Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Gummer: May I say on behalf of Opposition Members that we want the Government to get on as quickly as possible with all these measures? We are not in the business that the hon. Lady suggests. It is a tough enough time, and we are wholly supportive of the Government if they are prepared to do what they say. To suggest otherwise is not only untrue, but not in the Labour’s party political interest. Please will she not say that to the Committee?
Joan Walley: I am heartened to hear that, and I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman says. He has a long-standing record on the environment.
My perspective is that we need the strongest possible targets in the Bill. The Stern report makes clear the difference between a 2o C temperature rise and an even higher rise. If we do not get our targets right at the start of the Bill, we could experience all sorts of unwanted consequences that we could have prevented simply by having the strongest possible targets at this stage.
Later this week, I shall chair a meeting on public health to consider the international threat of malaria and other public health issues. All such public health problems will be exacerbated if we do not set the right target.
My hon. Friend the Minister takes a close interest in the work of the Environmental Audit Committee. In the past couple of years, we have concentrated our work on the issue of climate change. In an earlier report, the Committee highlighted the incoherence of the 2 C aim and the 60 per cent. target. We feel that there is a real gap between the two.
For the record, may I remind the Committee of the previous recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee? The majority of evidence that we considered suggested strongly that the 60 per cent. target was inadequate. The target was based on a recommendation made by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 2000. The royal commission’s overarching aim in making the recommendation was that global warming should be limited to a rise of no more than 2 C, according to the science at the time. That was adjudged to require stabilisation of the global atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide at 550 parts per million by mid-century.
All the evidence that we have received points to the fact that, on scientific evidence alone, we now know—in June 2008—irrespective of what the Committee on Climate Change may come up with later, that our starting point should be at least 80 per cent. rather than the more conservative 60 per cent that we have in front of us today.
In Victorian times, a colliery in my constituency was the first to produce more than 1 million tonnes of coal a year. We have a huge debt of honour to deal with that legacy of carbon that our industrialised nation has produced. We cannot waste any more time in starting off with 80 per cent. I know that the Minister cannot say to the Committee today that that is what he will now accept, but many of my colleagues genuinely believe that, in signing this amendment, they wish the Government to get the best possible credit for the best possible target.
With regard to business and the business community, it is important that we establish from the outset the certainty with which we expect industry to meet our objectives. The sooner that we have included in the Bill targets that are consistent with scientific knowledge but realistic enough for us to meet, the sooner we will be able to make progress towards getting to where we want to be. That will mean that all of us—not just us in the UK but over the planet as a whole—will not feel the worst effects of failure that were outlined in the Stern report. I ask that the Minister take into account the genuine desire and the responses that many of my colleagues have given to the non-governmental bodies that have fought so strongly on this campaign. We do not want to achieve the impossible, but we want to ensure that what we do is right. If at least 80 per cent. is right, we should be working towards that now.
Steve Webb: We have heard two well-informed, thoughtful and persuasive contributions. The debate has been unusual in that we have the hon. Members for Bury, North and for Stoke-on-Trent, North arguing against the Government’s position and the Conservative party supporting it. I slightly wonder which way I am leaning. It is striking that, printed on the amendment paper today, we have the names of more than 80 Labour Members who have endorsed the 80 per cent. cut.
As you will be well aware, Mr. Cook, the parliamentary arithmetic is such that, with 80 Labour Members, every single Liberal Democrat MP and all the nationalists, who I believe support the 80 per cent. target—I do not know what the Democratic Unionists think—that coalition alone, plus the Conservative Party, would guarantee 80 per cent., so the only thing that stands between this country having a scientifically up-to-date 80 per cent. target is the Conservative Party. That is a statement of fact. [Interruption.] I say that because the Government’s reluctance to endorse the 80 per cent. target would not matter if the Conservatives were to back it, because there are enough on their own side to carry it anyway. It is therefore the position of the Conservatives that is pivotal, so, in a moment, I want to focus on the logic, to the extent that there is any, of the arguments used by the Conservatives.
The starting point must be science and the 60 per cent. figure was not a political number but a scientific one. It is just an old scientific number and the people who came up with the old number now think that using the same sequence of logic that gave us a figure of 60 per cent. would now give us a figure of 80 per cent.
