Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Gummer: I want to bring the Minister back to a possible way through. He has said that there is nothing here with which he disagrees in principle, but I commend to him a discussion that I had with lawyers in the Department of the Environment when I arrived there. I brought them in and said that while I was Secretary of State I did not expect them to find reasons why I could not do what I wanted to do; their job was to find out how I could do what I wanted to do, but do it legally. Will he undertake to ask the lawyers, “In this Bill, how can I express it so that in removing clause 1 I do not give any quarter to those who would suggest that I am in some way undermining the Bill?”? If he were prepared to do so, I for one would be happy to support him, because I know he would do it honestly, and the Committee would be perfectly happy with that—even those who do not feel too unhappy about leaving out clause 1.
Mr. Woolas: The right hon. Gentleman has made a fair point. My considerations are partly domestic, in that I need to show the Opposition, Labour Members and other interests that the Government’s opposition to clause 1 is not in any way based on an opposition to its objective. As the right hon. Members for Suffolk, Coastal and for Penrith and The Border know, it is very important that as our deliberations are followed in the international forum we do not signal a lack of commitment to that objective. I will come on to what I intend to do about that in a moment.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The Minister has said that the Government are committed to not more than 2 C above pre-industrial levels. What benchmark are they going to use to ensure that they and the rest of Europe do not go above it? That is the purpose of clause 1—we are not at cross purposes; we are all on the same side. The Minister is trying to make out that the two targets are mutually exclusive, but I believe that they are not.
Mr. Woolas: The answer is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North made: the Government’s target concerns carbon emissions in the UK, which is commensurate with our contribution to an international effort to cap at 2 C—or to hope to cap at 2 C. There is agreement about that, but my point is that it is within the power of the Secretary of State—I should say “Secretaries of State”, collectively, because that is the legal meaning of “Secretary of State”—to do what, within our carbon account, we have the power to do. My only difficulty with clause 1, as I have said three times, concerns subsection (2), which states:
“The functions under this Act must be exercised with the objective of achieving the principal aim of this Act.”
I am trying to avoid a problem for a future Government not for the existing Government, as I hope I have explained. If I can finish my argument, I shall be able to satisfy the hon. Lady.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Will the Minister indulge a slightly cynical lawyer? He has discussed the 60 per cent. reduction target being sufficient, but clause 3 gives Ministers the power to amend it up or down. It may be amended upwards, but it could be amended downwards, and the impact assessment mentions changes, such as significant increases
“in the price of gas on international markets, or the pace of development in a new technology”,
so there are ways in which Ministers will be able amend the target. Is there not an argument for maintaining clause 1 because it provides for the principal aim of the 2 C reduction, irrespective of what happens to the target?
Mr. Woolas: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on an ingenious argument, but the answer is the same—in my view, it would be folly for the British legislature to pretend that it can legislate on something that it cannot control. That is my simple point. The proponents of the clause say that the Bill does not do that, but the advice that I have received indicates that it does. I cannot envisage circumstances in which the emissions target would be reduced, but the point of clause 2 is to set the carbon budgets to provide a target and trajectories, which we will come on to.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham asked about the contraction and convergence policy. I was interested to note that the hon. Member for Vale of York, on behalf of the Opposition, accepted it as their policy. In Delhi and Beijing, they will be very interested to read that. To be fair, there is a different interpretation of contraction and convergence. It is normally taken to mean the coming together of per capita emissions, and in Delhi the Prime Minister made it clear that in international negotiations, the Government would be open to arguments that lead to such a policy. However, it would be pre-emptive to accept it now. The hon. Member for Cheltenham is right in the sense that we accept the historical responsibility of industrialised countries such as our own. The hon. Gentleman also discussed the cumulative impact, on which he was absolutely right. It is important that we understand and explain to the public that the most important factor is not the end target but the trajectory to get there. He also asked about the amendments on carrier bags, and they will be available tomorrow. I am sorry that they will not have been available before.
I am trying to draw my arguments to a conclusion, because time is running on and my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden is frowning at me. The simple point is that there is a difference between UK emissions being the responsibility of the United Kingdom and the temperature in the UK being the responsibility of not just the United Kingdom. That is the main point.
Mr. Woolas: Given the stage that we are at, and in answer to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal, I undertake—I have already started—to find a way to achieve what we all want to achieve, which is to make the 2 target our target.
Mr. Hurd: On that point, I wonder whether the Minister and his advisers will turn to clause 33 and the Committee on Climate Change for a possible way in which to make the link with 2, the importance of which everyone agrees on. The Committee will be required to advise the Government on the adequacy of the target in December. I do not know whether the terms of reference are public, but I assume that they will be. The Committee on Climate Change could be required to make some form of judgment on the compatibility of the target with the 2 goal, which could be made explicit in clause 33.
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman has made a very interesting point. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test made the suggestion, which was backed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North, that we could include the 2 in the long title of the Bill, but other hon. Members have urged another solution. My answer to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal is that I undertake to try to find a way to meet the objective for reasons not only of domestic politics but of helping the UK’s standing in international negotiations. As I understand it, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood has suggested placing a cap on the remit of the independent Committee on Climate Change.
