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6. Debate by Individual Members under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Climate Change

October 04, 2017

17 speeches by…

  • Ann Jones
  • Simon Thomas
  • Jenny Rathbone
  • Neil Hamilton
  • Lesley Griffiths
  • Mike Hedges

Ann Jones

We now move on to item 6, which is a debate by the individual Members under Standing Order 11.21 on climate change, and I call on Simon Thomas to move the motion. Simon.

Simon Thomas

Thank you. A quick change, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I would just suggest to Members, if you’ve had enough of me already then consider having more Members in the Assembly so that we can share around the work a little bit. [Laughter.] But I’m delighted to introduce a backbench Members debate on the concept of our own personal carbon accounts. The context of this, of course, is that the environment Act here in Wales sets a target to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, and here in the Assembly we talk a lot about what the Cabinet Secretary’s doing, what the Welsh Government’s doing, we talk a lot, perhaps, about what some private businesses are doing, we talk about new ideas, like the tidal lagoon or whatever it might be, but we don’t talk so much about what our own personal contribution to that can be. So, I was very struck, when I met Martin Burgess, who’s one of my constituents in Aberystwyth but, in this context, is a researcher at Aberystwyth University and has been working on the concept of personal carbon accounts for about a decade now, and has helped develop within the university, but also more widely, how this concept may be taken forward. I think at the outset I want to say that although there’s a real concept here that could be worked on the ground, there’s also a more interesting—or as interesting—discussion around whether we take any personal responsibility for our carbon use, which I hope this debate will also enable us to discuss and trigger. The concept almost came to fruition: David Miliband, as environment Secretary, commissioned independent reports on personal carbon accounts. That was reported in the end to Hilary Benn—he became environment Secretary in 2008. It was, it has to be said, shelved, but I think it’s an idea whose time has certainly come for discussion in the Assembly. So, how would this work as a concept? Well, quite simply, each of us does have our own personal carbon use in the way we live our daily lives, the way we shop, the way we drive, the way we travel to work, the way we purchase our goods, and the way we have an impact on the environment. A personal carbon account is a form of personal carbon trading, which means that it’s transferred to you as a kind of bank account or a credit card or debit card—but it’s more of a credit card, really, because you get the accounts up front. Each month, or each year, the Government allows—makes allowance—for everyone’s personal carbon use: a free carbon allowance, if you like, each month. Each time you use carbon, whether that’s in terms of particularly carbon-intensive goods you might buy, or your use of fuel, your use of heating, or whatever use it might be, you are debited that from your account. So, the idea is, of course, to make people think about their carbon use. In this regard, I think it goes hand in hand with some other wider changes that we’re already seeing: smart metering is designed to make you think about your individual carbon use. We have apps now that we can use that tell us and allow us to turn down the heating at home when we’re away from home, to turn off the lights, and that tell us how much energy we’re using. This integrates and brings it home much more at a personal level. Very importantly, you can always buy more carbon—but you do buy it—but you can also sell any carbon that you haven’t used. In other words, it’s a personal trading account. There’s one important thing that must be stated right now, which is that this is not a tax. The Government doesn’t get any money out of this; this is a personal relationship between you and your carbon use. You could do it as carbon trading, as I said, so you could buy more or sell, but the Government doesn’t take a take from this. This is about ensuring that everyone’s carbon use is accounted for and bringing home to individuals how they might reduce their use of carbon. So, there is a concept here that personal carbon accounts could play an important role in ensuring that we meet our national and international targets to cut carbon emissions, and that’s why I hope the debate will also be seen in the context of the wider agreement of the Welsh Government and, indeed, the vote of this Assembly to support the Paris climate change agreements. There’s a real personal effect of this as well. We’ve seen recent reports in the media of very poor air quality in London, but don’t think that air quality in London is poor and ours in Wales is wonderful. There are five areas in Wales where we have excess nitrogen dioxide, and the excess there is a real health risk; it’s been called by Public Health Wales one of the biggest health risks—I think the third biggest health risk—facing us. So, there’s a real need to address our use of carbon, the impact on the environment, and the polluting impact of that. You may think that people would be very reluctant to undertake or believe in this, but we didn’t think that 5p on a plastic bag would change people’s behaviour—it certainly did. Studies by Cardiff and Nottingham universities have found that 88 per cent of people do believe that the climate is changing and do want to see more action by Governments with regard to climate change. Cynnal Cymru had this national conversation, ‘The Wales We Want’—many Members will remember that—and found that 26 per cent of people involved in that conversation felt that climate change was the single most important issue facing future generations. So, there’s another aspect of this concept that fits not only with the environment Act, but with, of course, the well-being of future generations Act, which I think sometimes is an Act casting around for an actual practical application. I think this might be a practical application for that Act. Personal carbon accounts should only be a complement to what the Government does, but I think it’s important that we share the burden—that we don’t just blame Government when they get it wrong, but we share with Government how we might achieve that. I think it’s conceptually very exciting that each of us might have that carbon account. I think it’s also quite interesting to look at work by the department of human geography at Aberystwyth University that showed that 58 per cent of households currently emit less carbon than the mean. In other words, a carbon account would benefit 58 per cent of the households, and would have a disbenefit, if you like, for the 40 per cent left. It would be progressive because, on the whole, those who use more carbon are the richer and better off in society. There are, of course, particularly in rural areas, some examples of that not working where you’re reliant on solid fuel, where you can’t afford to get your house properly insulated, where you cannot choose your fuel supplier; those are issues that might be detrimental to personal carbon accounts. So, they have to go hand in hand with wider investment issues around fuel poverty, around insulation and around ensuring equity of access to new ideas such as solar panels or electric charging, or whatever it may be. But in the wider context, it undoubtedly as a concept fits in to our approach on cutting carbon. It undoubtedly fits in to the targets the Welsh Government had set itself for carbon reduction in Wales, and it’s something that can be delivered, at least on a pilot, here in Wales, and that’s something that I think is particularly exciting. So, I hope that this debate will allow people to at least debate the concept of personal carbon accounts, debate the idea of how we can make changes ourselves, and I hope to hear from the Welsh Government—I’m sure I will hear some of the problems that such a project would have— whether, at least in the concept, it is something that we can discuss and take forward, and perhaps hold in mind as a particularly Welsh solution to an international challenge.

