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House of Commons Debate on Climate Change

October 12, 2006 12:00 AM
By Jo Swinson MP

I am sure that most hon. Members have, like me, received dozens of letters, e-mails, surgery visits and phone calls on the subject of climate change and, most recently, on the importance of having a climate change Bill in the Queen's speech in November. I welcome the opportunity to add my voice and the voices of the residents of East Dunbartonshire to the calls for such a Bill. I hope that Ministers will take the interest in this debate and the fact that 380 Members have signed the early-day motion calling for such a Bill as a clear sign that it must be a priority. I hope that such a Bill will be taken forward in November because we must have annual targets on reducing carbon dioxide emissions so that we can see in the House what progress is being made every single year and so that hon. Members can hold the Government to account. A long-term target on its own will not help us to tackle the problem.

In among lots of constituency work during the parliamentary recess-it is not a long holiday, as some in the media would have us believe-I took time out to go to the cinema to watch "An Inconvenient Truth". I am sure that many hon. Members will have seen the film and I wholeheartedly recommend it to those who have not. Perhaps the film should be essential viewing because it puts in the starkest possible terms the scale of the problem that we face. However, the film is not depressing because it does not say that there is nothing that we can do about the problem. On the contrary, it encourages every single citizen who sees it to play their part, take their responsibilities serious and lobby their representatives. I especially liked the bit at the end of the film when a list of actions that people can take is shown as the credits roll. Obviously, there is a slight American bias, because people are encouraged to contact their Member of Congress and senator. The film suggests that if the representatives do not take the viewers seriously, they should run for Congress themselves. I thought that that was good advice, and we should all be aware that we will have constituents who will expect us to take the problem incredibly seriously.

Many hon. Members who have spoken have rightly highlighted the international and European dimensions of how we will tackle the problem. However, it is also hugely important to focus on what individuals can do. We know about the little energy-saving measures that could lead to massive cuts in the release of carbon dioxide if lots of people carried them out. Such measures include changing to energy-saving light bulbs and using public transport rather than a car, especially for shorter journeys, or perhaps leaving the car at home and walking. They also include increasing recycling, turning the thermostat down a few degrees and turning appliances off, instead of on to stand-by. One would think that all those little things would not make a huge difference, but they can be important.

Obviously, we all consume energy and are thus responsible for a certain amount of carbon emissions. I encourage people to make themselves aware of the ways in which they can offset their carbon emissions. Organisations such as Climate Care and carbonneutral.com give lots of information about how that can be done. By planting trees or investing in renewable energies, it is possible to offset the carbon tonnes that one emits. I recently logged on to do the calculations so that I could pay for my carbon offset and I encourage other hon. Members to do the same, especially because our job requires a huge amount of travelling, so we are perhaps responsible for higher than average carbon emissions.

I have an issue that I would like to raise with the Leader of the House, so perhaps the Ministers present can communicate it to him. Something that will need to change is our beloved institution, the House of Commons, as it starts to address climate change issues. Heating has been mentioned, and we have recently seen better recycling facilities introduced, although others may agree that it is a bit strange that we had to wait until 2005 for that. I hope that the House authorities will take on board the fact that we need to lead by example.

There are so many aspects of climate change that it is impossible to cover them all, so I should like to focus on waste and recycling, which are very important. Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas that we are most concerned about, but the second most important is methane. Landfill waste produces most of the UK's methane at the moment. Some 648 kilotons of methane were released from landfill in 2005. I welcome moves to reduce the amount of our waste being sent to landfill annually; indeed, many councils are currently grappling with how to deal with the impact of the landfill tax, which increases year on year, and the fines that will be imposed if we do not get to grips with how much we send to landfill and how much we recycle.

