Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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David Maclean: My right hon. Friend makes an exceedingly telling point, and far more eloquently than I could. However, ours is more than just a moral obligation. Millions of species could be at risk by 2050—not millions of one kind of species, but possibly millions of different and undiscovered species in the rain forests—and it would be utterly wrong to lose them. We all worry about the polar bears and orang-utans, which of course are important, but they are probably sexier and more television friendly than some of the bugs, creepy crawlies, flora and other things in the rain forests that could be vital to human health. Pharmaceuticals, biomedical research, the production of food, whether on land or in the oceans, fibres, fuel, clean water, healthy soil and the ability to store carbon all depend on biodiversity. Those are crucial aspects of scientific knowledge that the Minister ought to consider.
I am certain that the Secretary of State would consider some of those things, but I would like the Minister to assure us that, if the power in clause 3 is exercised, all the biodiversity aspects will be taken into account—not just whether the temperature is up or down 0.5, or whether we should opt for 60 or 80 per cent.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I do not intend to detain the Committee for long, but I raised some concerns about this clause earlier. In the previous debate, the Minister told us that in setting the target the Committee on Climate Change would take into account a wide set of factors, including economic factors. That is perfectly reasonable, but my concerns relate to the stage after the target has been set. Clause 3(1) gives the Secretary of State the power to alter by order the percentage target. To answer my own Bercow question, that would be done by the affirmative resolution procedure. It tends to be assumed that that would be a power to increase the target after the committee’s report, but as I pointed out on Tuesday the clause does not state that the target can only be increased upwards, so the Secretary of State could decrease it.
I am sure that the Minister will argue that subsection (2) contains safeguards by stating what factors must be taken into account in deciding to amend the percentage target or change the baseline. On the face of it, that is perfectly true. Indeed, on first reading the clause, I thought it inconceivable that the target could be reduced, given the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence pointing to an increase, whether 60 or 80 per cent. However, I was struck by the Government impact assessment presented to the Committee on Tuesday. On page 29, under the heading, “Issue 3: Review of statutory targets and/or interim budgets”, paragraph 3.2.25 states:
“It is important to consider whether, and in what circumstances the proposed system of unilateral statutory targets and budgets could be amended in the context of managing environmental risk, economic cost and wider policy objectives effectively.”
What does that mean?
The following paragraph cites the need to review the multinational agreement, which might be necessary given the European Union’s commitment to increase the target in the event of a multilateral agreement. However, my concern relates to paragraph 3.2.27, which states that amendments could be made
“so that emissions reductions could be spread over a longer timeframe, if it became clear that the emissions forecasts used when a budget had initially been set proved to be significantly inaccurate. This could result from large changes in the price of gas on international markets, or the pace of development in a new technology”.
So economic factors could come into the equation as well. However, it is not entirely clear whether that refers only to the carbon budget, or also to the target itself.
Paragraph 3.2.28 goes on to say:
“The capacity to review budgets or targets would enable policy makers to: minimise economic and social costs and competitiveness risks arising from significant changes to key drivers of mitigation costs; and, continue to demonstrate international leadership in the light of revised assessments surrounding environmental risk.”
That seems to be a much wider interpretation, and allows the Government, whoever they may be at the time—this is not a party political point because up to 2050 there will inevitably be changes in Government, whatever we think about current opinion polls—to make changes, specifically in the price of gas in international markets
Later in our deliberations, we shall come to the rightly wide-ranging factors that will be taken into account in setting the carbon budget. However, there is a world of difference between the carbon budget and the 2050 target. The former is a method of delivery, and the latter is the ultimate destination or the guiding star of where we want to go. Given that the target was set after taking account of economic and other factors, and that the budgets are the five-year plans, if that is not too Stalinist a description, for achieving those targets, I can well understand that unforeseen and pressing economic reasons may arise, and that it may necessary to alter a five-year carbon budget, although I hope that subsequent budgets would try to make up any shortfall. However, I do not fully understand why it should be necessary to alter the long-term target as a result of economic changes—such as the rise in the cost of gas as quoted in the impact assessment—which one hopes would be relatively short-term economic shocks.
Mr. Gummer: I follow the hon. Gentleman’s argument and have great sympathy with it, but is it possible to ask a Committee, as the Government have done, to make a judgment on what targets should be, but to tell it that those targets must be in only one direction? Surely, if people are to believe the Committee, it must have the opportunity at some future date of saying that the science has moved on and that we need to raise the targets further. Similarly, it must have the opportunity of offering the Minister the possibility of a reduction. We do not believe that that would ever happen, but it would be odd legislation if the Government could not, even on the advice of the Committee, change the target if something that we know nothing about now, and which we do not believe will happen because it would seem almost impossible, were to happen in 2020. There must be a mechanism whereby the Government could change the targets in either direction.
Mr. Weir: With respect, that is not my point. I understand what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but my concern is the factors that allow a change. I accept that if a huge change in the science proved that climate change was not as bad as we thought—that is highly unlikely—clearly there would be an argument for reviewing the targets.
My concern is that we are setting a target for 2050, by which time I shall be waiting for my telegram from the Queen. We could be saying that as gas and oil are going up in price, we must abandon that long-term target because of what we hope are short-term economic impacts. I can well understand that in the five-year carbon budget there may have to be a change to get over an immediate difficulty, but the long-term target should remain in place, and we should make an effort to recalibrate that long-term target. My concern is that we could have a series of economic shocks in that long period and find that the Government abandon that long-term carbon reduction target.