Jenny Rathbone

I think that this is a very important debate, because there’s only so far you can go with legislation. What goes on behind closed doors is impossible to police. And equally, if you start charging people to do the right thing, it has a differential impact on those on low incomes and people with lots of money can simply ignore it. People without a car can’t take unwanted furniture to the recycling centre; they rely on the council or a charity to collect if for them. Personal carbon budgets would encourage people with cars to make short journeys on foot, rather than always getting into the car. It would also prompt us to think about the carbon footprint of what we eat, and this is an area that we don’t often talk about. Some organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations—they calculated that a fifth of all man-made emissions are from meat, dairy and egg farming, and other organisations calculate that that figure is nearer to half of all emissions, so this is clearly a subject that we need to shine a much brighter light on. But I think we can agree that the food we eat has a major impact on our carbon footprint, and any personal carbon account would need to take that into account. It’s slightly more complicated than clocking up how much energy we’re using in heating your home. But it’s interesting to note that—. Greenhouse gas emissions produced by the combined growing, rearing, farming, processing, transporting, storing, cooking and disposing of the food on our plate is something we need to look at holistically. If we buy green beans from Kenya, clearly it has a much higher carbon footprint than if we grow it locally. The carbon footprint of just 1 kg of lamb is 39.2 kg of carbon dioxide in emissions, which is apparently equivalent to driving 91 miles in a car. In comparison with that, fruit is only 1.1 kg of carbon dioxide, equivalent to driving 2.5 miles. Milk is slightly more, but 1.9 kg of carbon dioxide, equivalent to a 4 mile drive in a car. So, meat and cheese have the highest carbon footprint. Fruit, vegetables, beans and nuts have much lower carbon footprints. The Co-op has done some research on their farms and they’ve identified that 54 per cent of carbon emissions on their farms is from methane and nitrous oxide emissions from their livestock. The methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide. So, they’ve done a six-year monitoring of their farmers to show that methane is 28 times as potent as carbon, and nitrous oxide is 260 times more potent. All these are big figures, but one of the things it highlights is that it’s really important that people don’t put food waste in with their residual waste, because then it goes into landfill and then, of course, it causes methane. I know that it is heretical to even consider this, but if we moved away from a meat-based diet, you’d have a really significant impact on our personal carbon footprint. Five different diets compared showed that eating chicken instead of beef cut a quarter of food carbon emissions in one simple step. I’m not advocating that we never eat the wonderful Welsh lamb, but I am saying that we need to think carefully about how often we eat it and whether we eat it as our regular food. I think these are really important issues that we need to bear in mind. Switching the foods you eat doesn’t just improve your health. It also is going to improve your personal carbon footprint. I think these are some of the things we need to consider carefully in understanding how we would do it in reality. Even knowing how much carbon it takes to produce any particular grocery item is a really important thing and perhaps it should be on the labels. Thank you very much.

