HL Deb 23 February 2005 vol 669 cc1214-7

2.58 p.m.

Lord Ezra

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take in response to the view recently expressed by Sir David King, the Chief Scientific Adviser, that capturing carbon may best address the issue of global warming.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, before I reply, according to the Guardian, it is the noble Lord's birthday today and I am sure that the House will wish to extend its congratulations once again.

Carbon dioxide capture and storage technologies can play a very important role in tackling climate change but not by themselves. Those technologies will be extensively covered in the carbon abatement technology strategy, which the DTI will publish shortly. We also support work by the IPCC and international experts who are working with the EU on the basis of including those technologies under the European Emissions Trading Scheme. They are also working to resolve outstanding legal issues under the Ospar and London Conventions.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind reference to my advancing years, which I hope will not prevent me continuing to ask Questions on energy policy.

In connection with the present Question, does the noble Lord agree that climate change is now likely to move ahead faster than was originally estimated, as Sir David King has mentioned and as will no doubt be considered later today when the excellent report of the EU committee is debated? Does he agree that every avenue should be explored to deal with that situation, including carbon capture, in view of the substantial reserves of coal available both in this country and elsewhere? Is the noble Lord aware that the United States and Canada have developed successful methods for the capture of carbon from coal and that the Norwegians have been injecting carbon into their oil wells in the North Sea for a number of years to access oil which would otherwise not be recoverable? In all those circumstances, should we not be moving ahead faster in this area?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am aware of those examples, which prove the point that carbon capture and storage can be combined with production facilities and reduce carbon emissions very substantially. We wish to give such technologies a very substantial boost. There are some unanswered questions in relation to them. We are supporting the R&D and we are looking at including these technologies within the emissions trading scheme. They are a major part of the portfolio of measures needed to tackle the problem of climate change, which, in the light of recent information, looks as if it may be proceeding faster than previously thought.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, in his Answer, the Minister referred to the Ospar Convention, which was negotiated and signed when I was Secretary of State for the Environment. Is it the case that it is illegal under that convention to pump sequestered carbon dioxide hack into sources under the sea? Presumably, that is why the Minister said that the convention would have to be renegotiated. Why have the Norwegians therefore been allowed to do that without any renegotiation of the Ospar Convention? Why does it loom so large in the eyes of present Ministers when other countries do not seem to face the same difficulty?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to suggest that under-ocean storage is in general illegal in most cases under the Ospar Convention. However, in relation to the enhanced oil recovery aspects—in other words, if it is part of the management of an oil or gas field—it is not illegal. The Ospar Convention is referred to in order to establish whether it could be extended to other potential sites.

Lord Clark of Windermere

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Forestry Commission. Does the Minister appreciate that trees are wonderful at carbon sequestration? While they are growing, they capture the carbon and while they are being used, they store it. Is he aware that 50 per cent of new houses in Scotland are timber-framed, but that only 10 per cent of those in England are? Will he have discussions with the Building Research Establishment to see if that percentage in England can be increased to capture more carbon when we build our houses?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we are well aware of the role that forestry can play in carbon capture and in restricting carbon use and carbon emissions in buildings and elsewhere. Indeed, the sustainable building process, in which we are engaged in England, is looking at, among other things, the enhanced role of timber in houses as part of a number of measures to make buildings less carbon consuming.

Lord May of Oxford

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's implicit recognition that there is no single solution to the problem of climate change but that we need many parallel actions, including some—of which carbon sequestration is an important part—that reduce the input of greenhouse gases, and others that seek to adapt to the consequences. Does he agree that it is a pernicious delusion to imagine that we can avoid hard choices—or at least delay them, as some would urge—by the promise of as yet unproven technological fixes?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I agree with that. While there is faith in technology—and many technologies are now coming forward, including some dealing with carbon sequestration—blind faith that technology will always provide is wrong and misguided unless the framework and support system for the development of that technology are created. In so far as it represents the view of influential people, not excluding some in Washington, it seems to be a dangerous, complacent and irresponsible policy. We need to create the framework in which technologies can help to deal with the huge problem that is facing the globe.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the proposition that, while a multifaceted approach is essential—as he said—and carbon sequestration may well play a proper part in that, the basic problem that has to be tackled is to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions in themselves in quantum? It is perfectly true that sequestration does that in a sense, but the total volume has to be reduced anyway. Sequestration does not reduce the total volume; it merely puts some of it away in a cupboard.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it stops the emissions of that carbon to a large extent and therefore makes a contribution to the effect that carbon has on the atmosphere and on the globe in general, so I would not be quite as dismissive as the noble Lord implied in his final remarks. It is a carbon-saving technology, but a whole range of issues, involving energy efficiency, the use of carbon fuels and the replacement of carbon fuels by other sources of energy, are equally important.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, in the speech to which my noble friend referred, Sir David King also said that the Government should be looking at small-scale Chinese pebble-bed nuclear reactors. Will the Minister tell us what they are and whether the Government are seriously considering them?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I think that they are exactly as described: they are relatively small nuclear reactors. I do not necessarily view them as a major contribution to the UK's energy problem, but with the boom in the Chinese economy and its consumption of fossil fuels at the moment, it is wise for the Chinese to look to all measures of saving carbon, including that which the Question was about; that is, carbon sequestration. If we can build carbon sequestration into the coal-fired power stations in China, India and elsewhere, we will avoid what would otherwise be a substantial increase in the carbon emissions from those economies.

Forward to