Equally, I remember the speech my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins) made when the House debated the Libya campaign. He graphically described the reality of war and the photographs, brought back to him by colleagues he had served with in the armed forces, of burned and dismembered bodies. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) described how one of his constituents took his own life as a result of the mental trauma he had suffered in Afghanistan. It is never an easy decision to talk about military action. I have said in the House before that war is the failure of politicians—of people like us, in the safety of this House, in this country—to work within an organisation,

20 Feb 2012 : Column 708

but does that mean that we should hamstring ourselves at the start and say, “No matter what you do, there will be no military action”?

Military action could simply be provoked in the strait of Hormuz. If that waterway were closed, if British or any shipping were attacked, we would have no choice but to react. We have minesweepers and other ships in the area. If we pass the motion today and say that we will take no military action, we will send out an even worse signal to the world, but, even though I shall support the amendment in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), it does not mean that I do not sympathise with the motion that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay has tabled.

This has been an intelligent, heartfelt and engaging debate, and the one message from every speaker, whether they have been for the amendment or for the original motion, has been, “We want to avoid military action,” but I am slightly concerned that at times the debate has appeared to be about military action tomorrow. Military action tomorrow is simply not on the agenda, and if next week the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister came to the House and said, “We are going with the Americans to attack Iran because we can’t go any further,” I do not think that the House would be supportive. I do not think that at this stage of events the mood of the House would be to support such military intervention.

I return to the point, however, that that is not what we have been discussing today. We have been discussing whether we remove the option completely from the table, and I do not believe that we can. We need to work hard diplomatically and with countries such as Russia and China. We must have far better diplomatic negotiations with Russia to try to push Iran away from nuclear proliferation and ensure that it focuses on energy needs, because I am quite sure that the Russians do not want a nuclear-armed Iran and, then perhaps, an escalation in the middle east, just as much as everybody else does not, but unfortunately they are not prepared, for other reasons, to support the United Nations and the west in those areas.

I have absolute faith in this Foreign Secretary; I really do. This Foreign Secretary and this Foreign Office have moved the Department to a new standing in the world, something that had declined in recent years, and the Foreign Office and the people in it are well respected. As the Foreign Secretary said in his speech today, an entire section of the Foreign Office is engaged purely in negotiations with Iran and in diplomacy in the area, and that is to be applauded. I imagine that that is where all Members want the situation to move to, but much as none of us actually wants to use the military option, it does not mean that we can take it off the table.

9.43 pm

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): I congratulate again my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing the debate. Although I disagree with everything that he has said, I am grateful to him for challenging my views and those of others who oppose his motion.

I have three fundamental points to make. First, my hon. Friend said that there is no smoking gun, but I shall argue that there is a big smoking gun and that Iran is building a nuclear bomb; secondly, the nuclear programme

20 Feb 2012 : Column 709

is not a response to sanctions, as it was happening already; and, thirdly, we cannot be sure that if Iran had a bomb it would not use one either directly or through one of the many terrorist organisations that it supports.

It is worth examining those points in turn. First, is Iran building a nuclear bomb? The International Atomic Energy Agency report of November 2011 states clearly that Iran has acquired the knowledge, technology and resources to create a nuclear bomb within months. Its main findings, to quote section G, paragraph 43, are that Iran has procured

“nuclear related…equipment and materials”;


“nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network”;

and worked

“on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components”.

Putting that aside for one minute, what do Arab nations in the region say? They are in no doubt about what the Iranians are planning. As far back as 2008, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged the United States to

“cut off the head of the snake”

by halting Tehran’s nuclear programme. Last week, I was in Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The Kurds know all too well what a nuclear Iran would be like and are incredibly concerned about the implications. That is what is at stake in the region.

Nuclear ambition was not a response to sanctions; Iran already had it. We cannot appease Iran or hope for moderates to emerge within the regime. The United Nations sanctions began in 2006 in response to Iran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. As far back as 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran revealed Iran’s secret nuclear programme, much of which was later admitted to by the Iranian leadership on state television. Iran has repeatedly dismissed calls to negotiate. President Ahmadinejad now insists that his nuclear programme is unstoppable.

The only time when Iran suspended uranium enrichment, co-operated with the UN and signed the full non-proliferation treaty was in October 2003. Why did it do that at that time? Because a quarter of a million western troops had just toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq and were close to Iran’s western border. As soon as that threat diminished, Iran returned to its nuclear programme, which has led us to the point that we are at today.