East Dunbartonshire council has recently moved to fortnightly refuse collections for residual waste but at the same time is investing hugely in recycling facilities, with doorstep recycling happening weekly. Garden waste, glass, plastics, cans, paper and cardboard are collected, and the council hopes to increase the amount of materials collected. That was not an easy step to take, and it is fair to say that the local reaction has not been unanimously in support of the change. I am sure that in other areas where that have happened there has been a similar reaction. However, this bold environmental step is necessary. It is regrettable that in my area Labour and the Conservatives opposed the move, and I suspect that in other parts of the country they themselves have had to implement similar schemes. It is an example of the changes that individuals will increasingly have to make to their behaviour that are difficult at first but in the long term will help us to tackle the problem.

It is important that the Government and business play a role. Looking at the UK plastics industry, we see that our recovery figures-the energy that we get back from plastics-are awful compared with our European counterparts. Less than a quarter of our plastic is recovered in some way for energy, and a tiny proportion is recycled. Our European neighbours are far better at that than us. Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland manage to recover or recycle over 75 per cent.

Obviously, some plastics are easier to recycle than others, and we can only take things to be recycled if there is a market for the recycled plastic. It is important that the Government encourage business through best practice not only to create things out of materials that can be recycled, but to use recycled materials to help to create that market. If encouragement and the sharing of best practice cannot succeed in changing behaviour, regulation will be required.

A related issue on which we need to take urgent action is the excess packaging that we see every day when we go to the supermarket. One goes to buy a few apples, which one would previously have put in a bag and taken to the checkout, but now they come in a foam tray, they have a bit of card around them and the whole thing is shrink-wrapped in plastic. Crucially, a lot of that material cannot be recycled, and it is consumers, our constituents, who have to pay for it-not once but three times. They pay for the excess packaging at the checkout; they pay the landfill tax through their council tax bills for getting rid of rubbish; and there is the environmental cost. Business must take this more seriously, and if it does not, the Government must make it do so.

That is just one of the many issues raised in the debate that are important to solving the problem of climate change. I hope that Ministers will address those concerns and take them seriously. Climate change is happening, and it is happening quickly. Action is needed now, and if we are not successful the worst of the consequences will not be faced by today's Ministers or even most of the MPs in this House. It is my generation, and our children and children's children, who will face the brunt of climate change and inherit this dreadful legacy. Everyone in the UK has a responsibility to tackle this problem, and we as legislators must take a lead. A climate change Bill in the Queen's Speech is a vital first step, but only the first step on a long and challenging journey.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I declare an interest: I think that I am a member of Friends of the Earth, and I joined Greenpeace in 1975, before some hon. Members were born, and I am still a member. Hon. Members who were in the Chamber when I spoke on Second Reading of the Finance Bill will have some idea of which issues I shall address.

It is absolutely shocking that, as we would find if we went through Hansard and added it up, in some three and a half hours of debate, about three minutes have been spent on the effects of climate change. There is lovey-dovey consensus on the need to cut emissions and so on, which is terribly important. The Government have a good record on the issue, but I will not go into it, as everyone in the Chamber knows about it. We have been discussing the need to cut emissions, the need to achieve the 60 per cent. target by 2050, many other good measures, and the Government's-and, to some extent, the Conservative Government's-good track record in cutting emissions. On the causes of climate change, the country and the Government have a great record, nationally and internationally. However, we never talk about coping with the effects of climate change in the Chamber-at least, not that I have heard, and I am here a great deal, as hon. Members will know. For our constituents, there is a crucial difference between the cause and the effect of climate change.

The United Kingdom is responsible for 2 per cent. of emissions. If we cut that to nil tomorrow, there would still be international climate change, and we would still experience its effects in the United Kingdom. That is not a counsel of despair, and it is not to say that we should give up on all those measures. The president of the Royal Society, Frances Cairncross, made a good speech on the subject on 4 September, in which she said:

"Adaptation policies have big advantages. They can be pursued at a national-indeed, at a local level-and so will involve far less complex international negotiation."

We can actually do something, in the United Kingdom, about the effects of climate change. I listened carefully to the thoughtful and consensual speech of the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). He can correct me if I am wrong, but he did not say a word, in any real sense, about the effects of climate change.