[Edited text of my speech opening the debate on a topical issue, “Building a Low Carbon Economy” at the Liberal Democrat conference, 21 September 2010]
What a year it’s been for the planet!
Last December, we saw the disappointing conclusion to the UN climate change summit at Copenhagen. We’ve seen the US Senate fail to even vote on a bill to cut carbon emissions. We’ve seen heat waves scorching Russia, and nearly one-fifth of Pakistan submerged underwater, vindicating predictions by the IPCC that such events will be more frequent in a warming world.
Whatever the climate sceptics say, the evidence is clear: we are increasing enormously the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. 2010 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record. New data shows that the air temperature over land is going up and so are humidity and sea levels. The arctic sea ice is thinning and glaciers and snow cover in the northern hemisphere are declining.
Our government’s independent advisers on climate change keep saying that we need a step change in the pace of emissions reduction and in our use of renewable energy in order to meet our emissions targets.
It’s been quite a year for another reason. Chris Huhne has taken charge at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and we have Liberal Democrats in key portfolios across government. Vince Cable at BIS is committed to spearheading a green industrial rebirth; Andrew Stunell at CLG is in charge of the regulations for energy efficient homes; and Norman Baker at the DFT handles alternatives to transport.
With these ministers working together, Liberal Democrats have an historic opportunity: to make our dream of a low carbon economy a reality; to promote green growth that helps rather than harms our environment.
A low carbon economy with green growth can give us more energy independence, greater security and new sources of prosperity and jobs. The global market for environmental goods and services is already worth around £3trillion and could grow to more than £4 trillion by 2015.
The path to green growth must take the carbon out of the energy we use. But the current carbon price provides a poor incentive to green investment. So we should welcome Chris’s plans to provide more certainty and support to the carbon price. And we should all back his campaign to raise the EU target for cutting emissions; from the current 20 per cent to 30 per cent by 2020.
But the path to green growth can’t stop there. The government’s advisers have concluded that £200bn worth of investment in a new green energy system is going to be needed by 2020. Most of that will have to come from the private sector in difficult financial conditions. But the existing energy market arrangements are not up to the challenge of delivering investment on that scale. So we look forward to seeing reforms that will give clean energy generators the incentives and the certainty they need.
We shouldn’t forget that the coalition’s programme for government echoed our manifesto in promising an emissions performance standard, meaning that no new coal fired power stations can be built unless they are equipped with highest level of carbon capture and storage. The government should also look at having such a standard for gas generation.
Study after study has shown that energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to cut emissions. I welcome Chris Huhne’s Green Deal, a pay as you save energy efficiency solution for all householders. That’s a Liberal Democrat idea and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! And Chris is now extending it to non-residential buildings as well. We’ll also need an ambitious national programme, to insulate the walls and lofts of existing homes and more clarity about energy efficiency polic, right across government.
When it comes to boosting clean, renewable energy the most urgent actions the government can take are to give the industry more certainty about the financial support that will be available, especially for renewable heat.
We must deliver on our promise of a Green Investment Bank. Let’s be clear: the GIB will need at least £2 billion to stimulate investment in the infrastructure that we need, and have the ability to issue bonds, if it is to underpin a green industrial revolution.
This, then, is the liberal path to green growth and a sustainable future for our children and our children’s children.