Thirdly, we cannot be sure that Iran would not use a nuclear bomb. Iranian leaders have made numerous statements calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. Just last week, the Iranian website Alef published an article by Khamenei’s strategy chief, Alireza Forghani, detailing plans for the extermination of Israel. As British newspapers have reported, the dossier even pinpoints the housing estates with the highest concentration of Jewish people. That piece, which is now being run on most state-owned sites in Iran, states that because of the United States’ presidential election, the time for Iran to strike is now.

Last week, Iran’s Ministry of Defence announced that it had tested a two-stage ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear bomb. Earlier this month, the Deputy

20 Feb 2012 : Column 710

Prime Minister of Israel said that he had intelligence showing that that missile has a range of 6,200 km—enough to hit the United States and the United Kingdom.

I have described Iran before in this House as the new Soviet Union of the middle east: it represses its people at home and has expansionist aims abroad. It is widely recognised as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. It provides support to insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan that have attacked and killed British troops. A nuclear Iran does not just mean a nuclear Iran; it means a nuclear Hezbollah, a nuclear Hamas and so forth. As the former Iranian President, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, said, the

“application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel”.

The extremists in charge of Iran see their conflict as not just with their neighbours, but with the west. That is why they threatened to bomb Turkey last year. In 2006, Hassan Abbasi, the head of the Iranian doctrinal centre for strategic studies, said:

“Britain’s demise is on our agenda”.

He added:

“We have a strategy drawn up for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization…we must make use of everything we have at hand to strike at this front by means of our suicide operations or by means of our missiles.”

In conclusion, the Foreign Secretary has described the Iranian nuclear threat as the new cold war. The situation may be worse than that because in the past, nuclear deterrents worked because of mutual assured destruction—MAD—and the clear lines of communication. However, for MAD to work, one has to be sane and the Iranian regime has shown itself not to be with its constant human rights abuses, its attack on the British embassy and its support for terrorism. Let that be a lesson for the free world.

As I have mentioned, I was in Kurdistan last week near the Iranian border. I met Iranian Kurds who are persecuted by the Iranian regime. They knew the reality of a nuclear Iran, and they said that the only way that things would change was if there was regime change there. They asked why the west had not done more to support democratic and opposition movements, which would have made some difference and perhaps helped to facilitate regime change.

Finally, I wish to quote Niall Ferguson, who wrote recently in Newsweek:

“War is an evil. But sometimes a preventative war can be a lesser evil than a policy of appeasement. The people who don’t yet know that are the ones still in denial about what a nuclear-armed Iran would end up costing us all.”

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I intend to call the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) to wind up the debate no later than 9.56 pm.

9.50 pm

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing the debate.

We need to be clear about the danger that the world would face from a nuclear-armed Iran. As other Members have said, it is a state widely recognised as the world’s

20 Feb 2012 : Column 711

leading sponsor of international terrorism. It funds, trains and arms groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) has just said, it would be a grim prospect for the cause of peace in the middle east if those terrorist groups gained the protection of an Iranian nuclear umbrella.

The belligerence of the regime is perhaps explained by its expanding conventional missile programme. The Iranian regime has a large arsenal of missiles with a range of 1,300 km, which are capable of threatening Gulf states. As other Members have said, a nuclear-armed Iran would spark a nuclear arms race, as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and perhaps Egypt all sought to counter its regional hegemony.

Some argue, as some Members have tonight, that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is exaggerated, and that in any case we would be able to contain the threat. I believe that those people are living in a dream world. Containment of a nuclear-armed Iran would require overwhelming force and huge military deployment in the middle east, and we would need to confront its terrorist proxies. With the current conditions in the middle east and the instability of the region, that is not a realistic long-term option.

We have a responsibility to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear-armed power, and the Foreign Secretary and other Members are right to say that all options must be left on the table. The Foreign Secretary is right to pursue an aggressive sanctions policy. There is a lot of evidence that the sanctions regime is beginning to bite, but I believe it could go further. The assets of the Iranian central bank have been frozen in Europe, but there are limited exemptions to permit some legitimate trade. US sanctions do not include those exemptions. I believe that EU banking sanctions must be tightened up to bring them more in line with those imposed by the United States.

We should also examine the shipping industry more closely. Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines has been renaming and reregistering cargo ships to avoid sanctions. It has renamed 90 of its 123 ships since 2008. Given that Britain is a hub of shipping insurance, we need to work to ensure that the legal loopholes that the Iranian regime is exploiting are closed.

I believe that, as other hon. Members have said, we must do everything we can to prevent Iran from achieving its nuclear ambitions. The Foreign Secretary is right to work with our international partners across the European Community and the world to ensure that the sanctions that have been agreed, which are beginning to bite, will continue to do so. As I have said, I believe that more needs to be done to tighten up the sanctions regime that has been imposed on Iran. It poses a major threat to peace and stability in the middle east, and it must not under any circumstances be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.

