Environment and Climate Change

Richard Benyon Excerpts
Wednesday 1st May 2019

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Hansard
1 May 2019, 2:27 p.m.

I repeat my gratitude to the right hon. Gentleman for all the work he did. There are a number of multilateral institutions through which we work, and this Government are committed—I am grateful for the Opposition’s support—to bringing the conference of parties on climate change to London in 2020, to ensure that this country can build on the achievements that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) helped to secure at Paris and so we ensure that Britain can show global leadership on the environment and climate change.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Hansard
1 May 2019, 2:28 p.m.

My right hon. Friend will know that he and I were on different sides in the referendum, but does he agree that it was deeply frustrating, as Environment Ministers, to have to sit in EU co-ordination meetings lowering the standards and ambitions of the United Kingdom Government to reach a single point of agreement? It is not a binary issue. Britain has a very ambitious international commitment, and I found myself constantly having to lower those ambitions to maintain one point of agreement.

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 May 2019, 2:28 p.m.

My right hon. Friend knows how important it is to negotiate hard in every international forum, but he also knows, as a former Minister who is committed to the environment and who supported remaining in the European Union, that there are committed environmentalists who are strongly in favour of our membership of the European Union and committed environmentalists who welcome our departure. Nobody could say that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) or Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb are, in any way, anything other than sincere campaigners for environmental enhancement, and they both feel—I think this is completely open to debate—that we can achieve those goals as effectively, if not better, outside the European Union.

Break in Debate

Matthew Pennycook Portrait Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
1 May 2019, 4:35 p.m.

In the short time I have, I want to make three simple points in support of the motion. The first is that it is essential that this House formally declares an environment and climate emergency. I listened to the Environment Secretary, and I do not believe that he formally committed the Government to doing so, but he did recognise that the situation that we face is an emergency—by contrast to what the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth said last week. I will quote what she said, because it struck me at the time:

“I do not see the point of saying anything unless we take action”.—[Official Report, 23 April 2019; Vol. 658, c. 612.]

I do not think that she could have been more wrong, because language matters. Of course deeds must follow words, but the manner in which we define problems in turn shapes our conceptions not only of the range of possible solutions, but also of what is necessary.

We have to stop talking about climate change as though it were some benign force and start talking about what we are really confronting: an ongoing and accelerating crisis from which no one will escape and which will have profound and potentially existential consequences for everything that every one of us holds dear. That is arguably a reason that the Extinction Rebellion movement has struck a chord and it is why—at least to my mind—a degree of alarmism is entirely justified, as long as that fear acts as a clarion call to act, rather than merely provoking a sense of hopelessness. Complacency remains the greatest barrier to the response that is required. We must therefore do everything we possibly can to bring home to the public the nature of the threat we face and to build consensus for the kind of disruptive change that will inevitably have to take place as we respond to it.

My second point is that the unique situation in which we find ourselves demands a far more vigorous response than the Government have provided to date, and it demands that that response begins now. There is no doubting that there is cause for pride in the UK’s record when it comes to climate action, but it is also undeniably the case that the reductions achieved over recent years are largely the result of having picked the low-hanging fruit, that our annual rate of emissions reduction is slowing and that we are not on track to meet our binding emissions targets.

Where, then, is the commitment from the Government to bold policies of the kind that would drive deep decarbonisation across the whole economy and get us back on track? Given all that we know—the fact that the Paris pledges will still amount to 2.7 °C of warming and that we are not on track to meet those pledges—our collective response cannot simply be business as usual. Legislating for net zero emissions by 2050 should be the absolute minimum that we are aiming for, and it should spur a far more ambitious policy agenda.

My third and final point is that the institutions of government as they are currently organised are simply not set up for the scale and pace of the transition required to avert catastrophic climate breakdown. The abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change three years ago was a serious mistake, but it was also emblematic of a more deep-seated failure on the part of the Government to accord emissions reduction the status it requires. When I was a member of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, I remember repeatedly pressing the then Secretary of State on the inadequacies of the clean growth inter-ministerial group, but at least a body of that kind existed at that time; it does not now. If the Government were really serious about this crisis, their response would be driven relentlessly from the centre, with the institutional architecture put in place to co-ordinate and drive progress across all Departments, with emissions reduction woven throughout Government policy; it is not.

