HC Deb 15 July 1998 vol 316 cc346-68

11 am

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

This is an important subject. I hope that the House agrees that it is important to have an Adjournment debate on the Government's preparations for the Buenos Aires climate convention later this year. I hope that this and previous Adjournment debates on environmental matters will set a pattern whereby the House debates important issues before the Government go to major international conferences to represent the interests of our country. The main function of Parliament is holding the Executive to account. That means that, in international negotiations, there should be both pre-conference and post-conference debates so that we can assess what happened and what was achieved. I hope that the success of some of us in requesting such debates will continue to set a pattern.

This is one of the most crucial issues facing the planet. The preparations for the conference are important. If it fails, and the stand-off at the end of the Kyoto conference continues, the outlook is grim. It is a question not only of negotiations but of the will of countries to do something about global warming and the pollution that goes with it. I shall consider four areas of the Kyoto protocol: emission trading; carbon sinks such as forests that hold carbon reserves; the participation of countries in the Kyoto and Buenos Aires agreements; and, most important, the adequacy of the commitments made to deal with global warming and climate change.

This is the greatest issue of our time. It is obvious that the huge growth in carbon dioxide and other global warming gases since the start of the industrial revolution has had an enormous effect. I know that there are those in the House and elsewhere who dispute the notion of global warming and suggest that it is a phenomenon that can be studied in geological time, during which there have been rapid increases and decreases in the Earth's temperature. Clearly, the pattern of weather and climate must be studied, but, like millions of others, I cannot believe that the massive emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels since 1800 has not had a dramatic effect on the world's climate. I believe that it has, and that global warming is so well measured and tested and so widely accepted that it is vital that every Parliament and Government in the world do all that they can to control emissions and to ensure that we live on the planet in a sustainable way. The consequences of not doing so would be disastrous.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The hon. Gentleman may or may not know that I agree that global warming is proven. However, proven or not, we must consider efficiency in energy and the use of resources. It does not harm us to be efficient and reduce emissions, but it might have the most incredible consequences if we do not take such action.

Mr. Corbyn

Clearly, there must be more efficient use of energy and the best technology to try to retain standards of living and activity while preserving the world's environment. I shall return to that because it will be part of the Buenos Aires negotiations.

I want to put some facts on the record. The vast burning of fossil fuels emits carbon faster than the planet can possibly refix it through vegetation—6.2 billion tonnes in 1996 alone. There has been a fourfold increase in the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since 1950, and CO2 levels are 29 per cent. above those that existed before the industrial revolution. That figure can be accurately measured using ice core samples from the Antarctic. The concentrations are the highest for 160,000 years. Worldwide temperature measurements show that the temperature rise in general is faster than it has been for a very long time. We reach world temperature highs year on year.

A mass of information and graphs is available. In the 1998 "State of the World", a chapter by Christopher Flavin and Seth Dunn outlines how the emission of CO2 and other pollutants has grown dramatically since 1800 and shows the disparity of that growth in different parts of the world. For example, the industrialised countries of the United States, western Europe and the former Soviet Union have emitted the most over that period. The developing countries are increasing the fastest, although the largest emitters of pollutants are, by a long way, the wealthiest countries.

If we now agreed that all carbon dioxide emissions will be cut by a half in the next century—a major undertaking requiring massive changes in industrial systems and the huge use of sustainable systems and technology to achieve anything like it—carbon levels would be at least 40 per cent. higher a century from now. We will not stabilise global temperature for at least a century. We have made such massive changes to the world climate in the past 200 years that it would take at least 100 years of total commitment by every country and Government in the world merely to stabilise it a century from now. We have set in train a huge change in global climate which cannot be stopped overnight. The conferences and conventions are staging posts in a much longer process.

I could spend the whole 90 minutes available for this debate giving examples of the effects of global warming and increased pollution, but that would not be sensible because I hope that the House and most of the public well understand those matters. I thought this morning as I listened to the radio of new advice about people going out in the sun because of the danger of getting skin cancer. Skin cancers from sunburn are partly a product of pollution. Their high incidence in Australia and the southern hemisphere is partly because of the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. There is now also a similar hole over the Arctic. There is macabre humour in sheep wearing sunglasses in southern Chile to protect their eyes, but the problem of skin cancers in the southern hemisphere is serious and likely to get worse. That is a product of chlorofluorocarbon emissions. Even if all CFC emissions were stopped now, it would take several decades to repair the holes in the ozone layer.

Rising sea levels are apparent around the globe. The cost of constructing sea defences will be huge. Sea levels will continue to rise because of the process that we have already set in train. Unless we do something about it, there will be larger sea level rises. The Maldive islands may cease to exist. Coastal lands where millions of people live, such as Bangladesh and river deltas all over south Asia, will be at serious risk, as they already are from hurricanes and other weather phenomena.

The El Niño effect is perhaps better studied and reported this time than ever before, so one has to be careful of believing that things are more dramatic because one has more information. However, a comparison with what has happened in previous times suggests that the problems caused by El Niño are compounded by continuing global warming.

There is clear evidence of warmer summers in the northern hemisphere and slightly less cold winters. There is evidence of melting of the polar ice cap at both poles. It was traditionally just the north polar ice cap that was melting, but there is now melting at both poles. The migration north of warmer summers means big changes. In Alaska, 2.5 million trees have been lost since 1989 because of the growth in the population of the tree bark beetle, which destroys them. The beetle used to reach sexual maturity in two years and therefore bred fairly slowly, but it now reaches maturity in one year because of the warmer summers, resulting in the progress of that destruction. That is just one of many examples, and the generally destabilised weather patterns that go with them.

The melting of the polar ice caps and warming of the sub-polar regions—the tundra—lead to increased emissions of methane, which results in a faster melt. As snow cover deteriorates or lasts for a shorter time, there is a higher rate of absorption of solar energy and thus a warming of the planet. One could give many such examples. The few that I have given show just how serious things are.

In 1990, after years of discussion and debate, the United Nations specified that temperature rises should be limited to a maximum of 0.1 deg centigrade per decade, and overall should be no more than 1 deg. It calculated that that was the largest rise that the earth's climatic systems could cope with; anything beyond that would lead to unpredictable changes. Likewise, it specified that sea level rises should be limited to 20 mm per decade with a maximum of 20 cm above 1990 levels. Unless we are able seriously to reduce and control carbon emissions, those targets cannot be met—indeed, the levels will fall well short of them. If we do not change, by 2060 carbon dioxide levels will double. The situation is obviously extremely serious. This is one of the warmest years on record.

