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12 Oct 2006 : Column 492

I was disappointed that the Conservatives’ energy review stated that they wanted a level playing field between nuclear and renewable fuels. For the avoidance of doubt, the Government’s position is that nuclear has a role to play, but in an unsubsidised form. The public subsidy should go towards the non-nuclear renewable technologies that are so important. I hope that the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) will address that point later.

Mr. Bailey: We have done an enormous amount of good work on renewable energy, but the one area that we have neglected is the potential renewable energy that is locked into the ground. We are considerably behind certain other countries in developing ground source heat pumps and geothermal techniques, for example. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to examine the potential for providing heat for our homes from this renewable source?

David Miliband: I can address my hon. Friend’s point directly. The third strand of work that I have taken over in the past few months is the energy review, which promised a fourfold increase in the commitment to renewable energy through a strengthening of the renewables obligation. It also promised higher levels of support for newer technologies—I think that that is relevant to my hon. Friend’s point. That is in addition to existing measures to incentivise renewables, including £500 million of funding—separate from the renewables obligation—for a range of support programmes for emerging technologies.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): When the Minister looks at renewable technology, will he also consider other sources of carbon emissions, such as landfill? In my constituency, a company called Inetec is using food waste and packaging to create energy that is often utilised for combined heat and power units. That process diverts food waste and packaging from landfill sites and provides a good source of heat and energy of the kind that we could utilise even in this building. Would my right hon. Friend consider visiting my constituency to see the work of that company?

David Miliband: That is a very tempting offer from my hon. Friend. I think that I shall be in Wales on 9 November, so I shall look at my programme to see whether I shall be in her part of the country. She makes an important point about anaerobic digestion, and I know that the process has also been considered in relation to the waste strategy review. Many comments have been made about it, and we hope to introduce some arresting proposals on it.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: I want to correct the Secretary of State on a point that he made a few moments ago about the Conservative party’s position on nuclear power. It is not the case that we are proposing to subsidise the construction of new nuclear capacity. We have said that we want a level playing field across all technologies, and that nuclear should be a last resort.

David Miliband: As it happens, I have a copy of a speech by the Leader of the Opposition, and I should like to quote from it to elucidate this point. It states:

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That is not the position of the Government. We believe that the £1 billion subsidy that will be going to non-nuclear renewables by 2008 is an important part of a balanced energy mix. We do not believe that that subsidy should go towards the nuclear industry. The Leader of the Opposition says that he wants competition on equal terms but, in our view, that is not the right position. The playing field should be slanted towards the non-nuclear renewables when it comes to public money.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): The Leader of the Opposition also clearly and unequivocally said that nuclear power should be the last resort. Is that the Government’s position?

David Miliband: The Leader of the Opposition is facing in a number of different directions at once, but—

Gregory Barker: Answer the question.

David Miliband: I have no fear of answering the question, perhaps unlike some Conservative Members. That is not the Government’s position. We do not believe that nuclear power is a last resort. We believe that if we wait 15 years to find out whether we need a nuclear capacity to help to balance the energy mix and pull down carbon emissions, it will be too late.

We believe that the first job is to cut energy demand, the second is to promote energy efficiency and the third is to promote renewables. Then, if there is still a gap, and we have a choice between oil, gas and nuclear, I say, standing here as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that as we all agree that climate change is the biggest problem, there is no answer other than to say that nuclear will have to play a role in tackling this international problem.

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Just to press the point, is it not clear from what the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople have said that they are committed to removing the marketplace advantages that Labour has given to renewables? That removal would be disastrous for the future of renewable energy in this country.

David Miliband: My right hon. Friend is an extremely distinguished former Chief Secretary and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and he has zeroed in exactly on the point. There is a subsidy, which is £600 million to £700 million, and it is going to non-nuclear renewables. [Interruption] The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) says it is not working. The only reason it is not working is because planning permissions are being opposed by his own Front Benchers. I will come to that, but the subsidy for onshore wind power has been a fantastic boon to the renewables industry. We have 4 per cent. of our electricity mix from renewables because of the subsidy.

Let us dwell on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). We on this side of the House are determined to ensure that, if there is to be new investment in nuclear energy, it
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should pay its own way. It should not be subsidised from the public purse or by the consumer. The renewables obligation is designed to do precisely the opposite.

