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27 Feb 2008 : Column 1124

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Plastic bags can indeed be a scourge in terms of litter and the effect on marine life. We need to exercise a little caution, because research studies from other countries where they have been banned or taxed show that that has led to unforeseen consequences. However, when I go shopping I take reusable bags whenever I can, and I urge other Members to do the same.

Another aspect that is disappointing from a European perspective is biofuels. The EU has a target of 10 per cent. by 2020, and in the UK it is 5 per cent. by 2010. This is a very expensive policy, and it has been called into question by a growing body of academics and organisations, not least the Royal Society, the United Nations, the OECD, Professor King—the Government’s own adviser—and, recently, the Environmental Audit Committee. Sustainability standards are much discussed, but they are not yet in place. The evidence that we received on the Environmental Audit Committee suggested that it may be impossible to create robust sustainability standards that would truly capture the problem of land use change and deforestation. The Government have been pretty dogmatic in their line that pursuing biofuels is the right way forward. Indeed, in Transport questions on 22 January, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), told me that

I am nothing if not persistent, so I raised the issue again at business questions last Thursday morning, at Hansard column 527. I was pleased to see that on Thursday afternoon at 2.15 pm, the Department for Transport issued a press release saying that the Secretary of State was initiating a review of the indirect impact of biofuels. It is not often, as a Member in this place, that one has such an immediate impact on Government policy. I am delighted that the Government now accept that there may be issues with biofuels and that when the facts change it is fair enough for them to change their mind. I hope that it will be a thorough review that, if necessary, leads to the UK changing its policy and arguing for changes in Brussels.

Mr. Weir: I appreciate what the hon. Lady is saying, but does she not agree that a distinction has to be made between first generation biofuels, which were very dodgy with regard to sustainability, and second generation biofuels, which may come from the wood industry and so forth? There is a possibility of making something out of second generation biofuels.

Jo Swinson: That is true, but they are not currently commercially viable. It is important to look at the differences between biofuels. For example, using waste oils, which otherwise would just be thrown away, to create fuel seems sensible. However, I have a problem with targets that can hasten the development of biofuels that do not meet such robust environmental standards. There may be interesting research to be done on second generation biofuels, but we are not there yet.

Mr. Caton: I agree with the hon. Lady’s line on biofuels. When talking about some sort of sustainability scheme, does she agree that there is a real problem with
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displacement? We might end up with a scheme where sustainable certification is granted for a palm oil plantation in Indonesia, for example, that has transferred to producing renewable fuels, but then develops a new palm oil for other uses that ends up taking up rain forest. Sustainability is a hugely difficult issue.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We took a lot of evidence on the Select Committee about the importance of sustainability standards, and some of our witnesses were quite optimistic about that issue, but I remember vividly asking a question about it. We said, “If there is a particular field or plot of land that is currently designated as agricultural land, what is to stop them clearing a bit of forest to put food production there, then using the land that was used for food production for the biofuels, in order to mask what they had done?” We could not get an answer from any witness on how to develop a standard that would properly take that problem into account. I found that somewhat depressing, but perhaps it is the reality of the situation.

I am conscious that many other hon. Members want to speak, so I say in conclusion that the European approach to climate change is not perfect. We can and we must work to improve it. We must also, however, recognise its genuine achievements. Europe is taking a global lead on this issue. I would like to quote the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who is in the Chamber. He said that “getting Europe to work on climate change would be helping the EU redefine its relevance to a new generation.” I totally agree with that. This is the biggest challenge that we face. It is in all of our interests to work across Europe and internationally, to rise to meet this challenge.

2.22 pm

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). I say to her and to the House that many distinguished people from the Environmental Audit Committee are speaking with great distinction in the House today, especially on environmental issues. It is great to see so many past and present members. During the past 10 years, that Committee has played a key role in pushing forward the environmental debate.

One former member of the Environmental Audit Committee spoke for the Opposition—the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), and I agreed with much of what he said. He talked, however, about the need for action; the Conservatives can dream up all the action that they want, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) said, if we do not have the institutional framework, the mechanisms, the procedures or a way of being able to co-ordinate matters to get a joined-up approach, we will not get the action that is needed. That is why the key word—never mind the six words we are looking at today concerning climate change—in the opening remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was leadership. It is critical to use the debate to show how the leadership that the Government have shown in Europe, at so many international conferences and in so many treaties is what we need to take the issue forward.

