Baroness Smith of Basildon (Lab)
There seems to be some disruption; I do not know whether we are being haunted. If the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, could mute, that might be helpful—just on this occasion, I hasten to add.
This is the decisive decade for tackling the climate emergency. Although we better understand the seriousness of the issue, the real threat to progress is no longer denial but delay.
For film fans—bear with me on this—when Rick said the immortal words to Ilsa in “Casablanca”, “We’ll always have Paris”, he could not have imagined how apt they would be, 80 years later. The Paris summit in 2015 built an international alliance to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The Prime Minister says in the Statement that COP 26 succeeded not just in keeping that 1.5 degrees target alive but in going further. I hope and want his optimism to be justified, but it feels more like the 1.5 degrees target is on life support. Meeting it would mean halving global emissions by 2030. The challenge for COP 26—so that we would always have Paris—was to close the gap between that aspiration and the reality of the pledges made. If Rick and Ilsa could do it, so can we. But did we?
We have to be honest about what has been achieved. Progress has been modest. We saw encouraging agreements on methane, deforestation, and the sales of petrol and diesel cars. Too often, however, the real delivery that will make a difference will come too late. According to the Climate Action Tracker, the pledges made at Glasgow for 2030, even if fully implemented, represent less than 25% of the ambition required. Rather than limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, we are now on track for a devastating 2.4 degrees rise. That is not just a number: it really matters. It could lead to billions of people facing extreme heatwaves, millions forced to leave their homes, and increased threats to both the natural wonders of the world and overall security. The Prime Minister kicked off the conference by saying that it was “one minute to midnight” on the doomsday clock. Can the Leader tell the House what time it is now, and whether we will still have Paris?
For years, coal has been the elephant in the room at these summits, so having an explicit reference in the agreement for the first time is really important. Who could not have been moved by Alok Sharma’s emotional reaction to that last-minute change to “phase down”? That really illustrates that hopes were cruelly dashed, despite the Prime Minister’s approval in the Statement. The raw emotion that we saw from Alok Sharma was also palpable among the Pacific Islanders. For many, climate change is genuinely existential, so even the announcement that 190 countries and organisations had agreed a timetable to end the use of coal does not bear scrutiny. Of those 190, only 46 were actually countries, of which 23 were new signatories and 10 do not even use coal. It is a coalition that includes NatWest and the national grid but not China, the United States or India.
There then came climate finance. It is a moral plight on developing nations that the 2009 commitment to provide $100 billion a year to emerging economies still has not been delivered; it will not be until 2023. That failure to deliver is self-defeating because it damages trust and prevents a high-ambition international coalition being built.
With his now typical overexuberance, the Prime Minister lauded the net-zero commitments made. Yet Saudi Arabia, for example, is still increasing oil production, despite its 2060 net-zero claim, and Australia will not even legislate for its 2050 net-zero target. We all know the importance of trade deals, but will the Leader explain why the Government dropped the Paris temperature commitment from the trade deal that we now have with Australia?
I had hoped that the Statement would refer to Thérèse Coffey’s welcome boast at the summit of the UK being
“the first country to legally require pension trustees to assess and publish the financial risks from climate change”.
I am sorry that it was not in the Statement, but the Leader of the House may recall that it was a Labour-led amendment in your Lordships’ House, supported across this House, that secured that historic commitment. We are pleased that we were able to be helpful, so that the Government could boast about that achievement at COP.
For the next 12 months, we have the COP presidency, and that gives us a key leadership responsibility. But the Government’s ability to step up and deliver is called into question by the Climate Change Committee’s recent report to Parliament, which said that the Government had been
“too slow to follow its climate promises with delivery”.
We cannot just put climate policy in a separate box: all government policies need to be linked to climate commitments, including trade deals. Yet Rishi Sunak’s Budget failed to mention climate change; it did not secure the necessary green investment, but it did give a tax break for domestic flights. That we were the only G7 country to cut overseas aid when seeking international co-operation on climate clearly damaged trust at COP.
When we wanted to focus on the summit issues and the climate emergency, many of us found it very difficult to watch the Prime Minister seeking to assure the world’s media that the UK was not corrupt, following his political shenanigans away from the summit. It was not exactly Mr Johnson’s finest hour.
Looking forward, I hope that the Leader is able to update us today on how Ministers can get a grip, reorder their priorities and invest in the green recovery. Can she give us an assurance that the net-zero test will be applied to all future decisions? Given what was said at COP 26, what is the Government’s renewed plan for phasing out fossil fuels, including rewriting the planning framework to rule out coal and say no to the Cambo oil field?
In conclusion, there was some welcome progress at COP 26 but it could have, and should have, achieved far more. Real action, not more rhetoric, must now follow, because the world just cannot wait any longer.