We say that those renewable technologies, especially those that are not close to market, deserve special subsidy. That is the point of the renewables obligation. That is what the Conservative party, in its own words, has said that it wants to take away. If that is not its intention, I suggest that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle explain it. He will have more time to do so in his speech. If he needs more time to look at the policy and realise the contradictions, fair enough as well, but the policy as stated—the level playing field, on equal terms, between nuclear and non-nuclear renewables—means the end of the subsidy for non-nuclear renewables.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con) rose—

David Miliband: If the hon. Gentleman will let me, I should now finish. His Front-Bench colleague, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, has time to make his own speech, whereas I have overextended mine. The hon. Gentleman has already had one go, and I am sure that he will make the winding-up speech, so he will have his own shot at this.

Let me conclude on the energy review. [Interruption.] The Government are happy to talk about policy; unlike the Conservatives, we have some coherence in ours. The energy review also set out a revolutionary change in the basis of energy supply regulation, so that companies are incentivised to conserve energy rather than supply more of it. It set out a scheme to target the emissions of the 5,000 public and private organisations, such as Tesco and the BBC, that are medium-level emitters. That is worth 1.2 million tonnes of carbon, and it has also set out an increase in the renewable transport fuel obligation to more than 5 per cent. after 2011.

I am pleased to confirm to the House the continuing progress in the battle against waste and for recycling. Many hon. Members will have been struck by the extension of kerbside collection—90 per cent. of the country now has kerbside collection of recycling, which is unique in the European Union.

The latest provisional figures, published today, show that households in England recycled 27 per cent. of their waste last year, which is more than four times as much as under the previous Government. The target was 25 per cent. and the figure, although unaudited, is 27 per cent. That target has been met and exceeded.

To pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams), the Government need to show a lead in their own operations. We have already introduced carbon offsetting for central Government, ministerial and official air travel. Earlier this year, I announced a pledge that the Government office estate will go carbon-neutral by 2012, which is the equivalent of taking 150,000 cars off the road.

Recently, I also announced the partnership for renewables, which will mobilise up to £500 million of investment to catalyse the expansion of the public sector renewables, producing up to 500 MW of renewable electricity. The Leader of the Opposition has called wind turbines “giant bird blenders”. We call them a major spur to renewable energy, and we support them.

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I know that many hon. Members are interested in the question of legislation on climate change. I understand that and welcome the debate. The Government have said in the climate change programme review and, more recently, in the energy review that we are looking carefully at the merits of introducing a carbon budget as a means of helping to deliver our goals. The only issue for the Government is whether the legislation would help in the battle against climate change, support the efforts to join individual activity with business and Government leadership, and link domestic and international action.

I caution that legislating for targets is not the same as legislating the means to achieve them, and it is the means to achieve them on which we will all be judged. Consensus on goals is important, but without effective policy there is no effective response. However, I want to underline the fact that we are looking carefully at the idea of legislation. The issue for us is not whether to legislate, but what form legislation should take and how it could be organised.

Climate change requires change right across society—from Government, individuals and business. I am proud that this should be the first Government to set a long-term goal for carbon reduction consistent with the science of climate change; legislate for a climate change levy; meet and tighten the caps under the European emissions trading scheme; establish insulation and energy efficiency programmes, delivering more than £700 million of investment into homes each year; and be recognised as a world leader on climate change.

All those changes have met with scepticism, and some with opposition, but they were right. Now we need to go further—in some areas, much further. We will do so, and I look forward to receiving support from across the House.

2.16 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I begin by congratulating the Secretary of State on securing this important debate on our return this autumn. It is good to have a debate on climate change in Government time, and I am sure all Members appreciate it.

I also thank the Secretary of State for, in the most part, introducing the debate thoughtfully and consensually. He outlined the international dynamics very clearly indeed, and also outlined the scientific knowledge and the risk involved. I do not think that there is any serious doubt in the House on those issues, nor on the need to start to address those matters with a degree of urgency.

The starting point for any sensible debate on climate change is that it is for real and that it is happening, and the consequences will be with us for some considerable time because of the inertia effect on the earth’s atmosphere. There are still some people who say that there is not a problem or that mankind is not contributing to it, but I find those arguments irritating, not least because people who express those views set themselves up against well-established, internationally recognised scientific opinion, which is either courageous or foolhardy, depending on one’s point of view.

