Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Weir: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the reference to the carbon budgets in the final impact assessment, where it specifically mentions rising oil and gas prices as a way that the Government can lengthen the time frame for meeting the reduction target, whether it is 60 per cent. or 80 per cent.?
Even though the Government may have difficulty at this stage in accepting the figure of at least 80 per cent., and even though I know that they genuinely want to see the report of the Climate Change Committee, it makes good sense to adopt the most stringent targets for 2050 now, because nobody believes we are going to go back to the era of cheap oil. That fact is going to drive change of a sort that we have not seen for 150 years, since the beginning of the oil era and the end of the age of steam. The sooner the Government, the Opposition and we as a society start to understand and adjust to that, the less painful the transition will be. It makes good sense to adopt a higher target now for 2050 and, of course, for 2020—though that will be debated later—in order to preserve and conserve our finite supplies of fossil fuels.
The Minister’s defence is that the figure should be determined by an outside expert body, rather than plucked out of the air. I hope that he does not think I am plucking it out of the air, but that I have demonstrated that it is a conclusion drawn from the latest science. I would be completely persuaded by his defence—I see the value of that point of view—but it is slightly undermined by the fact that there is already a figure in the Bill. If the argument that we have to delegate the decision to an external body of experts is sound, there should be no figure in the Bill. If there is to be a figure in the Bill, it has to be based on the latest scientific evidence.
Gregory Barker: I pay tribute to the very knowledgeable speech made by the hon. Member for Bury, North, with whom I had the pleasure of serving for some years on the Environmental Audit Committee. I know he is a great expert on these issues. I find no fault with any of his analysis of the problem, nor do I doubt for a moment his sincerity in wanting to tackle it urgently. I share his ambition to get on and start doing, rather than just talking and providing a framework. However, I find that the tables have been turned rather strangely.
In the last debate, his colleagues did not argue against the principal objective of clause 1, but said instead that it was not consistent with the rest of the Bill. I am afraid that, in this case, that is my view and the view of the official Opposition, and I suspect it is also the view of the Government. We do not disagree with any of the hon. Gentleman’s analysis, but we believe it is not consistent with the spirit of the Bill, which, most importantly, establishes the independent Climate Change Committee.
Tony Baldry: There is one very important difference between the view of the official Opposition and the one espoused by the Minister in the Chamber on Second Reading. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) will give me an undertaking that when in due course he becomes Secretary of State for the Environment, the Conservative Government will implement, and not ignore, the report of the Climate Change Committee.
5.15 pm
Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend has made an important distinction. We attach the highest importance to the full implementation of the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations. We have always stated our belief in the primacy of science over politics in the debate.
Mr. Gummer: Will my hon. Friend not go even further than that? Surely the key feature of the Bill is that Governments will have to carry out the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee. That is the point of its independence. We would be happy for the Climate Change Committee to make recommendations to the Government and for the Government to accept them, rather than beginning a debate.
Gregory Barker: Indeed. The only thing that stands between the Climate Change Committee and its conclusions becoming law is the democratic seal of approval of its conclusions through the parliamentary process. As my right hon. Friend says, the intention is not to start a debate, to consider, to ruminate upon, to deliberate or to take other soundings. That is certainly not the intention or the modus operandi of the next Conservative Government.
That is why we have consistently argued for a strong, independent committee on Climate Change, which is empowered to make recommendations on the basis of science, not politics. That is why we successfully argued in the House of Lords for the independent committee to have the power to review the 2050 commitment, and report to the Secretary of State in advance when the first five-year carbon budget is set. That is why the official Opposition in this place have tabled further amendments to enhance Government accountability and transparency in their dealings with and heeding of the independent Committee.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, I was disappointed to read at the weekend of the Ipsos MORI opinion poll in The Observer, which showed that there was considerable public reservation in the UK about taking action on climate change.
Steve Webb: I am trying to follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s position. I understand the argument that the Bill should not contain a target. Through the Bill, we create a committee, the committee advises and politicians decide. But why have a target in the Bill at all? If we are to have one, why not have the right target?
Gregory Barker: I shall come to that, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me. We should recognise that there is still widespread scepticism about the causes of climate change, and there is still a big education job to be done. One of the reasons for the reluctance shown in the opinion poll was the considerable public cynicism about the Government using the veneer of green objectives to impose further regulation or, particularly, further taxation. There is a good deal of public scepticism out there about the imposition of green taxes. We must be clear when we make the case.
When that figure is raised to 80 per cent., we must be able to say that we are not underestimating the challenges and difficulties that that may impose. As alive as we are to the opportunities that a low-carbon economy will bring, we must be able to turn to the country at large and say why it is being called upon to make that additional effort. It is not because the Prime Minister wants to look greener than my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), or vice versa, or because we are trying to outdo the Lib Dems. It is because the clear, independent, scientific and expert opinion is for 80 per cent.—although I do not know why 80 per cent. should be such a magical number, rather than 79, 81, 85 or 90 per cent. It is because the scientific committee has come out with a clear recommendation that that is what we must do in our struggle to contain dangerous climate change. Public cynicism is our greatest enemy.
Mr. Weir: The hon. Gentleman said that in a future Conservative Administration, a Minister would accept a figure given by an independent committee. Would he also, therefore, do away with the power to amend the figure in clause 3?
