HC Deb 19 November 1997 vol 301 cc239-59

Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn.—[Janet Anderson.]

9.34 am
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

It is a privilege to initiate the debate on the Kyoto climate summit to be held in December. I am pleased to see the Minister for the Environment at the Dispatch Box. I am pleased also to see so many Members in the Chamber for this really important debate. I hope particularly that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) will be able to contribute to it. He is as genuinely concerned about the effects of global warming in Gillingham as I am about the effects in Stoke-on-Trent, North.

We must remember the context in which the debate is taking place. The Kyoto summit will be the third conference of the parties to the United Nations framework conference on climate change. It will review progress to date, and it is an opportunity which we cannot afford to lose.

There are many reasons why I wish to raise the issues surrounding the Kyoto summit. It is important that we have the opportunity to debate them, but I want the debate to be for the many and not the few. It is not enough for Parliament to have the debate; we must ensure that it spreads ever wider throughout the country.

I noted with great interest this morning's announcement by my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that he is setting up an advisory panel to promote citizenship among young people. I hope that its chairman, Professor Bernard Crick, will make arrangements for that awareness to include environmental issues.

I want the media to take up the debate about Kyoto and about how we might make progress towards achieving the tightest possible emission standards. I am pleased that the two programmes "Costing the Earth" are to appear on television this week and next week. I hope that they will give the public the opportunity to consider the scientific evidence and to make up their own minds about what is happening. I hope also that debates such as this will take place in parliaments throughout the world so that parliamentarians, as well as Governments and Ministers, can take part in a crucial worldwide debate.

More than anything else, I want to give our new Government the most resounding send-off when they go to the important negotiations in Kyoto. It is crucial that the debate here takes place in time to influence events and so that Ministers know that they have the backing of the country when they go to Kyoto.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be part of the mission, which may even save the world at Kyoto. I want him to return with a legally binding agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. I am mindful of the work that he has already done in respect of the sea and seafarers and transport policy. I have confidence that, given what my right hon. Friend learned so often with the International Maritime Organisation, he, of all people, knows that it is crucial to go for the highest denominator, not the lowest. That is the message of optimism that we must send from the House.

I would not be so bold as to assert that people throughout the country talk of nothing else but Kyoto. I should like to think that that was true, but things do not work quite like that. I know that in many parts of the country people are talking about major political issues. One major issue, for example, is whether we will get the world cup four years after Paris. I should like the debate about Kyoto to be on a par with interest in the world cup. I should like to think that the debate about global warming is of such importance that people will wish to become well informed and well versed on issues that will become everyday matters of conversation.

Although such topics may not be on everybody's lips, people are increasingly concerned about the effects of global warming. It does matter; it touches their everyday lives. People want something to be done, and they want to be part of the solution.

We are not quite in the same situation as people who live in small island states such as the Maldives, who fear that, because of the rising sea level, their islands could disappear, but we face a real danger of flooding. What will happen to low-lying areas? There are crucial issues involving health, the water supply, shortage and biodiversity. Most of all, we have to look at the scientific evidence to see whether what we have heard could happen is just scaremongering or whether there is a scientific base for the worst possible scenario. As most hon. Members know, I would want us always to take the precautionary approach, and I hope that I will be able to carry many people with me.

The scientific evidence is indisputable. The 1996 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which comprised no fewer than 2,500 experts, concluded: There is a discernible human"— I stress human— influence on global climate. A report is due next month from the workshop held in Boulder, Colorado, in September, which was attended by the world's biggest wildlife groups, including the World Wide Fund for Nature, and Wildlife International, of which our own Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is a member. All the evidence is there. Groups such as Greenpeace, for which I have the greatest respect, and Friends of the Earth are not scaremongering. There is evidence, which we have to accept. Having done so, we cannot just leave it. To know is not enough. Once something is known, something has to be done about it. That is why all of us are here. We all have to do as much as we can, in whatever way we can, about Kyoto and the huge issues we face.

It concerns me that there are still people, for example the chairman of Exxon, who say that climate change is not really an issue, and that it should not be dealt with by regulation. We have to tackle people who still say that. We must ensure that we make real progress with the climate conventions, and ensure that this Parliament—I stress that it is not just for the Government and Ministers—gives full backing to our Government in what will be an uphill, or "up-bank", as we say in Stoke-on-Trent, struggle that they will have on their hands when they go to Japan.

The run-up to the 10 days of negotiations at Kyoto will be a testing time for the United Kingdom. It is not just our hopes that are pinned on the leadership of the new Labour Government. The whole world has recognised, particularly at the Earth summit II conference in New York last July, that, with our Prime Minister, we have new vision and leadership. Having seen what can be done, there is even greater emphasis on what more could be done. I still believe that, if anybody can, our Government can achieve the best deal.

It is a question not of doing as I say, but of doing as I do. For that reason, I welcome the very clear commitments that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has given, including various presentations at the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. We are aiming for a 20 per cent. reduction in 1990 emission levels by 2010. Above all else, that commitment makes the Government most able to squeeze the best deal out of negotiations. I accept that the dash for gas has helped us to achieve things that we might never have dared hope for, although at a price. None the less, that is our starting point. Now we can achieve even more.

There is also a track record since July. I recognise that the former Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), tried to address the issue. We have a Cabinet committee, which is at the heart of government, to ensure proper environmental assessment on all issues. It will not be easy to get that from the Treasury when the Green Paper is published. When I talk about a green Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer may not have the same ideas that I have, but the Cabinet committee can start to make progress on these matters, and I hope that it will.

We will continue the round table on sustainability. That can play an important role in the debate that we need to have throughout the country. I am delighted that the Environment Audit Committee, which was a manifesto pledge, has been set up. I am proud to be a member of it, and I want to play my part on it to get real progress. We now have the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which comprises the former Departments of Transport and the Environment. We have an opportunity for integrated transport. The consultation period has just ended, and we are about to have new Green Papers and White Papers. What is more, the Deputy Prime Minister is striding round the world, bringing together all the countries that have not yet signed up to what we want them to sign. He is also chairing the annexe 1 group of countries at Kyoto.