9.54 pm

Mr Baron: I think it can safely be said that I have been in a very small minority in today’s debate, but I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for participating in it. The extent of the interest shown, particularly with a one-line Whip, has proved that it has been worthwhile, and there have been many interesting contributions. I remain of the view, though, that Government and

20 Feb 2012 : Column 712

Opposition Members have failed to address various points and have missed opportunities to better relations between Iran and the west.

The current policy of sanctions and sabre-rattling has failed. Iran will not be deterred, and yet the policy has brought us to the brink of military conflict. As most people accept, a military strike by Israel would be a disaster. It would unite Iran in fury behind the hard-liners in the country, it would not work because it would merely delay matters for perhaps a year at most, and it could lead to a regional war. Those who think otherwise are very wrong. Yet the Government and the Opposition keep the option of force on the table despite the fact that it would be disastrous, despite the fact that Iran ignores it, and despite the fact that it increases tensions and makes a peaceful outcome less likely. My contention is that by ruling it out we would reduce the tensions, bring ourselves back from the brink of military conflict, and give diplomacy a greater chance.

There has been no answer to my suggestion that the time has come for a fresh approach that recognises the status of Iran as a regional superpower. We need better to understand and engage with Iran. The precedent for this new relationship is Nixon’s rapprochement with the Chinese during the 1960s and 1970s; after all, China and the west had been at war in Korea just a decade before. The US needs to make it very clear to Israel that military action will not be acceptable. I saw no appetite for that in the House today, and I believe that we are missing a defining moment.

I hope that most of us, if not all, can accept that war should be the measure of last resort to be used only when all other avenues have been exhausted. My belief, by contrast with many of those who have spoken, is that we have not yet reached that point. I shall therefore oppose the amendment to my motion.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

The House divided:

Ayes 285, Noes 6.

Division No. 471]