Gregory Barker: No. I can hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, who has experience in Government. That power needs to be held in reserve. However, I can give the clear assurance that the next Conservative Government have a huge ambition to lead the country into a low-carbon economy and make the fight against global climate change a No. 1 priority.
Mr. Gummer: Surely my hon. Friend would agree that we need a mechanism in the Bill for the Government to accept the recommendation of the Climate Change Committee and to enact it. That is why the power is there. Without that, the Government could say, “Of course we will”, but they would have no mechanism for doing that. There ought to be no argument over that.
Gregory Barker: I am grateful for that first-rate clarification.
In preparation for today’s discussion, I thought that it would be insightful to see how many climate scientists sit on the committee. To the best of my knowledge, there are none. I, for example, am not a climate scientist. I have a degree in history and politics. The Minister, able as he is, has a degree in philosophy, and the hon. Member for Northavon, I believe, read politics, philosophy and economics—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford has a science qualification. Later in the debate, our treat will no doubt be to hear what that is.
I conclude by addressing some remarks to the Minister. Can he assure us that the Government will not ride roughshod over the evidence of the expert panel? On Second Reading there were those of us who detected a glimmer of hedging—just a hint.
Tony Baldry: That was not a glimmer. The Minister spoke in plain terms. Would the Minister give an undertaking to accept the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee? In turn, the Minister said no. That is not a glimmer. That is a huge spotlight.
Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend is spot on. I was trying to be consensual and not too partisan—most out of character for me—but he is right. That leads to obvious concerns. I can assure him that a future Conservative Administration would have no such reluctance or hesitation. That will reassure many people about the future.
This is not an ephemeral issue of the day. Politicians should not trump the primacy of science. There is an overarching necessity to respect it over politics. If we do not listen to the experts, if we undermine them before their first sitting, if we prejudge what they will say, if we inform them that we know better than they do, we will—
David Maclean: I am sorry for interrupting my hon. Friend’s peroration. One can easily find sceptics who will debate the exact rise in global temperature, and people who will argue for years about what it may reach by 2050, but we know for certain, almost to the hectare, the millions of acres of world forests that are being destroyed and lost, never to be recovered. We know exactly the amount of diversity that is being lost, all of which has an immediate impact on climate change and world health. The World Health Organisation makes that clear. So, yes, the sceptics and scientists may argue, but there is already a huge body of fact.
Gregory Barker: That is a sound point, but it does not detract from my party’s essential tenet. We believe that the Climate Change Committee is an important innovation—it is, perhaps, the most important tangible part of the Bill—and that all support should be given to it. Therefore, we urge the Government to allow it to produce its preliminary recommendation as soon as possible. I have no doubt that it will advise a significant raising of the target, but we believe that the target would have more impact, importance and authority if it were set by that committee rather than by politicians in this Committee.
Mr. Chaytor: As the hon. Gentleman went on with his remarks, I became more and more concerned. He is trying to argue against the formulation of “at least 80%” by saying that it would be based on a political judgment, not on scientific evidence. My argument is that it is based on the latest evidence from the most authoritative international body of climate scientists. Why does he not accept it? Is it simply that he prefers a British committee to an international one? That is rather like the point earlier that the guillotine is not particularly British. A guillotine is a guillotine, regardless of the nation in which it is used. Why does the hon. Gentleman not accept the clear, overwhelming, substantial consensus that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expressed in its latest report, which was its fourth assessment report?
Gregory Barker: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but, having brought the new committee into being, having invested it with such authority and having asked it to make important decisions, we should, on this most important of decisions, defer to it. That would involve only a matter of months and would not materially affect our ability to hit the long-term 2050 target. Allowing the committee to make the judgment call on what the target should be would, I hope, have a significant effect on public opinion and the authority and credibility of the target—far more so, I am afraid, than if the decision is made simply by politicians, on whatever basis we make our judgment.
I do not doubt the science that informs the hon. Gentleman’s argument. All I am saying is that to win the support of the public, whose good will we must win if we are to be successful in the battle against climate change, it is vital that the higher target, which will be stretching and incredibly ambitious, enjoys the utmost authority. We would invest it with greater authority if we were to allow the experts, not politicians in this Room, to come forward in the next few months with a recommendation.
5.30 pm
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve on this Committee, to have the opportunity to influence what will be Government policy for many years to come, and to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I am sure that you will keep us in order and ensure that we make the best possible contribution to the Bill today. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in favour of amendment No. 2 in a probing way. It was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North, who has served for many years on the Environmental Audit Committee, as has the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle.
I shall speak briefly, because it is important to give the Minister the best possible ammunition so that when he is dealing with civil servants, Governments and his Cabinet colleagues, he knows the strength of feeling among my hon. Friends who have signed the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), who spoke in the Chamber earlier.
If the Bill, when it has completed all its stages, is to be up to date with the latest science, it will not be about leaving it to the scientists, but about the marriage of politics and science, and ensuring that we have informed legislation that is fit for purpose and that will stand the test of time. We all know that time is running out for dealing with the matter, so it is all the more urgent to get the starting point right.
It seems to me that 60 per cent., or “at least” 60 per cent., is not enough. There may be worries that if we do not go further we will send the wrong message and dilute the Government’s credibility, which they deserve for having introduced such an innovative Bill. I wonder whether some of the opposition from the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, who speaks for the Conservative party, is on account of not wanting the Labour Government to have the credit for introducing the best possible Bill. He said that we should leave it to the scientists, but we already have that here.
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Prepared 25 June 2008