Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Steve Webb: Does the hon. Lady accept that amendment No. 2 has no bearing on whether we should ask the Climate Change Committee—because we still will—what sort of answer it might come back with, and what we should then do with that answer? Surely, however, we do not enhance the credibility of the whole process if we hand the committee a Bill that everyone thinks has got the self-evidently wrong number in it?
Linda Gilroy: I want to follow on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test said earlier and to try to follow the logic of where this argument is coming from. I had a lot of sympathy with what some Opposition Members were saying, particularly because of the discussions that I have had with the climate change panel that I have been working with throughout the pre-legislative process.
A lot of debate stems from the question of whether or not there is an analogy with the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. Again, I think that the debate that took place in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), when he pressed the chair of the Climate Change Committee very hard, casts very interesting light on the argument that the hon. Members for Bexhill and Battle and for Vale of York are trying to put.
I have a lot of sympathy with the idea that this committee should be independent, in the sense of the MPC. Another analogy that I discussed with my climate change panel was the Low Pay Commission. In a way, the Low Pay Commission might be a better analogy, given the complexities with which it must deal.
Adair Turner pointed out the differences. First he said:
“the Bank of England itself does not even recommend on what the target should be; it simply has to take the target as actually defined by the Chancellor...The 2 per cent. plus or minus 1 per cent.”
On one level, therefore, the MPC is less independent than the Climate Change Committee. However, he also pointed out:
“in relation to inflation policy you can define one specific lever, the interest rate, and you can give that to an independent body to call up or down.”
He also said, and I really plead with Opposition Members not to get into too much of an “angels dancing on the head of a pin” debate about this:
“You cannot really do that for the Committee on Climate Change, because otherwise you would have to give them pretty much the whole of government policy because the levers that we could pull cover building regulations, they cover speed limits, they cover appliance regulation, they cover the design of the EU ETS”—
the emissions trading scheme—
“they cover taxation, et cetera.”
He cast a very interesting light on the issue and went on to debate what would happen if the Government disagreed with the committee.
Miss McIntosh: I do not wish to destroy the hon. Lady’s argument, because it has been eloquently put, but I was present at that sitting. I was hugely impressed by Lord Turner’s evidence—amazingly, he gave it without a note or an official by his side—and it will be a great loss when he is no longer permanent chairman of the Committee on Climate Change. However, does not the hon. Lady accept that the MPC’s recommendation to the Bank of England is very different for the reasons that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test eloquently outlined? Clause 20 clearly states that after the carbon budget for the period has been set, it cannot be revoked, so the Committee on Climate Change’s advice and the period that it covers will be completely different from the MPC’s advice.
Linda Gilroy: As I understand it, we are talking about the target and the budget, and as I just set out by citing Adair Turner’s evidence, the complexity is significantly greater. I thought that there was an inherent logic to what my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test tried to explain. The Committee on Climate Change is advisory, so the Government could of course disagree.
I shall finish on this point—my brief is very much not a Whips’ brief, so the Whip is probably thinking, “Why don’t you sit down, Linda?” Lord Turner pointed out that when the Government respond to the committee’s recommendation,
“it would be odd if we did not respond back and, therefore, if there were a very major divergence I think we would expect to see and, indeed, Parliament would expect to see and, indeed, I think the legislation requires that there is an explanation to Parliament of why the recommendations of the Government have diverged”.
The advice issue has many more nuances and dimensions than as under the straightforward confrontational situation that Opposition Members have set out.
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): It is a pleasure to serve under you on this important Committee, Mr. Atkinson. Let me try to reassure Opposition Members about the Government’s attitude to the advice that they will receive and Labour Members about the Government’s ambition being sufficient in respect of the important international effort. Given our wide-ranging debate, I am taking the liberty of assuming that you will not allow a stand part debate, Mr. Atkinson.
The Chairman: Order. Perhaps I can clarify the situation. The Committee has had an extensive debate about clause 2(1), but not about subsection (2), so if there were to be a clause stand part debate, it would, in my view, have to concentrate on the second half of the clause, not the first. I hope that that is helpful to the Minister.
Mr. Woolas: As ever, you are extremely helpful, Mr. Atkinson. If I mention subsection (2) straight away, I shall have achieved my objective. We want a debate in the round.
The important point is that with all the debates about the targets and the percentage by a certain time in the clause, one can shift the goalposts by moving the baseline year. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that one trick of international negotiations is not to include a base year; we often manage to reach agreement by avoiding that question. Importantly, page 7 of the explanatory notes makes it clear that the target for 2050 is set by reference to a 1990 baseline
“rather than a particular quantum of emissions because the baseline itself is subject to revision as understanding of historic emissions improves.”
That adds a further complication to the situation, and that point answers the second question asked by the hon. Member for Vale of York.
9.45 am
It sounds strange to say that one could revise the emissions from 18 years ago, but we all know that all these matters must be subject to international compatibility and agreement if they are to be meaningful, because this is, as all hon. Members have said, a global effort. We are dealing with the ultimate embodiment of the concept of mutually assured destruction. As science and its methodologies improve our knowledge about our historical emissions going back to the base year of 1990, that may move the goalposts. Why is that important? It is of central importance to the United Nations framework convention on climate change process because of the point, which we accept, that the targets must take account of the historical burden of the developed, industrialised countries. Similarly, countries can use a change in the baseline and in the methodology of calculation to move the goalposts in their favour. I hope I have covered subsection (2) to the Committee’s satisfaction.