[9.58 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Adams, Nigel

Afriyie, Adam

Ainsworth, rh Mr Bob

Alexander, rh Mr Douglas

Ali, Rushanara

Andrew, Stuart

Arbuthnot, rh Mr James

Ashworth, Jonathan

Austin, Ian

Bailey, Mr Adrian

Bain, Mr William

Baker, Norman

Barker, Gregory

Bayley, Hugh

Beith, rh Sir Alan

Benyon, Richard

Berger, Luciana

Berry, Jake

Bingham, Andrew

Binley, Mr Brian

Blackman, Bob

Blackman-Woods, Roberta

Blenkinsop, Tom

Boles, Nick

Bone, Mr Peter

Bottomley, Sir Peter

Bridgen, Andrew

Brown, Lyn

Brown, Mr Russell

Bruce, Fiona

Bryant, Chris

Buckland, Mr Robert

Burns, Conor

Burns, rh Mr Simon

Burrowes, Mr David

Burt, Alistair

Byrne, rh Mr Liam

Cable, rh Vince

Cairns, Alun

Campbell, Mr Alan

Campbell, rh Sir Menzies

Carmichael, rh Mr Alistair

Chapman, Mrs Jenny

Chope, Mr Christopher

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Coaker, Vernon

Coffey, Dr Thérèse

Collins, Damian

Cooper, rh Yvette

Crabb, Stephen

Creasy, Stella

Cunningham, Tony

Curran, Margaret

Dakin, Nic

Davey, Mr Edward

David, Mr Wayne

Davidson, Mr Ian

Davies, Glyn

De Piero, Gloria

Djanogly, Mr Jonathan

Docherty, Thomas

Dodds, rh Mr Nigel

Doyle, Gemma

Dromey, Jack

Duddridge, James

Dugher, Michael

Duncan, rh Mr Alan

Eagle, Ms Angela

Eagle, Maria

Efford, Clive

Ellis, Michael

Ellman, Mrs Louise

Ellwood, Mr Tobias

Elphicke, Charlie

Evans, Graham

Fabricant, Michael

Featherstone, Lynne

Field, rh Mr Frank

Fitzpatrick, Jim

Flello, Robert

Flint, rh Caroline

Fovargue, Yvonne

Fox, rh Dr Liam

Francois, rh Mr Mark

Freeman, George

Gapes, Mike

Gardiner, Barry

Garnier, Mr Edward

Garnier, Mark

Gauke, Mr David

George, Andrew

Gilbert, Stephen

Glindon, Mrs Mary

Goggins, rh Paul

Goodman, Helen

Goodwill, Mr Robert

Gove, rh Michael

Graham, Richard

Grayling, rh Chris

Greatrex, Tom

Green, Kate

Greening, rh Justine

Griffith, Nia

Gwynne, Andrew

Hague, rh Mr William

Hain, rh Mr Peter

Halfon, Robert

Hames, Duncan

Hamilton, Mr David

Hammond, Stephen

Hancock, Matthew

Hands, Greg

Hanson, rh Mr David

Harman, rh Ms Harriet

Harper, Mr Mark

Harris, Rebecca

Harris, Mr Tom

Harvey, Nick

Hayes, Mr John

Heath, Mr David

Hemming, John

Hendrick, Mark

Herbert, rh Nick

Hilling, Julie

Hinds, Damian

Hoban, Mr Mark

Hollingbery, George

Hollobone, Mr Philip

Hopkins, Kris

Horwood, Martin

Hosie, Stewart

Howarth, Mr Gerald

Howell, John

Hunt, rh Mr Jeremy

Hurd, Mr Nick

Jackson, Mr Stewart

Jamieson, Cathy

Jarvis, Dan

Javid, Sajid

Jenkin, Mr Bernard

Johnson, Diana

Johnson, Gareth

Johnson, Joseph

Jones, Andrew

Jones, Graham

Jones, Mr Kevan

Jones, Susan Elan

Joyce, Eric

Kawczynski, Daniel

Khan, rh Sadiq

Kirby, Simon

Lamb, Norman

Lancaster, Mark

Latham, Pauline

Lee, Jessica

Lee, Dr Phillip

Leigh, Mr Edward

Leslie, Chris

Letwin, rh Mr Oliver

Lewis, Mr Ivan

Lidington, rh Mr David

Lilley, rh Mr Peter

Lloyd, Stephen

Lloyd, Tony

Loughton, Tim

Lucas, Ian

Luff, Peter

Macleod, Mary

MacNeil, Mr Angus Brendan

Mann, John

Marsden, Mr Gordon

McCann, Mr Michael

McCartney, Jason

McClymont, Gregg

McGovern, Jim

McGuire, rh Mrs Anne

McIntosh, Miss Anne

McLoughlin, rh Mr Patrick

Mensch, Louise

Menzies, Mark

Mercer, Patrick

Michael, rh Alun

Miller, Andrew

Miller, Maria

Mills, Nigel

Milton, Anne

Mitchell, rh Mr Andrew

Moore, rh Michael

Morgan, Nicky

Morris, James

Mosley, Stephen

Murphy, rh Mr Jim

Murray, Ian

Murray, Sheryll

Murrison, Dr Andrew

Newmark, Mr Brooks

Newton, Sarah

Norman, Jesse

Nuttall, Mr David

O'Donnell, Fiona

Ollerenshaw, Eric

Onwurah, Chi

Ottaway, Richard

Patel, Priti

Penning, Mike

Penrose, John

Perkins, Toby

Perry, Claire

Phillips, Stephen

Pickles, rh Mr Eric

Pound, Stephen

Prisk, Mr Mark

Rees-Mogg, Jacob

Reeves, Rachel

Reid, Mr Alan

Reynolds, Emma

Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm

Robertson, Angus

Rogerson, Dan

Rosindell, Andrew

Roy, Mr Frank

Ruane, Chris

Rutley, David

Selous, Andrew

Shapps, rh Grant

Sharma, Alok

Shelbrooke, Alec

Sheridan, Jim

Simmonds, Mark

Simpson, Mr Keith

Slaughter, Mr Andy

Smith, Miss Chloe

Smith, Nick

Smith, Owen

Soames, rh Nicholas

Soubry, Anna

Spellar, rh Mr John

Stanley, rh Sir John

Stephenson, Andrew

Stewart, Bob

Stewart, Iain

Stewart, Rory

Straw, rh Mr Jack

Stride, Mel

Stringer, Graham

Stunell, Andrew

Sturdy, Julian

Swales, Ian

Swayne, rh Mr Desmond

Swinson, Jo

Syms, Mr Robert

Tami, Mark

Teather, Sarah

Thomas, Mr Gareth

Thornberry, Emily

Timms, rh Stephen

Timpson, Mr Edward

Tomlinson, Justin

Trickett, Jon

Uppal, Paul

Vaizey, Mr Edward

Vara, Mr Shailesh

Vickers, Martin

Villiers, rh Mrs Theresa

Wallace, Mr Ben

Watson, Mr Tom

Watts, Mr Dave

Webb, Steve

Wharton, James

Wheeler, Heather

Whittingdale, Mr John

Wiggin, Bill

Williams, Stephen

Williamson, Gavin

Willott, Jenny

Wilson, Phil

Winterton, rh Ms Rosie

Wishart, Pete

Woodcock, John

Wright, David

Wright, Mr Iain

Wright, Jeremy

Wright, Simon

Young, rh Sir George

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr Philip Dunne and

Mark Hunter


Baron, Mr John

Durkan, Mark

Edwards, Jonathan

Flynn, Paul

McDonnell, John

Skinner, Mr Dennis

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr Elfyn Llwyd and

Steve Baker

Question accordingly agreed to.