I have no intention of voting against the clause, but I seek reassurance and an explanation from the Minister, because it not clear from the final impact assessment whether it refers to the target, or merely to the carbon budget. It seems to refer to both. I am concerned about that narrow point—not the scientific evidence, but a change to the target, perhaps because of an economic downturn or shock within the period.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border is proving to be a powerful champion for the rain forests, building on his important work on behalf of the United Kingdom at the Rio conference. I endorse his view. The case for including a consideration of biodiversity loss in the clause is strong. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to keep repeating his concerns about the alarming rate of biodiversity loss. According to the United Nations global environmental outlet report October 2007, 30 per cent. of amphibians, 23 per cent. of mammals—
The Chairman: Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman. I allowed a certain amount latitude to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border during his contribution, but we are not debating biodiversity in this clause. If the hon. Gentleman refers to clause 11, he will see that that debate is more appropriate to that clause. I would be grateful if the Committee did not enter into a long debate on that subject.
Gregory Barker: Ah, in that case I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. I echo the sensible points made earlier by my right hon. Friend.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): In concluding his remarks on clause 2, the Minister made some interesting comments relating to my remarks on how business could prepare. The clause will allow the Secretary of State to amend the baseline. What the Minister did not say is whether, in the trajectory towards that, he will give any illumination on what the percentage target should be, for example in the run up to 2020. The business community, notably the CBI, has said that it is keen to have a credible framework for working towards a low-carbon economy and it believes that the Climate Change Bill can achieve that. It would particularly welcome the use of an interim target and rolling carbon budgets to provide that. Is that a possibility within the context of the clause and later clauses related to this one?
I wonder whether the Minister could clarify clause 3(4), which clearly states that the power
“may only be exercised if it appears to the Secretary of state that there have been significant developments in European or international law or policy that make it appropriate to do so.”
Is he therefore suggesting that if a 2009 treaty flows from the Copenhagen follow-up to Kyoto, at that earlier stage the Government might be minded to alter the baseline, or is he looking out to the longer grass?
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): I thank you, Mr. Atkinson, and the Committee for some thoughtful points. Let me try to explain the purpose of the clause briefly, and then answer the questions equally briefly, I hope. As has been said, we are talking about the circumstances in which the 2050 target and the baseline year on which it is based—currently 1990—may be amended. We are trying to achieve—all hon. Members have signed up to this—greater predictability for businesses and households, so that when they invest in low-carbon technologies, they do so with confidence. That is why we are setting up the framework.
I think that we all agree that the legislation is intended to be in place for many decades. Changes in that period are likely, in both scientific knowledge and in the international context. With that in mind, we consider that allowing the 2050 target to be changed through secondary legislation provides necessary flexibility, but let me give some reassurances to the Committee. The procedures that have been put in place to allow this change are especially strong, perhaps stronger than in other areas of legislation, to ensure that the power is not used inappropriately. In parliamentary terms, any change in the target or the baseline year will be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses. That is important and will guarantee high levels of transparency and parliamentary control.
1.30 pm
Furthermore, if you will allow me to stray, Mr. Atkinson, under clause 4 no amendment may be made until the advice of the independent committee has been taken into account and the devolved Administrations have had the opportunity to make their views known.
Mr. Gummer: For the sake of those who do not understand the parliamentary arrangements, will the Minister confirm that the affirmative resolution procedure will provide strong protection because it can be voted against in both Houses? People sometimes think that this is a very complex system. Such statutory instruments cannot be amended, but they can be defeated. As this is a single and simple matter, it would easily be defeated were this or any Government to behave dishonourably.
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman who has vast experience in these matters. He is right. The provisions sound dry on paper, but if one envisages the circumstances of such a vote, one can see that they provide surety. My point about the devolved Administrations is important because this is a United Kingdom Bill, introduced with the consensus of the devolved Administrations. I hope that that answer is acceptable to the Committee.
I will answer the points about the target and then provide the assurances on biodiversity sought by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border. First, as the hon. Member for Angus is anticipating the arrival of his telegram so far in advance, I note his acceptance that Scotland will still be in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Weir: The Minister is quite wrong in that assertion. We seek the dissolution of the Union and of Parliament, not necessarily of the Crown.
Mr. Woolas: I am sure that she or he will send a telegram anyway. However, the hon. Gentleman asked some reasonable questions. The target can be amended only with regard to developments in
“scientific knowledge about climate change”
or in “international law or policy”. I will explain why “scientific knowledge” includes biodiversity, not just semantically but legislatively.
The only other reason for a change in the target is that the basis of it has changed. For example, we may add other greenhouse gases to it in the future. One reason for including changes in international law and policy, in lay terms, is so that the UK has negotiating power at the international table. As I have said, the target can be changed only within those strict criteria and based on the advice to which I have referred.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border is quite right to push the Committee and the Government on biodiversity. The phrase,
“scientific knowledge about climate change”
includes biodiversity because that is a scientific point. He mentioned the international agreements on biodiversity to which the UK has signed up under various Governments. They include the convention on biological diversity, to which he referred, the convention on international trade in endangered species, the convention on the conservation of migratory species of wild animals and others. Given that the UK is a signatory to those treaties, the international context provides the protection that he seeks.
The establishment of a cap-and-trade system, which this is designed to accomplish, offers great hope, if not the best hope, for financing the world’s anti-deforestation measures. The hon. Gentleman will know that the policy he has pursued has been supported by the Government, and the United Kingdom has a strong stance on it, although we would like to have more to do with it.
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle made his point effectively, and the hon. Member for Vale of York asked about the trajectory and about Copenhagen. I think that I have covered the latter, but I ask for help on the trajectory.
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