Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hurd: The Minister is making a thoughtful speech, which I am following with great attention. May I press him a little on the terms of reference for the committee? First, can he make it clear that an explicit term of reference for the committee is the 2 C threshold, and that there will be a requirement on the committee to form a judgment about the compatibility of the target with the 2 C threshold? Secondly, given what he said about the need for the committee to take a view on what we might call equity—the appropriate contribution towards the global effort, based on equity—what terms of reference are the Government considering giving the committee on that extremely important matter?
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful. I should have made clear the point about the 2 C, especially in light of our previous debate. As I said, I personally think the 60/80 debate is rather puerile. The irony is that in international forums, many countries argue that 2 C is not ambitious enough. A Pacific island state would agree with that. Our policy and the remit are based on 2 C because of acceptance of what is realistic.
Linda Gilroy: My hon. Friend is right about the 2 C. World Wide Fund for Nature scientists are giving evidence to the OSPAR commission on the convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic. That will confirm that it is highly likely that, given the feedback in action and the tipping points, 2 C could be too much.
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and to the WWF, whose advice on these matters, both domestically and internationally, is exceptional.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood asked about the remit. It is a broad remit that takes into account a number of factors. To back up my argument, let me refer to the explanatory notes. As well as the baseline that I mentioned, there is the issue raised by the hon. Member for Vale of York about which greenhouse gases are relevant. That is an extremely important debate.
We talk about carbon dioxide as shorthand for CO2 equivalent, but methane, for example, is 35 times more—[Interruption.]—or 25 times, or something of that order—23, I think. I am confusing it with nitrous oxide. My point is that part of the remit is to look at that and advise. That changes the circumstances. A rigid target—81 per cent., for the sake of argument—to include all greenhouse gases would affect industries that emit methane. They would have something to say about it.
We heard about one industry this morning. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North often reminds the House about the ceramics industry, so these decisions are important. Opposition Members are keen to ensure stability for businesses, but those businesses must have confidence in the targets.
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Miss McIntosh: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Woolas: Let me make my third point, so that the Committee has the whole picture.
My third point is about accounting. The net UK carbon account, which is defined in clause 27, is important. For 2050, it is the level of net UK emissions of targeted greenhouse gases, after the number of carbon units have been added and subtracted in accordance with carbon accounting regulations. What does that mean? It means the amount that is accounted for overseas and domestically. The debate is about the balance of domestic effort and international offsetting. The whole debate about the target is premised on an assumption about carbon accounting, so it is important.
Miss McIntosh: I am grateful to the Minister for referring to the broader greenhouse gases. My concern, which I am sure is general to the Committee, and to Stoke-on-Trent and the ceramics industry, is that the Government could introduce measures to increase energy efficiency and other changes of behaviour. Perhaps he will confirm that now or later. I shall be interested in his response. How does he propose not to penalise heavy energy users such as the manufacturing sector, which is subject to international competition?
In areas such as the Vale of York, methane gas is created by the agricultural industry both in its agricultural processes and as an end-user. I hope that certain sectors of the industry will not be penalised if they expand.
Mr. Woolas: I agree with the hon. Gentleman—[Hon. Members: “Hon. Lady!”] I am sorry. I was carried away with the passion of my argument.
I agree with the hon. Lady. Concerns that hon. Members have for the businesses in their constituencies—in this case agriculture—are highly subjective political judgments. The House should not put a burden on Lord Turner and his Committee, as the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal and his hon. Friends are asking me to do.
Martin Horwood: The Minister is making some important points. He is right to say that the Climate Change Committee is advisory and not directive, and that the baseline target will be based largely but not exclusively on scientific criteria. It is critical that we and the Committee understand why the Bill refers to 60 per cent. I hope the Minister accepts that it is based on, at the latest, early 1990s science, so it could give the message that we are prepared to accept a less equitable percentage. If that is not the case, the question asked by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood must be answered: what is the view of equity of contraction and convergence on which we are basing any brief to the Committee subsequently to amend that number?
Mr. Woolas: I will come straight to the point. The Government chose 60 per cent., not “at least” 60 per cent., based on the 2000 report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
Martin Horwood: It is 15 years out of date.
Mr. Woolas: Absolutely right. The science shows—I am no scientist—that that is out of date and that the problem has got worse, with the accumulation of gases, the growth in emissions from developing economies, and the increasing rate of deforestation as the biggest net contribution to that increase. The Government asked Parliament for its view, and the parliamentary Committee that considered the draft Bill came to the similar conclusion that the UK would need a reduction of at least 60 per cent. in the light of the new scientific evidence, and “at least” became the policy, rather than just 60 per cent. That is what Parliament advised, and it agreed that the Climate Change Committee should be the body to consider it.
Peers in the other place came to the same conclusion. The House of Lords voted against changing the 2050 target at this stage, favouring detailed expert consideration of the issue over a hasty decision by Government or Parliament, which is what I am being pressed to take. The figure of at least 60 per cent. recognises the point that the hon. Gentleman made, and the Prime Minister’s speech confirmed that. Any cursory reading of the science will tell the Committee that a figure of around 80 per cent. is comparable with the previous figure of 60 per cent, recognising our contribution.
The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood asked about the remit of the committee and the scenarios that it must consider. The range of international scenarios is important. In the major economies process, when the developing countries asked for a commitment of 50 per cent. by 2050, that was based upon an understanding that the developed countries would have medium-term targets of 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. The United States of America would not accept the latter condition, and the developing countries would therefore not accept the long-term goal. Our figure of at least 60 per cent. is the ambitious target that satisfies both of those international blocs.