The problem is that every time such arguments appear, they muddy the waters of public opinion and make it harder for Governments here and around the
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world to take action of the sort that we in the House know will be needed. In any case, CO2, which is the chief problem we are dealing with, is a pollutant. It cannot be good, under any circumstance, whatever beliefs people have about its contribution to climate change, to go on pumping billions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

I am afraid that I have no time for climate change deniers. Nor do I have time for those, and there are some, who say it is all too late and that, in the words of Private Frazer, “We’re all doomed!” There is a moral duty on politicians, of all persuasions, to work together, with urgency, to tackle this most serious threat that we face. It is the biggest challenge—I have said this many times over many years—facing this generation of politicians.

We still have time, just, to rise to that challenge. But we need to be realistic too about the fact that we are starting from a pretty bad place. UK climate change emissions have been rising, and it is argued that if the UK’s share of international aviation is included, our climate change figures are higher than they were in 1990.

As we pick our way through the wreckage of failed and discontinued initiatives, half-hearted incentives, broken pledges and missed targets, we must, surely, confront the fact that a different order of effort is now needed.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): I do not want to be critical of the hon. Gentleman, who has a good record. He has just called for consensus, but if he looks back at the last paragraph of his speech he will see that he is not following his own rules.

Mr. Ainsworth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but we need to be realistic about where we are starting from. Whatever the politics of the matter, successive Governments have not achieved the progress that we all would like to have been made. I could have made the cheap point—which I am now going to make—that carbon emissions were falling under the Conservative Government and have risen under Labour. That is not really the point, however. The point is that we are not starting from a good place, and we all need to be realistic about that.

Incidentally, I agree with the Secretary of State about the nature of the challenge. It is not just some other environmental problem but a major social problem and a huge threat to international security and the economic well-being of the world. Of course, the poorest people in the world are likely to be hit hardest and first. The United Nations has said that 150 million people in the world are already climate change refugees. If we do not tackle the issue globally, I fear that all the well-intentioned efforts behind the millennium commitments and the attempts to make poverty history may prove to be in vain.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I share the hon. Gentleman’s view of the threat that we face. If we are serious about how we deal with it, however, surely there must be some call for direct controls on what we all do, particularly on how much we use the car. Would he be in favour of that? I know that we can talk about new technology and alternative ways of using the car, but surely we must recognise that we must use the car less, if at all.

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Mr. Ainsworth: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s point, but to say that we cannot use the car at all is not to engage with the real world. We are all aware of the need to take the public with us, step by step, on a journey towards a low-carbon economy. The sort of radical measures that he suggests are not deliverable within the time frame that we must consider. In any case, the car is capable of reform through the application of new technologies to help to reduce the problem of carbon emissions. Aviation is another issue on which I might comment later.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Is it Conservative party policy that we use the car less, or that we use a different type of car? Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of putting different types of cars on the road, or should we simply encourage the public to use cars less?

Mr. Ainsworth: Ideally, I am in favour of both approaches. An awful lot of car journeys are unnecessary and cover very short distances, and we support the extension of differentiated rates of vehicle excise duty to send a clear signal to consumers. We are also in favour of the provision of information to enable consumers to make rational choices to reduce the impact of road transport on the environment.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The House holds in high regard the hon. Gentleman’s reputation and track record on environmental issues. However, many people have doubts about the policies of his party, not least because when renewable energy developments are proposed in particular localities, Conservative politicians who represent those areas tend to be the first to jump into the breach against such proposals. How can we treat seriously his commitments from the Conservative Front Bench? If we are not careful, the best symbol for his party might be a disconnected wind turbine, to show that what is on offer is just empty spin.

Mr. Ainsworth: First, the hon. Gentleman will know that individual Members of Parliament have a duty to represent their constituents’ interests where they are affected by infrastructure projects of any kind. Conservative Members are perfectly at liberty to take a view about proposals in their own constituencies, but that does not affect Conservative party policy. Secondly, Liberal Democrat Members also have a slight problem in this regard, and the reason that we and the Liberal Democrats may be more affected is that wind turbines tend to be sited in large rural areas with hills, which, on the whole, tend to be represented by our parties rather than by the Labour party. It is essential that the wind energy industry is sensitive to landscape and does not propose developments in places where there will be a clear impact on landscape, biodiversity or any other environmental consideration. One of our arguments with the current support for renewables is that it has tended to put money into large onshore wind farms, which are naturally controversial in those areas where they are proposed. In the long run, that is not helpful to securing renewable energy in this country.

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