Mary Creagh MP

Working hard for Wakefield

Speech - Paris agreement on climate change

Read below Mary's speech yesterday in a debate in Parliament on the Paris agreement on climate change.

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Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab)

I apologise for not attending the first part of this debate. I was chairing the Environmental Audit Committee where we were hearing from Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Minister from the Department for Exiting the EU.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) on bringing this debate forward. It has been some time since we debated climate change. Like other speakers, I believe that this issue is one of the three great challenges of our age. The first is the challenge of the ageing society and how we can all live better now that we are living longer. How can society adapt to that new longevity? The second challenge stems from technology hollowing out traditional jobs and traditional workforces. How can the Government collect taxes on the new economy when the intellectual capital exists in places such as California, but the products are consumed in our own country? The final great challenge of our age is climate change.

There is the challenge of adaptation to protect our island from the different weather patterns we will see in the future. How can we mitigate the risks and play our part in the world in standing by our poorer neighbours? As previous speakers have said, they have done nothing to cause this catastrophe, but having risen out of poverty, they now risk seeing hundreds of millions of their own ​people being dragged back into it through climate change. It will either cut off their food supplies and their traditional ways of life or, in the worst-case scenarios, see island states disappear under water altogether.

In 2015, 190 countries adopted the new climate agreement in the first ever universal and legally binding global deal. We cannot overstate how much of an achievement that was and what a great part the UK Government played in achieving it. The now Home Secretary, then Climate Change Secretary, really took the lead on that, and it is a great shame that the Government have now abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change. The lessons from other countries show that when climate change is put into a pot alongside other industrial and energy policies, climate change is often the loser as economic interests take over. We do not value what we cannot see. This is one of the big “abstract thinking” problems of trying to deal with climate change. We are talking about worst-case scenarios in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time, but scientists would argue that we have just seen 14 consecutive months as the hottest on record and are now 1.1° above our pre-industrial revolution peak.

John McNally (Falkirk) (SNP)

Does the hon. Lady agree that if the Government want an example of certainty of policy, which has been mentioned by previous speakers, they should look at the state of California, where what I think is a 20-year all-party agreement on renewable energy has led to investment by various companies? Does she agree that Westminster Governments have probably been practising long-termism and short-termism for far too long, and they cannot allow this to go on until 2020, 2030 or 2040, or for an indefinite period?

Mary Creagh

I strongly agree that what investors and businesses want is certainty. Members of the Conservative party may want to see outcomes, but one way of achieving those outcomes is to set a strict framework and then stick, within that framework, to the interim targets that we wish to meet. The hon. Gentleman has played an important part in the Environmental Audit Committee, sharing with us not only the Scottish experience, but his wider global experience.

As we know, 23 countries have now ratified the agreement, and over the past week the United States and China have come together. Given that they represent 40% of the world’s carbon emissions, this is a really significant moment. It seems to me that they are firing the starting gun for the next big industrial revolution. Britain led the way in the first industrial revolution, with the spinning jenny, electricity and other forms of energy, and the steam engine. The second industrial revolution, in the 1990s, introduced technological change which has revolutionised the way we think and do business. This will be the third great industrial revolution of our time. Whichever country first gets to market with individual transport solutions that are non-emitting—solar-powered cars and battery storage—will have a massive competitive advantage in the global race.

We have heard about the Climate Change Act 2008. That was Labour’s achievement, but it was a cross-party achievement in that only five Members voted against it. It committed the United Kingdom to reducing its emissions by 80% of the 1990s level by 2050. It has been copied, replicated and imitated across the world because it gives ​investors certainty, which is crucial, particularly at a time when, following the referendum result, there is a great deal of uncertainty in our economy. The Act sets out long-term goals, but it also gives Governments flexibility to decide how they want to meet those goals. Our Government also introduced feed-in tariffs and the renewables obligation, which brought about an energy revolution in this country. In 2005, none of our energy was being produced from renewable sources, whereas at certain points last year, 25% of our electricity was coming from such sources.

I want to say something about the work of the Environmental Audit Committee. I have here a copy of an excellent report that we published about 10 days ago, entitled “Sustainability in the Department for Transport”. It did not receive quite as much press coverage, or Daily Mail pick-up, as the microbeads report, which is a great shame. I am sure that no Member who is present, or anyone sitting in the Galleries, uses microbeads. I must say that we are all looking very polished and relaxed after our summer break.

What the Committee found was concerning. We found that the UK is failing to reduce its carbon emissions in the transport sector, that air quality targets that were supposed to be met in 2010 will not be met until 2020 at the earliest—and the only reason there is a plan for developing them is the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, and the threat of action against us by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice—and that although a year has passed since we discovered, on 18 September, that Volkswagen had fitted cheat devices to a range of cars, the Government have yet to decide what action, if any, to take against the company. As far as I am aware, not a single Volkswagen has been recalled in this country for any sort of fix or refit. That is completely unacceptable to Volkswagen customers who, for instance, may wish to change their cars and are unable to obtain a fair valuation.

