I beg to move,
That this House has considered the UK’s Climate Progress: the Committee on Climate Change’s 2021 Progress Report.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. It is slightly regrettable that a similar debate is taking place in the main Chamber as we speak; it would have been nice to be able to speak in both, but this is one of the scheduling things that happens.
I think we all agree that tackling climate change is the biggest challenge facing humankind at present. Global temperatures have so far risen by 1.2° centigrade over the last century, and they are currently rising at about 0.25° per decade. That is being driven by the rise in greenhouse gas emissions—most significantly, carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is now 429 parts per million in the atmosphere, which is 50% higher than before the industrial revolution. Human civilisation is destroying the benign climate that our planet has enjoyed for the last 20,000 years and that enabled human civilisation to flourish in the first place. Our generation has a moral duty to pass on to future generations a planet that is sustainable, but it is also in our generation’s self-interest to achieve that.
I am not a natural doom-monger but an optimist at heart. We have had far more than our share of dark times over the last couple of years, so I want to highlight some good news. According to Our World in Data, a fantastic source of information, the UK emitted less carbon dioxide per capita in 2019 than in any year since 1859, when the industrial revolution was just gathering pace—with the one exception of 1926, which was the year of the general strike. Our per-capita CO2 emissions are the lowest they have been for a century and a half. In total, our CO2 emissions have declined by almost a half since the benchmark year of 1990. That is not just a bigger decline than in any other G7 country; it is actually a bigger decline than in any G20 country.
“World-leading” may be a much-abused phrase, but it really is true that the UK is world-leading on reaching towards net zero. Our emissions per capita are now less than those of China, and they are one third of the levels in US, Canada and Australia. We emit less per capita than the EU average, less per person than Germany and less even than the eco-leaders Norway and Denmark. When I meet parliamentarians from other countries who are interested in environmental issues, the most frequent question they ask is: what is the UK’s secret to doing so well in reaching towards net zero?
At the beginning of the industrial revolution, the UK was responsible for almost exactly 100% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We are now responsible for just 1%. That is a tribute to the hard work and leadership of this and past UK Governments, and I welcome the announcements that we had this week, which I will refer to later. It is also a tribute to those in environment groups and industry who have worked so hard to raise awareness of climate change and help tackle it. Their efforts are bearing fruit.
In its 2021 report to Parliament on reducing emissions, the Climate Change Committee recognises the UK’s achievements. It says:
“The UK has a leading record in reducing its own emissions”.
That leadership role really matters as we head off to Glasgow for COP26, which the UK is obviously leading. We have enshrined in law not just reaching net zero by 2050, but a 78% reduction in emissions by 2035. That is the most ambitious nationally determined contribution that any country in the world is bringing to COP26—I hope that point is being made in the debate taking place in the main Chamber. Fingers crossed, such leadership will help us achieve more ambitious contributions from other countries. In turn, that will hopefully keep global warming down to a maximum of 1.5° centigrade—we need to keep 1.5 alive.
When it comes to net zero, we as a country can be justifiably be proud of what we have achieved so far. That is absolutely no excuse for complacency, but it means that our efforts so far have been worth while—they are paying off. But now the bad news: we are still not doing enough. That is the overriding message from the Climate Change Committee’s 2021 progress report. If we are to get to net zero by 2050, the hard work has yet to come. We have reduced emissions by around a half over the past three decades, as I said, but it will be far more difficult to do the same over the next three decades. The CCC says:
“UK emissions are nearly 50% below 1990 levels, but the journey to Net Zero is far from half done.”
In policy terms, we have cut the fat but we are now down to the bone.
Most of our cuts in emissions have come from decarbonising the power sector. We are on the brink of phasing out coal, and wind power is now our main source of electricity—that was unthinkable when I was environment editor of The Observer and The Times 20 years ago. Other sectors have done well: emissions from industry have fallen by 53% since 1990 and emissions from waste are down by 69% as a result of sending less biodegradable matter to landfills. More topically, the CCC has reported that we had the biggest ever drop in emissions last year; as a result of the pandemic, they fell by 13%. Unsurprisingly, the biggest fall was in aviation emissions, which were down 60% last year alone. However, clearly that is a one-off and already bouncing back.