In all likelihood, we have probably already squandered the opportunity to avert an unprecedented degree of warming, but what we do in the coming 10 to 15 years will determine whether we avert even more drastic change and the suffering that will surely define a world where emissions continue to rise unabated. We must declare an environment and climate emergency, act in a way that is commensurate with such an emergency and reform the machinery of government so that we are able to drive forward this agenda. That is why I will wholeheartedly support the motion this evening.

Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con) Parliament Live - Hansard
1 May 2019, 4:38 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook). I agree with him that the architecture of government needs to change to reflect the dire urgency of the issue. I want to ensure that any changes that this or any future Government make are not just about moving the deckchairs on the Titanic, but that they are actually part of a coherent strategy that goes through every single Department and every agency, and that that urgency is reflected in them.

I commend the Opposition for what is, I think, a perfectly reasonable motion. I would have improved on it—it could have been a little more congratulatory—but essentially it is a quite a mature bit of opposition. However, I want to reflect for a moment on what the key point about creating a climate and environment and emergency is really saying. As far as I am concerned, of course we have an emergency. Seven years ago, I attended the Pacific Islands Forum, representing Her Majesty’s Government, and there I met the leaders of island states who are buying leaseholds on other islands because theirs are practically uninhabitable. The land where they have grown the food on which they depend is salinated because of rising seawater, and there are whole hosts of other reasons why they look one in the face and say, “We have, now, a climate emergency.”

The IPCC has given us 12 years. In climate science, that is a heartbeat. We have to get this right. The ice shelves are melting at 10 times the predicted rate, last year 39 million acres of tropical and rain forest were lost, and it is predicted that one third of the species we have on this planet now will be lost by 2050 unless we do something. The crucial question is whether the UK is doing its bit. It sterilises the debate if Opposition Members just attack us. I am looking forward to some generous comments from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who, no doubt, in the balanced nature of this debate, will applaud the Government for what they have done to be a world leader.

But let us talk about more important things: about where we are going in future. I want to reflect on the very good speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and the really inspirational words from the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). Can Parliament reflect the nation’s concerns? Can it raise its game to talk about this in a way that does not make people out there turn a tin ear to our deliberations? It can, of course, by welcoming the fact that there is a fair degree of cross-party consensus. I entirely recognise the point made by the right hon. Gentleman that there will be socialist tinge to this, and there will be a free-market tinge on the Conservative Benches, but essentially we all want the same outcome and we all accept the science. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the United States, where it is an entirely polarising issue. Let us be glad that it is not that way here.

We have to be honest with our constituents. Young people come to my door and say that we need to be at net zero by 2025. Well, we would all like that, but let us explain to them, using the data, what it would actually require. I hope that tomorrow we will have a very clear steer from the Committee on Climate Change about what is going to be required to get there by 2050, and by 2045 in the largest amount. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman in saying, “For goodness’ sake, let us be positive with our constituents.” It is one thing to scare the pants off them, and there is a perfectly legitimate reason for doing that, but let us also be positive and explain to them that mankind has an extraordinary ability to overcome the most appalling problems, and we have the ability to do that now. We can use the power of market forces. This is where I would slightly differ from the Leader of the Opposition. Properly regulated, properly incentivised market forces can achieve enormous amounts, as my right hon. Friend said—particularly in the area of electric vehicles, for example.

While most people support what we are doing, they are also taking their children to school, trying to keep their mortgage paid and trying to keep the roof over their head. They want to know that we are on it, that we have a real sense of purpose and that, across the political class represented in this Chamber, we are going to get this sorted.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing) - Hansard
1 May 2019, 4:44 p.m.

Order. I have to reduce the time limit to three minutes. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) should not be surprised, because he can count as well as I can how many of his colleagues want to speak and how little time is left.