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18 Jun 2009 : Column 147WH—continued

That is scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of objections. The fact that 2 million adults do not have bank accounts did not inhibit the Government from trying to prevent pensioners from continuing to draw their pensions in cash at local post offices. If that vulnerable group of people can be treated in such a way, it seems a pretty poor argument for not introducing personal carbon trading.

The Government’s arguments against a pilot scheme are also particularly weak. The response says at the bottom of page 21:

That is precisely the purpose of having pilot schemes: to understand how to avoid public distrust and ridicule. It continues:

A scheme involving a whole local authority area would be reasonably representative, although nothing can be perfectly representative. It could be mandatory within the area, even on a virtual basis. It is not difficult to get around that particular objection.

I look forward to the Minister’s response. I do not expect that we will hear all the answers this afternoon, but I would like her to show willingness to become more engaged in the debate about personal carbon trading than last year’s written response suggests. Instead of
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raising objections at every turn, many of which are rather weak, as I have pointed out, the Government should try a touch of the “Yes we can” approach. Let us look for a constructive aspect to the proposals.

I have accepted that personal carbon trading is complex and poorly understood. It might even be slightly scary for some people. I also accept that achieving the aims of fairness, effectiveness and simplicity may be much harder than I have hitherto believed, but surely there can be no reason not to work towards an experiment and to try out one more weapon in the fight to cut emissions. There can be no reason to oppose a modest little pilot scheme of the sort that I have outlined.

Climate change is a bigger and more urgent threat than we understood even a year or two ago. Even in Britain, where the issues are better understood and accepted than in most other countries, we are not yet doing enough to cut our emissions. It would be a tragedy if closed bureaucratic minds ruled out an innovative and possibly highly effective idea that could raise awareness of climate change, reward poorer people with cash and incentivise every citizen every day to make a low-carbon rather than high-carbon choice, and which could guarantee cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The effectiveness of the idea in reaching all those goals could be accurately and easily monitored. For that reason, I commend the Committee’s report to the House.

2.58 pm

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): I echo the comments of my friend the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). I say “my friend” because the Environmental Audit Committee—at least, the four of us members who are here—worked closely together on the issues and ensured that we secured the debate. I congratulate him on the detail in which he has covered our Committee’s recommendations.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Bercow. Having attended previous debates in Westminster Hall where a large number of people have wanted to speak, I am always impressed by how you ensure that every hon. Member who wants to contribute does so in a way that takes the debate forward.

As we consider how our Parliament will develop in future—it is a key time for Parliament, as we are in the process of choosing a new Speaker—many of us want the whole concept of Parliament to be expanded further. Select Committees of the House of Commons, in this case the Environmental Audit Committee, exist to scrutinise the work of different Departments in a cross-cutting way. It is incumbent on the Government, if they are to listen to the work of Select Committees, to take seriously the detailed work that we do and give proper regard to our recommendations.

I ask my good friend the Minister to look in detail at the work we have done on personal carbon trading. As we are considering the new role that Parliament should have, she should think about the time that we have spent analysing the issue, week in, week out, in far more detail than any Minister could. In the new spirit of openness, will she consider how she can work with us to take forward our recommendations, which, if not rejected in the Government’s written response, were certainly not given the priority that we think they deserve?

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In characteristic style, the Select Committee Chairman has covered the details of the report. This is one of many reports that we have produced, in which we have concentrated on the challenges of global warming and climate change. We have looked at the detailed negotiations in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit and beyond. We are about to produce a report on the international work that must be done on the deforestation of the rain forests. We have also looked in great detail at the European emissions trading scheme and at carbon budgets. We understand that this agenda must be taken forward within the wider context of joined-up policy making, and our reports reflect that. I hope that because of the integrity with which we present this report to the House, the Government will accept our recommendations as part of the larger framework.

