Bishop of Oxford asks about government support for behaviour change on the pathway to net-zero

The Bishop of Oxford tabled a question for short debate on 20th October 2022, concerning the pathway to net zero emissions:

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to support behaviour change as part of the pathway to net zero emissions.

My Lords, I appreciate the time given to this debate, despite all that is happening elsewhere in Westminster today. We face many challenging issues as a country and a world, but none is more serious than climate change and the environmental crisis. The context of our debate is the real prospect of global heating of more than 1.5 degrees by the middle of the century, with escalating extreme weather events in the UK and across the world, rising sea levels, devastating fires and floods, significant loss of life and damage to infrastructure, wars over scarce resources, shifting patterns of harvest, an increase in zoonotic disease and a massive displacement of people as large parts of the earth become uninhabitable.

Your Lordships may well have seen the final episode this week of BBC documentary “Frozen Planet II”, detailing the effects of global warming on people and wildlife. The most sinister pictures for me were of the small bubbles of trapped methane being released in great quantities from the permafrost, with devastating consequences for the earth.

It is a privilege to be a member of your Lordships’ Select Committee on the Environment and Climate Change under the able leadership of the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter. Last week we published our first major report, In Our Hands: Behaviour Change for Climate and Environmental Goals, which I commend to the House. My questions to the Government are based on the report’s findings.

The world is agreed that to avert disaster in our lifetimes we need to reach net zero by 2050 or before. That means radical action in this decade and the next. The committee agreed with the Committee on Climate Change that behaviour change is a key element in that journey. Around 32% of the change needed involves some kind of behaviour change. This includes the adoption of new technology and changing habits and practices around diet, transport, heating and consumption. Each of these behaviour changes has significant co-benefits and all have potential economic benefits. They are essential stepping stones on the path to net zero.

Responding to climate change is a challenge for all of us—every individual and family, every charity, every church and faith community, local government and business. The Church of England has an aspiration to reach net zero by 2030. In my own diocese we are encouraging every church to become an eco-congregation and to be a community of change. We initially set aside £10 million, over three years, to begin to insulate more than 400 vicarages across the diocese. All the different agencies must work together, but to do that means common policies and clear leadership.

I believe, personally, that our Government have given imaginative and committed leadership in the area of climate and the environment, including at COP 26 and in the recent Environment Act. The Government have also acknowledged the need for behaviour change across the board. We must all play our part. It is helpful to see government commitments to behaviour change summarised in the Library briefing for this debate. To give one example, the Minister said in your Lordships’ House last year that the Government wanted,

“to make it easier and more affordable for people to shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle while at the same time maintaining freedom of choice and fairness”.—[Official Report, 16/09/21; col. 1571.]

The committee takes a broadly similar view. We know that the public are looking for stronger leadership from the Government in this area. Some 85% of the general public are concerned or very concerned about climate change, double the number from 2016. However, the committee found a very significant gap between what the Government want to do and the leadership actually being offered. There are significant gaps in understanding the challenge from department to department. There is too little joined-up thinking and policy. There are quick wins not being adopted. There are massive areas for development and new policy, particularly around domestic heating, which is the subject of our next inquiry. The leadership and committee structures within government are opaque. There is a lack of expertise and knowledge within government. There has been no real attempt at public information and engagement campaigns. Confusion and discord over public guidance on energy-saving tips for this winter have been reported in just the last week. The party leadership debate that we had over the summer raised real questions about the new Government’s commitment to net zero, which were being worked through yesterday in the other place.

Our report offers a set of recommendations to the Government in this area of leadership. Other speakers will no doubt have other questions to the Minister on other aims. Can the Minister reassure us that the Government will take these concerns and questions seriously and will put real energy, creativity and determination into the process of supporting behaviour change into the future and as a matter of great urgency?


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Lord Frost (Con): My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate, the Government and the Minister for proposing and enabling this debate today. It is an extremely important subject. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for her committee’s report on this subject, as has been mentioned.

We all agree, I think, that decarbonisation is a very desirable goal, but that aspiration is different from the specific net-zero 2050 policy. That target was essentially invented by the Climate Change Committee in 2019, passed through secondary legislation in this Parliament with limited debate and, since then, has been creating radical change to the economic structure of this country. My own party is just as much to blame for this situation—possibly even more so—as the parties of noble Lords opposite.

To be fair to the Climate Change Committee, it correctly stated in 2019 that there would need to be policy change to deliver this goal. It specifically mentioned decarbonisation of industry, the grid, insulation, renewables, boilers, carbon capture and storage, and so on. Now, however, we find, first, that all these technical measures are extremely expensive to install; secondly, they make energy and normal life very expensive for people; and, thirdly, they are increasing the unreliability of the energy sector, worsened by the destruction of energy supply that is actually reliable and by the addition of too many renewables that destabilise the grid.

Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab): My Lords, I am also a member of the Environment and Climate Change Committee, and I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford on securing this extremely timely debate so soon after the publication of our committee’s report on the importance of changes to people’s behaviour, by which I mean the importance of securing changes to our behaviour to achieve the legal target of net zero by 2050. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his excellent opening remarks, which set the scene and tone for the debate well.

The Question tabled underlay much of the proceedings of our committee’s inquiry. Helped by the last contribution, this short debate centres on whether the Government have a role to play in encouraging change that will contribute to a lessening of our emissions. It also centres on what that that role is and whether such initiatives are, in themselves, unreasonably restrictive, nannying, bossy or any other word plucked from the Rolodex of adjectives employed reflexively by those ideologically suspicious of any attempt by the state to engage in any way with individual freedom of choice. Lastly, it centres on whether such behaviour change will make a substantive contribution to smoothing our path to net zero.

Baroness Sheehan (LD): My Lords, I start by acknowledging the report, In Our Hands: Behaviour Change for Climate and Environmental Goals, produced by the Environment and Climate Change Committee, chaired by my noble friend Lady Parminter. I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, who, by tabling this debate, has given us an early opportunity to address the crucial role of behaviour change in meeting our net-zero targets—a debate I was hoping would be informed by hard evidence, experience and sound judgment. The future of our planet deserves no less.

That we are in a climate emergency is borne out by hard evidence—the evidence of our own eyes and the experience of those who are already feeling the catastrophic impact of extreme weather events and slow-onset effects such as the depletion of nature and the rise in sea temperatures. I think that a sentence or two here on the evidence for the need for urgent action would not go amiss, given that we still have parliamentarians who deny that climate change is real, that immediate action is necessary and indeed that the public even want change.

Lord Lucas (Con): My Lords, I too have the happy duty of being a member of the Environment and Climate Change Committee. I congratulate both my colleague on that committee, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, on having obtained this debate, and the chair of our committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, who has been remarkably good in the face of the differing opinions of the committee in reaching what I think is an excellent report.

We as a society have committed to decarbonisation. I hope that we have also committed to allowing a lot more space in our lives for nature. In making those sorts of commitments, we need the Government’s help to see it through. In playing our part, we want to be owning that process and to have a sense of agency, knowing that what we are doing is doing good. But even in the most basic aspects of this, the Government are failing.

Most of us recycle, but do we know what happens to our recycling? In my experience, a lorry turns up and tips my recycling into the back of it; the next sound I hear is the crunching of glass being shattered and mixed in with the paper. What happens after that? Is it all shipped off to Africa? Can someone unmingle it? Is it actually a useful thing to do? No one trusts us with that information. If the Government want us to be part of what is going on, we need to know.

Lord Grantchester (Lab): I am very grateful to have been nominated to join your Lordships’ Environment and Climate Change Committee on the retirement of our esteemed colleague Lord Puttnam in January. It is a great privilege. I thank the committee’s excellent chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for her welcome and the committee members for their tolerance throughout. I join others in congratulating the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford on securing this debate today, so soon after the committee’s report was published last week—he must have had a premonition.

The Minister and many of his colleagues have already admitted the case and its urgency from the analysis of the Climate Change Committee, yet the paucity of government support is clearly exposed with recommendations for action in this report. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Frost, that, without change, human behaviour is proving destructive to the planet, and that should concern us all.

Baroness Parminter (LD): My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lilley. We have listened carefully to him throughout our proceedings. I find that, in politics, it is not worth always talking to people you agree with. In our committee, we listened carefully and based our conclusions on the evidence. That is the role of a Select Committee in the House of Lords. The evidence is clear. The noble Lord was in a minority: he was the only member of the committee who disagreed with it. We stand by it.

I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for calling this important debate on a day when, sadly, the focus will be much more on the evidence of an incompetent Government. In the area of behaviour change, it is quite clear what a competent Government would be doing. First, they would be setting targets for net zero and willing the policies to deliver that. This Government have rightly set targets for net zero, but the evidence is that they will not be reached without members of the public changing their behaviour, both in adopting new technologies and in reducing their carbon consumption. Our report clearly showed that the Government have failed in that second task of willing policies.

Lord Callanan (Con): I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for bringing forward this very important debate on steps the Government will take to support behaviour change as part of the pathway to net zero emissions. I also thank the House’s Environment and Climate Change Committee for its report on the Government’s approach, and all those who contributed to that report. I start by assuring the House that the Government recognise that achieving our net zero target will be challenging and will require enormous changes to our energy systems and infrastructure. I want to reassure the right reverend Prelate that we take the concerns raised in the Select Committee report seriously and will carefully consider all its recommendations.

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