It is not all simple and straightforward. Achieving the 20 per cent. target that this country wants will not be plain sailing. It will present us with difficulties. More can usually be achieved at the beginning than further along the way, because, by the later stage, the big savings have already been made. However, sometimes it is possible to achieve more later, because more people understand the issues. That is the message which we have to get across. There will be hard choices, but I have every confidence that my right hon. Friend will see how we can balance them. I shall list just a few.

In our integrated transport plans, I want to see targets for road traffic reduction as well as for transport. At some stage, however much we may not want to do so, we will have to consider the issue of aviation fuel and tax subsidies.

There is a threat of opencast coal mining in my constituency. I want us to have a presumption against opencast. I want legislation for energy conservation and efficiency. I am not happy that the gas regulator, unlike her predecessor, is not prepared to understand the arguments about energy savings and conservation. It may well be a matter on which the House will need to legislate, but my understanding is that we could not do so within about two years. What happens in the meantime? Are we to let her get away with saying that it is not her responsibility? It does not appear to be anybody else's responsibility either.

While on the subject of energy conservation, I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, in the nicest and most supportive way that I can, that I met the Energy Saving Trust yesterday, and although I understand that we have accepted the previous Government's spending limits, it does not seem quite right in terms of our priorities that the trust's budget has been reduced from £19 million to £13 million. I am sure that, with the right will, we can find a way forward so that it can continue its invaluable work.

Clean coal technology for deep-mined coal needs to be on the agenda. Sooner or later—perhaps later rather than sooner—we must look at switching the balance towards renewables, and at the whole role of oil exploration.

We have to ensure that civil servants are doing what the political masters and mistresses here are saying that they could be doing.

There is enormous hope for optimism because of what we have committed ourselves to. As with anything, it is no good our doing our best if we cannot secure agreements on the world stage for what needs to be done internationally.

As far as I can see, Japan is not doing enough. As the host country for the summit, it should be under a special obligation to be at the cutting edge and to make the greatest possible commitment to what is needed at Kyoto. Extra pressure needs to be exerted, and I hope that our Government will be able to put in whatever word is needed. As a member of the Trade and Industry Select Committee, with the prospect—I put it no higher than that—of a visit to Japan, I hope that the Committee will be able to continue where the Government leaves off post-Kyoto.

I know that the work of the House deservedly has a considerable personal following throughout America. We recognise that President Clinton may be between a rock and a hard place—between Congress and the Senate—but we want him to look afresh at the issues. We pin great hopes on his securing tighter agreement in his country about what should be happening at Kyoto. I hope that our Government can exert further influence in America, so that it, too, can play its part. President Clinton was elected on an environmental platform, and I feel that he can do better than stabilising emissions at 1990 levels by 2012.

We all have a special responsibility for the annexe 1 countries. It is vital that we do not transfer to the developing world the mistakes that the industrialised countries have made. I have every confidence that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will take that on board, but I feel that a message of support should go out from our Parliament.

Binding targets must be agreed at Kyoto. It is the best chance we have. I want these to be "ten days that shook the world". Energy-efficient technology needs to be transferred, and, as part of the reform of the United Nations, we need to find a way of monitoring, policing and enforcing agreements so that there is full compliance. I hope that Klaus Topfler will be able to carry out some of the necessary reforms if he moves to the United Nations Environment Programme. I also hope that we shall be able to make progress when we attend conferences with other parliamentarians.

We should not lose heart just because we may not secure the best possible deal at Kyoto, and may manage only a modest first step. The United Kingdom must go on leading. We need a permanent process to keep the negotiations moving and to follow through success or failure at Kyoto. The European presidency will provide us with a huge opportunity to do that.

We need more than a one-off, ad hoc debate in Parliament on this important issue. We need a strategy. Perhaps the Procedure Committee could ensure that we have regular follow-up discussions, so that we can identify the targets and establish how much progress we are making. There is no way out for any of us. We must make certain that the debate reaches out to the heart of our democracy—to schools and local government, through Agenda 21; to business, and to community groups. We need full and regular scrutiny of how our 20 per cent. targets are progressing here in the United Kingdom. Parliament has a real role to play, and I hope that through today's debate—in which I know many hon. Members wish to speak—we can take things forward, and send our Government off to do the job that we depend on their doing in Kyoto next month.

9.53 am
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on securing a debate on such an important matter. Perhaps we should discuss environmental issues more than we do. In fact, this is not just a question of the environment, it is a question of the economy, the politics of the country and our attitude to various of our industries, including important industries such as the car industry and the fossil fuel industry.

Let me put my cards on the table. I drive a car, and Ford UK is in my constituency. That company is an important employer, but, like the rest of the car industry in the west nowadays, it is also extremely responsible in regard to emissions. Over the past few years, it has reduced the particulates—the bits and pieces that come out of exhaust pipes—to practically nil.

We are not talking about the kind of pollution that we associate with the old-fashioned smogs. We are talking in particular about Kyoto, which is intended to deal with the level of carbon dioxide emissions in our atmosphere. We must discover where those emissions come from. In fact, the great majority do not come from motor cars: only about 20 per cent. of the alleged carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere—by which I assume people mean emissions other than the natural carbon dioxide emissions from decaying vegetable matter—come from cars.

I should say in passing that I have been a scientist for the past 35 years, and I therefore know something about the detail of the subject. Facts and figures sometimes drive people nuts and do not get to the point, but the point is that the motor car is not the villain that it is sometimes portrayed as being. The vast majority of carbon dioxide emissions probably come from house dwellers—from the fuel they burn or from the fuel they waste. Housing should be better insulated, because it can have a detrimental effect on the air that we all breathe.

Of course we are all keen to improve the environment, but the atmosphere and its effect on our climate have little to do with anything we do on this earth. Most climate changes are due either to the sun, which influences our climate enormously, or to our planet's orbit around it. That orbit varies, as was demonstrated recently. Those who were awake and looking at the sky one night in September will have seen a remarkable eclipse of the moon, which, for a short period, appeared much larger than usual. That was because of one of the wobbles in the earth's orbit.