This detailed report deals with just the one aspect of personal carbon allowances. We do not see it as the be all and end all in tackling the increase in carbon emissions internationally and globally. However, we do think that it is part of the picture. It is a matter of great dismay that our recommendations have been rejected to the extent that they have. We see them not as the exclusive answer, but as part of the solution. I expected our Government to take our recommendations in the spirit in which they were made and not to dismiss them almost wholly.

The timing for this debate could not have been better. There has just been a statement in the House on the Government’s five-point carbon action plan and the Met Office’s UK climate projections for 2009 have been announced. If ever we have had a sense of the priorities for this country, it is now. Apart from MPs and Parliament and the economic recovery from the recession, the one issue that we should all focus on now—as I know the Minister does—is how to deal with climate change.

If citizens across the UK, with whom we need to engage far more, were all familiar with the climate projections, they would expect Parliament to take action now. For our children and grandchildren, those will be not just abstract projections, but something with which they and future generations have to live. Our recommendations that the Government have rejected might not be the whole answer, but they could be part of it. We must get across to the people of this country the urgency of this issue. We cannot wait for academic answers, but must take action now.

Our recommendations on personal carbon trading for individuals and households tick all the boxes. If we could get that scheme going, it might make the other areas in which the Government want to take action more politically acceptable. For example, they might be able to get greater support for the urgent decisions that must be taken in the Copenhagen negotiations, for home insulation and for changing the behaviour of businesses and others. It is all very well having academic arguments, but we must have arguments that apply to people’s lives and to how they go about their daily business. Personal carbon trading is an idea whose time has come.

I listened carefully to the Select Committee Chairman’s remarks about the pilot project. We should consider how the Government introduced pilots for education maintenance allowances. There was a sense that something had to be done about keeping 16 to 18-year-olds in college to get their qualifications. There was not just
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one pilot in one area with certain guidelines, but many pilots were held in different parts of the country where different ideas could be experimented with and developed. There could be four pilot projects for our recommendations. We have representatives present from Scotland, Yorkshire, East Anglia and, of course, Stoke-on-Trent. We could devise an experimental method to see whether these ideas work over a limited period so that we can move the debate on.

I know that many hon. Members wish to speak. I was going to go through the details of our report, but as time is pressing that might not be the best use of my time. However, I hope that our constituents who are following this debate in detail feel encouraged to read the report and the Government response in full.

Finally, I wish to return to the issue of time. There have been various reports from Government. The Commission on Environmental Markets and Economic Performance report, which looked at how economic performance could be linked to environmental markets and green technologies, was introduced as a solution. It was presented in 2007 with great fanfare and the support of the commissioners who were involved in writing it. The commission was led by the then Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the report was very detailed. However, in the two years since, there has been little direct action on the ground, although there is an initiative to look at how green technologies can be developed more quickly.

I am afraid that in two years’ time the Select Committee report will be gathering dust and will not have produced the impetus that is needed to meet the global challenges of climate change. I know that the Minister works in a committed team, including the Secretary of State and the newly appointed Under-Secretary. I hope that in the midst of the five-point carbon plan and the run-up to Copenhagen, the Government do not just dismiss this report out of hand. Although this is only one of many reports produced by our influential Select Committee, the Government should work with us to establish a scheme slowly that could later be expanded.

3.9 pm

Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): Like others, I want to express my best wishes to you for Monday, Mr. Bercow. I certainly hope—I will be quite blunt—that you are successful.

I congratulate our Chairman, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), on his comprehensive analysis of our report and the Government’s response. I will do my best not to repeat any of the points that he made, although they are eminently repeatable. I look forward to 3 June 2010, which is the last possible date for a general election, because his constituents will have had the chance by then to analyse the consequences of his pilot programme. I will be waiting to see whether he wins a seventh endorsement for his stance.

