Climate Change Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Woolas: We have not touched on subsections (3) and (4), which are important. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that subsection (1) states that the Secretary of State “must” lay before Parliament, while subsection (3) states that the Secretary of State “must” consult the other national authorities. It is important that reference is made to the devolved Administrations. Subsection (4) states that the Secretary of State “must” send a copy, an imperative repeated in clause 13. I hope there is consensus on the clause.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 12 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 13

Duty to prepare proposals and policies for meeting carbon budgets
David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): I beg to move amendment No. 39, in clause 13, page 7, line 13, leave out subsection (3).
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 55, in clause 13, page 7, line 13, leave out ‘, taken as a whole,’.
David Maclean: Amendment No. 39 suggests that we remove subsection (3). If, by any inadvertence, I pressed it to a Division and if, by any inadvertence, it was accepted, we would delete the words
“The proposals and policies, taken as a whole, must be such as to contribute to sustainable development.”
Let me make it clear that I am passionately committed to sustainable development. I do not wish to remove the subsection from the clause, but I am advised that such a suggestion is a means by which we can discuss matters. I want to find out what the Government mean by sustainable development, hence my proposal that we remove those words from the Bill. My remarks will be brief because I want to hear the Government’s interpretation of “sustainable development” and to know what their policies and proposals, taken as a whole, will look like if we are to ensure that they contribute to sustainable development.
I shall define what sustainable development is not. What is unsustainable development? I like the definition that an unsustainable situation is one where the natural capital—the sum total of nature’s resources—is used up faster than it can be replenished. Sustainability requires that human activity uses nature’s resources only at a rate that can be replenished naturally.
Inherently, the concept of sustainable development is intertwined with the concept of carrying capacity. Theoretically, the long-term result of environmental degradation is the inability to sustain human life. Such degradation on a global scale could imply the extinction of humanity. I will not go down that route, which I explored in detail last week in the context of biodiversity and rain forests.
I am passionately committed to sustainable development because it is one of the main things that I spent a lot of time negotiating at Rio. When, as a Minister, I had to negotiate a working breakfast with the Chinese at 7 am, with the Indians at 8 am and with the Americans at 9 am, I needed a sustainable biodiversity system myself to survive. Agenda 21 was one of the key documents that was signed and we negotiated every word of it. As an incoming Minister, I had no idea of the importance in UN-speak of getting each word correct. If we had accepted the sloppy word, it would have meant £3 billion extra being paid into some fund. Our representatives were cautious as we negotiated the words.
Since 1992 in Rio, the term “sustainable development” is thrown about everywhere. With all due respect, I have a parish council that puts down a new little park bench on the grass with a couple of daffodils and says that it is fulfilling Agenda 21, the sustainable development agenda. In some ways, the term is being diminished. There is utter confusion about its meaning.
With due deference to the current Government and to the Government of whom I was privileged to be part, I believe that the Brits are pretty good at defining such matters. I left Rio understanding the meaning of “sustainable development”, and I am certain that the Government have a clear concept of its meaning. We should impose more on the rest of the country and the rest of the world, because our concept is probably right.
Gregory Barker: My right hon. Friend is making another important point. I wholeheartedly agree with him. “Sustainable development” is widely misused. A large part of the problem is that it has been confused with the term “sustainable growth”.
The Chairman: Order. I appeal to members of the Committee to address their remarks to the Chair.
Gregory Barker: I beg your pardon, Mr. Cook, for my discourtesy.
The problem is that sustainable development has been confused with sustainable growth. Often, when people use the term “sustainable”, it has nothing to do with environmental sustainability, but means growth that will go on and on and never end.
11.15 am
David Maclean: My hon. Friend is right, and that could be a justifiable definition of “sustainable development”. I conclude with these remarks. The term is in the Bill, but it is not defined—I cannot find a definition of “sustainable development” in the Bill. I suspect that this subsection is one where Government advisers will say “Well, Minister, if it is deleted, so what? It does not remove anything from the Bill. If it stays in, so what? Who cares? It does not add anything to the Bill either.”
I want the provision to mean something, so when people look through the Bill and come across the 12 pages on carrier bags and the bit on waste and garbage—they will not see any mention of rain forests or biodiversity—they will at least see “sustainable development” and say, “Ah! That means X.”
The Chairman: Order. It is difficult for the Chair to tell who is rising if hon. Members do not rise.
Gregory Barker: Clause 13 is an important part of the Bill. It requires the Government to prepare a programme of emissions reductions in order to stay within the carbon budgets established by the Bill. However, we must be mindful that in order to reach macro-level targets, by which I mean national and international level climate change mitigation, many micro-level projects must be carried out. There is a responsibility on us, as policy makers, to ensure that we do not undermine the natural environment at a local level in the process of trying to save it on a global level.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border and I tabled our amendments to get the Government to explain exactly how they interpret sustainable development, taken as a whole, as opposed to assessing each individual policy and proposal on the grounds of its unique sustainability criteria. My right hon. Friend did an excellent job if raising the issue of sustainable development as a term. I wholeheartedly agree with him that the term is often meaningless and is sometimes used as greenwash. I am not suggesting that that is the case with this Bill, but it happens frequently elsewhere. A definition of sustainable development would help to inform the wider debate around environmental issues as a whole, and perhaps bring some clarity and rigour back to our language on this most important of debates nationally.
Amendment No. 55 would require the removal of the phrase “taken as a whole”, which currently appears in line 13 of clause 13. Its removal would require each individual mitigation option to be assessed against the principles of sustainability, rather than assessing proposals and policies only as a whole in the round. That would allow a Government to appraise the different mitigation options available and choose accordingly, rather than only viewing the sustainability of a policy on a macro level.