The climate is also strongly influenced by ocean currents, as we saw recently. El Nino has had a massive effect on the climate. It causes huge changes, producing violent rain storms and other destructive weather, for which some people immediately blame motor car pollution.

Another massive cause of climate change is volcanic activity. People seem to think, from what they read in the papers, that a volcano pops off occasionally—that it is a one-off event that occurs every few years, and is not significant. That is not true. In the Antarctic region, close to the area where the measurement of ozone holes is carried out, there is a very active volcano, Mount Erebus, which produces in a year more chlorine gases—which contribute to the chlorofluorocarbons in the upper atmosphere—than the whole of industrial production since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Those are the three massive forces over which human beings have little control.

Another significant climatic element is the fact that the Earth is basically a water planet, 75 per cent. of whose surface is covered by water. Only 15 per cent. of the remaining part—the land mass—is habitable: most of it consists of mountain ranges, ice plains and deserts.

The inhabited part of the earth's surface is very small, and only a tiny portion of that is industrialised; most of it is agricultural land. It is important to keep the facts and figures in proportion. Only a small part of the Earth's surface is involved in industrial activities that contribute CO2, to the atmosphere. There is a tendency to think that industrial activity is extremely dangerous for our atmosphere and climate, and that the problem can be dealt with by punishing the motorist and cutting down on the use of the motor car. At that point, the argument comes down to politics.

I see from the attendance in the Chamber for this debate that a number of hon. Members are concerned about this matter. If they want to hear the other side of the story, I advise them to read documents produced by NASA. Its upper atmosphere research programme puts out extremely informative documents about changes in the atmosphere and about the amount of gases, including greenhouse gases. It insists that the hysteria that is generated by this subject, particularly on climate effects, is unwarranted, but that is not a particularly popular view. An enormous number of institutions, such as Globe, genuinely believe that there is a serious problem that industrialised western countries can deal with.

I should love better quality air. Everyone wants that; it is like motherhood and apple pie. I deplore the fact that, when I was in Egypt recently, I could see across the Nile at 7 am, but not at 10 am, because pollution levels from the old rust buckets that roam the streets were such that the atmosphere was very unpleasant. That applies in other parts of the world, such as China, although I have never been there. I know Mexico City very well, and it has a dreadful pollution problem, but that is partly due to the fact that the city is surrounded by mountainous regions.

There is an alternative point of view, and it is well received in the United States. It brings me to the attitude of President Clinton to the Kyoto conference. Without the agreement of the Americans to the proposed 20 per cent. reduction in emissions, nothing much will happen. President Clinton has laid his cards on the table. We should not assume that his is just the voice of a careless and vote-happy President who wants to preserve his industries against the better interests of mankind. The Americans are as pollution-conscious and as concerned about global warming as we are.

In science, one has to deal with the facts and consider both sides of the story. The amount of investment in our industrial society, the jobs it provides and its importance to the standard of living of the people we represent are serious considerations. We should not go to the Kyoto conference calling for global figures, such as a 20 per cent. reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere, just because that is a nice target at which to aim.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I appreciate the hon. Lady's argument, because I recognise that other factors are at work, but we should take the right remedy. The car industry produced the catalytic converter, but it is not much use in industrial cities and is a waste of money. Does the hon. Lady accept that the argument coming out of the United States is that the Americans do not want their industries to be injured further while other countries are polluting more than they are? The argument is not just about the scientific fact that nature produces its own pollution: it is about the Americans looking after the mighty buck.

Mrs. Gorman

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I put it to him that it is the duty of any Government to ensure that industries, which are the backbone of communities, are properly looked after and protected. I hope that every hon. Member has the same attitude.

Is President Clinton being selfish or is he being responsible in saying that emissions produced by motor cars in the United States are relatively small, given the improvements that have been made, especially with regard to particulates as opposed to the CO2 element? How important are 2 emissions from the motor car compared with other forms of adding CO2 to the atmosphere? I repeat that less than 20 per cent. of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere come from the car, so it is an easy target. Insulation of properties is less easy, because everyone could do something about that, as opposed to leaving an individual industry to do it.

Other parts of the globe, such as China, the countries of the former Soviet Union and Mexico, are not able to make those improvements, especially given the low level of wealth of their citizens. The way to help those countries is to improve their economies overall. I am sure that the Egyptians who were driving rust buckets around Cairo would love to have a nice car with controlled emissions and catalytic convertors, whether or not they work.

My argument is about the importance of the motor car. This debate and the discussions at Kyoto are an attack on the industrialised west, its alleged greedy consumption of fossil fuels such as coal and its selfish use of raw materials in the production of motor cars.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

It is important to note that objective scientific work has been done on this subject. The energy technology support unit has produced an account of how it believes the United Kingdom proposal of a 20 per cent. reduction could be achieved by 2010. It has produced figures for different sectors: industry and services could reduce by 9.6 million tonnes of carbon; the domestic sector by 7.6 million tonnes; transport by 14.9 million tonnes, so that is an important component; and renewable energy could make a contribution of 2.7 million tonnes. Those figures show a 40 million tonne carbon reduction. That is not a random attack on any particular sector, certainly not on the transport sector. However, the reality is that transport can and will have to make its contribution.

Mrs. Gorman

The hon. Gentleman's point is perfectly acceptable, but I am trying to explain to the House that most of the carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere is not the responsibility of the motor car. Furthermore, gas carbon dioxide is only one of the greenhouse gases; most of it is water vapour that rises above the Earth, forms clouds and helps climate control by acting as a screen.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gorman

No, not at the moment.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is welcome because it aids the photosynthetic process of plants. It is not an awful substance: it is not poisonous to human beings, except in vast concentrations, and it is positively helpful to vegetation. It is a soluble gas, especially in sea water where plankton rely on it for photosynthesis, which affects the food chain right up to mankind. We must stop regarding that gas as a poisonous substance which does us enormous harm.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

The question is not whether there is a natural balance in the atmosphere, which includes natural CO2 as well as that which is emitted. In time, that balance will alter. The issue is whether mankind's additional CO2 emissions are upsetting that balance. The hon. Lady seems to miss the fact that, overwhelmingly, the world's scientists take the view that we are upsetting that balance. The OECD nations and the Government have also accepted that. Even oil companies such as BP have accepted that it is a serious issue and that our actions are affecting the climate because we are upsetting the natural balance.