Today is important because we have seen the publication of the climate change projections report, which I have here. It is also 20 days short of the fifth anniversary of the publication of my Domestic Tradable Quotas (Carbon Emissions) Bill, which dealt with personal carbon allowances and tradable energy quotas. I am pleased to be able to acknowledge the presence in the Public
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Gallery of David Fleming, who had a great hand in developing those ideas. It has been a long process. When I launched my ten-minute Bill, I thought that it might take the Government five years to take the idea seriously, but here we are, 20 days short of five years, and they are still not taking it seriously. They did for a while, but then the enthusiasm slipped away in a sea of timidity and out of a fear of the possible electoral consequences. The pilot project would therefore be welcome.

I will refer to this later, but I have just put in a Presentation Bill to put climate change health warnings on car advertising, in the same way that we put health warnings on tobacco. The aim is to influence people’s behaviour and to promote a better understanding of carbon in people’s lives and consumption. Why can advertisers use six or eight-point type to bury details about the amount of carbon that their products emit? Many of them—unless they are particularly proud of their cars’ green credentials—provide no explanation. We must start educating people, and that is where the Government need to do a lot more work.

We should look at the projections in today’s report to remind ourselves how precarious the situation is. One of the tables, which is taken from the intergovernmental panel on climate change’s fourth assessment report of 2008, shows that, on a high-emissions scenario, we will be heading for a 5.5 or 6° C increase. On a medium scenario, it will be 4° C. On a low scenario, it will be just under 3° C. Of course, we want to get to no more than 2° C, which, according to the IPCC, will require far more effort than will be needed to achieve the lowest of its emissions scenarios. That is a tremendous amount of effort, and the evidence from the negotiations, which took place in Bonn a few days ago, and which will continue up to Copenhagen, is that we will not get there—we will not reach the black line on the graph in today’s report.

The evidence that the Committee gathered in Washington a few weeks ago suggests that the American targets will be weakened to get a Bill through Congress. In fact, the target for emissions cuts by 2020—the all-important interim target—has come down from 20 to 17 per cent. A lot of people may not realise that that target is based on a 2005 baseline, not the 1990 baseline that our targets are based on. The American targets will include different sectors from ours, but ambition of even the most ambitious Bill that has a chance of success in Congress is well below current European objectives.

The signals from Bonn over the past few days are that the developing world is extremely unhappy about the extra commitment that we say we will make. We must make greater commitments, and they should go well beyond even what our carbon budgets say should happen. We need a successful and sufficient agreement, and the word “sufficient” is more important than the word “successful”, which can be a political minefield. If the agreement is sufficient, the EU and the UK will increase their targets according to the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations, but that is still a long way off. The science is saying that things are serious, but the political situation is even more dire.

We also have to look at the UK contribution. Most people say—Ministers often say this—that the UK is responsible for 2 per cent. of global emissions, which is
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true. Last year, however, the pocket environment guide produced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—I would recommend it as holiday reading to anybody going on their holidays, although not, of course, by air—showed that emissions related to UK consumption accounted for well above 15 per cent. of the global total. If we think about it, how could we claim to be the fifth or sixth biggest economy in the world with only 2 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions? That simply does not stack up.

That raises an important question about responsibility. We have to put it to people that their consumption is at the root of the problem—the problem does not start somewhere else. A Chinese coal-fired power station is part of a supply chain. I was thinking about this problem on the way back from last year’s climate change camp at Kingsnorth, which I visited with one or two other hon. Members. E.ON wants to build a new power station—originally, it wanted to build it without carbon capture and storage—so it becomes the enemy and the target of a great deal of campaigning. As I went back through the suburbs of east London on the train, however, I thought, “Here’s the real target. It’s all those kettles that get switched on. It’s those big flat-screen TVs.” When we campaign against climate change, our focus is on the big power producers, and there is a lot of credit in that approach, but the simple fact is that we tend to forget that it is individuals who demand electricity and the other forms of energy that they need for a comfortable lifestyle.