Neil Hamilton

I am grateful to my now neighbour, Simon Thomas, for initiating this debate today. We’ve crossed swords on related issues many times in the year or so I’ve been a Member of this Assembly and I thought that where argument has failed possibly osmosis might have a better chance of arriving at a consensus. I’ve no particular objection to personal carbon accounts and I certainly agree with some of the points that have been made today about air quality—they’re very important. Nitrous oxide and other gasses are, of course, pollutants. But I think it’s important for us to recognise also that carbon dioxide is not poison gas and is not a pollutant as such. I know that theories of global warning are what lie behind this proposal, but it’s important to recognise that the current carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 390 parts per million—in a submarine, on average, it’s 1,500 parts per million, and we know that up to 8,000 parts per million human health is not impaired. So, this is not a danger to health in itself. I strongly agree with much of what Jenny Rathbone has said on food miles. We grow a lot of our own vegetables and so on at home. I’m an enthusiastic gardener and I wish more people would join me in that enthusiasm. I think we would all be better off. I would like to address the motivation behind this proposal and the extent to which the costs imposed by the anti-global-warming policies can sometimes be perverse. As a result of high energy costs, which have resulted from the deliberate policy decisions of governments, not just in this country but elsewhere in the world, what we’ve done is to speed on the de-industrialisation processes of the west, and the perverse consequence of that has been to export heavily intensive energy consumers like steel, aluminium, glass and cement manufacture to parts of the world that have not accepted the obligations that we have in the west to reduce our carbon footprint. So, actually, we’ve, as a result of this, made matters even worse. I’m sure the environment Secretary will not wish to hear the word ‘China’ yet again in my speech, but China does actually produce 30 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, India another 7 per cent, and, as I never tire of pointing out, the Paris agreements do not actually require them to reduce their carbon footprint. All they’re going to do is to reduce the output of carbon per head as their economies grow. So, China, in effect, has a green card in the sense that they’ll be allowed to increase their carbon emissions for at least another 20 years. So, any changes that come about as a result of our domestic policies will have no impact of any measurable kind upon what’s happening in the world and certainly have no impact on world temperatures. I have a problem with even the concept of a global temperature, because there is no easy means to calculate that. Satellite data have only been collected for a relatively short time, so we don’t have the kind of time series that we need in order to draw sensible conclusions of a policy kind, particularly conclusions that are going to lead to dramatic changes in lifestyle and in employment patterns. I’d like to draw the attention of the Assembly to a paper that appeared only last week or the week before in an academic publication called ‘Nature Geoscience’, which addresses the problem of the pause in global temperature rises. Because, for the last 20 years, we’ve had no noticeable rise in world temperatures, and this pause cannot be explained by the computer models upon which the dire predictions of doom and gloom have been based. Myles Allen, who is a professor of geosystem science at Oxford university said to ‘The Times’ just a few days ago, ‘We haven’t seen that rapid acceleration in warming after 2000 that we see in the models. We haven’t seen that in the observations.’ His defence of these models is interesting. He said that they’d been assembled a decade ago so it wasn’t surprising that they deviated from reality. Yet those very same models are the ones that are being used to make predictions for 50 or 100 years ahead that have saddled taxpayers with huge costs to pay for alternative energy sources. So, we really ought, I think, to pause, in the same way that global temperatures seem to have paused, and really ask ourselves whether we need to plough ahead so rapidly with these schemes to reduce our carbon footprint when, first of all, we don’t know whether that’s actually going to be followed by other countries in the world who are the biggest polluters, if we regard carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and, secondly, we have to consider the impact upon the standard of living of our people, particularly those at the bottom of the income scale, who are the ones who are most clearly disadvantaged.

Ann Jones

I now call on the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths.