Mrs. Gorman

The hon. Gentleman has his view. I recently attended a meeting in the House of Lords with the energy industries. Those industries, and especially the coal industry, expressed great concern that the demands of Kyoto would wipe them out. Every hon. Member knows that it is important not to devastate key industries because that would have an enormous backlash affecting the amount of support that we would have to provide to those communities. If we are not careful, they could be destroyed by the casual adoption of a target whose significance I challenge in terms of improving the global climate, pollution or the well-being of mankind in general. I presume that I shall be the only person to present that view.

I do not wish to denigrate the sentiments of the dedicated followers of orthodoxy, including the Globe European network mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke—on—Trent, North. I do not suggest that they are on a crusade to destroy basic industries. My point is that there is another side to the scientific evidence. The United States is much more aware of that, because its technological and scientific groups such as NASA are producing the statistics to back that view. Far from being irresponsible and selfish, President Clinton's attitude is balanced, sensible and sane.

We all want to make life better for people and the way not to do that is to attack, seek to destroy or make more expensive the use of the motor car, which is people's pride and joy, or increase the cost of fuel for heating their homes. That is a sensitive political issue and we should not lightly embark on increasing fuel costs because of concern for what may not be as important an issue as it is made out to be.

10.12 am
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

It is tempting to respond in detail to the speech by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman).

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)


Mr. Stunell

I shall take that advice.

The topic is vital not just for us but for our children and our grandchildren. Some of the hon. Lady's comments were sad. Climate change is real, global warming is serious and both of them are avoidable. The hon. Lady has missed those points. Kyoto provides an opportunity to concentrate people's minds on the impact of failure. If it succeeds, there is little doubt that climate change can be arrested, but it will take decades of hard work internationally, nationally and locally.

If Kyoto fails, climate change is likely to spin out of control. The consequences for the United Kingdom would be serious, and the hon. Member for Billericay has missed some of those. Elsewhere in the world, the effects would be catastrophic. There is no doubt that some nations would disappear, and the feedback from catastrophes elsewhere will produce political instability, poverty, homelessness and hunger on an international scale that we have not seen so far.

The hon. Member for Billericay is right to say that global warming is a natural consequence of our atmosphere. Its greenhouse effect adds about 21 deg C to the temperature of the earth, and the hon. Lady might think that an extra couple of degrees will not make much difference. It will make a great deal of difference. It will add 50 cm to sea levels in the next 40 or 50 years and the levels will continue to rise. That is why the Liberal Democrats think that it is right for the United Kingdom and the European Union to take the lead in tackling global warming.

We welcome the United Kingdom's progress over the past few years, although we recall that much of it was accidental—the consequence of the destruction of our indigenous coal industry and the dash for gas. We welcome the Prime Minister's pledge of a 20 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2010. It is good to hear that that will remain a Government commitment even if Kyoto is not a success. Promises must be backed by action. We recognise that it is early days for the Government to produce an impact on the issue. There has not been much time to sort things out, and we accept what the Prime Minister said on television on Sunday. He is a man of honour and he intends to deliver. I know that the Minister fully shares that view.

However, the Government need to recognise some harsh realities. The first is that UK carbon emissions rose by some 2 per cent. last year, after a period during which they had been dropping. Contrary to the comments of the hon. Member for Billericay, the good work is being undone by the additional mileage on British roads. The growth of that transport has led to the increase in carbon emissions, and that is a worrying trend. We take 1990 as our base line and look forward to 2010. We are a third of the way through that 20-year interval, and Britain has rising carbon emissions.

There is a risk that by the year 2000—halfway through the 20-year period—we will have failed to reduce emissions to the 1990 level. The previous Government had intended to be about 8 per cent. below that level by the year 2000. The figures show that significant new policies will be needed if Britain is to reduce emissions to 20 per cent. below 1990 emissions by 2010.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) was right to speak about positive actions by the Government. I must balance the account and point to some less positive happenings since 1 May.

The targets will be harder to reach because most Departments do not know whether they are keeping to targets. I recently asked a series of parliamentary questions and in every case I was referred to the climate change book which was produced by the previous Government. I thought that perhaps I was a slow reader and had missed a bit at the back listing every Department and giving targets, but no such information is there. If the parliamentary answers are to be believed, Departments do not have clear, internal energy policies, objectives and plans. I asked the Secretary of State for Health what representations he had received about public health and hygiene as a result of climate change, and he said that he had received none The targets will be more difficult to achieve for another reason: in a commendable effort to reduce fuel poverty, the Government have cut value added tax on domestic fuel to 8 per cent., but kept it at 17.5 per cent. on insulation materials, which could help to reduce fuel consumption. Last week, the House debated the fossil fuel levy, which can now be applied to renewable energy producers—another Government decision which is difficult to understand. It would be interesting to hear whether the Minister for the Environment believes that that is sensible.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North mentioned the Energy Saving Trust. Can it be right that, last year, supported by the Department of the Environment, its budget was £25 million, that this year it is £19 million and that next year it is projected to be £13.5 million? Is that a sensible way to set about reaching the targets?

The hon. Member also mentioned that the gas regulator is blocking a levy to support renewables. It is interesting that, when Neighbourhood Energy Action asked MORI to do a poll of the public, asking, "Would you prefer to have your fuel bills reduced by the installation of insulation in your home or by being offered lower prices by your fuel supplier?", 40 per cent. of people said that they would prefer the insulation solution and 30 per cent. the lower prices solution. It would be both popular and sensible to invest in insulation rather than simply in cut-price fuel supplies.