Mr. Hurd: My understanding is that the Committee on Climate Change will be required to give some form of judgment or advice on the adequacy of the targets and the carbon budgets. All I am suggesting is that part of its terms of reference for that public advice should be a judgment on the compatibility of the target and the budget with the 2 goal.
Mr. Woolas: I am more than happy—the hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to understand that when I say that I mean it—to consider a way in which we can satisfy the demands of my hon. Friends and the Opposition to achieve the point about the 2. I repeat my simple point that clause 2 enshrines 2 but does not express it. I know that people both domestically and internationally will be looking for that.
4.30 pm
Indeed, I was worried that my hon. Friend would not support my point of view, because if he had not supported it, he would have destroyed my arguments, so I was very grateful that he accepted my point. He said, and he is right, that we cannot legislate on the temperature. We can pass a law to control emissions, but we cannot pass a law to control the temperature—I wish that we could. He made the point that the Bill legally obliges the Government to act towards meeting a target on emissions that is commensurate with the 2 C policy that hon. Members have asked for.
My hon. Friend also pointed out that we could not pass a law that obliged us to protect polar bears, and he is right. Let me use an analogy—I see that the hon. Member for Cheltenham is scratching his head; I had to listen to him, so he has to listen to me now. We could pass a law that said that we must protect polar bears. However, it is possible that in the future the Governments of the United States of America, of Canada and of Russia could decide to kill polar bears, perhaps on the grounds of protecting other species or for another reason that we cannot predict. Because the Bill places a legal obligation on the Government and on future Governments to act in accordance with the target in clause 2, under any circumstances it would be illegal for the Government of the day not to act in protection of polar bears. Therefore, if the United States of America, Russia and Canada were to decide to cull all polar bears, the legal obligation on the Government of the day would be to declare war on Russia, Canada and the United States of America.
David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): Hear, hear.
Mr. Woolas: The analogy is sound. The right hon. Gentleman teases me, and I know that my analogy is extreme, but I think that statutorily my point is valid.
Mr. Weir: rose—
Mr. Woolas: Scotland is about to join in the action.
Mr. Weir: Will the Minister accept that his analogy is not only extreme but wrong? The obligation would be to look after the interests of polar bears within the UK, in other words within zoos and breeding programmes, and not in the wild, just as this obligation to look after 2 C relates to the UK and not the world.
Mr. Woolas: That is my point. Clearly, we could not do so. I will stop the analogy there, Mr. Cook, because you are getting fed up. However, my point is that the implication of clause 1, which is unintended but nevertheless real, is that it would do exactly what I said it would do.
Miss McIntosh: The Minister has said that he does not believe that the Government can legislate against temperature rising. However, this experiment with laptops in Committee might contribute to rising temperature, and the Government could change people’s behaviour by legislating to stop such experiments, if we were to reach that conclusion. So there are mechanisms that the Government can use to achieve the Minister’s aim of a temperature rise no higher than 2 C, and I am not convinced by the Minister’s argument.
Mr. Woolas: I will not be drawn into laptops, Mr. Cook, because you will not let me. I have been advised that the total carbon footprint of UK personal computers is greater than the total UK carbon footprint of aviation—I just note that for a later debate.
Let me put on the record an argument based on an understanding of the law and what clause 1 is trying to do. I urge hon. Members to look at clause 1(2), which concerns “functions under this Act”:
“The functions under this Act must be exercised with the objective of achieving the principal aim of this Act.”
That aim is expressed in clause 1(1). That means in law that all functions of the Act must be subservient to that principal purpose. For instance, because of part 5 of the Bill, a local authority would need to consider the impact on global temperatures when deciding to introduce a waste scheme.
More importantly, let me look at the role of the Secretary of State and their decisions on carbon budgets. Under part 5 of the Bill, in 2016 the Secretary of State will need to set the carbon budget for 2028 to 2032. Let us suppose that in eight years’ time, between now and 2016, the UK has made good progress in reducing our emissions by setting and meeting ambitious carbon budgets. However, suppose that over the same eight years emissions in the rest of the world have increased significantly. Let us suppose for the sake of argument—I believe that this is a realistic assessment—that the science has got more pessimistic, which my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test has referred to. In such a situation, because of the point eloquently made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal that this is an epoch-making piece of legislation that sets a new paradigm, we would be responsible for the future. Even with the addition of the amendments, which were tabled with the good intent of trying to meet some of the points, clause 1 would still require us to set that 2028 to 2032 carbon budget with the aim of achieving a 2 C cap, because—this is the crucial point—it is an ongoing duty.
That duty must be met every time a function is exercised under the Bill, no matter what the rest of the world has done, which is a fundamental point. Either one has a target for the Bill that is within one’s control—an emissions reduction based on a 2 C objective—or one has a target that is dependent on others in the world and on science.
I hope that I have convinced the Committee that clause 1 is an intention that we wholeheartedly support—indeed, the UK’s investment in the international community and the European Union is based on it. The European Union itself has a policy based on that, but not a policy that is enshrined in EU law for the same reasons.
I accept the invitation from hon. Members to find a way to enshrine 2 C within the Bill, if I can. Suggestions have been made, and I am grateful for the positive way in which they have been put. My argument is that clause 1, as Lord Rooker said in the other place, would serve to undermine that intent in practice, because it would create difficulty for future Governments—I am talking about some time in the future—in meeting the exact point that people are trying to reach.
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