20 Feb 2012 : Column 713

20 Feb 2012 : Column 714

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to .

Resolved ,

That this House supports the Government’s efforts to reach a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through a combination of pressure in the form of robust sanctions, and engagement led by the E3+3 comprising the UK, US, France, Germany, China and Russia; and recognises the value of making clear to Iran that all options for addressing the issue remain on the table.

20 Feb 2012 : Column 715

Future of Biomass

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

10.15 pm

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): I start from the assumption that biomass is a promising technology that could, if handled correctly, help to reduce our net carbon emissions in the context of Government policy. My reservations relate to the air pollution emissions from biomass and to whether we have sufficiently robust sustainability criteria.

In response to a parliamentary question that I tabled, the previous Government revealed in a written answer on 26 September 2009, at Hansard columns 695-96, that the then target of 38 TWh of biomass risked causing £557 million of annual social costs. In blunt terms, that means people dying early because of polluted air. That was supplemented by a written answer to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) on 10 November 2009, at Hansard column 219, that made it clear that the mortality bill would be 340,000 life-years in 2020 alone. By my maths, using those figures, I reckon that a small, 20 MW, biomass plant running at 85% efficiency would kill roughly 17 people a year—and that is just the mortality impact. The Government have made no estimate of the cost of ill health consequent on polluting the air. If the Minister or his Department can find fault with my figures, or perhaps find more precise ones, let us hear them. However, I do not think that one can get away from the central, appalling fact that unabated biomass emissions will kill significant numbers of our fellow citizens, and this as a result of deliberate—or, if not deliberate, negligent—public policy.

A recent report by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, “The Mortality Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Particulate Air Pollution in the United Kingdom”, published on 21 December last year, estimated that the 2008 burden of particulates cost

“an associated loss of total population life of 340,000 life-years…a greater burden than the mortality impacts of environmental tobacco smoke or road traffic accidents.”

That figure is remarkable: it is exactly the level of extra burden to be inflicted on the UK atmosphere by 2020 under originally intended biomass targets. It cannot be right that public policy risks effectively doubling existing mortality rates. In contrast, currently at least in the UK, the mortality and morbidity caused by carbon emissions is presumably nil.

Near my constituency, at Barton, we have had planning permission turned down for a biomass plant that would have contributed significant amounts of particulates—ammonia, oxides of nitrogen and arsenic—to an area already under stress as an officially designated air quality management area. To be fair, the amount of arsenic to be emitted would have been restrained, because the amount of CCA—chromated copper arsenate—wood would have been limited to small quantities contained in demolition rubble. I doubt that constituents were greatly reassured on that count, but why are we allowing such toxic material to be burned in biomass at all? The bigger point is that if we can improve automotive exhausts supposedly to the extent that they can be “cleaner than the air we breathe”, it should not be beyond the wit of man to design a biomass burner that

20 Feb 2012 : Column 716

screens out the majority of particulates and therefore does not bring early death and disease to the population at large.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): The proposed biomass plant to which my hon. Friend refers would have been in my constituency. Does he agree that it is of great concern that there seems to be no drive to use the best available technology, which is what really ought to underline any decisions about such plants?

Graham Stringer: That is the point that I am making.

There is another trap to avoid. It is important to make the distinction between biomass that is good and biomass that is bad for the carbon balance in our atmosphere; otherwise, the danger is that biomass will be tarnished in the same way that first-generation biofuels were, creating a wall of cynicism about biofuels in general. Installing bad biomass plants around the UK rather than good ones would not only be a prodigious waste of taxpayers’ money, but embed into our electricity generation system for years to come a significant proportion of unsustainable electricity production.

I was drawn to the opinion of the European Environment Agency scientific committee on greenhouse gas accounting that was published on 15 September 2011, a copy of which I have submitted to the Minister’s officials. It knocks on the head the assumption that biomass combustion is always inherently carbon neutral, and points to the “double counting” that causes that error. The report explains that the assumption

“ignores the fact that using land to produce plants for energy typically means that this land is not producing plants for other purposes, including carbon otherwise sequestered.”

