Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I am certainly serious about achieving consensus, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I believe that the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) is, too.

My first question is whether the threat from climate change is serious. The answer is manifestly so—and it is judged to be so by probably every hon. Member in the House, by the Government's chief scientist and by 99.5 per cent. of scientists. The number is increasing all the time. Is climate change becoming increasingly serious? Yes, it is, and evidence from the last six months has been frightening, as the figures supplied by scientists are proving to be underestimates of the speed at which climate change is kicking in, and underestimates of its impact on developing countries and, indeed, on our own shores. The matter is becoming more rather than less serious and at a faster rate of knots than ever before.

My second question is whether sufficient progress is being made both internationally and domestically to limit greenhouse gas emissions. I fear that the answer is manifestly no. I am aware that the Government have taken steps this year to ensure that the issue is put firmly on the international agenda and I acknowledge that some progress has been made. I particularly welcome the sensible engagement with China and India and I also welcome the review on the economics of climate change, which will go a long way towards establishing the cost of doing nothing and the cost of doing something. It will enable us to present to other countries the facts of the matter as we have put them together and hopefully bring
22 Nov 2005 : Column 1457
about some international consensus on what actions need to be taken. So to be honest, in most respects—bar one, which I shall mention now—I doubt whether the Government could have done much more internationally.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I know that we are striving for consensus this evening, but if the Liberal Democrats are so interested in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, why did Liberal Democrats in my constituency vote against the congestion charge, and why, extraordinarily, are they against creating bus lanes to support our new park and ride?

Norman Baker: I am sorry that I gave way to that intervention. I do not know the facts of the situation that the hon. Lady describes, so I will not comment on it. This is not about pretending that one party is whiter than white—or greener than green—or that every other party is faulty in all respects. That is the old politics, and the right hon. Member for West Dorset and I are trying to get away from it, rather than encourage it. I hope that the hon. Lady will take my response in the constructive spirit in which it is intended.

On international negotiations, the caveat that I want to outline for the Minister is one that I have mentioned before. The Prime Minister, with the best of intentions, is trying to bring President Bush on board, as he should; but I caution him against paying too high a price to get a piece of paper signed by the President. The concern has been expressed—the right hon. Member for West Dorset raised it earlier, as have others—that over the summer and in September, the Prime Minister showed signs of wavering in his commitment to targets. He undoubtedly did show such signs, but as the Minister rightly says, an article in The Independent has hopefully put that fear to bed. If the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has managed to bring the Prime Minister back on board, that is all to the good, but international agreement cannot be achieved at any price. If it is achieved through signing a piece of paper, that piece of paper will not be worth having.

Of course we want the US Administration on board, and the way to get them on board is to strengthen the commitment within the US to tackling climate change. We can do that by standing firm in the European Union and elsewhere; by supporting the north-eastern American states that have emissions trading schemes; by supporting Senator John McCain, who is pushing such issues within the Republican movement; and by supporting Arnold Schwarzenegger and the 130 mayors who have signed an agreement. I again caution the Minister and the Prime Minister that getting President Bush to sign a worthless piece of paper will not achieve our aims.

Have we taken sufficient action domestically? No, we have not. The Minister read out a list of the Government's actions and, in some regards, achievements. I happily confess that some achievements have been recorded, and I welcome them. I am bound to say, however, without being churlish, that most of them date from the early part of the Government's tenure, rather than the later part. Nevertheless, those achievements are significant and might not otherwise have occurred, so I welcome that so far as it goes, but the reality is that there is a lot more to do.
22 Nov 2005 : Column 1458

Carbon emissions are increasing. Indeed, in the past two or three years, they have increased by 3 per cent. compared with 1997 levels, and there is no indication that they are slowing down. In answer to my recent parliamentary question, the Minister said—extrapolating the most recent figures—that we could miss our Kyoto targets for the next four or five years. I am not saying that we are going to miss them, but that threat is there. I do not want us to miss them and nor does the Minister; that is why we are collectively trying to find a way of ensuring that they are met, and surpassed as far as possible.

Why have we not achieved our domestic goals? There are a number of reasons why, one of which is that it is sometimes difficult for the Government to take the decisions that they know are necessary, because they fear the political consequences of doing so. Fuel duty was certainly a case in point. In 2000, the pressure from fuel protesters was enormous.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman will doubtless agree that the longer Governments go on putting off difficult decisions, the harder those decisions are when they eventually have to be taken.

Norman Baker: Indeed, and we would rather give the Government a soft landing than a hard one.

That leads me to aviation—an issue that the Government have yet to grasp because they are concerned about the political consequences of doing so. They want to enter into the European emissions trading scheme in respect of aviation; so do we, and so do the Conservatives, so there is consensus on this issue. But I do not regard that as sufficient. Further action has to be taken, as the Minister probably admits privately. The reality, however, is that he and his colleagues will be reluctant to go further in case the national papers produce headlines such as, "Government hit airline travellers", or "Blair puts £25 on your air ticket". Of course the Minister is concerned about that; he is a politician and he is worried about the consequences of such an initiative. But we are trying to give the Government a mechanism for taking decisions that they, and we, know may be necessary, but which are politically difficult for them to take.

Mr. Morley: Of course we, as politicians, have to take into account certain consequences, but it is not simply a question of that so far as aviation taxes are concerned. The question is: what is the most effective fiscal measure? Some charter airlines have imposed a £20 fuel surcharge, but it has had not the slightest effect on passenger numbers. I do not doubt that, theoretically, people could be priced out of the market, but rationing travel on the basis of who is rich enough to pay for pollution does not accord with social equity.

Norman Baker: I did not suggest that, in fact, and the Minister should listen more carefully. A number of mechanisms are possible—ending the "single till" approach to airline pricing, implementing an emissions charge, or reforming airport passenger duty. Various options are available, and they might add to the Government's armoury when it comes to tackling the effect of aviation on climate change.

22 Nov 2005 : Column 1459
Colin Challen: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many of the taxes proposed to deal with carbon emissions would be rather regressive and hit poorer people harder than others? In that context, does he support the concept of domestic tradable quotas, the subject of my private Member's Bill last year? Under the system, which offers a way to deal with the problem in a progressive manner, people have a carbon cap and are allowed to trade their carbon allocations.

Norman Baker: That concept makes up the fifth point in my five-point speech, so I will bring it forward. I agree that tradable quotas do offer a way to move matters on. It has the attraction of being liberal—with both a small "l" and a big "L"—in that it allows people to limit carbon emissions by their personal actions. It gives them choices, and at the same time information about what those choices are.

For example, the system means that people would be given information on their airline tickets about the number of rail journeys that would be equivalent to their flight. Deductions from their carbon emissions allowances would be made to cover their airline journey, with the result that they might have to buy more allowances from someone else further down the line. Under those circumstances, people might choose to travel by rail, but they would do so having had access to the relevant information. They would have the freedom to make their own choices about how they travel.

Next Section IndexHome Page