The good news is that our reductions in emissions mean that, in purely numerical terms, as of now we are on track to meet net zero by 2050. Our reductions have been big enough to get there. The CCC said that the rate of the reduction since 2012—over the last nine years—is enough to get us to net zero by 2050 if we carry on reducing at that rate. This is a very big “if”. The CCC report, using charts and graphs, said that we do not have the policies in place to keep reducing at that rate. The key message was that "The Government has made historic climate promises in the past year, for which it deserves credit. However, it has been too slow to follow these with delivery.”
It warned that we will not meet our emission targets for 2028 to 2032—the so-called fifth carbon budget—let alone the sixth carbon budget of 2033 to 2037. At the time of its publication in June, it estimated that the credible policies covered only about 20% of the reductions to meet the sixth carbon budget.
This is all very perplexing: how can we be both on track, as I said earlier, but also off track? The best analogy that I can come up with is the 2010 film “Unstoppable”, about a runaway train—a very good film for those who want to pass a couple of hours. Our heroes, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, keep the speeding, out-of-control train on track, but they know there is a sharp bend ahead. It is inevitable that when the train reaches that bend it will fly off the track and kill lots of people in houses, unless they do something dramatic. Likewise, we need to do something dramatic to stay on track for net zero by 2050. That means we cannot just keep on with the policies that have served us so far.
The decarbonisation of power generation is a one-off that cannot be done forever: once we have phased out coal, we cannot phase it out again. The Government have just committed to making all power generation net zero by 2035—something that I have publicly called for and welcome. However, that means that power, the sector that has done most of the heavy lifting to net zero, will not be able to do any more from 2035. Other sectors will have to make up the difference.
That is a very good point and I will come to it briefly. We need absolutely to try and get to net zero, but also to promote measures such as insulation and energy efficiency in housing and industry to reduce consumption.
We need other measures, rather than just decarbonising power. These other measures are where the potential political pain comes. Decarbonising electricity production did not really require consumers to change anything. The electricity supply to their homes and their sockets was the same as before, but produced in a climate-friendly way. They had the same cars and same central heating systems. However, with other sectors needing to decarbonise, future policies will inevitably have a more direct impact on consumers. That is why we need more political will in the coming decades, not less. This should be doable. The public are very supportive; a large majority say they want stronger action on climate change.
The CCC did welcome the advances in policy that have already been made. In last year’s report they made 92 different recommendations; this year’s report says that 72—over 75% of them—have either been achieved, partly achieved or are underway. That is a good record. However, it thought that things were going too slowly. It concluded that clearly policy progress is being made, but it is not yet happening at the necessary pace. Only 11 of the 72 recommendations have been achieved in full.
The report states that in 21 areas of abatement—places where we can make real changes—sufficient ambition is being maintained in only four. The report welcomes the Government’s ambitions until 2025 on electric cars and vans, off-shore wind and tree planting. I very much welcome that here the Government are in line with the committee’s recommendations. In last year’s 10-point plan for climate change, the Government committed to 40 GW of offshore wind power by 2030, which is what the CCC is calling for—tick! They also committed to 30,000 hectares of tree planting a year by 2025, which again is what the CCC is calling for—tick!
In some ways, the Government have arguably gone further than the CCC wanted. It wanted to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2032, but the Government are bringing in the ban from 2030—two years earlier. That really is a world-leading ambition. Sales of electric vehicles are already escalating rapidly, and although the charging point infrastructure is not being rolled out quite fast enough for some electric car drivers, it is going at pace. Industry is taking the lead from the Government, with Jaguar having committed to selling only electric vehicles from 2025, and Ford has just announced that it will make parts for electric cars at its Halewood plant in Liverpool, giving it a new lease of life.
I am delighted to say that there has been significant progress since the CCC published its report in June and since this debate was applied for. In particular, the CCC was critical of the Government for not having published their transport decarbonisation plan, their hydrogen strategy, their heat and building strategy and their overall net zero strategy—it criticised them for the uncertainty and delay. To their credit, the Government published the first two, on transport and hydrogen, in the summer, and the heat and building strategy and the net zero strategy were published just a couple of days ago. Those included measures such as: a £5,000 grant to make clean-heat heat pumps affordable for homeowners; working with industry to ensure that clean heat is as cheap as gas-fired central heating by 2030; and a target to stop any new gas boilers from being installed by 2035—another world-first commitment.