Mr. Alan W. Williams

I agree with the drift of what the hon. Gentleman says. Meeting the 20 per cent. reduction target by 2010 is ambitious and may be difficult, but may I console him with this fact? Most of the progress to date has been because of the dash for gas. At present, only about 20 per cent. of our electricity is generated from gas. By 2000, it will be 50 per cent. and, after that, it will be more, so the dash for gas will continue. I know that that is bad news for coal mining areas, but the continued dash for gas makes a large contribution to savings.

Mr. Stunell

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. It is still true that the driving force for that dash is the gas surplus in the world market. Therefore, as its price is low, a levy could be placed on the fuel by the regulator, with customers still receiving lower gas prices—although not perhaps as low as they would be if one went for bargain-basement pricing—and would be invested in insulation, which would reduce overall fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

There is an absolutely key point here. This is one for Government; the previous Government failed to face it. With energy prices falling and likely to continue to fall, the Government can simply allow that to happen, with customers receiving the benefit and inevitably using more fuel because it is cheaper, or take action through levies to pay for improvements to tackle fuel poverty. For the people who can least afford to heat their homes, fuel price cuts are not significant. Insulation would be far more significant. It would mean a stabilisation of fuel prices, which would send a signal that people cannot expect a cut in prices.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. This is a brief debate. Interventions should be short. The hon. Gentleman is depriving other hon. Members who badly want to speak of the time in which to do so.

Mr. Stunell

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) for what he has said, which I fully support.

In the run-up to Kyoto, the Government should, first, be working more closely with non-governmental organisations. It was disappointing for the Prime Minister to reply that the Government would not be including any non-governmental organisation representative in the official delegation to Kyoto, and it is worrying that neither the Prime Minister nor the Foreign Secretary will be going to such a major international event.

Secondly, the Government should ensure that every Government Department and agency establishes an energy-saving plan with clear objectives and targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases. Thirdly, the Government should cut VAT on insulation materials and sign up to the Energy Saving Trust plan, which would reduce domestic fuel consumption by 17 per cent. and carbon emissions by some 14 per cent. over the next 13 years. It would also save money for consumers purchasing fuel and create 20,000 jobs.

That is an ambitious target, and I return to the point made by the hon. Member for Billericay. We are talking about the development of high-technology alternative industries. If Britain manages to be at the forefront of those industries, they will be profitable as well as ecologically sound.

Fourthly, the Government should reconsider their new deal plan and the money that they put into the environmental task force. At present, the materials grant is up to £90 per week per person. In many cases, that will mean that insulation projects are beyond the reach of the task force. I hope that the Government will consider that apparently small point, which could have a major impact.

Fifthly, I hope that the Government will pledge support and time to the Road Traffic Reduction (United Kingdom Targets) Bill, which would make a material difference on traffic emissions into the atmosphere.

Sixthly, as a Liberal Democrat, I say, of course, that it would be appropriate for the Government to cut vehicle excise duty on cars below 1,500 cc and to increase fuel tax to raise the extra money required. In that way, we could achieve a pattern more like that of the Danes and the Italians: we could have smaller cars and fewer journeys.

I could say much more, but I know that this is a short debate. I give credit to the Government for their stance and promises on global warming. I and other Liberal Democrat Members wish them every success in the difficult and complex negotiations, but I sincerely urge them to get stuck in here in the UK. There is much to be done and there is plenty of public support for it to be done. There is no great mystery about the policies that are needed, and most of them do not have a high price tag. Liberal Democrats want some Government courage and some Government determination. That will bring success and profit.

Mr. Paul Clark (Gillingham)

It gives me great pleasure to deliver my maiden speech, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) for securing this debate. It is a great pleasure because I recognise the honour bestowed on me by the electorate of Gillingham and because I am representing my home town, of which I am immensely proud.

My success on 1 May was, of course, another's failure. James Couchman was the sitting Member of Parliament and had held the seat for some 14 years. He served on the Social Security, Health, Public Accounts and Northern Ireland Select Committees and was Parliamentary Private Secretary to many Ministers during those years.

Times move on, but I am pleased to say that Gillingham people are loyal, at least to the authority of Parliament. History records that, during the civil war, a distinguished Gillingham citizen, Philip Fraude, fought on the side of the king, but: The district as a whole appears to have prudently supported Parliament". Long may Gillingham people have so much sense.

Some hon. Members may ask, where is Gillingham? It lies on the estuary of the River Medway in Kent and some of my constituency is a special scientific interest area, which has been a matter of consultation this week. Gillingham is one of the Medway towns and, unlike its neighbours, Chatham and Rochester, it is densely populated: its total population is more than 90,000, squeezed into just 4,500 hectares of land. That figure includes the special scientific interest area that lies in the River Medway—not much use for people in terms of expansion. However, it is important in other ways, as I shall mention. There are a number of differences between the older part of the constituency, which lies to the north of the A2, and the southern part. On indices of overcrowding, as defined by the 1991 census, many of the northern wards have figures in excess of 3 per cent., when the average for Kent is 1.8 per cent. A survey of private sector stock showed that 8.5. per cent. of properties were unfit—for example, in poor repair, damp or with kitchen problems—compared with a county level of 5.6 per cent. In one ward, more than one fifth of properties were classified as unfit. Gillingham has a number of challenging issues, and none more so than the overcrowding of its land space.

Was Gillingham born out of reorganisation? No—it is recorded in the Domesday book of 1086. It is said that it was named after a war lord, Gyllingas—from the old English "gyllan" meaning "to shout". He was a notable man in Kent history as he led his warriors into battle screaming and shouting. I suppose that a modern translation of Gillingham would be "the home of shouting men"—and, of course, women, to be technically correct. I am delighted to tell the House that we keep up that tradition. The shouting men and women of Gillingham can be found every other Saturday on the terraces of Priestfield stadium, the home of Kent's only football league team, Gillingham FC, which is going from strength to strength.