As the hon. Member for Angus points out, the Bill still gives the Government the power to vary the figure up or down, so the figure is not definitive but indicative. That is the point. There is a perfectly legitimate argument for saying, “Let’s not have a number in the Bill at all.” The Government could have introduced a Bill to create a committee that was given a remit and told to come back with a number that would then be considered, but that was not the avenue that the Government went down.
I refer again to the infamous long title of the Bill. The first handful of words are:
“A Bill to Set a target”.
Tempting though it is to argue that another strategy could have been adopted, given that the wording of the Bill starts with:
“A Bill to Set a target”,
we cannot fail to have a target.
The next question is, do we have what seems to us the right target, or a number that we all think is the wrong target? I find it incredible that the one person who has spoken for retaining the wrong number himself accepts that it is the wrong number. I fully accept that we do not know definitively that 80 per cent. is the right number, but the latest scientific evidence is that, indicatively, 80 per cent. is closer to the right number than 60 per cent.
Gregory Barker: I was not arguing against the number. All I was saying, with the greatest respect, is that the international experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would have rather more locus on public opinion than even the hon. Gentleman.
Steve Webb: Okay, we have started. However, what about 60 per cent.? We have all just accepted that 60 per cent. has an origin. The hon. Gentleman is backing 60 per cent., I suppose in small ‘c’ conservative fashion, because, like Everest, it is there. However, 60 per cent. had a logical basis and that logical basis now lends itself to a different number but he is not prepared to follow through the logic of how the 60 per cent. figure came about.
Mr. Gummer: Surely it is perfectly reasonable to say that the Government produced the Bill at a time when the 60 per cent. figure was sensible. When it became clear that there was a real reason for change—I am committed to 80-plus, I make no argument about that—the Government took two steps that seem perfectly reasonable. I am loth to fall out with the Government when I do not need to. There were two steps: one was to say “at least”, which made sure that we knew in which direction the target was going; the second was to turn to the committee of experts that the Government were setting up to say, “What should the figure be?” It seems to me that that is a perfectly reasonable way to proceed. One could go down a way that says, “We will put it up to 80”, but having asked the committee of experts to come up with a figure, to choose another one would be to undermine the committee itself. Therefore, although the hon. Gentleman can say that it is a pity that we do not all agree, it is not reasonable to say that those who take the view that the committee of experts should fix the figure are somehow unreasonable.
Steve Webb: The right hon. Gentleman makes a number of points, none of which I agree with, but I will address them in turn.
The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the standing of the committee of experts and that is clearly important. The first thing to say is that that committee has got a socking great amount of work to do. It is not just advising on the 80 per cent. Figure, but has a long list of things that it has to do and on which its opinions are vital. Aviation and shipping is one, but there are many others. It has got a huge programme of work on which its views will be taken incredibly seriously.
5.45 pm
Even if we were not asking the committee to look at the 80 per cent.——in fact, we are still asking it to look at the 80 per cent., that is the important point—it would have a huge amount of work to do. I understand that it has a part-time chairman, which I find worrying, but we will come back to that point. The committee has a critical role to play, a very short time in which to do its work and I do not see anything in what we are saying that would undermine its standing. Everyone knows that it has a very important part to play, but we are still asking it to look at the question of having an 80 or 60 per cent. 2050 target.
Nobody is suggesting that we tell the committee that we have made its mind up for it. We are simply saying that when it is asked to think of a number, there will be a number in the Bill. The question is whether the number in the Bill should be our best guess, based on what we know, which is where the 60 per cent. came from. That is the only question on these amendments. The committee will still be asked for its advice, and so, for example, if it comes back with 83 or 77 per cent., I would expect the Government to take that seriously. There is nothing, in arguing for moving from 60 to 80 per cent. that undermines the standing, status or validity of the committee.
There is, however, a reason for putting 80 in the Bill——one of timing. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, who is no longer in his place, said, “It’s only a few weeks, what is a few weeks among friends? The Bill comes back in October, gets ping-ponged, Royal Assent in November, four weeks later, they say 80, Bob’s your uncle, we have got 80 per cent.” We have not though, because, as the hon. Member for Banbury says, the Government have not said they will accept 80—or anything—if the committee comes up with it. If the Minister were to tell us that if the committee says 80, the Government will accept it, that would take much the steam out of this, because it would then be a matter of weeks.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the insertion of the words “at least” is progress. It would be progress if the Bill prohibited downward revisions, but as I read it, it does not. It can be “at least 60”, but the 60 can be changed to a lower number. As far as I can see, there is nothing to prevent the Government from changing it to “at least 50”, or “at least 40”. There is nothing in the “at least” that binds them to go upwards, so the words “at least”, rather as the words “better not”, do not reassure me at all.