Lesley Griffiths

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I thank Members for their contributions in this very timely debate, which I welcome. Colleagues will be aware that I made an announcement just before summer recess on public sector decarbonisation and, last week, I made a statement on our renewable energy targets. Next month, I will be at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP23, in Bonn to share Welsh successes and, of course, learn from others. I think Welsh Government presence at these events really demonstrates our commitment to mitigate global warming and our support for the Paris agreement. I should just perhaps remind Neil Hamilton that 195 UNFCCC members signed that, so I don’t think it’s just something that afflicts the west. Of course, Wales is not a party to the agreement, but we know that action taken at state and regional level is critical in keeping global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees. I think it’s also an excellent opportunity to talk about the groundbreaking legislative framework and foundations we have laid here in Wales, and I’m very much looking forward to again talking about and sharing our experiences in Bonn. Simon Thomas pointed out that we really need to share the burden in relation to climate change, and that’s why you brought forward this debate on personal carbon accounts, but I did just want to outline some of the work that we are doing as a Welsh Government. So, I mentioned that, just before summer recess, I declared my ambition to achieve a carbon-neutral public sector by 2030 and launched a call for evidence asking stakeholders to share their views on the opportunities and challenges, potential interim targets and monitoring progress, and we’ll shortly be announcing the next steps in this area. Just last week, I announced challenging new targets for renewable energy production to focus action across the country and capture more benefits for Wales. We’ve also been working with the UK Committee on Climate Change to define the detail beneath the headline target. And I’ve accepted the committee’s advice on how we will account for Welsh emissions and look forward to receiving the next part of their advice shortly. This will inform our decisions on interim targets and carbon budgets. The committee has also involved stakeholders to make sure their advice represents a wide range of views. Of course, decarbonisation aligns very closely to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and we need to consider the long term and take an integrated approach across Government and across society. We need to collaborate with others, as we can’t do this alone and we need to enable and support people to act. So, cutting emissions now to avoid even more significant climate breakdown is perhaps the ultimate preventative measure, and there is nothing more important to the generations to come than having an environment to sustain them. So, I’m working with my colleagues in the ministerial task and finish group to ensure that our policies and proposals from across Government will reduce our emissions and benefit our economy and health. Our work has focused on emissions by sector, because this is how emissions are reported across the world. I think this is a very helpful way of considering the problem and identifying policies. Turning now to personal carbon accounts, I’m obviously very well aware of the link between sector emissions and the choices that we make as individuals. Transport sector emissions are largely a product of millions of people choosing to fly, drive, cycle or walk, and, as Simon said, our choices in the way that we live obviously affect our personal carbon use. So, I think we really need to increase our carbon consciousness, our awareness of the impact of our choices, and think about our carbon use, if we are to see the change that we need. Personal carbon accounts are, of course, one way of doing this. So, as we will be setting national carbon budgets, I think it seems quite logical to go one step further and apply those numbers at a personal level. Simon mentioned—and I was very aware of the UK Labour Government’s work that was done in this area when they looked at personal carbon accounts, and did, indeed, conclude that it was an idea ahead of its time, and I know that—

Lesley Griffiths

Ten years ago. Well, exactly, and things have moved on so swiftly in that 10 years. I know that Martin Burgess—you referred to the PhD student who is one of your constituents—my officials have met with him to discuss this and we’ve looked at what legislation would be needed for a PCA, and I would say that it’s unlikely at the moment that we have those powers. Also, the pilot that you referred to, I think, again, the same basis around legislative competence could hinder that also. But as you said, it was 10 years ago and I think our understanding of climate science certainly has increased dramatically, and also—and this is probably more important—the need for action has obviously become more—

Simon Thomas

I understand what the Minister’s saying, certainly regarding some of the competence issues and so forth around a formal personal carbon account scheme, but the concept that each of us in Wales knows what our personal carbon is—how we use it, how we spend it, linking into Jenny Rathbone’s points around food production as well—is something I imagine the Welsh Government could do something with and could actually help the Welsh Government achieve its aims.

Lesley Griffiths

Yes, absolutely—I was coming to that. Because, as I say, my officials are talking, or have been speaking to Martin Burgess, because you’re quite right: while those challenges that were identified a decade ago could remain, and probably do, remain relevant today, and certainly around the legislation, I think we need to enable and inspire individuals to take that action. So, I am really very keen to explore what could work in Wales within the boundaries that I’ve set out, with personal carbon accounting absolutely being part of that discussion. So, I’m very supportive of the research looking at approaches for increasing our carbon consciousness to help people make choices informed by the impact that that will have not just on future generations, but also current generations. So, I’m very pleased to support the motion, on the basis that we look at a wider range of approaches.