Gillingham has assumed a role that has perhaps been unknown, but has been an important part of the defence of this country. It developed as a fishing village and port and 450 years ago, in 1547, storehouses were rented by the Navy for use at Gillingham water—so started Gillingham's long association with the Navy. Gillingham dockyard formally opened in 1559, and it is from those early beginnings that the Medway towns developed. Over the centuries, thousands of men and women have been involved in the defence of the realm.

Gillingham is also the home of Her Majesty's Corps of Royal Engineers. They are an integral part of the town and their headquarters continues to provide the finest military engineering training to be found anywhere in the western world. The corps headquarters have also been, at one time or another, home to great heroes of British history, such as Kitchener, Gordon and the eminent father and son team of Generals Sir Manley and Sir John Glubb. Gillingham is proud to have the engineers museum in the town, which I recommend to hon. Members as well worth a visit.

Many hon. Members will be saying, "Gillingham dockyard; Medway towns—wasn't it called Chatham dockyard?" Yes, it was, despite the facts that it started in Gillingham, and that, until the day it was closed in 1984, two thirds of the then modern-day dockyard lay within the boundaries of Gillingham. No one knows for certain why the name changed, but anyone who knows anything about using semaphore flags will be well aware that it is easier to spell out Chatham than Gillingham.

Gillingham has other claims to fame. Louis Brennan lived in Gillingham and tested his monorail in the town. He was clearly a man of great foresight, recognising traffic congestion in the early part of this century and the need for an integrated transport system.

Will Adams was equally famous, but he did not realise that he was to lay the foundations for Gillingham's future. He was shipwrecked off the coast of Japan—where the Kyoto summit is being held—and he stayed there to help develop Japanese ships. From that has arisen a link with two Japanese cities, Yokosuka and Ito. We have grown close to them through exchange visits. That has enabled us to form close links for business development. Gillingham business park is home to many thriving businesses, including Fuji Seal, Fuji Copian and Hochiki. They are the bases for their European operations.

There is a great deal of hope in Gillingham, which has a great deal to offer. Rising from the ashes of its former glory, the dockyard, there are high-quality developments providing jobs and housing on brown-field sites, but all that will pale into insignificance if we do not tackle the fundamentals that are being presented at the Kyoto conference. The cost of failing to reach agreement on the global climatic agenda will be to fail our country and our children.

As other hon. Members have said, it is essential that the greening of our policies must permeate all our thinking. I welcome the positive steps taken so far by the Government, such as the clear commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. on 1990 levels by 2010, and the decision to put sustainable development at the heart of policy making, as is evident in the bringing together of the environment, transport and the regions into one co-ordinated Department.

ough targets have been set, but they are achievable by policies that are sensible in their own right. An integrated transport policy will make public transport more acceptable and attractive. There should be increasing use of renewable forms of energy. We must achieve greater efficiency in firms and bring the public sector up to the standards of the best. We must also improve energy efficiency in homes.

The first Labour Budget in 20 years was used to show that the environment has been placed at the core of the Government's objectives for the tax system. Among other measures, duties on road fuel were increased by 6 per cent., with a commitment to future increases of about 6 per cent. It is estimated that that will lead to additional savings of about 2.5 million tonnes of carbon annually by the year 2010.

Failure to secure legally binding targets in Kyoto will present us with the unthinkable. Other hon. Members have referred to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change conferences in 1990, 1992 and 1996. The Geneva conference in 1996 concluded that there was discernible human influence on climate, which none of us can afford to ignore.

What does Kyoto mean to the people of Gillingham? Even today, when certain weather conditions prevail within the north sea and the Thames barrier is raised, there is a chance of flooding in the Medway estuary. The effects of rising sea levels would seriously affect the Medway towns. Gillingham's north Kent marshes are designated not only as a site of special scientific interest, but as a special protection area under the European directive on the conservation of wild birds. In addition, the marshes are a listed Ramsar site under the convention on wetlands of international importance.

Seven internationally important bird species, including the Brent goose and the redshank, live in the Medway marshes. They would all be threatened by rising sea levels, with the mudflats being affected and, hence, the loss of a valuable source of food to support the birds of coastal habitats.

There is also the possibility of increased rainfall, especially in the south and south-east areas. It is predicted that certain red data book species in Gillingham and the surrounding towns would disappear—for example, the lizard orchid, a species to be found in Kent and, in particular, on the Darland banks in the southern part of my constituency. Various butterflies are equally vulnerable, along with the bush cricket, which is predominantly found within the Medway and Thames estuaries.

At its simplest level, the link to population levels is clearest—the more people there are, the higher the emissions are likely to be. The more we alter land use patterns and associated vegetation, the more we add to our problems of water run-off and pollution levels. That is why we must take local control of our local environment. It is no good local authorities issuing planning briefs for areas that allow development surrounded by patches of natural environment, supposedly to maintain ecological balance, only to allow substantial infilling on those areas a few years later. All too often, we see good intentions thrown out of the window.

In Rainham, at the eastern end of my constituency, a windfall site has occurred since the county council decided that it was no longer required for its intended use. It is a wedge of unspoilt land which runs between highly developed and populated areas. To walk through it takes us back to the Rainham of 40 or 50 years ago—orchards, open space teaming with wildlife and an important natural and undisturbed habitat for many species. It is important to the people of Rainham as an escape from the demands of everyday life. There is now a battle to save it from the developer's bulldozers. Clearly, we must take in hand our own concerns.

The House needs Kyoto to deliver, and the people of Gillingham need it to deliver. A protocol containing legally binding commitments for industrialised countries will have to be adopted. We fully support our Government's objective of reducing CO2, emissions to 20 per cent. of 1990 levels by 2010. In setting that objective, they are showing leadership to those who are less willing to respect our climate, notably the United States and Japan. The developed, industrialised countries must not only bear responsibility for past emissions and lead the way in setting challenging targets but offer our knowledge and expertise to developing countries to help them to avoid the pitfalls of the past.