I have received, as have many other hon. Members, a great deal of correspondence on the amendments that
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the treaty of Lisbon makes to the treaty on the European Union. I shall use the brief time available to set out why it is so important that we ratify the treaty and why the misinformed view that we are simply giving away power to Europe does not add up when it comes to the pressing need to secure urgently an international climate change regime.

My starting point is article 174 of the treaty on the European Union, which states:

and the fourth indent will be amended to read

That is the core—the heart of the matter. Moreover, article 174.4 already establishes a duty for members to co-operate with the wider international community in combating climate change. It states:

I believe that that is essential in combating climate change, which is fundamentally an international issue.

There is no more important challenge facing the international community and the people whom we represent than climate change. It faces people everywhere, from those who have written to me asking us to go further than the 60 per cent. target in the Climate Change Bill—I was pleased to hear the leadership shown by the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions last week, when he said that the new climate change commission will be asked to see how we might move towards an 80 per cent. target—to the people in China whom members of the Environmental Audit Committee met, including the ambassador on climate change. As we arrived, we experienced extreme temperatures and climate change—the worst snowstorms that that country has experienced. It faces the people of Australia, and I am pleased to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt), who was in the Australian Parliament only last week. The new Government of Kevin Rudd was elected on the back of the climate change election commitment that he gave.

The challenge faces people in developing countries all around the world. Only today we read in the press that they face shortages of grain. We need to have regard to the United Nations and other agencies that recognise that the stiff increase in grain prices is linked to extreme weather conditions, which lead to devastating effects such as flooding and drought. People who are experiencing that desperately want policies now. They want policies that will urgently reduce carbon emissions, which means that we can tackle climate change only by being at the heart of Europe. The new arrangements will assist us in that.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe referred to the change in voting on climate change matters and environmental legislation from unanimity to qualified majority voting. I thought that he made that point very well. With the expansion of the European Union we have to change the way in which we administer matters and do business. We need the institutional
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framework that Conservative Members do not seem to want this Parliament and this Government to have.

I welcome the new parliamentary role for MPs announced this week by my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House. Having looked closely at the new arrangements, I have found that there will be greater transparency of scrutiny and increased expertise made available in European Committees, through the inclusion of members of the European Scrutiny Committee and of relevant Select Committees. Those changes to parliamentary procedure will allow us better to scrutinise and contribute to what Ministers are doing to take environmental policies forward in Europe. We have to have checks and balances, and this House has to find a better way of giving its views so that Ministers going to Europe do so on the basis of taking into account Members’ views. That will give us the more effective framework that is so urgently needed.

Many of those who have spoken have listed at great length the various strategic policy issues that have already been advanced in Europe, but which desperately need to be increased much more quickly. I agree about all of those, but want briefly to touch on the work of the Oxford Research Group, which has urged us to look into ways of making foreign and global security policy into a more sustainable policy. The issue of foreign policy is at the heart of Europe, too.

Finally, I should like to end by referring to Mr. Lester Brown from the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, who will be in Westminster next week. Last year he published a book—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady has had her eight minutes.

2.30 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I regret that we will never discover quite what Mr. Lester Brown did, unless the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) wants to intervene.

Joan Walley: Mr. Brown is attending a meeting in the House next week and his book is called “Mobilizing to Save Civilization”. If we have the political will, we need the institutions.

Mr. Atkinson: All I can say is well done Mr. Lester Brown. I hope that the meeting is successful, as the issue is important.

I accept that the European Union has done many important things that have benefited our world—it has made the climate better and our environment better—but I want to concentrate on where Europe has performed extremely badly, which is in agriculture, farming and the lamentably slow process of common agricultural policy reform. In this time of changing climate, it is important that Europe should change and modernise its agriculture. As we have seen, in recent decades Europe was all about surpluses, but now the boot is on the other foot and we are talking about shortages. The hon. Lady talked about the rising price of grain. It is right that Europe should produce more food now, not only for its own security, but so that it
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does not import food that is needed elsewhere—being a collection of rich nations, we can outbid the poorer nations.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I cannot allow my hon. Friend to get away with saying that Europe has helped to clean up the environment, because it simply has not. In fact, Europe has continued to increase carbon emissions over the years and is still doing so. That is a great problem. We hear a lot of rhetoric from Europe, but we see no action.

