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Malcolm Wicks: Amendments Nos. 35 and 50 will move the definition of greenhouse gases to clause 23, alongside other definitions. This consequential amendment is required because greenhouse gas emissions are referred to at other points in the Bill.
Amendment No. 29, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), removes nitrous oxide from the definition of greenhouse gases. Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential 296 times greater than carbon dioxide. Once released, nitrous oxide has a lifetime of 120 years in the atmosphere. Therefore, the nitrous oxide emitted now will be warming the Earth well into the next century.
The United nations framework convention on climate change has recognised the seriousness of anthropogenic emissions of nitrous oxide by including the gas in the "basket" of six gases to be included in the Kyoto protocol, and that is what the UK and the rest of the parties to the convention report on.
Mr. Chope: Does the Minister agree that nitrous oxide is a by-product of catalytic converters? If it is a by-product of them and is a bad thing, why are the Government imposing catalytic converters on vehicles?
Malcolm Wicks: That goes beyond our discussions today. The point of my remarks is to say that although the hon. Gentleman wants to remove nitrous oxide from the definition, it would, with respect, be foolish to do so given its dangerous nature. Given its immense global warming potential, it makes no sense to remove it from the reports, because that would not give a full picture of the UK's progress in reducing emissions of the most important greenhouse gases.
Mr. Chope: I wish to speak briefly to amendment No. 29. As the Minister said, it would remove nitrous oxide from the list that it is in the Bill. It would no longer be necessary for the Secretary of State
I tabled the amendment because the effects of nitrous oxide, as with many other things, cut both ways. I accept that it is 1,000 times less abundant in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, although it has a more potent greenhouse effect. However, nitrous emissions in the
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United Kingdom fell by 40 per cent. between 1990 and 2003, so that it now represents only 6 per cent. of UK greenhouse gas emissions.
Before we start saying, "Well, because it's a bad thing, we must try to reduce its use or ban it," let us think about some of the applications for which nitrous oxide is used. Agriculture is the largest single source of nitrous oxide and accounts for about two thirds of its emissions. The rural parts of this country still have a largely agricultural economy. If we did away with agriculture, we would obviously be able to reduce nitrous oxide emissions by two thirds, but think of the consequences of doing that. Nitrous oxide is used in agriculture for fertiliser application and leeching. The only way in which the nitrous oxide generated by agriculture could be reduced would be to have fewer farm animals, or to use less fertiliser. If less fertiliser is used, land, by definition, becomes less productive.
It is interesting to examine the trends of nitrous oxide emissions in the United Kingdom. In 1990, agriculture caused 103,000 tonnes of nitrous oxide emissions. In 2003, which is the latest year for which I have figures, the figure had reduced to 87,000 tonnes. Progress has been made in the right direction because the extent to which fertiliser is used unnecessarily has been reduced, but I suggest that the figure of 87,000 tonnes cannot be significantly reduced further without there being a disastrous impact on the viability of agriculture in our country.
We have already reduced almost all the nitrous oxide that emanates from industrial processes. That amounted to 94,000 tonnes in 1990, but by 2003, the figure had gone down to just 10,000 tonnes. However, the amount of nitrous oxide produced because of road transport has been increasing because of the introduction of catalytic converters. I actually think that they are a good thing, so I was putting a tongue-in-cheek question to the Minister when I asked whether he wished to abolish them. Catalytic converters make the use of motor cars less dirty than would otherwise be the case, but let us not ignore the consequences of that. One of the side effects of imposing catalytic converters on our road transport fleet is an increase in the United Kingdom's output of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, which has an impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
The output of nitrous oxide from sources other than agriculture, industrial processes and road transport has remained roughly the same. The output was 18,000 tonnes in 1990 and 17,000 tonnes in 2003a modest reduction. Overall, we were able to achieve a significant reduction in nitrous oxide emissions from 219,000 tonnes to 130,000 tonnes, and one of the main reasons for that was that emissions owing to nylon production fell following the installation of emissions abatement technology.