Many people around the world recognise that the pollution and the unstable climate are caused largely by pollution from the wealthiest industrial countries in the world. The world is a desperately unfair place. A quarter of the world's population live in terrible, desperate poverty. Another quarter have a low life expectancy and lead a fairly poor existence. Only the top proportion have a high standard of living. The industrial revolution has taken place in Europe and north America, but it is now taking place in China, Asia and Latin America. Everything that the western Europeans and north Americans went through in the last century is now happening in China, India and throughout south Asia and Latin America.

We have to examine the way in which we run our economies and the unsustainable levels of waste produced in the United States and Europe. Twenty per cent.—one fifth—of the world's population accounts for 80 per cent.—of all pollution emissions. It is not the massed millions of people in Bangladesh and India who are causing the world's pollution; it is a relatively small number of people in the United States.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

The United States represents less than 2 per cent. of the earth's surface. The fact that it produces a relatively large amount of waste—however one likes to categorise that—is not so surprising, but one has to keep it in perspective. The great majority of the earth's surface is not land mass or built on, and, by definition, it does not produce the waste products that the hon. Gentleman is discussing. To describe the United States and, for that matter, the United Kingdom as a major polluter is meaningless in the context of the percentage of the world's surface that they represent. It is a drop in the ocean.

Mr. Corbyn

The oceans cover the majority of the world's surface by a long way, so I suppose that "a drop in the ocean" is a good analogy. To answer the hon. Lady's point, what I am talking about is the proportion of the world's human population. In those terms, the United States is fairly small, yet it manages to create vastly more pollution than the rest of the planet.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

The United States has 4 per cent. of the world's population and produces 25 per cent. of the world's emissions. That is clearly unacceptable. It takes the work of 120 people to service the energy needs of one American, but the work of only one person to service the energy needs of one Bangladeshi. If that is fair, it is a curious kind of fairness.

Mr. Corbyn

I am not defending the system; I am merely describing it. I think that the former Minister's intervention was directed at the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) rather than at me. I am pouring oil on troubled waters. I hope that I am helping Conservative Members out in their minor disputes.

Mr. Robathan

For the first time ever.

Mr. Corbyn

No. Daniel comes to judgment eventually.

I shall move on to a subject that will not please Opposition Members—what we do about climate change now. [Interruption.] It may well please them; I hope so. There are several issues that we have to address. The first is a general one. In 1992, for the first time, the Rio summit took place and some fairly dramatic proposals on sustainability were made. It was a very important conference. Perhaps it should have been tougher and more requirements should have been included in the agreements that were reached; nevertheless, it was an important and dramatic conference. Unfortunately, at the same time, the United Nations largely abdicated responsibility for economic strategy and put all its faith in the International Monetary Fund and the World bank, which believe essentially in a free market economy.

A free market economy is concerned less about the environment than about the profitability of enterprises. It is concerned less about sustainability than about wealth creation and aggrandisement. As the debate continues, we will recognise that the economic policies promoted by those two major institutions are contributing to pollution rather than controlling them. I know that the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) probably does not agree with me. We have had this discussion before, and no doubt we shall continue to have it, but even he will accept that an unfettered free market economy has no interest in protecting the environment—that it has an interest only in protecting and perpetuating itself.

The gap between rich and poor is part of this debate. As the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal rightly said, the energy requirements of the United States are so much larger than those of everyone else that one has to ask some serious questions about its commitment and its lack of action since the Kyoto summit, and about what pressure we can put on it.

The United States Senate voted 95:0 before Kyoto that the US Administration should not sign up to any agreement unless it included the developing countries. Kyoto applies only to the developed nations at present. Since then, no ratification has taken place within the US constitution and it is not likely to. We could spend an awful lot of time campaigning around the world to try to embarrass the United States on this matter, but I suspect that it is unembarrassable until more people wake up to the issue of sustainability of the planet.

The United States has very low fuel prices. People have a love affair with high fuel consumption vehicles and industrial pollutants. Enormous pressure has been brought to bear by American big business through lobbyists and the like not to ratify the convention because the United States wishes to retain its current industrial system without any change whatever. That is a huge barrier. We have a huge problem facing us, but that is not a reason for doing nothing; it is a reason for doing more and putting on more pressure.

Unless it is resolved, the current stand-off between the United States and China will have fairly serious effects. I should be interested in hearing from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary the outcome of the Secretary of State's recent visit to China and his assessment of the effect of President Clinton's visit. What discussions occurred between the United States and China on their future participation?

Some way forward has to emerge from Buenos Aires. The Globe group—Global Legislators for a Balanced Environment—which is now supported by many African, Chinese and Indian delegates, has come up with four proposals. They are that all countries should set internationally agreed ceilings on CO2 emissions; that carbon emission contraction budgets should be agreed and reviewable yearly, or at least at five-year intervals; that countries should agree on a CO2, emissions budget, so that there can be a degree of trading within it; and that we should set a standard to reduce emissions globally.

I believe that we should be concerned about trading in carbon emissions, which is one of the proposals advanced at Kyoto and since. If we become too involved in such trading, we risk missing the whole point, which is to prevent pollution and to arrest climate change and the accompanying damage, and becoming enmeshed in a debate about who trades what. It is also important that carbon sinks—forest or vegetation cover—should be excluded from any trading, because, if they are included, a country might say that, in return for destroying 100,000 square miles of forest, it would close down a coal-burning power station. We have to protect forest cover, so I support the views of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth that carbon sinks should be excluded from emission trading.

There is no reason why individual countries should not set higher targets for reducing CO2 emissions. Before Kyoto, the British Government proposed a 20 per cent. reduction; unfortunately, that was not universally supported at Kyoto and we ended up with an 8 per cent. reduction in CO2 emissions. However, if individual countries set considerably higher targets, that will help to embarrass the United States into doing more. If we make the whole process of protecting and preserving the environment dependent on the power of the United States lobby—in other words, the rest of the world does nothing until the United States does something—we will watch as the problem worsens. We have to do both—exert pressure on the US to participate while simultaneously campaigning around the rest of the world.

If we are to make an historic contribution to the planet, we have to create a world environment that is sustainable, equitable and, above all, accountable. Currently, much of the world's economic activity is unaccountable and much of the world's pollution is created without regard for anyone else. In proposing that Buenos Aires should suggest measures that seriously address the problem, we are not taking a backward view of protecting the environment or adopting a negative approach—quite the opposite. Kyoto has to be about examining the use of the best forms of renewable energy and technology and the best forms of technology to ensure that energy is efficiently and effectively used, and about ensuring that that technology is available to the entire planet.