Mr. Atkinson: I disagree with my hon. Friend on that. I appreciate that Europe is not perfect, but it has made some substantial contributions towards improving the environment.

The issue now is food shortage. We have seen a surge in food prices. There is now talk of the UN World Food Programme having to be cut back because of rising prices and a possibility of introducing rationing, which I understand Egypt and Pakistan have done. Only yesterday the price of palm oil increased by about 6 per cent., while wheat and soya prices have risen to record highs on the world market in recent weeks.

That has been substantially driven by the changing climate. One of the reasons why the price of oil increased so much was the cold winter in China, which virtually wiped out the Chinese rape seed crop. That means that China has been in the market buying oil. The same applies with the drought in Australia, which has lasted for many years, and the drought in sub-Saharan Africa. We have climate change in this country, too. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) now has bluetongue in his constituency, which has spread up from southern Europe and is causing a problem for our farmers.

I quite agree that biofuels will prove totally unsustainable unless there is substantial reform of the way the schemes operate. Interestingly, 60 per cent. of Europe’s vegetable oil—a scarce world commodity—now goes into biofuels. In the United States the figure is 20 per cent. People talk about biofuels being good for the environment, but there is obviously a fuel security issue in the United States. It seems nonsensical that issues such as fuel security should come at the expense of poor people throughout the world.

That issue does not matter in Europe, where people spend about 10 per cent. of their income on food. However, the figure is 60 per cent. for people in sub-Saharan Africa, for whom a surge in prices would be catastrophic. We have had surges before. What normally happens is that the market eventually catches up. This time, however, I suspect that the gap will be quite considerable, because the effect of climate change—it degrades agricultural land, which means less land being used for food production—will be to make any surge in food prices more serious.

What should Europe do about that? It needs to increase its food production sensibly. First, Europe could deregulate more. Secondly, it could continue to—

Hilary Benn indicated dissent.

Mr. Atkinson: The Secretary of State shakes his head, but Europe could indeed deregulate more. Secondly, it should proceed as rapidly as possible to reform the
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common agricultural policy, whose absorption of half the European Union’s budget is obscene. Thirdly, and perhaps more controversially, it is about time that the nations of Europe embraced genetically modified crops, which are producing a tremendous revolution in agriculture throughout the world. GM crops—not least drought-resistant wheat—are capable of meeting some of the problems that climate change has thrown up.

Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): I am following the hon. Gentleman’s thoughtful comments with great interest and I happen to agree with him about GM crops. However, although a great deal more still needs to be done to reform the CAP and although its overall budget needs to be reduced, does he recognise that there has already been significant reform, so that much less of its budget is now spent on those outrageous subsidies to food production and more goes into direct support for farmers to maintain the local environment?

Mr. Atkinson: I accept what the right hon. Lady says. She was very much involved in that process, which was certainly a step forward. In my mind, however, the CAP budget is still too high. We need to move much closer to a proper market system, which, with prices at the level that they have now reached, is even more possible.

I was singing the praises of GM crops. They have considerable potential, but have become unpopular with consumers in this country, who have been scared by the talk of Frankenstein food, and so on, and are hugely worried about them. The new generation of genetically modified organisms, as they are actually called, has moved into areas that will enable us to make food healthier, which is enormously important. We can now produce oil that does not form trans fats when cooked, which is better for health. For those who are interested in carbon sinks, a eucalyptus tree has been developed in Australia that will absorb three times as much carbon dioxide as an ordinary tree.

The new scientific approaches should therefore not be rejected. Europe should not have a luddite attitude towards them. If we adopt the new science, we will go some way towards making a contribution to beating the challenge of climate change.

2.38 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) would not give way to me, but she made an excellent speech and it was a pleasure to listen to it.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made some interesting comments about the link between climate change and agriculture. I fully agree with him, but he might have mentioned adaptation and the work that we can do through land management to protect against floods and severe weather changes, for example. I also found what he said about genetically modified organisms very interesting.

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