Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Climate change is the biggest challenge that any of us or any future generations will face. It is absolutely right that the House should be given the opportunity to debate this important issue, particularly with Paris just a couple of weeks away. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us time to debate this subject. I shall confine my remarks almost entirely to the domestic issues and the Government’s policy on renewable energy and its impact on Britain’s CO2 reduction targets, but also on jobs more widely and the UK’s reputation going into the Paris conference.
As we have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), thanks to the information we received via a leaked letter from the Energy Secretary, we now know that Britain is likely to miss our 2020 target of 15% of energy production from renewables by some margin, in all likelihood reaching just 11%. That compares to Germany, which already produces 31% of its energy from renewables. As we have also heard, the cheapest renewable energy by far is onshore wind. It is so cost-effective that is no longer needs any subsidy, but as we have also heard, it has been virtually stopped in its tracks in England by the Government’s planning changes.
Now the Government are proposing to abandon support for solar almost completely, in spite of the growing scientific and political consensus around the world that it holds the secret to our future carbon-free energy needs. The proposed cut in solar feed-in tariffs by a staggering 87% from 1 January will devastate our fledging solar industry and make meeting the legally binding target of 15% by 2020 far more difficult. At the same time, the Government are announcing huge subsidies for nuclear, gas and highly polluting diesel generators. How can that make sense?
We now face a situation in which in a couple of years’ time, renewables could be the only sector not to receive any subsidy. There is also the impact on jobs, our economy and our science base. Our solar industry alone provides 35,000 jobs, including nearly 4,000 in the south-west of England. We face losing 27,000 of those jobs nationally, including more than 3,000 in the south-west, if the proposal goes ahead unaltered. That figure is similar to—indeed, higher than—the job losses recently announced in the steel industry, but these jobs have a far lower profile because they are at small companies, they are scattered all over the country and they do not have a loud enough political voice. The irony is that by 2020 our solar industry could be operating subsidy-free. Indeed, the sector itself acknowledges the common sense in reducing the feed-in tariff, but it believes it should be done in a tapered way, not with a cliff edge, as is currently proposed. As my hon. Friend said, jobs are already being lost because of the uncertainty. We had the announcement of another 35 job losses in Exeter this week alone.
I would like to say a little about the situation facing hundreds of community renewable energy projects up and down the country in the light of recent announcements of changes to the way in which tax relief is administered. As hon. Members will remember, that was announced without any consultation on Third Reading of the Finance Act 2015 at the end of October and is to take effect at the end of this month—just one month’s notice. This, I am afraid, is a disgrace. Those renewable energy schemes at community level get off the ground as the result of the blood, sweat and tears—often over years—of thousands of ordinary, civic-minded citizens, who have now had the rug pulled from under them.
My community energy project in Exeter has been working tirelessly for more than two years preparing its share offer, but it had to rush it out this week, before it was really ready, in order to beat the loss of tax relief at the end of the month. The project has, heroically, managed to raise more than a quarter of the funds it needs, but raising the rest will be much more difficult without the tax reliefs, which have suddenly been taken away. Community Energy England estimates that £127 million of current investment and £242 million of potential future investment is at risk from the decision. When the Secretary of State responds, I would like to know whether she or her fellow Minister were consulted on the change, and if not, why not? If they were, why did they agree to it? I understand that the community energy sector feels so angry and betrayed by the decision that it is considering taking legal action, and I am sure there are many people in this House and outside who would support that.
The Secretary of State asserted earlier in departmental questions that she believed that Britain under the current Government had maintained its leadership role and its international reputation on climate change, but in that case why has Ernst & Young dropped the United Kingdom from the top 10 countries for renewable energy attractiveness? Why did the UN chief environment scientist, Jacquie McGlade, say recently on the BBC that it was
“disappointing…when we see countries such as the United Kingdom that have really been in the lead in terms of getting their renewable energy up and going—we see subsidies being withdrawn and the fossil fuel industry being enhanced”?
She went on to say that she thought Britain was sending a worrying signal in the run-up to Paris by shifting away from clean energy just when the rest of the world was rushing towards it.
David Mowat: I made the point earlier that one of the issues we face is that we confuse decarbonisation with renewables, and I think many of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks are along those lines. He talked earlier about Germany, which has 34% renewables but very high emissions because it is building coal-powered stations. The Government’s position is to reduce carbon, but not just by using renewables.
Mr Bradshaw: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman: it is not an either/or. What he says about Germany is absolutely right and is due in large part to the, in my view, unusually foolish policy decision by the Merkel Government to withdraw from nuclear. Germany is paying a high price for that, and it is a very good lesson to those of us who advocate an anti-nuclear policy.
Caroline Lucas: I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis. Real analysis of what has happened in Germany shows that the reason why coal has come up and taken that space is the lowering of the price, not least because of the dash for gas in the US which has resulted in a low price for coal. That is what has undercut the situation in Germany, not the fact that it has had to get rid of nuclear.
Mr Bradshaw: I am not going to have a ping-pong about it, but I am sure there is a price driver as well. The simple fact is that Germany needed that coal because it had abandoned nuclear energy so suddenly.
When the Secretary of State responds at the end of this debate, I want her to explain to the House and the British public why the Government have adopted the approach they have on renewables since the election. I want an honest assessment from her, given what I have said, of how she feels that has impacted on Britain’s reputation internationally and on our leadership role. I would also like a clearer explanation than we have heard so far from the Government of how they intend to close the gap between our legally binding 2020 target and the current trajectory.
I remember climate change summits not that long ago when Britain was a world leader. The commitment, hard work and leadership of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Prescott and my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) delivered real and vital progress globally and at home. Even the current Prime Minister felt the need for a while at least to pay lip service to this agenda, but I am afraid that since 2010, and particularly since this year’s election, the Conservatives appear to have stopped even pretending to take climate change seriously. They are doing real damage to our renewable energy industry, and I believe they are damaging Britain’s reputation in the process.
I hope we will see more progress and a more positive approach in the run-up to Paris, and I hope that the Secretary of State and her colleagues can persuade the rest of their colleagues in government to take this—the biggest challenge both in Britain and globally—far more seriously than they are.