I recall an interesting discussion in which I participated some years ago in Uganda. Delegates from all over Africa were talking about how they could develop their way out of poverty—an understandable and laudable aim. They said, "We have to industrialise—we have to go forward," but a group of African-Americans who were taking part said that that was not the way forward. They said that, in the United States, such development had caused pollution and poverty and had created a huge rust belt. What should be available for Africa and the world's poorest countries is the best forms of technology that would allow them to harness agricultural sustainability alongside high-tech communications and industry. We do not have to re-create in the third world the horrors of the industrial revolutions of Europe and north America in order to improve living standards; we should be able to use the available technology to jump a stage and ensure that we live in a sustainable world.

Today's debate is crucial, because it will enable the Government to set out their position before the Buenos Aires conference, and those hon. Members who have come along today will be able to express their views. I hope that it will enable the public to understand that there has been progress and that all the environmental campaigning and the energy put into local Agenda 21 groups and so on is having an effect—that what they do is reflected in what goes on in Parliament and in what the Government do.

When the Government go to Buenos Aires, they will have a mandate to achieve the best possible result, which is to help to reduce CO2 emissions and to stabilise the world's climate change. If we do not achieve that, we will face some serious and dramatic problems relating to weather patterns and climate change. The world's poorest people will be hit hardest and first, but, ultimately, there will be no hiding place for anybody.

11.25 am
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I welcome the introductory speech of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and agree whole-heartedly with much of what he said. He referred to four specific areas: emission trading, carbon sinks, country participation and adequacy of commitments. In respect of emission trading, I agree that it is important to cap the proportion of a country's reduction target that can be achieved from that source. If that is not done, there may be problems with Russia and other former Communist bloc countries.

It is important not to be sidetracked by the argument about how much carbon dioxide can be absorbed by carbon sinks, because that is extremely difficult to quantify. However, I would not rule out bringing carbon sinks into the equation in the longer term, because, for reasons of biodiversity as much as anything, it is important to ensure that forests have an economic value beyond that ascribed to logging. Currently, the only value ascribed to many of the world's forests is the value of the trees and, as a consequence, great destruction is taking place. We must not lose sight of that point, but I accept that, at the moment, the economics and the difficulties of quantifying are such that it is unrealistic to include this at Buenos Aires.

In respect of country participation, it is right that the world community has started off by looking at the developed nations, because, by and large, it is the developed nations which have caused the problem and are responsible for the vast increase in greenhouse gas emissions over the past 200 years. However, in the next 20, 30 or 40 years, there will be a substantial increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the developing—in many cases, fast-developing—countries. That will make a significant difference to overall world emission levels, so it is important that developing countries are brought into the equation in due course and asked to play their part as well. However, that should not be used as an excuse, by the Americans or anyone else, to blame developing countries for the problems, or to try to impose disproportionate cuts on developing countries' emissions to make up for the profligate way in which the United States and other developed countries, including ourselves, have behaved hitherto.

The hon. Member for Islington, North is right to say that the adequacy of commitments is the most important point. It is a milestone—a "kilometrestone" these days—that in Kyoto we achieved a legally binding agreement from a number of countries on which they will be required to deliver. However, that agreement is loose and shapeless in many respects, so it seems to me that Buenos Aires is about ensuring that the nuts and bolts are put in place. That will be the most difficult part. The test of Kyoto and of whether the world will seriously address the problems is not the initial agreement, even though it was difficult to reach—here I should pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister and to the others who played a part in achieving that—but whether the nuts and bolts can be agreed at Buenos Aires. We can no longer rely on warm words and I am slightly discouraged by the fact that the meeting in Bonn in June of the subsidiary body of the United Nations Forum on Climate Change did not appear to make much progress.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we must make progress at Buenos Aires, but there will be other meetings of the conference parties before the protocol comes into effect at the beginning of the next century, so not absolutely everything is riding on the Buenos Aires conference, although obviously we hope to make significant progress.

Mr. Baker

I entirely concur with the Minister's comments. I was keen to keep to the title of the Adjournment debate, which refers to the conference because you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, might have ruled me out of order if I had wandered on to another subject.

On the adequacy of commitments, I find the attitude of the Americans somewhat depressing—not necessarily the Government, but the Senate and the House of Representatives. I was fortunate to be a member of an all-party group that visited the United Nations at the end of last year. I was horrified, first, by the fact that many influential Americans seem still to question whether climate change is occurring. Although there is a theoretical possibility that change is not occurring, there is scientific evidence that it is, and we should plan accordingly. That does not seem to be accepted in the United States, where elected representatives have a curious and inward-looking attitude.

That makes it difficult for this Government and others to deal with the United States Government, who cannot deliver on what they have agreed. The fact that the US has made so little progress since Kyoto is a matter of concern and makes it difficult for others to make progress. As the hon. Member for Islington, North said, that is not a reason for us not to make progress where we can in this country, in the European Union and in other developing and developed countries.

I shall concentrate the rest of my remarks on how the United Kingdom and the European Union can, first, help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally—although I accept that we are a relatively small player—and, secondly, set an example so that, when we lecture others, we can do so from a sound base.

The evidence from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment has been very encouraging. It is clear that those Ministers, and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), understand the issue and have been working well. They played a major role at Kyoto and they understand what domestic policies are needed to achieve change. However, there is not the same commitment and understanding in other Government Departments such as the Treasury. The Treasury's commitment to green economics has moved backwards since last July. We do not have a green book. When the Financial Secretary to the Treasury appears before the Environmental Audit Committee or the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, she seems to suggest that such matters are for the DETR and fails to understand that they are matters for the whole Government. We need to mesh the environment and the economy in this country and world wide if we are to make progress. The environment cannot be a bolt-on concern, as it still seems to be for certain Government Departments.

A carbon tax was first suggested in the European Union in 1991. The suggested levy was $3 a barrel, with an increase of $1 a barrel each year thereafter. Since then, we have had no carbon tax, but energy taxes have been introduced in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland and other countries. In the UK, we have limited environmental taxes on energy to road fuel duty increments of 6 per cent. per annum. I am advocating not a massive increase in taxation but a change from a tax on "goods", such as employment, to a tax on "bads" such as pollution. The Environmental Audit Committee has considered such suggestions in detail and I am entirely disappointed by the Treasury's negative response to them. The Treasury likes to think of itself as modern, but it is, to use the words of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis), outmoded in its response, and it should update itself. We need to change Treasury policy.