Martin Horwood indicated dissent.
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head. I have given four credible, comprehensive answers.
Martin Horwood: The Minister has given a perfectly valid explanation of why 60 per cent. is no longer the scientific basis, but the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood made the original point that if we are to accept a lower number, and if the Minister is to explain why we are not putting “at least 80 per cent.” in the Bill instead of “at least 60 per cent.”, he must explain what the context of those other issues of equity of contraction and convergence would be, and what the brief to the committee must be. He must give some basis for that, and he has not done so.
Mr. Woolas: I thought I had done so, by setting out the criteria of the base year, the accounting of carbon units, the international scenarios and the economics in the impact assessment. The other place came to the conclusion that Parliament should not take a hasty decision, but should wait. I reinforce that point, and ask the hon. Gentleman to take it seriously. This is not a one-off. It is part of a huge process. We have already been going down this road for two years.
My final answer is the chairman’s own compelling argument, which I have already quoted. It is perfectly sensible to ask the committee to look at the range of scenarios, even though it may well come up with 80 per cent. It is a matter of process, not a matter of principle. I know that the amendment tries to pin down our intention, and I hope that I have satisfied the hon. Gentleman and the Committee that our intention is honourable.
Mr. Hurd: The Minister has made a valiant effort, but I will press him on one point. It is important, because he argues that the Government require space to disagree with the committee, which will make some very big judgments on the aspects that are not science, such as the issue of equity, which he has rightly cited. The committee will have to make judgments on what constitutes a fair contribution by the UK to the global effort. The royal commission made some judgments on that, and reached the figure of 60 per cent. The trouble is that it was never transparent. We need transparency. Will the committee have a blank sheet of paper in relation to the judgment on equity, which is enormously subjective, with big variables, or will the Government narrow the terms of reference for the committee? Will the Minister be more explicit about the instructions and parameters that the Government will give the committee on that key issue of equity?
Mr. Woolas: I clearly have not satisfied the hon. Gentleman. The answer is yes. The Bill and the guidance, which we will debate later, time allowing, show a range of scenarios within the different criteria that we will be asking the committee to look at. We will not say, “Come up with all the hypothetical international scenarios that you can think of”, but will advise it on where the Bali road map has got with the impact assessment and the economics.
The ranges are not strict and are available on the DEFRA website and in public documents. I was disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman say that I was trying to give the Government space. That is not the case. I am trying to give the committee space so that it can be genuinely independent, like the Low Pay Commission, where again we were pressed on whether we would accept the recommendation for the minimum wage, whatever the commission said, to which we said no. We were criticised for that, but history shows that we accepted its advice. I see a parallel between that commission and the committee.
Martin Horwood: But the committee will be in a different position from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, which was making an academic judgment on equity and global convergence. For the committee to make such a judgment seems extraordinary without a framework set by the Government. Will the Minister be completely clear about the direction of contraction and convergence that will set that framework?
Mr. Woolas: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. Perhaps he misunderstood my point about the commission. I referred to the Low Pay Commission to demonstrate that we had a similar debate on that, although he was right about the royal commission. Having said that, the commission’s judgment—this is not a popular thing to say—on the international contribution was to stick a finger in the air. We do not have an international agreement, so logically one cannot say what the contribution to it should be. It was simply an aspiration.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, the framework that the committee will use to come to a judgment is clearly and sufficiently laid out to avoid the danger to which he referred. We are talking about clause 2—this is not Second Reading—and many of his points will be covered later in the Committee’s deliberations. However, I think that I can give him the assurance that he seeks.
We have had a debate not on the virtues of 80 per cent. or 60 per cent., but on whether we should accept up front the committee’s recommendation which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test said, will come in our debate on clause 33. I admire the Conservative party’s position in not jumping on the 80 per cent. bandwagon. When we announced the policy change, I said, “If we go for 60 per cent., everyone else will go for 80 per cent.” I am as sure as eggs is eggs that if I announced 80 per cent. today, postcards galore would be flying into the office by Monday morning demanding 90 per cent.
Logically, we should go for 100 per cent, and without an international agreement, we had better go for 200 per cent. to avoid dangerous climate change—seriously. As a net contributor to emissions reductions, we could forest over the Vale of York. That would be a start It would probably avoid flooding as well. The debate has been about whether we should accept the recommendation up front. That would deny Parliament, never mind the Government, the right to say no. I admire the Conservative party’s position. It is actually trying to satisfy one lobby arguing for 80 per cent., and another arguing for consideration. I accept that. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal admitted from a sedentary position that having one’s cake and eating it is often satisfactory.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the most important thing is the starting point in the Bill? Given that we should be at 100 per cent. come the low-carbon economy, will he try to align the timing of the Bill with the scientific evidence, before Parliament resumes at the end of the summer, so that “at least 80 per cent.” can be put in the Bill?
10.15 am
Mr. Woolas: I can give the reassurance, based on the previous debate, that 2 C is our policy, and I am looking for a way to satisfy the Committee on that point.
I can also give the assurance that what matters is the mid-term goal and the trajectory. The most important consideration for the United Kingdom in respect of that mid-term trajectory is our signing up and adhering to the European Union policy. Clause 6, which we will come to, deals with our targets for 2020 and the EU offer. It means that the carbon budgets that the Climate Change Committee will be advising on in mid-term will be much more important than the end target. I hope that that satisfies my hon. Friend.
I have exhausted my arguments. I hope that I have convinced the Committee of the virtues of giving the independent committee a bit of space to look at the matter.
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Prepared 27 June 2008