our targets. I asked a question some time ago about the impact on our ability to meet those targets of the reduction in magnox power stations and was told that had been factored in. What I had not realised was that during this period it is likely that we will see the shutdown of some of the advanced gas cooled reactors. How does that affect our ability to meet our targets in the future?  (Mr Meacher) The magnox reactors, of which I think there are nine or ten remaining,—

  99. Ten.  (Mr Meacher)—are expected to close down by about 2012 and that certainly has been factored into the equation. The number of advanced gas cooled reactors is far fewer, I cannot immediately recall the number.

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