We need also to consider our energy policy. Since 1970, energy consumption in this country has increased by 87 per cent. in the transport sector, 30 per cent. in the domestic sector and 21 per cent. in the service sector, and has decreased by 40 per cent. in industry. The DETR's figures suggest that energy-efficient measures alone could save 20 to 30 per cent. of carbon dioxide emissions. According to Greenpeace, a cost-efficiency programme could create 20,000 jobs. The Government's energy advisers, the energy technology support unit—have shown that two thirds of projected energy demand could be met by renewables by 2025.

There is huge potential for changing energy practice and policy in this country, first, in reducing energy consumption and, secondly, in changing energy generation from non-green to green sources. That can be done. Although the Government have committed themselves to an increase in generation from renewable sources, I am not convinced that the recent review in any way shows an understanding of the need to make the drastic changes to which the hon. Member for Islington, North referred.

This is not a time tentatively to take one small step at a time, to take stock and hope that everything works out. We need to take radical, drastic action in a short time. Radical steps would provide many opportunities for businesses to benefit from changing to green technology and to be in the lead in the world. They could, for example, simply change policies and practices in their factories. In my constituency, under the green business scheme—which this Government support, as did the previous Government—£2 million is being invested in an industrial estate in Newhaven. A massive increase in profits has been generated for the companies involved, simply by introducing energy-efficient measures. Those companies are not only helping the environment, but making much higher bottom-line profits. Companies can have their green cake and eat it. My message to those who resist environmental measures is that they are not helping business by doing so. They will help business by encouraging such measures.

Finally, on transport policy, I hope that the transport White Paper will be radical. I am sorry that the Government are going ahead with the Birmingham northern relief road. That is entirely wrong. I hope that the White Paper will not include schemes to widen the M25. I hope that there will be capital investment in rail. The Government have accepted over many decades that it is right to invest in new roads. They should accept also that it is right to put public money into new rail schemes, rather than leaving them to the private sector.

The Government should put their own house in order. They have made a good start in the DETR, but a much slower start elsewhere. I am confident that, if they do that, we can provide a moral lead, and we must hope that the Americans and others will follow.

11.38 am
Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)

I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has secured this important debate. I am glad to join my colleagues who congratulated my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on his return from Kyoto, where he undoubtedly played a vital part in brokering the eventual agreement on emissions. Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, I wish him well at Buenos Aires.

I have two serious concerns. First, as other hon. Members have said, trading emissions will not achieve the environmental benefits that should be the principal aim. I join colleagues in urging the Deputy Prime Minister to press all participating Governments at Buenos Aires clearly to define the principles for trading emissions and to set deadlines for the drawing up of clear rules on trading.

Secondly, I urge the Government to re-examine their proposed energy policies with a view to implementing their 20 per cent. national target on CO2 emissions before ratification of the Kyoto protocol. Specifically, I am concerned because the most important factor in climate change is carbon dioxide, and the single greatest contributor to United Kingdom CO2 emissions is electricity generation. Therefore, the electricity generation mix is absolutely key to the attainment of sensible environmental objectives.

I hope that renewable sources of energy will play a rapidly increasing role in the short, medium and long terms. There should also be a place for coal in the future of electricity generation. Coal may establish itself in a stronger position some time next century when clean burn technology becomes available and the supply of other carbon fuels diminishes. We all share in concern for the coalfield communities, and I hope that the proposals of the task force will be of significant benefit to them.

However, by burning 25 million tonnes of coal annually instead of an equivalent amount of gas, we create about 28 million tonnes of extra CO2 emissions. It does not seem sensible to expect to achieve offsetting reductions in any other sector—according to one calculation, we would need to remove 33 million cars from the roads in order to achieve the same sort of CO2 saving.

That is why I tabled my early-day motion 1512, which calls for rapid reform of the market in electricity so that all sections of that market can make informed planning decisions. At present, there is an effective moratorium on the building of new gas-fired power stations. It is said that that is essential while a fair marketplace is created. However, I understand that it takes several years to plan a new power station and bring it into service. So I cannot see how there is any danger of new gas-fired power stations competing in the market until that fair marketplace has been created.

I point out that south Wales, the area most affected by pit closures, would also be most immediately affected by the ban on gas station construction if the Baglan bay project does not proceed. Many construction jobs would be lost, as would many thousands more in the proposed attached industrial park. There is no justification for replacing one skewed market with another, particularly if it prejudices the attainment of our lead-setting air quality targets, of which the Government should be rightly proud, and which are surely the Deputy Prime Minister's strongest card in the difficult, but important, negotiations in Buenos Aires.

11.42 am
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I, too, compliment the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on securing this debate. I share his view that it is important to ensure that our politicians receive sound scientific advice before they go off to conferences. Policy decisions that are made on the basis of agreements reached at such conferences have profound implications for our industries and for jobs.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) pointed out that industries involved in fossil fuel production can be severely affected if the Government take the wrong decisions. The implication is that those industries produce substances that affect the environment and must therefore be controlled. Hon. Members who represent areas where such industries are important employers often face a dilemma: by definition, they do not want to see the jobs go, but, by ideology, they subscribe to the idea of global warming, which runs counter to the interests of the industries that they seek to preserve.

On more than one occasion, I have attempted to give an elementary science lesson—dating from the days when I taught science—about what constitutes global warming. We use that combination of words when we are talking partly about the climate—the weather is variable and the climate alters over time. That is caused by forces outside our control. Sun activity varies and one will find that it corresponds with climate changes on earth. When sun spots are active, there are periods of high temperature on the earth's surface. Some people might call that global warming. At other times, we have ice ages, which correspond to periods when the sun's activity is much lower.

The second factor involved in global warming is volcanic activity. People seem to think that there is only one active volcano on the earth's surface that erupts every few years and causes a minor problem that soon disappears. In fact, there are more than 100 active volcanos that, for a short period, cause cooling of the earth's climate. They emit large quantities of sulphur dioxide, which reach to a high level in the upper atmosphere. That forms a screen that prevents the sun's rays from reaching the earth's surface, which causes a period of cooler weather. I see the hon. Member for Islington, North nodding; I am delighted that he agrees with me so far.