If the Government's representatives need any moral support when they attend the Kyoto conference, I assure them that they will have the good will of the people of Gillingham. During the general election campaign, apart from education and health environmental issues were a serious concern among voters in Gillingham. As Gillingham's Member of Parliament since May, I have had to deal with a number of environmental issues.

I hope that I have explained the importance to the people of Gillingham of what some might regard as an irrelevant conference in a far-flung part of the world. I am sure that what is relevant for my constituents is relevant for all of us in the United Kingdom. We look forward to success in Kyoto.

10.40 am
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) on his excellent maiden speech. Unfortunately, time prevents me from following up his points in detail, but the House looks forward to hearing from him again.

I congratulate also the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on securing the debate. I deplore the fact that the Government have not made their own time available for such a debate. The request that I made at business questions three weeks ago was refused. Since then, the House has more than once addressed such internal issues as modernisation.

I much regret that, only two weeks before Kyoto, the Government have declined to explain in any detail to the House their position on the issues that the conference will address, and have denied many hon. Members—including some who would have liked to speak in this debate—an opportunity to express their views to the House. The Government's refusal does not sit easily with their claims to be seeking greater accountability and openness in the processes of government, and to be committed to environmental ideals. It rather provokes the suspicion that their green commitments are more about soundbites than about substance—although the Minister for the Environment will have the chance to correct that impression when he replies.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that climate change is one of the most crucial and urgent issues facing Governments around the world. It is crucial because the science is clear; human activity is affecting the world's climate. It is urgent because the longer that Governments in any part of the world delay acting, the more drastic, expensive and disruptive the solutions and the action will have to be. Many people—most people, I think—now realise that sustainable development is a goal whose achievement is essential for the world's survival. I hope that even my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is close to accepting that point.

Passing on to our children and grandchildren a world that is as good as the one that we inherited depends on sustainable development and addressing climate change. The damage that climate change could do to the world—a world that future generations will inhabit—is not dissimilar to the damage that could be inflicted by nuclear weapons. The damage is perhaps less immediate and less threatening to the short-term survival of the human race, but the long-term consequences for the earth are no less far reaching.

Climate change is not accurately described by the phrase global warming, and it is not only about an agreeable Mediterranean climate coming to these shores. Even within the United Kingdom, many of the consequences of climate change will not be pleasant. There will be severe droughts in parts of the country, including the south-east and East Anglia. There will be more violent storms, and serious consequences for farming, tourism and insurance. Some coastline will be threatened. For the world, the consequences are, of course, much more far-reaching. The very survival of some low-lying territories, where millions of people live, is under immediate threat.

Britain has had a distinguished role in the issue. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stoke—on—Trent, North did not have the grace to acknowledge the previous Government's record.

Ms Walley


Mr. Yeo

I am sorry, but the hon. Lady had much longer to speak than I have, and I cannot give way.

From the time when Margaret Thatcher forced the issue on to the agenda of the world's Heads of Government, Britain has been at the forefront of the debate. Leadership has never been more needed than now. Expectations of what will come out of Kyoto are running high. Public interest is greater than it has been for several years, and the importance of a good settlement is widely recognised.

However, there are two dangers. The first is that the overall target that is decided at Kyoto will be too lax. There will be a risk if the United States influence at Kyoto is too great. We simply cannot defer for another 12 years the timetable for achieving the Rio targets.

The second danger is greater and, more subtle can be summed up in the word flexibility. A good headline target for cutting emissions by 2010—perhaps to 10 per cent. below 1990 levels—could be rendered valueless if the small print contains too many loopholes. If such loopholes are included in an agreement, Kyoto's contribution to averting continued and damaging climate change will be as effective as Munich's contribution, in 1938, to averting war in Europe. A fudged deal in Kyoto will be worse than no deal at all.

I therefore ask the Minister to confirm that Britain will resist any proposal allowing countries such as Russia—whose emissions have fallen sharply since 1990, because of economic collapse—to take credit for those falls, and to sell those credits to other countries under emission trading arrangements which may be established early in the next century.

Will the Minister also clarify the Government's attitude to New Zealand's proposal to use gross emissions as the 1990 baseline figure, which would allow some countries to take credit for reductions resulting from the existence of carbon sinks, although those sinks already existed in 1990?

Above all, will the Minister confirm that the Government understand that the fine print of the Kyoto agreement is as important as the headline target?

The Government's target of a 20 per cent. cut by 2010 has my full support. The European Union target of a 15 per cent. cut also has my full support. I hope that, in the next six months, the Government will use the presidency of the Council of Ministers to stick to that 15 per cent. target, whatever the outcome of the Kyoto negotiations. Will the Minister confirm today that both those targets will remain, even if—as is very likely—Kyoto settles for less challenging figures?

There is growing evidence that people and businesses in advanced countries are prepared for challenging targets. Business increasingly recognises the potential opportunities of accepting the actions that are necessary to tackle climate change. I congratulate BP on pulling out of the Global Climate Coalition in the United States, and on its forward-looking approach to climate change issues. I hope that Shell will follow in its footsteps. I welcome moves by both those great energy companies to step up their efforts in solar energy. Eventually, we may persuade even Exxon to see the light.

Does the Minister understand that, if Britain is to offer the necessary leadership and to continue exercising influence, merely announcing challenging targets is not enough? There must be, and as soon as possible, details of the policies that will enable those targets to be achieved. I regret that they have not already been spelt out.

As the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said, new policies will be needed. Even if the Minister does not want to gives us details of those policies today, confirmation of some broad principles would be helpful.

For example, will the Minister confirm that coal's contribution in power generation must continue to decline? In transport, will he confirm that market instruments, rather than regulation, will be the main way in which emission reductions are achieved? Will those instruments include, for example, variable rates of vehicle excise duty, to encourage cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars?

Will the Minister confirm that tax changes that are introduced to tackle climate change will be revenue neutral? Environmental goals must not be a smokescreen behind which the Government raise revenue. The model of the landfill tax, where all the proceeds of a new tax on pollution were used to cut the tax on jobs, should continue to be followed.