One need look only at the unfortunate example of biofuels to see that just because the ultimate Government objective is sustainability, it does not mean that the policy goals to get there are themselves, largely through perverse or unintended consequences, inherently sustainable. It is all well and good to say that one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, but surely everyone in Committee agrees—I know that my right hon. Friend agrees—that it is nothing short of sheer madness to chop down the world’s single most precious natural resource, the pristine rain forests, in the name of the environment to achieve a nominal biofuel target.
While reducing emissions from vehicles is an important part of reducing our overall carbon pollution, if we can only meet the requirements of the biofuels directives at the price of the Borneo rain forest, it would be a Pyrrhic victory—target—indeed. A more sustainable option, for example, would be to improve the fuel efficiency of our cars and make significant transport emissions reductions, while at the same time developing a biofuels policy that does not accelerate the destruction of the lungs of the earth or contribute to the extinction of the orang-utan or less cuddly species.
We understand that there will be difficult choices in assessing our options for decarbonising the economy—it will not always be a win-win situation. However, as responsible stewards of today’s environment, as well as tomorrow’s world, we want, as far as it is possible to do so, to ensure that those choices are made transparently and on the basis of a clear definition of sustainability, rather than exclusively through the lens of cost-effectiveness or the overarching 2050 emissions-reduction targets.
For that reason, Conservative Members in the other place successfully argued for the requirement that the Government’s programme of action should meet the carbon budget in the Bill and be underpinned by the principles of sustainable development. In doing so, the Government saw fit to introduce a caveat into clause 13, which states that policies to achieve our interim and long-term targets “must”, when
“taken as a whole...contribute to sustainable development.”
In light of that, will the Minister clarify his interpretation of that phrase? I want to know that, in striving to achieve the emissions-reduction targets to which all of us in this place are committed, we are not legislating to allow Government policy to ride roughshod over short-term or immediate sustainability concerns.
Martin Horwood: It is good to be serving under your chairmanship again, Mr. Cook.
The two amendments raise important issues, and it is particularly important that amendment No. 55 is passed. Looking for a definition of “sustainable development”, I can trump the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border by going back to 1987 and the report for the UN by Gro Harlem Brundtland, “Our Common Future”. That defined sustainable development as
“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”,
which is a wonderfully classic and succinct definition.
I plucked that definition from the website of the Sustainable Development Commission, which has rightly highlighted the risk that the various definitions of sustainability, which include social and economic factors as well as environmental ones, can be used to muddy the debate and allow unsustainable policies to go forward. In particular, economic sustainability is often taken to mean “business as usual”, and it is used to justify policies that are the exact reverse of sustainable when examined from an environmental perspective. The biofuels example mentioned by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle is interesting, although, frankly, a policy that allowed unsustainable biofuels to form the basis of our future biofuels policy would not be “sustainable” under any of the definitions.
A rather better example, which is specifically the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, involves setting the shadow price of carbon, which had a direct impact on the decision to endorse the third runway at Heathrow. The precise definition of the shadow price used by DEFRA in effect reduced the social cost in environmental terms of the Heathrow third runway from some £13.5 billion, which it would have been if the methodology applied by the Stern report had been used, right down to £4.8 billion, thereby making the difference between that third runway going ahead or not. That is a brilliant example of how the use of “sustainable development” needs to be precisely defined. In that sense, taken as a whole, one could say that the third runway at Heathrow is part of a package that the Government might excuse as “sustainable” in the medium term. Looked at in isolation, however, it is clearly not a sustainable policy.
Mr. Gummer: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that another example that illustrates that point is the way in which the Government make their judgment about sustainable development and the protection of the sea coast and rivers through the Environment Agency? By changing the terms, what properly used to be considered as a matter for defence is now being abandoned, because points are not awarded to anything that might mean protecting the natural and historic environment. Again, that issue concerns the definition of what is sustainable.
Martin Horwood: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman; he obviously has expertise in this matter relating to his past responsibilities and his constituency. He has made an important point, although the sustainability of sea defences must be considered from an environmental perspective as well as from a local one.
In conclusion, definitions are important, and perhaps the Minister will address the relative importance of economic and environmental sustainability in his remarks. In light of the Stern report, we know that long-term economic sustainability is intimately linked to the environment, although in many parts of government there is still the temptation to prioritise short-term economic growth over true environmental sustainability.
Mr. Woolas: The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border has referred to Agenda 21. He made the important point that the profound effect of that conference was to set out a process that has significantly changed how we and other countries look at the world. It has had a significant effect on our analysis of economics, and it challenged some of the basics of supply and demand economics in a beneficial way. It has been noted that, on current estimates, we are using the resources of three planets when we only have those of one. That is not sustainable and people understand that.
I will go into the technical details to explain the Government’s approach. The purpose of the clause is to require the Government’s proposals for meeting carbon budgets to contribute to sustainable development. That is central to Government policy—we want to live within environmental limits and we can only do so by means of a sustainable economy. That policy is partly expressed through the Sustainable Development Commission, which was established in order to provide scrutiny and encouragement and to ensure that Whitehall, and its wider tentacles, are acting sustainably.
An expression of the meaning of sustainable development is within the SDC’s remit, and I will outline it for the Committee. The principles of sustainable development are ensuring a strong, healthy and just society, living within environmental limits, achieving a sustainable economy, promoting good governance and using sound science responsibly. Those principles were outlined in Rio.
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