We have to address those people. If we do not, the power stations will still be built, including many of those in China, which produce the energy needed to make our cheap goods. Those Chinese power stations will continue to be built without CCS and will continue to create a problem. The Chinese are now using this issue as an argument. They say, “Why should we have to take the whole bitter pill when you lot created the problem and your consumption feeds our growth?” That is a powerful argument, and one which we would begin to address if we introduced personal carbon trading.

It has been said that such a scheme is very complex, but I simply do not believe that. If the people who invented supermarket reward cards had had somebody whispering in their ears, “It’s a complex scheme. Don’t do it,” we would not have Nectar cards at Sainsbury or Clubcards at Tesco. The carbon allowances scheme would be relatively simple, and it would be extremely condescending to say that a lot of people could not understand it. Indeed, it would be extremely simple; in some cases, people would not even be terribly conscious of it, because much of the hard work would be done by the utilities’ computers.

Let us compare the scheme with what we have now. I hope that nobody would argue that what we have now is simple and something that the public can understand. I would like to do a straw poll in Parliament square to see whether people understand the emissions trading scheme or know how much it saved last year in terms of carbon emissions. I would like to ask them what the renewables obligation and carbon emissions reduction targets are. The Government are creating more and more measures to deal with climate change, and I welcome them in so far as they go, but they are not sufficient and they do not address the real problem of our consumer society
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and our pursuit of greater gross domestic product per capita, which is, of course, expressed in terms of growth. There is a serious question to ask about whether the scheme would be more or less complex than all our upstream schemes, which are opaque, remote and mean nothing to the public.

If people knew what these things were—if they read the Committee’s reports more often, they probably would—they would know that the National Audit Office has suggested that the third phase of the EU ETS, including carbon trading, may deliver a domestic effort resulting in only a 7 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions. If people thought that they were paying all that extra in their bills just to get 7 per cent., they might be quite nonplussed. We have to be careful when we say that the scheme would be so complex that we could not possibly introduce it.

I have also sat for the past two and a half years on the Green Fiscal Commission, which looks at taxation issues. After two and half years I do not think that we are any closer to a simple way of addressing environmental taxation. That is a problem with taxation approaches: every time someone mentions the environment to a constituent, the next thought to pop into their head is “How much is that going to cost me?” The environment gets a bad name when everything that happens in connection to it is a new tax or a new cost.

We must go to the public and engage with them. We require a scheme that, as the Select Committee Chairman has said, is very progressive—the opposite of income tax and many other taxes. That would simplify our approach enormously. We now need to rest, permanently, the approach that has dominated the Government’s thinking when they have gone directly to the public—the voluntary approach. We have a number of quite good educational tools, the most of important of which is the Act On CO2 website. Last June the Minister was pleased to announce that there had been more than 1 million hits on the site since it was launched in the previous year. I do not know whether that number has doubled. Perhaps the Minister will tell us, on the first anniversary of that announcement, that there have now been 2 million hits. Deeper analysis, however, suggests that only half the people who went to the website did the calculation of their footprint, and only half of those did anything about it. The voluntary approach that leads to 1.2 million hits in a year has led, according to the Government’s analysis, to only 250,000 people doing something about it.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): In defence of the Government I would say that although 1.2 million hits is not nearly enough to transform the country’s attitude to carbon footprints, the translation of that figure to 250,000 personal actions and decisions is actually rather good.

Colin Challen: When the hon. Gentleman makes statements like that I can see that he is preparing for government. Yes, it is good if one person does something that they would not have done before, but those 250,000 might well have been people who were already prepared to do something. Preaching to the converted is not the answer; going well beyond that is the answer. The adult population is 60 million. If 250,000 people do something, out of 60 million, well—doing the maths myself it
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comes out at something like a quarter of 1.6 per cent. I may be wrong about that; I am not terribly good on that sort of thing, but the figure is still extraordinarily low.

That is borne out by polling evidence. The most recent Ipsos MORI monthly tracker of public opinion was probably sent to all MPs electronically a few weeks ago. People were asked:

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