Finally, the Opposition will not let go of the issue of climate change after the Kyoto conference; it is far too important. We shall continue to monitor the Government's future action. The verdict so far is that the rhetoric has been good but the action disappointing, especially as the tax on energy consumption has been cut, but the tax on energy saving has been maintained at a much higher level. I hope that the Minister recognises that the more he says today about the Government's policies, the louder Britain's voice will be at Kyoto next month.

10.50 am
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

We have has an excellent debate which shows the House at its best. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) on obtaining the debate. I thank her for introducing it in a positive, generous and elegant manner. I agree that she has raised what is arguably one of the greatest environmental issues currently facing the world.

I shall cover as much ground as I can in very little time and respond briefly to some of the points that have been raised. We are concerned about the domestic measures to deliver our targets and reduce road traffic. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced the 6 per cent. fuel price escalator, and we are currently putting through the House regulations to increase local authorities' traffic management powers for that purpose. We are also concerned about the contribution of aviation fuel to greenhouse gas emissions. The EU is in favour of an international tax and we are looking to the United States, among others, for support.

We are certainly in favour of extending energy-saving measures. Standards of performance have been provided by the electricity regulator since 1994, but not by the gas regulator, so we shall address that. I am concerned about the reducing budget for the Energy Saving Trust, as it does an excellent job. Of course, we inherited public expenditure totals to which we are keeping, but a comprehensive spending review is being undertaken in Departments precisely to see whether we can redistribute money into key areas. I am also keen to see the development of clean coal technology.

I warmly welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) said in an amusing, enjoyable and well-informed maiden speech. I thought that I knew Gillingham and the Medway pretty well, but I have learnt a great deal more about its history from my hon. Friend. I endorse what he said and thank him for his support for our policies in respect of integrated transport, energy efficiency at home and environmental taxes. The House should have regard to what he said about the effects of greenhouse gas warming on rising sea levels, not just in Bangladesh or the Maldives, but in parts of the United Kingdom such as the Medway marshes.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), in a stimulating speech, seemed to be representing the car industry or the Global Climate Coalition. She should recognise that, although, as she said, traffic emissions represent only 25 per cent. of United Kingdom CO2 emissions, CO2 emissions represent 81 per cent. of all greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, traffic emissions represent about 20 per cent. of all greenhouse gas emissions. It is a substantial figure which we cannot ignore.

The hon. Lady raised a number of scientific points that some might consider as debunking the conventional wisdom. I understand her point about the effects of the sun and the Milankovich cycles, about the effect of El Nino, which is now more frequent and more violent and may have some connection with the effects of global warming and vulcanism, what happened at Mount Pinatubo and other factors. However, it is fair to say that the balance of evidence is strongly against her and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which comprises 2,500 scientists and experts from around the world, believes that the evidence clearly suggests a discernible anthropogenic effect on the climate. We have to accept that and act on it.

I thank the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) for his fine comments and I share nearly all his concerns. It is a little early to expect all Government Departments to have clear targets. As he said, we have been in office for only a short time. However, the White Paper that we shall issue in the spring will include energy-saving and transport-saving plans for each Department and targets that they will have to achieve. I accept his point—I am on the record as referring to it before the election—about the desirability of synchronising VAT on energy and energy-saving materials. A Customs and Excise review is under way, looking at precisely that point.

Before I turn to the main part my speech, let me at last refer to the speech by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo). We have heard two speeches from Opposition Members which seem to be diametrically opposed. This is one of the rare occasions when I agree with the remarks of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, rather than the speech of a Back Bencher. The hon. Gentleman is quite right about superheating in Russia. Of course, it is perfectly sensible that there should be joint implementation so that Russia is able to grow using the latest technology and that it should be able to obtain credits for that. However, there must be emphasis on the restructuring of domestic economies. Flexibility and joint implementation are meant to strengthen those targets and not be a substitute for them.

We are concerned about carbon sinks. The EU has yet to take a final decision, but the entire world has seen the fires in Indonesia and the destruction of the forests which sequestrate carbon and the increase in CO2 that forest fires produce. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that we need to be careful about how we write that into the protocol, if we do.

On the hon. Member's important point about the EU, following Kyoto—assuming that it is a success—there will be a new burden-sharing arrangement to be agreed at the first EU Environment Council in March, when Britain will have the presidency. We shall also maintain our domestic target of a 20 per cent. reduction in emissions. Our first commitment is to achieve our legally binding commitment, as agreed at Kyoto, but, in time, we will go beyond that to achieve our own domestic target.

The hon. Member for South Suffolk said that we had not set out the details of our policies. We have not had a great deal of time, but the delivery mechanisms will be set out in detail in our White Paper in the spring.

We were elected on a manifesto commitment to lead the international fight against global warming. It is not fair for the hon. Gentleman to say that it is a matter of soundbites. Although we have made substantial progress already on delivering that promise, a successful outcome to Kyoto is far from assured. We shall certainly do everything within our powers. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and I will be engaged in extensive international consultation involving much travelling over the next fortnight precisely to exert diplomatic pressure where we can.

As I said, we have committed ourselves to a 20 per cent. cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. The Prime Minister restated his support for action in a speech to the United Nations. I should make it clear that I believe that the previous Administration had a good reputation on climate change. Indeed, to be fair, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North said that. I pay tribute to the previous Secretary of State. The problem was that he was not backed up by his Cabinet colleagues; he did not have the support of the rest of the Government. That is what is so different this time. The whole Government are behind our objectives.

As others have said, global warming will not be as attractive a prospect as some may believe. Yes, there may be more long, hot summers, more alfresco dinner parties and warmer winters, as we are seeing, but the reality in future will be very different if we do nothing. There will be more rain, frequent floods, more storms, hurricanes and disasters, and diseases such as malaria will certainly reappear. Prime agricultural land will begin to disappear under the waves, and if the Gulf stream shifts, which could well happen, we could certainly face a much colder climate—perhaps more like Siberia than the south of France.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must move to the next debate.

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