Mr. Corbyn

I agree with the hon. Lady's point that volcanos have an effect on our climate. She has not mentioned—perhaps she was about to—that the emission of large amounts of dust from volcanos into the upper atmosphere also has a shielding effect on the earth. However, if we remove the effects of volcanos by mathematical means, we must agree that global warming is still taking place.

Mrs. Gorman

That may be the case; I do not deny that we have changes in climate. Throughout the traceable history of the earth's surface, there have been minor alterations in the earth's weather. I am sure that the protagonists of global warming would have loved us to be having a boiling hot summer with water shortages. They would have said, "Ah ha, that is evidence of what we are warning you about". However, we are having a rather damp summer—I do not know to what the hon. Gentleman attributes that. I am sure that it has nothing to do with coal miners in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Dafis).

Angela Eagle

The hon. Lady has visited the Department and we have had some interesting discussions about her views. Does she admit that the intergovernmental panel on climate change is seeking to examine, by various sophisticated scientific means, the human effect on climate change and to disaggregate that from the normal, natural processes that she describes? It has detected a discernible human effect on the climate as a result of the activities that hon. Members have mentioned today. Kyoto is about those activities, not the normal fluctuations of the planetary system.

Mrs. Gorman

I subscribe to the Minister's views. However, my thesis, and that of many other scientists, is that the amount of difference that human activity makes to the climate is infinitesimal.

We demonise carbon dioxide, which is allegedly the greenhouse gas. However, the most important of the gases is water vapour. That is hardly mentioned because people cannot demonise the nice clean rain that falls from our skies. Carbon dioxide is a trace gas in our atmosphere, constituting fewer than 300 parts per million—or 0.0035 per cent. The substance is extremely valuable to plants and very soluble in oceans. If we want plants to grow more quickly, we give them extra carbon dioxide. Yet we attribute the perceived problems of global warming to that trace gas.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

The hon. Lady's arguments are well known. The intergovernmental panel on climate change has examined those issues in great detail and I remind the hon. Lady that its conclusions are based on exhaustive peer review and consensus among scientists from all over the world. It is not to be imagined that those people do not know about water vapour, for example. In conclusion, I quote Pope to the hon. Lady: A little learning is a dang'rous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring". That might be relevant to the hon. Lady's remarks.

Mrs. Gorman

I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to undermine my scientific credentials, but I do not really mind.

More than 200 scientists attended the Rio convention, of which 54 were Nobel prize-winners who wrote a dissenting report on this thesis. Their views are ignored because they do not reflect the populist mood, which is largely fuelled, and certainly influenced, by pressure groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. The views of those scientists do not happen to fit the pressure groups' vision of Utopia—of the earth preserved from the wickednesses of mankind.

Notice, too, that, whenever we speak about pollution, the United States is demonised. Localised pollution does exist; most of it is in eastern Europe, where people continue to use outdated technology and produce especially offensive smoke emissions, and where motor cars are old bangers, which are not being cleaned up as our cars are. All those factors are relevant to localised pollution, but I keep trying to put this in perspective. I repeat: not only is the United States a tiny part of the earth's surface, but the United Kingdom is even smaller. We make up less than 1 per cent. of the globe. Whatever industrial output we manage to produce in this country, we are infinitesimal compared with the enormity of the atmosphere that surrounds our earth, and the other factors involved in climatic change.

Nevertheless, localised climates can be improved, and undoubtedly our car industries have gone to great lengths to remove the particulates that come out of exhaust pipes and chimney pots in order to clean up their emissions, and have succeeded in reducing some of that CO2. Even though, in my view, the case is bogus, they are responding to public pressure.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

Will my hon. Friend give her scientific judgment on the fact that it is said that, before the industrial revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 ppm, whereas it is now 359 ppm? Is not that, by any standards, a very significant increase, albeit at a very low level? What effect does she judge that that has on the behaviour of the climate?

Mrs. Gorman

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The statistics on the quantity of CO2 before the industrial revolution are extremely dodgy. The best estimates, which were made around the 1840s, were about 300 ppm. Current estimates are around 350 ppm. If the pre-industrial revolution quantity is the equivalent of a drop in the ocean, the current quantity might be two drops in the ocean; such levels are still not great enough to cause serious problems. We divert our attention when we go off on the wrong tack; we should focus, as we do, on making our localised climates much cleaner, and on exporting technology to those third-world countries that can do something to improve the local climate. I have no objection to trying to make the world a nicer place in which to live; I am simply saying that if we demonise the wrong things, we shall end up imposing on our industries expenses that will have a harmful effect on the people whom we represent.

That subject has been raised with me by the Minister and by the hon. Gentleman whose constituency I also could not pronounce, but which I know is a wonderful place to come from. Both the hon. Gentleman and the Minister make valid points, but I want to ensure that Ministers who go off to these conferences are well armed with a balanced view of the underlying science.

In the debate, as usual, the United States has been blamed for not taking enough notice of climate change. It is sceptical about the targets that we have set ourselves for CO2 emissions. If we were to pursue the Kyoto target of a national reduction of 20 per cent. in a couple of years' time, or whenever it is, the expenses that would be imposed on our industries would make them seriously uncompetitive with those in third-world countries or eastern European countries—the former Soviet Union and China included—and for what? By making those changes at home, we shall have no effect on those countries' heavily polluted local climate. I put it to the House that it is our responsibility to take those points into consideration.

Mr. Baker

Is it not the case that when a business reduces its energy costs, it helps the environment and saves money?

Mrs. Gorman

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point but does one reduce energy costs by declaring that factories may not use fossil fuels? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman supports the use of nuclear energy on a greater scale. That is much more environmentally friendly, in the sense that it does not produce emissions of the type that worry him.

Mr. Corbyn

Says who?

Mrs. Gorman

I know that, when I make those points, I am in a minority of one, but that does not mean that I am wrong.

Incidentally, before the industrial revolution, as uncleaned coal was the only domestic and industrial fuel, the atmosphere in our country was so polluted that the air was almost unbreathable. In the 17th century, John Evelyn, the well-known diarist, wrote a famous pamphlet about the smokes of London, called "Fumifugium: or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated".

We have cleaned things up enormously—we have done so even in our lifetime, and we are still doing it—but we must bear in mind the fact that in imposing such targets on our industries, we could be causing them severe problems in remaining competitive in a world that does not take such a severe attitude to such substances.

