Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mark Tami: Like the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that we can reach an agreement in this House that will last for many years. Although his new-found allies may speak well in this House, however, at a local level they seem to oppose every new form of energy generation, whether it is renewables or other technologies.

Mr. Letwin: I do not think that that is fair. I have spent the better part of my political life fighting off Liberal Democrats who were trying to take my seat, so I have some experience of their campaigning techniques. It is not only Liberal Democrats and the Labour party, but Conservatives—this will always be true of all parties and all politicians—who respond to a considerable degree to local circumstance and to concerns other than those about climate change. We must all understand that each and every one of the technologies that the hon. Member for Sherwood and I believe need to be brought forward have constraints, some of which are environmental constraints. There is a continuous tension between each technology and something. In some cases, the tension is between a technology and a resource; in some cases, it is between a technology and the economics of the situation; and in some cases, it is between a technology and the environmental consequences for the landscape or cityscape. We should not deride one another across the House if we exhibit some of those tensions, which are an inevitable part of democratic politics.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Are not targets without the means to achieve them dangerous, because they provide an illusion of progress that is not followed through on the ground? We all know that with rising worldwide energy use, the only realistic way of meeting the threat of climate change is a nuclear power programme. All else is sophistry, illusion and wishful thinking. Is that not the consensus that we should be building worldwide?

Mr. Letwin: My right hon. Friend and I do not wholly agree, although I agree with a large part of his remarks. We will not make progress simply by having targets or even by translating those targets into market incentives. We will make progress only if the market incentives are then translated into action in the form of technologies that work, that combine energy security with carbon reduction, and that allow economic growth. One of those technologies may very well be nuclear. However, the existing nuclear power stations constitute a reduction of about 5 per cent. in our total carbon output. The entirety of our electricity supply industry constitutes only about 40 per cent. of our carbon production. Very much wider steps will need to be taken than merely on one particular type of plant, be it nuclear
 
22 Nov 2005 : Column 1444
 
or otherwise, in this country and elsewhere. Whether we consider the power sector and carbon sequestration, disaggregated power sector, microgeneration, and energy efficiency in the home, vehicles and the substitution of traditional engines by hybrids and biofuels, or air travel and what we do to constrain the emissions from that, we are considering a vastly wider range than the "nuclear or not nuclear" debate has allowed for.

I would say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) that I fear that the Prime Minister's habitual brilliance in highlighting particular items in order to carry the political day has led him to overstretch the importance of nuclear power and the debate around it because he believes that that will allow us not to focus on the many other things that are, in many cases, very much more difficult to achieve. Yes, let us keep an open mind about nuclear as a part of the solution, but let us not suppose that it can ever be the full solution—or, indeed, that any amount of power plants of any kind can ever be the full solution.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Letwin: I will give way twice more and then I am going to progress to the end of my speech. I hope that no hon. Member will condemn me for speaking for a long time, as most of it has been taken in responding to interventions.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman says that there are wide-ranging solutions to the host of issues that we face. Surely one of those issues must be the fact that billions of tonnes of coal reside in this country, giving us an edge against many of our European competitors and linking the economy with how we deal with climate change. Carbon capture is an extremely important area, and we should not throw it out of the discussion.

Mr. Letwin: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, just as I agreed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells that nuclear may be an important component. Carbon sequestration or capture may well play a huge part, not only in this country but in China and India, because undoubtedly coal stations will need to be built in great number. Of course, it is not yet a well-established technology, but we all have high hopes that it will become so and that it will become affordable.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I hope to be part of this emerging consensus, but I am particularly worried about nuclear, which my party cannot support and I suspect that the Liberals cannot support it either. Can the right hon. Gentleman define what he means by technologies, because a technology such as nuclear may be as bad as a polluting one such as coal without the proper technology to clean it up?

Mr. Letwin: I do not anticipate—neither does the hon. Member for Lewes—that we will ever reach complete agreement on each item that lies under the umbrella. We are trying to reach agreement on the shape of an umbrella that will protect us from a rainstorm. We may then have different views of what to put under it, agreeing on many and disagreeing on some—for
 
22 Nov 2005 : Column 1445
 
example, nuclear power. What I mean by technologies is a vast range of technologies, some of which are highly controversial and some of which are not controversial at all. Very few people believe that improving the cladding in roofs is a controversial measure. I suspect that very few people would think it wrong for someone to have a dish-sized windmill on their house, although one currently has to apply for planning permission for one of those but not for a dish, which is rather an oddity. We must ensure that the structures that we create bring forward the lowest-cost solutions that are compatible with achieving the carbon targets. Only then do we have to start arguing about the fine detail of whether there are particular technological solutions that for some reason or other some people cannot stomach.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): My right hon. Friend is rightly focusing on the range of exciting technologies that are out there, in contrast to the Prime Minister's mono-focus. Is he aware, though, of the work that is being supported by the Bush White House? We disagree with so much of its approach to climate change, but it has directed billions of federal dollars into the hydrogen economy. The brain drain that that is causing from other areas around the world into US universities is striking. Does he have any ideas on how we can encourage that sort of research to come back into the UK?

Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. In fact, the United States as a whole has been making huge advances, not only in carbon reduction but in measures to help carbon reduction hereafter. Many of those have been at state level, but some have been at federal level. What my hon. Friend says is abundantly true. Billions have been invested in forward-looking activities such as trying to promote carbon capture and, as he says, the hydrogen economy. We should be grateful to the United States for investing that money and making that effort. I agree that it would be good if we, too, were to participate in that endeavour.

Mr. Morley: It seems to have escaped the right hon. Gentleman's notice that it was announced more than 18 months ago that the UK and Japan are collaborating on clean fuel technology, which includes fuel cells, hydrogen and hybrid power. Collaborating with major G8 nations and the United States is an important way forward. He would be very wrong to think that the UK is ignoring those approaches.

Mr. Letwin: That is to be welcomed.

I return to the key question. Is the pessimistic interpretation right, or is the optimistic interpretation right? Is the Prime Minister saying that he has come to the conclusion that when the chips are down economic growth and carbon reduction cannot go together and we cannot have targets intervening between the two; or is he, as I hope, espousing the view that we need to start by advancing the technology, then persuade the rest of the world that one can combine carbon reduction and growth, bind the world into targets, and thus bind ourselves into targets over the long term and be able to translate those through market incentives into real action through technological change?
 
22 Nov 2005 : Column 1446
 

If he is saying the latter, then there is the basis for a splendid agreement between the two sides of this House—that is, the three parties and perhaps the smaller parties as well—about the framework. I hope that through the medium of this debate and others that may follow it, we can get to the point—I accept that this is difficult for any Government to do—where the Government say, "In the national interest, we are willing to lay down the normal process of claiming credit for the Government when things go right and knocking down the Opposition whenever possible", and instead try to create a series of arrangements which mean that over a 50-year period, come one Government or another, we continue with a settled set of targets, an institutional framework that brings those repeatedly to the attention of Parliament, and a political apparatus that makes it well-nigh impossible for any politician to go against that trend and very easy for any politician to go with the trend despite the democratic pressures that will be exerted at any given election.

That may be too optimistic a hope, but it is my hope this evening. If the Minister is now going to reaffirm, as I hope, that my optimistic interpretation of the Prime Minister's remarks is the right one, he will in that self-same set of utterances be justifying the hope that we can arrive at the cross-party consensus that would give him a basis for not resisting our motion.

7.49 pm


Next Section IndexHome Page