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12 Oct 2005 : Column 360

Tackling Climate Change

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I must advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I also tell the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches in the debate.

4.16 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): I beg to move,

I also make a declaration of my interests in the register.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): What interests?

Mr. Letwin: The right hon. Lady asks how I can possibly have any interests. I am not sure that I do have any interests, as a matter of fact, but I always try to follow the path of greatest assurance.

The problem of climate change is manifestly global. I do not think that anyone on either side of the House is in any doubt that the problem requires global solutions. It is also clear that the Prime Minister has grasped the global nature of the problem. It would be fair to pay him the tribute of saying that since Lady Thatcher's speech many years ago, he is probably the person in British politics who has most signally grasped that fact. What is more—this might not necessarily give some of my colleagues great satisfaction—I must say that I think that the Prime Minister is right that we will not make significant global progress until and unless we realise what the Americans, Chinese, Indians and Russians are clearly now recognising: the solution to the problem of increasing carbon emissions does not lie in trying to persuade the entirety of the inhabitants of the globe to live like monks in the middle ages, or in trying to pretend away the serious problems of competitive advantage if some economies engage in certain activities, while others engage in others. In short, there is no doubt at all that the United States will not participate unless and until China, India, Russia, Brazil—probably—and possibly Japan are fully locked into a process. So far, I agree with the Prime Minister.

I must say, however, that I read with some dismay the Prime Minister's remarks—made not here in the UK, of course, but in the States—suggesting that he had abandoned the hope of some years hence moving from a stage at which there was a joint and laudable effort to introduce new technologies to one at which there could be a wider second Kyoto—although I care not whether it would be called that—that would represent a much wider binding agreement across the great majority of the economies of the world that targets would be achieved for carbon reduction. We still need to strive towards that goal, so I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to relieve my anxiety and let us know that the Prime Minister's remarks have been misinterpreted and that
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although he does not believe—as I do not—that there will be a second Kyoto agreement in short order, he nevertheless hopes to negotiate such a universal binding agreement in due course. If that is the Prime Minister's view, we share it.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The right hon. Gentleman makes typically delphic opening remarks, but says that he agrees with the Government and the Prime Minister about the importance placed on global warming. He also makes positive remarks about Lady Thatcher and others. Bearing in mind that the Conservative party has decided to take the time to debate climate change and global warming, is it not odd that it barely mentioned it in the general election? To what extent was it referred to in the manifesto?

Mr. Letwin: As a matter of fact, I think it was odd that both the hon. Gentleman's party and mine—I exempt the Liberal Democrats from this—did not spend nearly as much of the general election campaign discussing the issues as we collectively should have done. It is a just accusation that the manifesto should have included some things more than it did. I am not going to pretend otherwise. I do not specialise in delphic utterances. That is about as clear as one can get. It is time for our parties to put the subject higher up the political agenda. When he has heard the rest of my remarks, he will see how I intend, and hope, to persuade British politics as a whole to move in that direction.

Ed Balls (Normanton) (Lab): I take the right hon. Gentleman's commitment to tackling climate change at face value. Does he regret that his party opposed the climate change levy, which was introduced to pursue climate change? Will he unequivocally tell the House that he has changed his party's mind and that it now supports the levy?

Mr. Letwin: No, and I shall explain why. The climate change levy is an extraordinarily inept tool. It has one very good aspect—the climate change agreements that have been reached with big industry—but it has one very bad effect, which the hon. Gentleman and his erstwhile, and perhaps future, master in the Treasury intended it to have. It raises a large amount of money for the Treasury from a large number of small firms, but the effect on their performance in relation to climate change is precisely nil. That is not a well targeted or well designed environmental levy. Our solutions are superior. I hope that, in due course, the Labour party will come round to them.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Letwin: I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, not least because of his distinguished role in yesterday's proceedings on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill. I then intend to make progress.

Paddy Tipping: I shall try to be helpful again. The right hon. Gentleman referred to pushing climate change up the political agenda and in particular to the
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role of the Prime Minister. Let us be clear on this. Does he accept that the Prime Minister got it on the G8 agenda, that it will be discussed at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg next year, and that he has met China, India and Russia? How much more should we do in an international setting? Is not that a good record?

Mr. Letwin: I am coming on to what more should be done, but I accept that the Prime Minister has done noble work in putting the subject higher up the international agenda. However, discussions between China, India and the United States went on largely without his involvement. That is no discredit to him. He has since taken a leading role in furthering those discussions. That is to his credit. We are not in disagreement about that. My problems relate to the fact that apart from having apparently given up the idea of a second Kyoto—I hope that the Secretary of State tells us that that is not the case—the rhetoric domestically has not been matched by delivery domestically.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): My right hon. Friend started in a consensual manner, but a slightly partisan note has crept in from Labour Members. In that case, is it not worth pointing out that the record of the previous Conservative Government, who dramatically reduced CO 2 emissions, looks far more impressive than anything that this Government have done since coming into office?

Mr. Letwin: I shall perhaps make a political mistake by making an admission to my hon. Friend. Factually he is right that under the Conservative Administrations in the 1990s there was a substantial reduction in carbon dioxide. However, having been personally involved in the restructuring of the electricity supply industry, that was a serendipitous effect of the dash for gas. We cannot claim that it was part of a well co-ordinated plan to reduce carbon emissions. [Interruption.] Before Government Members giggle too much, they should recognise that that is symptomatic of the position of this Government. I fear that there is no sign of a well co-ordinated plan to reduce carbon emissions, and that is the germ of my argument. Governments of both political persuasions have failed to develop a well co-ordinated plan. In one case, the dash for gas led to carbon reductions but in the other, apart from a change in the production of adipic acid, there has been hardly any movement at all except for recent adverse results. That is the main thrust of the arguments that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and I shall make today.

It is hardly worth looking at the year-by-year carbon emission figures because they dart around. The most honest and compelling way to look at the figures is to consider three-year rolling averages. I cannot recall such a clear pattern. In 1992, the three-year rolling average for CO 2 emissions in terms of millions of tonnes of carbon equivalent was 165. It dropped in 1993 to 163; in 1994, to 159; and in 1995, to 157. It remained at 157 in 1996, and dropped in 1997 to 156—the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway). Since 1997, the three-year rolling
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average has been 156, 153—it dropped a little—153, 154, 154, 155 and 156. In short, it has gone back up to 1997 levels.

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