If biomass production replaces forests or reduces forest stocks or forest growth that would otherwise sequester more carbon, it can increase net carbon concentrations. If biomass displaces food crops, as biofuels did, it can lead to hunger if crops are not replaced, and to emissions from land use change if they are. The committee concluded that to reduce carbon in the air, bioenergy production must increase the net total of plant growth, or must be derived from biomass wastes that would otherwise decompose.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent contribution. Another unintended consequence could involve the cost of crops. Biofuels have already been mentioned, but my farmers are also concerned about straw and about raising costs when they could be subsidising a biomass plant.

Graham Stringer: The hon. Lady makes an important point.

The committee warns that the danger of that error is “immense”, stating that

“current harvests…have already caused enormous loss of habitat by affecting perhaps 75% of the world’s ice- and desert-free land, depleting water supplies, and releasing large quantities of carbon into the air.”

On that basis, it urges that European Union regulations and policy targets should be revised to allow bioenergy use only from additional biomass that reduces net greenhouse gas emissions without displacing other necessities such as the production of food and fibre. It advises that accounting standards should fully reflect

20 Feb 2012 : Column 717

all changes in the amount of carbon stored by ecosystem, and that energy production from biomass should be based on by-products, wastes and residues rather than on stem wood that would otherwise continue happily to grow as forest biomass.

The implications of that analysis were explored by Atlantic Consulting in “Biomass’ Forgotten Carbon Cost”, published on 8 November 2011. I have sent a copy of that paper to the Minister’s Department, as well. Atlantic Consulting looked at the pattern of typical biomass plants in the UK and found that 58% of their fuel tonnage derived from wood. Some of that is waste, such as end-of-life furniture and arboreal cuttings, and some is residue, such as that from sawmills. Unfortunately, however, the largest fuel component of biomass power is stem wood—that is, tree trunks harvested with the intent of using them for boiler fuel.

Atlantic Consulting proceeded to estimate the carbon footprint of a typical UK biomass plant. Interestingly, its footprint is 690 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kWh, which is well above the current UK average footprint of 520 grams per kWh and the lowest-carbon conventional gas-fired combined cycle at 401 grams per kWh. It also far exceeds the eligibility hurdle of 285.12 grams per kWh set for renewable obligation certificates from 2013. In that light, more than half of biomass-powered capacity would not qualify for credits under the renewables obligation. That could be a shock to the owners if they found that they did not benefit, and it would certainly be a shock to taxpayers if they found that they were subsidising higher-carbon power generation than the existing average.

Will the Minister provide the owners and the taxpayers with a measure of reassurance, because it appears that the current sustainability criteria for biomass are not stringent enough? If the European Environment Agency scientific committee or Atlantic Consulting are wrong in their thinking, will he please explain the situation, so that we can get this right for all concerned? The interests of the economy and of the environment demand clarity.

In October last year, the Scottish Government published a consultation that proposed removing all subsidy from large-scale woody biomass electricity plants. Large-scale electricity-only biomass was, in their view, inefficient and required more wood than the UK could produce. Although current plans are to import wood, there is no guarantee that biomass plant operators will look exclusively abroad for their wood, and the overseas supply might not be stable or secure. The current subsidy means biomass providers will be able to afford more than the current market rate for wood, which might push prices up and price out traditional wood industries such as sawmills, wood panel mills, furniture manufacturers and construction, which in turn, the Scottish Government said, puts hundreds of skilled rural jobs at risk. What is the Minister’s view of the Scottish policy stance? Are the Scottish Government wrong, or are they ahead of the game?

Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): In the past five years we have seen wood prices rise by 55% because of biomass subsidies. An employer in my constituency, the furniture manufacturer Senator, which employs about 1,000 people has to compete against rising wood prices simply because of the biomass subsidy. Should not the

20 Feb 2012 : Column 718

Government consider the impact of biomass subsidies on employment in furniture manufacturers and other wood-using companies, as well as the impact on the environment?

Graham Stringer: My hon. Friend makes exactly the same point as I did in a different way.

I think that biomass deserves a place in the renewable energy mix of the future, but we need to get the rules of the game straight in advance, so that society is not left picking up the pieces of an impetuous policy.

10.26 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) on conducting this timely and important debate. I recognise the real concern and knowledge he has brought to it. Many serious issues relating to our future energy strategy were raised, albeit briefly, including the potential impacts on human health and the sustainability of biomass feedstocks. These are issues that my Department takes extremely seriously.

The hon. Gentleman argued passionately and with genuine conviction, so I welcome the opportunity to explain the Government’s policy on the issues raised. Above all, I seek to reassure hon. Members of the coalition’s commitment to protecting human health and the wider environment.

The coalition is building an economy that counts and cuts our carbon emissions. We are making our energy secure in a volatile world and helping to create more green jobs and a more sustainable economy. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, we are determined to make this coalition the greenest Government ever. That pledge has many strands, but an increased use of sustainable biomass is clearly an important element of it. Sustainable biomass is extremely versatile; its efficient use will play a key role in helping to meet the many challenges of decarbonising our economy. This is true not just for energy, but right across the thriving bioeconomy we want to develop.