I urge the Minister—despite that fact that she has information from the international climate corporation, or whatever it is called, and other organisations—to take into account the fact that the United States and its scientific community are dealing with factual evidence, much of it produced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA is observing the atmosphere from outside the earth's immediate climate and reporting back to the United States Government. It is warning them that the targets that are being set at conferences on climate change, on the back of partly emotional pressure from the pressure groups and some scientific information, could seriously damage our wealth.

11.57 am
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on securing the debate. The issue is of the utmost importance, not just for hon. Members but for people throughout the world. It strikes me as a little bit off that we are reduced to discussing the issue at an Adjournment debate on a Wednesday morning. I shall return to that point. My hon. Friend described in graphic detail not only the significance of climate change, but the relationship between environmental policy and social justice and between environmental policy and free-market economics. We should constantly keep those issues at the forefront of our attention.

I endorse the remarks of other hon. Members in support of the work of the Deputy Prime Minister in leading the international negotiations, in helping to secure an agreement within the European Union for a 12.5 per cent. cut for Britain and other cuts for other European countries, and in moving the issue of climate change up the political agenda. I pay tribute to the work of all the Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, although I share the reservations of the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) about the culture of some other Departments.

I have no wish to undermine the scientific credentials of the hon. Lady from the unpronounceable constituency—the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)—but if it is a choice between accepting her view or accepting that of the intergovernmental panel, of scientists in all the leading industrial and developing nations, and of the Governments of all the nations that were represented at the Kyoto conference, I must accept their view. I note that the intergovernmental panel said that, on the balance of evidence, there is a discernible human effect on climate change. If, in years to come, the balance of evidence shifted the other way—which is unlikely—would not the hon. Lady agree that we should reduce our dependence on the burning of fossil fuels? It is important for us to conserve our energy supplies and increase energy efficiency, regardless of whether she accepts that the continuous burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases has an effect on climate change.

It is important that we focus on the concept of climate change, rather than simply global warming. I disagree with the assertion by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North that the issues are now well understood by the public. We have merely scratched the surface of public understanding. The term "global warming" is now fixed in the public mind, but not the implications of climate change in its wider sense.

Several hon. Members representing constituencies in East Anglia have understood pretty quickly that climate change involves not just global warming, but rising sea levels, and that that poses a threat to their political careers far greater than the Boundary Commission, the vagaries of four-yearly elections or proportional representation. We must constantly emphasise that climate change has varied, unpredictable and dramatic effects, which will intensify unless urgent action is taken.

There is a growing awareness that the powers of nation states to influence and control certain policies are increasingly circumscribed, that we are increasingly interdependent, and that therefore there is a need for more international agreement. I fear that our parliamentary structures and procedures have not latched on to that. We need a new approach to the scrutiny of the growing number of international agreements that we have signed or hope to sign. I refer to the way in which the House dealt with the multilateral agreement on investment and other conventions—the biodiversity convention, the Oslo-Paris—OSPAR—convention and the Basle convention on hazardous waste.

There has been virtually no discussion, in the House or even in Committee, of the increasing number of environmental treaties. Just three weeks ago in Aarhus, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment signed a new convention on public participation in environmental decision making. If we believe in public participation, extending access, increasing public information and establishing freedom of information, we must adapt our parliamentary procedures to ensure that there is scrutiny of draft agreements before the Government sign them and full debate once they have been signed.

With regard to Buenos Aires, there are a small number of absolute priorities, which I hope that the Government will endorse. First, it is critical that emissions trading is not seen as a way out of accepting our collective responsibility for global warming. I endorse the points that were made about carbon sinks and the view that they should not be involved in emissions trading. There must be a cap on the proportion of CO2 cuts that are achieved by emissions trading.

Secondly, because we are dealing with a new area of science and international agreement, compliance is critical. Giving the difficulty of measuring emissions and evaluating the industries and human activities that contribute to them, effective and accurate compliance regimes are crucial. I hope that that will be a priority at Buenos Aires. If an agreement is reached, targets are set and mechanisms are agreed, but compliance systems are not in force, the entire arrangement will lose credibility.

Thirdly, I hope that, in the lead-up to Buenos Aires, our Government and others will try to shift the focus of climate change. Instead of being perceived as a threat and a burden on business and industry, it should be seen as an opportunity. I know that some hon. Members do not support the work of Friends of the Earth, but I commend the recent report launched by Friends of the Earth, "Cutting CO2—Creating Jobs."

In raising the level of public understanding, we must make it clear that the environmental challenges that face us are not threats, but opportunities. Above all, they are opportunities to create enormous numbers of new jobs, and even to sustain full employment. That requires a radical rethink of our approach to economics, but it is well documented and well researched. We must drive home the message that climate change provides opportunities not only for a better environment, but for fuller and more stable employment.

Fourthly, the Government should explicitly adopt the philosophy of contraction and convergence. It has been said that if we are to tackle the problem, the only way forward is to get global agreements for ceilings on the emission of carbon and other greenhouse gases; then get agreements between the industrial and the developing nations, so that the industrial nations gradually contract their emissions. Ultimately, the two groups must converge, so that, by the end of the next century, there is a more equitable global system and a fairer agreement on emissions. Contraction and convergence is the policy that we should adopt.

I endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Lewes about the fact that Ministers, and officials in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are ahead of their colleagues in other Departments. Unfortunately, policy will be determined not by the DETR, but by the Treasury. We must continually put pressure on the Treasury to change its culture.

Taxation policy is critical to the achievement of success, and must be shifted away from labour and other good resources to discouraging pollution and encouraging the conservation of natural resources. We must drive home the message of green taxation. Also, as I said in the last debate on the issue, the code of fiscal responsibility that the Chancellor launched at the last Budget must be amended to include a reference to sustainable development. If that can be achieved in the next year or two, it will go some way to satisfying hon. Members' criticism of the slow pace of progress in the Treasury.

Finally, will my hon. Friend the Minister deal with the following questions in her reply? First, what is the Government's view of their 20 per cent. objective? That is not a statutory agreement, but the Government's intention. Does it still apply? Secondly, what is the Government's attitude to contraction and convergence? Will that be their explicit negotiating position at Buenos Aires? Thirdly, will the Government publish their intentions about the range of measures that they intend to adopt in order to secure their 12.5 per cent. target under the recent European Union agreement?

Fourthly, to return to my starting point, it is ludicrous that these issues of fundamental global importance should be squeezed into a Wednesday morning Adjournment debate. Will my hon. Friend try to persuade her colleagues to agree a debate on the Buenos Aires conference in Government time during the spill over period?