The clause is the centrepiece of the Bill. It underpins the emissions-reduction framework that the Bill establishes and puts into law our commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 60 per cent.—not 60 per cent., but at least 60 per cent—through domestic and international action by 2050. Let me remind the Committee where this figure comes from. The science tells us clearly that in the context of the global effort, developed countries will need to cut their CO2 emissions by more than 50 per cent. if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. Action in the UK is, of course, a crucial part of that.
The science in itself does not dictate that the developed countries—the annexe 1 countries; the industrialised countries—must make a greater contribution because of our historical obligation. In our judgment, it will be impossible to reach international agreement unless developed countries accept that point.
If the advice to the committee and the remit of the committee were purely to look at an arithmetic contribution to equal burden sharing based on the best assessment of science, the point that hon. Members make could be accepted. However, as we are talking about a contribution that will take into account other factors, including economic factors, as was made clear by the hon. Member for Vale of York in a well informed intervention on the impact assessment, and as we must take into account other factors, including the social and the international dimensions, we are asking the committee for very important advice that is based on science, but over and above science. That is my first argument.
My second argument is based on parliamentary accountability. My answer on Second Reading was premised on the belief that Parliament would want to be able to assess the recommendations of the Committee and the Government’s response. That is why the scrutiny of the advice and the Government’s reaction is not at all comparable with what we normally debate in Public Bill Committees. This is not a one-off piece of advice and a statutory instrument put out on a Thursday evening. Not only is the Government’s response subject to the affirmative procedure—that is, of course, the case on a matter of such importance—but, more importantly, it is part of the process of the nation’s budget-setting decisions. I urge the Committee to consider that point.
The Chancellor announced that the carbon budgets would be announced in parallel with the financial Budget in March. I have no prior knowledge of the date of the Budget, in case there is a journalist in the room, but I expect it to be in March. When that announcement is made, the scrutiny of the carbon budgets and the policy that follows from that will be of huge importance to this nation. Therefore, I want to convince the Opposition and reassure my hon. Friends that by not necessarily accepting the advice of the committee in advance, I am not trying to wriggle off the advice. We are trying to create a process that is of huge importance to this country. I will deal with the conditions after I have given way.
Gregory Barker: The Minister is genuinely trying to be helpful, but he must accept that we would not expect the Government to sit on their hands, waiting for the figure to emerge in due course. There must be preparatory work by officials in his Department and right across Government in anticipation of a figure in the region of 80 per cent. that is likely to be accepted. Can he reassure us that there is a working assumption in Whitehall that that figure will be in the region of 80 per cent.?
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman has cut to the quick. Yes, I can give that reassurance. The Bill’s Second Reading in the other place gave statutory authorisation to the Government—my Department is the lead—to expend public money on the preparation of the Bill. We have the office of climate change, which is a section within the Department with the job of working in such areas, as well as what we call the shadow Committee on Climate Change, which is already working.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton pointed out, Lord Turner’s evidence confirmed the point to the hon. Gentleman’s satisfaction. It is interesting and important to hear Lord Turner. He said to the Committee on 26 March:
“I do think it is a perfectly sensible thing to hand to the Committee to express a point of view on”—
he was referring to the stretching of the 60 per cent.—
“rather than simply leap into let us not do 60, let us do 80, because I think there is a value (even if we do end up simply saying yes, 80% is the right figure) in setting out the reasoning of why it is and also perhaps exploring a set of alternatives”.
That was Lord Turner’s view. My own view—this is a third argument with which to try and convince the Committee—
Steve Webb: The Minister is giving a constructive response, but—I am not being facetious—if there is a value in the committee going from 60 to 80 per cent. and explaining why, what is the standing of 60 per cent? Joking apart, why not 3 per cent? Why 60 per cent?
Mr. Woolas: That is an important question. First, as the hon. Gentleman would accept, the figure is “at least 60 per cent.” Secondly, as we all agree, we must base the figure primarily on science. The carbon markets will not invest the trillions of pounds that we want them to if they believe that carbon targets are not based on science. If they believe it is a political fix, it will not work.
However, the figure is not just based on the science. The point that is not understood in the debate in the United Kingdom, which is not the case in other countries, is that whether the target is 60 or 80 per cent. does not really matter. What matters is how we get there. Personally—I hope journalists do not quote me out of context, but now that I have said that, I suppose they will—I am a 100 per cent. man. The debate that we will have on the trajectory is much more important than the debate on the end target. Indeed, unless we specify that the trajectory must be downwards, it would be possible to reach an 80 per cent. reduction by 2050 even after 30 years of increases, by which time we would have dangerous climate change. Although I understand that the 60/80 debate symbolises something important, it is not so important.
Mr. Gummer rose—
Mr. Woolas: Let me continue my argument, before the right hon. Gentleman tempts me or presses me further.
I mentioned that what we do has to be done though co-ordinated global action. We have to give a clear signal to the international community that we are prepared to do our share, plus more. That has to be done within the trajectories that the European Union budgets and targets set out, because our offer as the European Union is to go as far as 30 per cent. by 2020, or 20 per cent. if we do not get the international agreement. That will be the primary pressure upon the level of our mid-term targets.
In that context, I need to see what the committee advises. The committee is more aware of these matters than I am, which is why I say seriously that I cannot envisage circumstances, other than the absurd, in which the Government could not accept the recommendation. Others may disagree, but I do not see circumstances in which Parliament would reject that advice. My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test argued that we should say in advance that we would automatically accept the advice. The committee is an advisory committee, the chairman of which does not want us to tie him down in that way.
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