Domestic transport is the single largest emitting sector of the economy, accounting for 22% of UK emissions. Those emissions need to fall by 31% over the next 10 years. We found that the UK is on course to miss that target by 50%. So demand for transport is growing and, despite marginal falls in average car and van CO2 intensity, this is driving up emissions. Therefore, we are not going to be on the most cost-effective pathway to those 2030, 2040 and 2050 targets. That is deeply worrying, because if we are not on the most cost-effective pathway, it means we are idling along in the slow lane, hoping that something will turn up to suddenly help us meet those carbon budgets later on down the road, literally and figuratively.

Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP)

Does the hon. Lady agree that the Scottish Government proposition to make sure that all towns, communities and cities are free of fossil fuel vehicles by 2050 is the right approach? Does she agree that the UK should be looking to follow the example of Norway and the Netherlands, which are looking at banning all new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2025?

Mary Creagh

What I would say about a 2050 target is that it is long enough away for none of us to be accountable for it, because most of us will be dead by then. [Interruption.] Well, some of us; I probably will ​be—no, I will be enjoying a long and fruitful old age, as I intend to live until I am 100. I want to see interim targets, so if there is a 2050 target I would be interested to see what are the 2020, 2025 and 2030 targets, because faraway targets can always be our children’s problems.

The issue in the report about our transport sector is that we are not doing enough now, and I want to develop my theme because transport emissions increased in both 2014 and 2015. Some 94% of those transport emissions are from road transport, and we were concerned that less than 1% of new cars are electric. There is a good reason for that: they are very expensive—£30,000 or £32,000, perhaps. The Committee on Climate Change says that we need 9% of all new cars to be ultra-low emissions vehicles by 2020 if we are to meet those targets at the lowest cost to the public. We should match what the Committee was saying with the Department’s forecasts; the Department was saying, “Well, actually 3% to 7% of vehicles will be ultra-low emissions by 2020, but our average central point is 5%.” So the Department’s central forecast is 5%, but the Committee on Climate Change says it should be 9%.

That is worrying, because the next target—the 2030 target—is that 60% of all new vehicles should be low-emissions. If we are only at 5% by 2020, I cannot see a way of getting to 60% of low-emissions vehicles without some spectacular change in the way we buy cars in this country, and we did not hear any brilliant bright ideas from the Department for Transport. We heard of the money that was committed, but we did not hear a strategy for getting that mass take-up. That means we are playing catch-up and we are not going to follow the lowest cost route to decarbonise the economy.

Bob Stewart

I am no expert, but is there any way of measuring progress towards the targets for 2020, 2030 and so on, perhaps by year?

Mary Creagh

Yes; it is done in the single departmental plans and the annual reports, and the Committee on Climate Change looks at these targets every year and says whether we are going to meet our various carbon budgets. There is a range of reporting mechanisms, and I see it as the job of the Committee to point out where we think things are going wrong.

We could see a whole range of policies that would help drive low-emission vehicle uptake, and local authorities had a range of innovative ideas, particularly in the area of fleet procurement. The Government are probably the largest buyer of vehicles in the country, and if the NHS were to move to all electric vehicles, they would get them at much less than £30,000 per car. They could then guarantee buy-back and there would then be a second-hand market that gets people used to buying these vehicles. We could see workplaces investing in charging points—one of the perceived problems with electric vehicles is their range—and the introduction of a national grant scheme, or scrappage scheme, for electric and low-emission taxis.

We also want the Treasury to think about changes to the taxation of vehicles, including company cars, to make electric vehicles more attractive. This is really important for the UK’s industrial strategy. I was born and brought up in Coventry, and I watched the car manufacturing industry virtually disappear around me ​in the 1980s. The remaining manufacturers, including Nissan, Honda, LTI—which I am delighted to say makes electric taxis in Coventry—and Toyota, need a reason to choose their UK car factories based in Sunderland, Swindon, Coventry and Derby to manufacture the next generation of low-emission vehicles. We have heard from the Japanese ambassador about some of the anxieties following the vote to leave the European Union, but we are obviously keen to see Nissan manufacture the next generation of its electric car, the Leaf, in Sunderland from 2018. That decision is under consideration at the moment. Investors want stability, certainty and policies that will signal the Government’s intention to incentivise the uptake of these vehicles. All those factors are vital.

James Heappey

The Energy and Climate Change Committee has similarly been looking at the uptake of electric vehicles. What assessment has the Environmental Audit Committee made of the preparedness of our energy system, particularly for clusters of electric vehicles? For example, are we going to be able to provide the level of charge required if, say, two dozen or more electric cars on the same road all need to be charged at the same time?

Mary Creagh

We did not look at all the life cycle issues, but I have a feeling that that might be coming out in the hon. Gentleman’s report. If so, that would be great—a good bit of boxing and coxing from both Committees. He makes a good point: we still have coal-fired power stations, and it would make no sense to have emitting power stations fuelling electric vehicles. We need to look at the whole life cycle of the power supply. There are big issues with battery storage and battery life, and it would be a great prize for our industry if we could find a way to capture renewable energy and store it when we have more than we need.