I understand the concerns—very important ones—expressed about the effect on air quality, on the natural environment and on the wider health of communities. I recognise that these are crucial issues and not just for those in the immediate vicinity of biomass power plants. Hon. Members will be aware of the Environmental Audit Committee’s ninth report, “Air Quality: A follow-up report”. I am unable to pre-empt the Government’s formal response to that report, which has yet to be published, but I would certainly acknowledge that there are significant health and environmental benefits from reducing air pollution.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman has erred in his calculations on mortality linked to biomass emissions. I am happy to correct some misapprehensions. Larger-scale industrial and commercial plant do not have the same properties as domestic boilers; they are very different indeed. Plant of this scale is more likely to have chimneys appropriately sized to allow emissions to disperse much more easily into the immediate atmosphere. This reduces the impact of the emissions on ground-level concentrations very significantly indeed. Larger-scale plants operate better and are more efficient, and I can also reassure the

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hon. Gentleman that all modern biomass plants here in the United Kingdom are subject to stringent pollution controls. Indeed, emissions from waste incinerators are more strictly regulated than those resulting from any other form of thermal power generation.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Peel Energy’s proposed new plant at Trafford, Greater Manchester. I am, of course, unable to comment specifically on that particular project, but the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), discussed similar issues in Westminster Hall in 2010.

Let me remind the House of the extremely rigorous permitting process to which a 20 MW biomass plant will need to be subjected. Developers must produce an environmental statement covering transport, social and environmental issues. It may be necessary to comply with the waste incineration directive, which sets strict emission limits for pollutants. The Environment Agency will not grant the requisite permits for a waste incinerator if it does not comply with the directive, and the plant would be likely to be subject to the environmental permitting regulated by the agency.

The legislation sets strict environmental standards for thermal plant, which cover a range of pollutants including nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, heavy metals and dioxins. If the Environment Agency were to issue a permit, it would cover such issues as limits on emissions to air, water, sewer, land and groundwater; the disposal of ash; operating conditions such as temperature, oxygen and polluting gas concentrations; conditions relating to the fuel that can be burnt; monitoring and reporting requirements; and conditions to achieve control of noise emissions and energy efficiency. The agency would then regulate the plant by requiring continuous monitoring of the main pollutants for which strict limits are set and periodic monitoring for other substances, conducting regular announced and unannounced inspections, investigating non-compliance with any condition of the permit, and taking enforcement action if necessary.

Let me also dispel some myths about emissions from biomass specifically. Emissions from biomass and energy from waste plants have fallen considerably in recent years as a result of new stringent standards. Biomass burning causes only a small fraction of the air-quality impacts in the United Kingdom, most of which are caused by transport. Studies of the health of communities living near energy from waste plants have not established convincing links between emissions and any adverse effects on public health. It is clearly not possible to rule out adverse health effects completely, but any potential damage from modern, well-run and well-regulated incinerators is likely to be undetectable.

Let me now deal with the reasons for supporting biomass energy, alongside other uses of wood and biomass. There is a great diversity of biomass feedstocks, including energy crops, waste wood and municipal waste. Our future energy landscape will require a mix of technologies, including onshore and offshore wind, solar, nuclear, fossil fuel with carbon capture, and, of course, biomass. There will also be a mix of sizes, from decentralised householder energy to large electricity plants and coal-to- biomass conversions.

Biomass is one of the most important contributors to the new energy landscape that we are building. Its second defining feature is versatility: it can be used for

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heat, electricity and transport. Moreover, bioenergy can provide significant new business and employment opportunities for the UK. For example, the expansion of biomass heat in off-gas-grid areas in the UK will mean a growing order book for specialist boiler manufacturers and demand for new local businesses to provide installation and maintenance, and will create opportunities throughout the biomass production and distribution chain. Since April 2011, investments totalling at least £1.6 billion have been announced for biomass technologies, and they have the potential to create nearly 5,000 jobs.

Graham Jones: May I take up a question asked earlier? Has the Minister carried out a study of the effects on employment, particularly in the furniture industry? He has spoken of jobs being gained, but what about the jobs that will be lost if wood-making industries are adversely affected?

Gregory Barker: We do not believe that this is a zero-sum game. We believe that the majority of biomass for use in waste or energy plants will be imported; this is not about sucking in the available biomass that, rightly, goes into other industries, and I will address that later.