Mike Hedges

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. First of all, can I thank Simon Thomas, not only for introducing the debate, but for going around and getting people to sign up for it? Because it really is important that we do start debating issues like this. ‘Reduce carbon use by 80 per cent’—that’s a tremendous aim. How are we going to do it? Well, it’s got to be personal contributions, I think Simon Thomas is absolutely right on that, and we need to take personal responsibility for it. I have no idea what my personal carbon use is. I would guess that’s probably true of everybody or nearly everybody in this room. Would I like to reduce it? Yes, but I don’t know whether I’m reducing it from a lot or from very little. So, should I be debited for its use? Yes, I should feel it was costing me something. Even if it wasn’t money, it was costing me a bad feeling, because I was actually using more carbon than I should. The more we think about it, the more we reduce it. I think that people take that with expenditure. If you count every penny you spend, you spend an awful lot less. It’ll be exactly the same with carbon, won’t it? If you count what you used, it would be an awful lot less. As Simon Thomas said, it’s not a tax, but it’s about responsibility. Jenny Rathbone is absolutely right: legislation only goes so far. We all need to make an effort to work at doing things to reduce our carbon use. And food—one of my rules in our house: we never buy any food that is better travelled than I am, and I think that—. I won’t ask Jenny Rathbone to do that because I know how well-travelled she is, but we don’t buy food that comes from countries that are further than I’ve ever travelled, and I think that’s something we could perhaps all give some thought to. It comes from an awful lot of exotic countries, carrying lots of air miles, and we need to consider carefully what we eat. I think this really is important, and I speak as somebody who’s a fan of buying local Welsh produce, so that certainly helps. I agree with Neil Hamilton: air quality is important. I think everybody agrees air quality is important, and we’re seeing the improvements taking place in the Hafod recently. Carbon dioxide is not a poison—absolutely right. It is, however, a greenhouse gas. It will lead to temperature rises. We know that because the temperature of the earth should be running around about -24, -26 degrees centigrade if there was no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We want some of it to get it up to a liveable temperature. What we don’t want is to get too much of it, which moves it to a temperature at which we cannot live. I think that, Neil, the Conservatives in the 1980s forced up energy costs, which led to the destruction of the aluminium industry across the whole of south Wales. You might have been a member of them in those days. Computer models need updating. They always need updating. A part of my job many years ago was writing computer models, and you update them when you get further data, but we all know that the temperatures are increasing. They have increased, and the Americans are getting the benefits of it, if you call it that, from the hurricanes they’re getting. I’ll give way.

Neil Hamilton

Academics accept that the temperatures have risen by 0.9 degrees centigrade since the mid-nineteenth century. We’re not talking about game-changing figures here.

Mike Hedges

Yes, but it’s an average, isn’t it? And so you’ve only got to see how much ice is breaking off in both Antarctica and in the Arctic, and that’s going to lead to flooding in a large number of low-lying areas, and possibly countries disappearing. The other thing I was going to say is, if you want to help the poor: better insulation. Many of us have visited people in their houses, which are certainly not warm. They probably spend more on keeping their house warm than I do, but because they’ve got poor central heating, they’ve got windows that are single-glazed, they’ve got gaps between the frame and the wall, they’ve got cold air coming in—. That would make a bigger effect than any extra charges. Can I thank the Minister for her comments? And increasing carbon consciousness—we do need to know what we’re doing. The Welsh Government’s support for stopping global temperature rises is well known, and something I and, I’m sure, most people, if not everybody, in this room, really appreciates, because it’s a bit like the straw and the camel’s back, isn’t it? Yes, we’re only a small country, but if every small country did exactly the same thing and kept on pushing temperatures up, then it would all go up. I really support the ambitions of the Cabinet Secretary that we’ve got to be ambitious because, as somebody once said, it’s only one world we’ve got. The fact that some of us in the west use up the world’s resources as if there are three worlds doesn’t mean that we have three worlds to exploit. So, we need to start reducing what we do, and preventative measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions—we cannot ask for more than that. But, really, I come back to what Simon Thomas started with: personal responsibility. If people know how much carbon they’re using, most people will try and reduce it, and that’s really what this is asking for. Thank you.

Ann Jones

Thank you very much. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No, therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.