The CCC has also chastised the Government for a lack of ambition on carbon capture and storage, which was the subject of a debate in this Chamber yesterday. It has said that we need to capture 22 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2030 while the Government were targeting only 10 million tonnes a year by then. It noted that that was the biggest single gap between what it had called for and what the Government were planning. When I drafted my speech at the beginning of the week, I was going to call on the Government to be more ambitious on CCS. Then, on Tuesday, they were: they announced two new clusters and a target of between 20 million and 30 million tonnes a year by 2030, which is potentially more than the CCC asked for. Hurrah! Those targets must be turned into reality, but the announcement is a big step forward.
The more ambitious the Government are, the happier I will be, but I totally bow to the Government’s metrics. The first two projects are right for the first phase, and the Acorn project is in reserve. I think the Minister said yesterday that being the reserve puts the project in a more advanced position for the second phase of the next two that will come—I am not sure whether anyone picked that up.
In my draft speech, I was also going to echo the Climate Change Committee’s call on the Government to commit to greenhouse gas removal targets, for which they had no target at all. The CCC said that the UK Government need to target 5 million tonnes of removal by 2030. In the net zero strategy this week, I discovered as I read through it that the Government committed to do exactly that—I did not see that reported anywhere, however. They also committed to a robust monitoring, reporting and verification process for greenhouse gas removal, which the CCC called for and which I was going to call for. In short, many of the policy gaps between the CCC’s report and Government policy have been closed since the report was published. Four months is an extremely long time in politics.
I strongly welcome this week’s announcements, even though it meant I had to rewrite my speech. Yes, the strategies have been delayed, but I am sympathetic to how the Government’s machinery has been distracted by the worst pandemic for 100 years. It is much better to have a good strategy late than a bad strategy early. However, there are still a few areas where more progress would be good. One of our biggest carbon sinks is peatland, and the Government are aiming for 32,000 hectares of peatland to be restored each year by the middle of the decade, but the CCC would like to see 67,000 hectares restored. That is quite a big difference. The CCC also says that the Government need to do more on consumer choice and behaviour: in particular, diet change—eating less meat, presumably—and reducing demand for flights. Those are indeed sensitive areas. I am hopeful that new technologies such as cultured meat and synthetic aviation fuels will help bridge that gap.
I welcome that intervention. I believe that any change in diet to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be, first, voluntary for consumers and, secondly, based on science. I do not know anything about the carbon dioxide emissions of quinoa flown in from other parts of the world. It clearly makes absolutely no sense for people to change their diet to eat food that increases carbon dioxide production. There is no point in doing things for tokenistic reasons to appear good or for someone to be able to claim that they are doing something good, when it is not actually good. I would certainly like to see more science. We cannot go into it now, but there is quite a lot of debate about the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that come from livestock farming.
The other technologies are not yet commercially available. It might be that changes in behaviour might be needed at some point in the future, as well as new technologies.
I am also a supporter of nuclear power, which is one of the safest and cleanest forms of energy in the world. As many leading environmental thinkers such as George Monbiot now recognise, the green movement’s long campaign against nuclear was a major strategic error. The reason why France’s greenhouse gas emissions are lower than ours is that it properly embraced nuclear power. As a country, we have been wavering on nuclear for decades. I welcome the Government’s new-found commitment to nuclear power and I look forward to future announcements. As I said in yesterday’s debate on carbon capture and storage, I ask the Government to have the courage of their convictions.
We clearly need to do more to tackle climate change. Having ambition is not enough. We need plans to achieve those ambitions, and we need to implement those plans. The CCC report had some valid criticisms of the Government’s plans at the time it was published, but the Government’s plans have now largely caught up. For next year’s CCC report, we should be well placed to get an A for effort. We will see.
I get frustrated when the more extreme environment campaigners often write to me and attack the UK Government for doing nothing about climate change. Where have they been? A huge amount is being done. Cutting emissions by nearly half in the last 30 years is not doing nothing. Closing down all coal-fired power stations was unthinkable when I was an environment editor—so was banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars; so was phasing out new gas boilers in people’s homes. These are deep and wide-ranging changes that will directly affect us all and are genuinely world-leading, but we need to keep up the pace of progress. There is no room for complacency. We need to deliver. The CCC said that this is the decade of delivery. Let that decade of delivery begin.