Of course, building a low-carbon energy system will not be easy, and we know that substantial changes will be required as we move away from the familiar technologies of today. Decisions taken now will shape our energy future for decades to come, so it is vital that we make the right strategic decisions. We will make sure that safeguards are in place to ensure that technologies are low-carbon, efficient and sustainable.

I think that we can all agree that biomass, and its use for energy, raises complicated issues, and we have heard several such examples from the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton. That is why the Department of Energy and Climate Change will publish a cross-government UK bioenergy strategy next month, which will recognise the complexity and importance of these issues. Key for the strategy has been understanding the value of the alternative uses of biomass in decarbonising the economy, in terms of both cost-effectiveness and carbon-effectiveness. There are very real questions as to what is the best of use of the world’s limited biomass feedstocks and, indeed, how far bioenergy saves carbon compared with fossil fuels.

We also want to understand how the growth of bioenergy has an impact on other uses, which relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones). We have considered the availability and price of feedstocks, including for traditional uses of wood, and we have also worked closely with the Committee on Climate Change, which published its own review in December. We are also working closely with stakeholders. I hope that hon. Members will see that this is an extensive piece of work, but the strategy is not yet finished. It is clear that the use of wood and energy crops for energy production can lead to positive carbon balances, and that is true even when accounting for life-cycle analysis. Our evidence shows that wood products are valuable as carbon stores, and they have an important role to play alongside bioenergy in decarbonising the economy. Clearly, we need to take a holistic view of biomass uses in setting bioenergy policy, and that is what we will do in taking policy decisions, for example

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on the renewables obligation banding review. We will also do that when looking at support for renewable heat technologies and renewable transport. We will also ensure that our carbon objectives marry up with our wider energy ones.

However, it is crucial that we take action on biomass sustainability. We will therefore ensure that bioenergy does not result in the loss of important habitat or release more carbon than it saves. Biomass can be a very low-carbon energy source, but that requires it to be grown, harvested, processed and transported sustainably. That is why we have introduced sustainability criteria into the renewables obligation, which means that only sustainable biomass will be supported in the future. Generators will report on their performance against a target of 60% greenhouse gas emissions savings compared with fossil fuel use and they will also have to report on land use criteria. We have set an ambitious but, we believe, achievable target that will ensure that investment in new bioenergy comes forward to deliver our energy and climate goals. From April 2013 we intend that the payment of renewable obligation certificates will be linked to these standards. Biomass that does not meet these standards will not qualify for financial support, and we expect to introduce similar standards into the renewable heat incentive.

Using wood and biomass feedstock for renewable energy is a necessary step towards our goals, but it is not the only use of this resource. Wood products and other non-energy uses of biomass are also important in decarbonising and strengthening our economy. The Government are committed to ensuring a strong future for the wood products industry. We recognise that the growth of bioenergy must not be at the expense of the other sectors that serve similar aims, and we are committed to a close and continuing dialogue with biomass-using industries to ensure we understand their needs appropriately.

We intend that there be competition between sectors, but that competition needs to be positive, sustainable and not destructive. Developing local sources of supply to fuel the growth of renewable heat is another gain, as is using locally produced residues such as straw and waste products at the end of their life. The Government are also very aware of the potential of the global

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market for sustainable feedstocks. We expect much of the growth of bioenergy in this country to be fuelled by imports, particularly from north America and the EU, which are sources of sustainable timber. Expanding imports is an important way to avoid damaging competition for domestic supplies. Wood fuel is increasingly traded as a global commodity, so UK wood supplies can and will be exported for energy use in other countries where that will deliver a better price.

Graham Jones: The Minister is generous in accepting interventions. As I alluded to earlier, wood prices have risen by about 55% in the past five years, which is clearly the result of market forces. Does he not think that that will carry on, thus putting pressure on those other industries that use wood?

Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point, and I understand that friction. Traditional users of British timber and wood waste have legitimate concerns, which we continue to hear. We will continue to ensure that their voice is clearly heard in policy making. The representations that they have made have been reflected in the way in which we have responsibly ensured that the users of biomass are not over-subsidised, which can be seen in the renewables obligation review and the renewable heat incentive. We think that there is a fair balance to be struck. There is a global market, which is one of the main reasons why domestic feedstock prices have been rising—it is not just the result of domestic demand.

I thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton for introducing this valuable debate, which has allowed the Government to put some important data on the record. Our challenge is to build a low-carbon economy that is based on energy supplies that are safe, secure and sustainable; that creates green jobs and sustainable growth; and that delivers economic prosperity. The efficient use of sustainable biomass in all sectors will play a key role in helping us to meet that challenge. We will of course continue to maintain our commitment to the protection of human health and the environment above all things.

Question put and agreed to.

10.42 pm

House adjourned.