I have talked about air pollution and air quality zones, and the fact that the targets will not be met until 2020. The report contains a detailed analysis of that. The Volkswagen emissions scandal revealed that 1 million diesel cars in the UK contained cheat device software, and we found a worrying inertia among Ministers when it came to deciding whether to take legal action or any other action. We want Ministers to ask the Vehicle Certification Agency to carry out tests to find out whether those Volkswagen group cars in the UK would have failed emissions tests without those cheat devices. It is important for people to know that. We would also encourage the Serious Fraud Office and the Competition and Markets Authority to make their decisions about whether to take legal action against Volkswagen. In the United States, Volkswagen owners have already started to receive compensation; some have received as much as $10,000.

The Committee has also produced a report recently on the Government’s approach to flooding. Flooding is the greatest risk that climate change places on our country, and the risk is threefold. There is a risk from surface water following heavy rainfall, whether in summer or winter. The July 2007 flooding, which flooded more than 1,000 homes in Wakefield, was the largest civil emergency that this country had seen since world war two. There is a risk from river flooding, which is what we saw in the Christmas and Boxing day floods in York and all across the country, including Scotland and Wales. ​There is also a risk from a tidal surge from the North sea. We were in a position, I think in 2014, in which a combination of high winter tides and heavy rainfall resulted in red flood warnings and evacuations from Newcastle all the way down to Margate. The entire east coast of England was at risk from a tidal surge.

The ways of mitigating these risks are complex. We need to get in place the civil resilience systems so that we are able to respond when floods occur. So far, we have been fortunate that most of them have happened at different times, but if we were to experience all those different kinds of flood problems at the same time, there could be issues relating to our ability to respond adequately.

Barry Gardiner

My hon. Friend is making such an important point about flooding. Does she recall that had the high tide and the surges been realigned by one hour, more than 10,000 homes in the Humber area would have been underwater?

Mary Creagh

It was an anxious time. I remember following events on the Met Office website and thinking, “This is not looking good. I would not want to be the Minister in charge.” We cannot keep relying on luck. We must be fully prepared. I am disappointed that the Government’s flood review and the analysis of the resilience of national infrastructure to deal with flooding emergencies has been postponed. We understand that it was a Cabinet Office responsibility, and I have written to the DEFRA Secretary and the Minister for the Cabinet Office to find out where that responsibility now lives because there has been some confusion.

During the recent flooding, we found that if the transport network goes down because a bridge has been taken out or a road has been flooded, the police, the fire service and ambulances are unable to respond. People are unable to make phone calls because digital infrastructure or phone lines go down, and power supplies can also go down. People end up literally and metaphorically in the dark about the flood situation sometimes only 10 miles up the road. We heard that from the people of the Calder Valley who came to Leeds to talk to the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), who is not in his place, and me, and we had an interesting conversation.

Turning to the Environmental Audit Committee’s work on looking at the Treasury, all such decisions are ultimately signed off or not by the Treasury. The National Audit Office told the Committee that there is a growing gap between our stated ambitions on climate change and the policies and spending that the Government are bringing forward to get us there. According to the Government’s own calculations, we are on track to miss our fourth carbon budget between 2023 and 2027 by 10%, yet we saw no action in the previous spending review to take us nearer to closing that gap.

In fact, the spending review contained a number of negative decisions that impacted on our ability to tackle climate change. The last minute cancellation of support for carbon capture and storage, for which industry had been preparing for seven years, has delayed the roll out of this crucial technology for a decade or more, meaning that the eventual bill for cutting our carbon emissions could be up to £30 billion more. Other last minute changes, including ending all funding for the green deal, cancelling the zero band of vehicle excise duty on ​low-emission cars, abolishing the zero carbon standard for new homes, cutting the funding available for greener heating systems available under the renewable heat incentive, and closing the renewables obligation to onshore wind a year earlier than previously promised, have all damaged business and investor confidence.

We need to start valuing our natural capital, such as our bogs, peatlands and rivers—our wild and special places. There is twice as much carbon in our bogs than in the UK’s atmosphere. If we practice farming techniques that drain that land, degrading peat soil and releasing that carbon, we are contributing to the problem, not taking away from it. We need to consider the role of soils—that was another excellent report by the Committee that did not get much Daily Mail attention—and what peatland and bog restoration can do for capturing carbon. That work is vital and contributes to the richness of our ecosystems and wildlife. We will continue to scrutinise the Treasury’s record and work with the National Audit Office and evaluate every future autumn statement for its environmental impact.

In conclusion, the US and China have worked together to ratify the agreement. They are getting a head start in the next great innovation race: the decarbonisation of advanced economies. We are fortunate that we have the Climate Change Act 2008 and the framework that forms the basis for this new industrial revolution in sustainable technology. I hope that all Members will continue to work together and do diligent work in our Select Committees and interest groups to ensure that the Government ratify and honour the spirt of the Paris agreement.

Click here to watch the video of the speech.

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