We should praise the role of catalytic converters because they eliminate carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. The Minister might disagree, but I think that nitrous oxide is worth the cost. At the moment, most experts agree that the United Kingdom's nitrous oxide emissions are as low as they are ever likely to be with existing technology. That is because almost all sources of nitrous oxide other than agriculture and road transport have been eliminated.
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There is another use for nitrous oxide, which is as an anaesthetic because it deadens pain. It has been described in that context as laughing gas. However, the gas is released naturally from the oceans and by bacteria in soils. Nitrous oxide gas production has risen by more than 15 per cent. since 1750. Each year 7 million to 13 million tones of it go into the atmosphere globally. It is an unavoidable by-product of disposing of human waste in sewage treatment plants. I do not know whether the Minister thinks that we should do away with those and do what they do with sewage in the Army when out on an exercise, or perhaps he agrees that we should have sewage treatment plants as part of a civilised society. Let him recognise that nitrous oxide is a by-product of sewage treatment plants.
We are left with a situation in which the only way for local authorities to respond to the annual reports, which is what the Bill is essentially about, produced by the Secretary of State on greenhouse gas emissionsif, indeed, the purpose of the reports is to reduce nitrous oxideis to close down farms or sewage plants, or remove catalytic converters from vehicles. We are absolutely mad if we think that that is a price worth paying so that we can sign up to saying, "Well, nitrous oxides are a greenhouse gas that we can continue to reduce." There are a lot of greenhouse gases that we can do something about, but nitrous oxide is not one of them. That is why the Bill would be much better if references to nitrous oxide were removed.
Obviously, nitrous oxide is one of the six greenhouse gases mentioned in the Kyoto negotiations, but the Bill is a United Kingdom Bill. I am sure that there are other parts of the world in which nitrous oxide greenhouse gas emissions are a significant factor and could be reduced, but there is no evidence that we can reduce them further here. We should consider amendment No. 35 alongside new clause 4. Why should we require every local authority, in exercising their functions, to have regard to reducing nitrous oxide emissions? That is a total waste of everybody's time. If we want local authorities to deal with greenhouse gases, it would be much better for them to deal with gases other than nitrous oxide.
Amendment No. 29 is grouped with Government amendments Nos. 35 and 50. I do not understand, and the Minister did not explain, why he needs to rephrase the Bill. Is it because he seeks to group all greenhouse emissions together rather than ensuring that they are dealt with seriatim, as the lawyers say? If so, why is he doing so? Is he trying to fudge the issue? Would it not be much better to look at each greenhouse gas on its own and produce a separate report so that we can be realistic about the pros and cons of seeking reductions? I suspect that the Government amendment would lump together all greenhouse gases, which is rather like a school or a gathering such as the House of Commons blaming everyone equally for something rather than taking a rational approach. It is not rational that UK arrangements should tackle nitrous oxide alone. It is much better to concentrate on tackling other greenhouses gases if, indeed, we need to tackle any of them. That, however, is another debate, and I do not wish to dilute what I hope the House accepts is a potent argument for excluding nitrous oxides from UK arrangements by referring more generally to other
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greenhouse gases. Other Members, however, may wish to test the Minister's reasons for wishing to deal with the gases collectively rather than separately.
Kyoto imposed many targets, and I fear that that will lead to distortions. If one bundles greenhouse gases together in a collective target one may lose sight of the main objective. In lumping different greenhouse gases together for the benefit of the UK economy, I fear that the Government are doing a disservice to people engaged in agriculture, sewage disposal or the treatment and manufacture of vehicles with catalytic converters, who will not pleased if it is policy that NOx are considered a bad thing that must be reduced in every circumstance. In conclusion, we place a responsibility on the police, the Highways Agency and sometimes local authorities to ensure that vehicles are fit for the road. One test is to ensure that catalytic converters are effective. Will it be the case that a local authority can say that a catalytic converter is not operating, but that is not a bad thing because it means that it is not contributing to greenhouse gas emissions? I fear that we will embark on such debates if the Minister does not accept my amendment.
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