12.8 pm

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

I shall be brief, so that other hon. Members, especially those on the Front Benches, have an opportunity to speak.

I endorse the request of the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) that the Government should take seriously the issue of contraction and convergence—or, to give it its full title, contraction, convergence, allocation and trade. The UK has an opportunity to take the lead in the matter. The policy of contraction and convergence has been adopted by GLOBE International. That is the nearest we can get to an internationally agreed position among parliamentarians. The sample of parliamentarians is far from exhaustive, but the position that has been adopted is the outcome of serious consideration.

That position includes the principles of equity and sustainability. It is ethically right, being founded on the principle of allocating emission rights on a per capita basis. I cannot envisage any other ethical basis for the trading of emissions. Regardless of whether such trading is ethically right, in practical terms it is probably our best chance of getting everyone on board. It is compatible, ultimately, with the Chinese position, and will probably be compatible with the American position once the Americans recognise that, if an agreement is to be reached so that the climate can be protected—which is as important to the Americans as to anyone else—there must be acceptance of the equity principle and a proper basis for allocations.

I hope that the United Kingdom Government will adopt that principle and use it later in the year, before Buenos Aires. Perhaps, during his visit to China, the Prime Minister could explore the issue with the Chinese Government, and the Government could then push hard for the principle in Buenos Aires.

12.10 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) for giving Parliament an opportunity to ask questions before the event rather than after it. I also thank my hon. Friend the Minister, and her officials, for all her letters to me on technical subjects related to these matters.

I should like a number of issues to be on the agenda for Buenos Aires. First—I could not put this more succinctly—there is the question of shit in the Antarctic. There is a real problem of dirt destroying the pristine environment there. Secondly, can the agenda include the effect of sanctions on, in particular, Iraq and Iran? Having visited Iraq three years ago and spent a holiday in Iran last year, I know that those countries are emitting an enormous, disproportionate amount of filth into the atmosphere. If the west imposes sanctions, what can we expect other than the pollution of the whole environment?

I had the good fortune to secure Adjournment debates on both the red book on rare plants—my hon. Friend the Minister should have replied to that debate, but I make no complaint; she was in Luxembourg, and she knows what was said in response—and, on 1 July, on reefs. Could those issues also be put on the agenda?

Given that the conference will take place in Buenos Aires, the subject of the Falklands-Malvinas environment is bound to come up. According to this morning's press, it has been raised with the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson). I hope that the Minister who goes to Buenos Aires will be well prepared to discuss such delicate matters seriously.

12.13 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I join all who have spoken in congratulating the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), who presented his arguments with characteristic clarity and commitment. I thank him for providing us with a welcome opportunity to debate this subject.

The hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) made an interesting point about our method of scrutinising agreements of this kind. I hope that the Minister and the Whip will note his comments, which raise major issues about the way in which we conduct our business.

Let me deal first with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)—not because I necessarily agree with her, although I do not think that her account of the dissenting scientists at Kyoto, including the 54 Nobel prize winners, can be lightly dismissed. We should all welcome my hon. Friend's scepticism. She may well be a flat-earther, but she may be a Galileo. It is impossible for us—particularly those of us who are not scientists—to tell which she is. If she turns out to be a Galileo, it will be entirely characteristic for her to be a troublemaker, as Galileo was regarded as a troublemaker. Intolerance of dissenting voices smacks of insecurity in our own arguments, and we do not want that. Let us not resent debate: doubt, after all, is an integral part of the human condition. A former Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, wrote a whole treatise on the philosophical defence of doubt, and we should welcome our own doubts.

I am not a scientist; I am dependent on advice resulting from consensus, and I am struck by what we know for certain. There is no doubt, for instance, that various gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, have an effect on the climate. There is no doubt that the incidence of those gases in our atmosphere has increased. There is no doubt that those increases will continue unless we take action. There is no doubt that there has at least been a coincidence between an increase in global temperature and an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: as has been said, that has been proved by the evidence of glaciers. There is no doubt that the world's oceans act as carbon sinks, but cannot keep pace with the growth in emissions. There is little doubt that the global temperature has risen significantly over the past 40 years. I could go on, but I must be brief.

There is enough solid evidence to prove that the activities of man have an effect on climate change. There is plenty of room for scepticism and for challenging the more conventional arguments, but there is no room for complacency, given the scale of the challenge that the evidence seems to present. We are obliged to do something.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said in response to the statement by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, we welcome the Kyoto agreement. As was acknowledged then, it was an achievement that owed as much to my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) as to the Secretary of State himself. From an environmental perspective, however, it was only half a loaf. The Secretary of State said that the protocol provided a number of measures that will help countries to achieve their targets. The measures include the possibility of trading in permits…limited allowances for absorption of carbon dioxide by forests…and provision for developed countries to gain credit by helping developing countries curb their emissions."—[Official Report, 16 December 1997; Vol. 303, c. 130.] The danger of such measures is that they create the opportunity for fudge. We have heard a certain amount about the so-called window of credibility. How does the Minister see that operating, given that, as yet, many countries have not signed up to the protocol, and, as yet, there is no visible means of enforcement—or even a reasonable consensus about how to measure progress? Such concerns have been expressed by organisations at the more reputable end of the environmental spectrum, such as Friends of the Earth, and we are as keen for the arrangements to work as anyone else.

We come to the debate with a proud record on the environment. Ten years ago this September, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, said in an address to the Royal Society: environmental protection will be the most important global issue up to the end of this century. How prophetic that was. It put this country at the forefront of the global environmental debate. It was followed by the 1989 White Paper, "This Common Inheritance". It is the Government's responsibility to ensure that that common inheritance remains a subject of agreement between the two main parties and to look after it.

When we were in office, we made great progress on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. We introduced fiscal incentives on road fuel duties, to encourage the use of less polluting fuels. I remind the hon. Member for Islington, North that we secured substantial co-operation with the private sector through the advisory committee on business and the environment, first chaired by Sir John Collins of Shell. We demonstrated that industry and the Government can work together for the benefit of the environment and of businesses.

Markets are averse to risk. They are becoming increasingly wary of environmental risk. Investment will not be attracted to businesses with high environmental risk. All businesses are seeking to improve their environmental credentials as part of the workings of the market. Green markets are growing and green investment portfolios are developing and doing well.

The real question is how the Government will achieve their 20 per cent. target. Transport accounts for 25 per cent. of greenhouse gas emissions. There are problems of congestion, overuse of cars and inappropriate land use planning. The Government promised the transport White Paper in the spring. Why are we still waiting for it with bated breath halfway through July?