Why is this so important? The latest evidence that DEFRA itself has been given is that to achieve the 450 ppm that is being talked about, 80 per cent. is not fine but actually the bottom end of the range. The range given by the Ecofis report to DEFRA in May 2007, just a year ago, is 80 to 95. There are many who think, and I am one of them, that 80 per cent. is not enough. I would love to be proved wrong on that, but my reading of the science is that 80 per cent. is probably not enough either. If we are going to have a number in the Bill, it needs to be our best estimate of the right number, especially as that number might hold for two years.
The key question is how do we convince the Conservative Opposition to back 80 per cent., since that is what it will take to get this number through. I am not sure whether feeling their pain and saying that we understand that it is all very difficult is the best way of doing it or whether it would better to slag them off and say “You say, vote blue and get green, but actually that is not so.” I would quite like to take any old Conservative Member outside for a quiet drink and get them to explain Conservative thinking to me. My working assumption is that the reason the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle does not support 80 is because his hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), who speaks for the Conservatives on these matters, wrote to all his colleagues saying, “We think the Bill is tough enough. Do not worry, do not frighten the horses, do not frighten business. We will not beef it up.”
This is important, because we are talking about targets that will have to be implemented by Governments of all parties. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle said that he would take very seriously what the committee said, but I do not think he pledged himself to implement what it said. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal says that he did, but the hon. Gentleman is not in his place to confirm either way.
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman will see that my hon. Friend said that a future Conservative Government would accept the figure as proposed by the committee. The question is, will this Government accept it? The argument is not—could not—be that the Conservative party is in some way resiling from this. It is a question of whether one thinks it more likely to gain the support of the public if presented by a committee made up of experts or if presented by politicians who are not at the top of the tree of popularity at this moment.
Steve Webb: Again, the right hon. Gentleman makes a distinction that is not there. Even if we amend the Bill to say 80 per cent., that would not stop us asking the committee, as we should, for a number and taking very seriously what it says. He is creating a false antithesis between making the Bill as accurate as we can and asking the committee for advice. We can do both. There is no problem with doing both. That would be the point. I am happy to accept his assurance that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle said that the Conservatives would implement 80 per cent. I thought he said that they attach the highest importance to it. Perhaps that is my misunderstanding. I am very pleased to hear that they would do so.
To return to the evidence, we heard that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution argued for 60 per cent. eight years ago but that the key figures on that commission, then and now, have argued that 80 per cent. is the up-to-date best figure. There are two avenues. There is an argument that says there should be no targets and we should let the committee do it, but the Government have chosen not to go down that route, so that avenue is closed. We have a Bill that sets a target. I cannot see why we should want to have a target that we all agreed was the wrong number. We ought to have our best estimate, recognising that we are politicians who read what scientists say, not scientists. Surely, we ought to take, for example, what the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution said, what advice to DEFRA said, what the IPCC has said. That is enough to be going on with to give us the right ballpark figure. Surely, we want the right one not the wrong one.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook, and to have been selected to serve on the Committee.
It is already evident that everyone is motivated to make this Bill workable. I want to explain why I have not signed the early-day motion that this amendment reflects. As I understand it, there is a more stringent baseline target which is the subject of the amendment. It would demand more aggressive policies. These policies need a great deal more technical detail to know whether they are deliverable. The body of fact on science, which is important, is not yet matched by the body of technical detail necessary to ensure that the more stringent budget that this amendment seeks is achievable.
It is vital that we do not set ourselves up to fail in the early years in the first carbon budget cycle that is set. That would be the worst, most irresponsible thing that we could do and would undermine the credibility of the framework that this legislation seeks to set up. It would be very bad for the work that the Minister for the Environment will have to do in international negotiations to bring others around to using a similar framework.
It is for those reasons that I have not signed the early-day motion and stood firm in explaining that position to my constituents, some of whom are members of my climate change panel and many of whom are among the 1,600 students who study marine and environmental science at Plymouth University and the 450 marine scientists who are very knowledgeable about climate change and keep me on my toes in the position that I have been taking and will continue to take.
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