The greatest contribution to carbon dioxide emission reductions has been the cut in coal-fired power stations and the success of the non-fossil fuel obligation in promoting renewable energy. Where is the long-term strategy on low-carbon energy generation, particularly when the Government seem to have abandoned gas-fired power stations in the short term and are promoting coal? How can clean coal technology help to achieve the Government's CO2 commitments?

The Government say that renewables should contribute 10 per cent. to the nation's energy resources, but we still have no idea when or how. Will the Government break with the anti-nuclear lobby? Nuclear power generation makes a major contribution to carbon-free power generation. What are the major achievements of our EU presidency in relation to Kyoto? What is the Government's strategy on the potential fudges in the Kyoto agreement? When will the Government explain how they will meet the commitment to achieve a 20 per cent. reduction? We are still waiting for the consultation document. When will it be issued? Their duty is to build on our achievements. We have heard much talk, but seen rather less action.

12.22 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Angela Eagle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on initiating this lively and interesting debate, and all who have contributed to it.

Kyoto was a huge success—an historic turning point in the fight against climate change. However, it is only the first step in the process, for several reasons. First, much greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will inevitably be necessary in the longer term if we are to stabilise the increase in average global temperatures. We need 60 or 70 per cent. reductions rather than the 5 per cent. agreed at Kyoto. Secondly, as many hon. Members have said, Kyoto left a lot of unfinished business, such as establishing the rules and procedures for the flexible mechanisms in the protocol, for example on emissions trading. Thirdly, future commitments for developing countries are crucial to the ratification and implementation of the protocol. That issue must be addressed.

The latter two of those reasons are major issues which will take up much of the time of the climate change convention over the next few years, starting with the next conference of parties in Buenos Aires, but not ending there.

As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said at Kyoto, we now have a window of credibility before ratification to allow progress to be made on all those crucial issues, fleshing out the bones, but we have a lot to do. The early signs from the preparatory meetings in Bonn in June were that progress will be slow and that agreement on the key issues is unlikely at COP 4. We have told Argentina, the host nation, that we are ready to help in any way to ensure progress on those important issues at Buenos Aires.

The UK was to the fore in the negotiations at Kyoto, and we continued to lead efforts to tackle climate change during our presidency of the EU. As an early signal of our commitment, my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment signed the Kyoto protocol in New York on 29 April, on behalf of the European Union and the United Kingdom respectively.

At the June Environment Council, we secured agreement on how to share out the EU's 8 per cent. reduction target from Kyoto. Agreeing the deal was important for the EU's international credibility. The target is legally binding and it was important that it was shared out fairly. The UK agreed to a 12.5 per cent. reduction target. We have always made it clear that, while we shall retain our 20 per cent. aim, we shall not increase our legally binding target simply to allow others to do less than is justified. Four member states—Austria, Denmark, Germany and the UK—have national targets significantly above their legally binding targets. If those are met, Europe could do better than its 8 per cent. reduction target.

During our EU presidency, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment steered through the discussions on the EU position on the outstanding issues from Kyoto. They also featured at the Leeds castle meeting of G8 Environment Ministers earlier this year and at the Heads of Government meeting in Birmingham. EU preparations for the Buenos Aires conference will now be the responsibility of the Austrian presidency, but we shall continue to play a full part.

I should like to mention—all too briefly, I am afraid—the flexible mechanisms: emissions trading, the clean development mechanism and joint implementation. The EU supports the use of such flexible mechanisms, which can help to reduce developed countries' costs of emissions reductions. The clean development mechanism, which emerged as a new idea at Kyoto and was included in the protocol in outline, also has great potential for developing countries.

However, we have several concerns about flexible mechanisms. First, we must ensure that they operate effectively and efficiently and that they provide real and verifiable benefits. Secondly, domestic action must be the main means of achieving emissions reductions for two reasons: domestic action allows us to make the changes to our economies and life styles that are necessary and achievable to tackle climate change in the longer term; and it demonstrates to developing countries our clear commitment to taking action, which we hope will help to persuade them to take on similar commitments eventually. That is why at Bonn the EU proposed a concrete ceiling on the emissions reductions that can be achieved through flexible mechanisms.

We also need to talk about compliance. The Kyoto protocol does not contain a mechanism, but it has a provision for a future conference to approve appropriate procedures. What should those procedures be? Should we seek to promote compliance or should we penalise non-compliance? I am no clairvoyant, but I foresee different views about that and some hard negotiating in the years ahead.

That brings me to the second of the major issues that I identified earlier: developing countries. If we are to limit climate change to acceptable levels—the EU has suggested a maximum temperature rise of 2 deg C and a CO2 concentration of no more than 550 points per million, which is double the pre-industrial level, as a starting point for discussion—developed country emissions need to be reduced substantially and global emissions will eventually need to be reduced by 60 per cent. to 70 per cent.

We need to consider ways of engaging developing countries in the process. Two possibilities are being discussed. The first is to allow developing countries to take on reduction targets on a voluntary basis. The second is for a review of the obligations of parties under the climate change convention in the light of its ultimate objective. Such a review would need to consider what extra commitments would be necessary in the longer term.

The EU favours the latter method. The review would need to be wide ranging and would have to recognise the legitimate needs and aspirations for economic growth in developing countries, the need to eradicate poverty and their common but differentiated responsibilities towards climate change. At the same time, it would need to address the question of quantifying the global objective of stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that avoided dangerous interference with the climate system, which is in all our interests. The interesting concept of contraction and convergence would be considered in such a review.

A time of fewer than eight minutes is hardly enough to talk about such fascinating and important issues.

Mr. Corbyn

Speak faster.

Angela Eagle

I could speak faster.

This has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. I look forward to reporting to the House on future progress. We shall clearly return to the issue time and again.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It follows the Minister's comments. I am not being curmudgeonly in asking whether you would draw to Madam Speaker's attention, for her reflection, the development whereby Opposition spokesmen feel that it is incumbent on them to participate in Adjournment debates—in this case at longer length than the time left for the Minister to reply. Are not these Wednesday morning debates successors to Consolidated Fund debates, in which it was certainly the tradition that Back Benchers raised points and Ministers replied? I do not want to make this a yah-boo issue. It is a matter of Back-Bench rights rather than of getting at Front-Bench spokesmen.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

That is not a point of order. We must remember that any time spent on points of order simply takes time from the following debate.

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