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Lords chew over Tory green policies

Quality of debate right up there with lunchtime pub chat

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The unelected upper chamber of Parliament is often praised for providing vital independent oversight of legislation - and sometimes it lives up to the job. The House of Lords is also said to reflect a wider range of experience compared to the lower chamber - it isn't just party hacks. But anyone looking for evidence of independence will have been disappointed by yesterday's policy debate.

The debate to discuss 'the government's green agenda' was tabled by new Labour life peer Baroness Smith of Basildon. Peer after peer lambasted the government for not being greener. Coincidentally almost every single one had an interest to declare: a chairmanship or directorship of an environmental company or quango.

It almost sounded like the AGM of a trade group. "These policies are awful: it's really costing me!" The debate left the impression that the range of interests reflected by the 788 lordships is much smaller than it really is.

Baron Prescott of Kingston-upon-Hull compared the scale of change required to the industrial revolution, with equally "major changes in attitude and culture" that industrialisation required.

Bryony Worthington, the climate change activist who was seconded by the bureaucracy and almost overnight found herself writing the Climate Change Act, said it was "arrogant" to "risk the entire planet" by not cutting CO2 emissions. She praised the the UK's unilateral emissions pledges as an example to the world; humanity doesn't seem to be following, however. Worthington did, to her credit, praise Thorium nuclear technology as a key way of achieving those targets.

Many other peers echoed the idea of impending catastrophe. "We're talking about literally the survival of the human race," said Lord Judd (Lab).

Viscount Hanworth, a hereditary Labour peer, saw climate change as the opportunity for more state planning. Markets (and presumably Pigouvian taxes, designed to counter negative externalities), couldn't do the job.

One popular view, expressed by Baroness Miller amongst others, stated that it was our duty to "preserve as much of our resources as we can for future generations". If only the Victorians had left us more of their whale blubber - a vital resource a hundred years ago - we could be truly grateful. How useful that would be today.

Among the peers who declared a personal interest in pursuing a 'Green' agenda was Baron Hunt, the former head of the Met Office. He lamented the passing of some quangos - the Carbon Trust and Energy Savings Trust - but praised the Coalition for saving others, such as the Climate Change Committee.

"A consensus of modelling suggests that, with the emissions going on around the world, we should certainly see a rise of three or four degrees by 2100," said Hunt.

From the perplexing to the weird

At times the debate took on a surreal quality. One peer, Lord Dixon-Smith, was trying hard to differentiate between business areas that we should spare from emissions reductions, due to their importance to the nation (such as agriculture and aviation), and others, where the law makers must show no mercy.

"I am not going to say that carbon dioxide emissions are ever beneficial," he said. If tomatoes could walk, the chamber might have been invaded at this point, and if they could talk, you can imagine what they would say. It was a turn of phrase that highlights the gulf between Parliamentarians and ordinary people. Particularly gardeners.

There was one exception to the procession: an interesting personal contribution from Lord Andrew Turnbull, the former head of the civil service.

Lord Turnbull said that the UK was drawing back from "extreme unilateralism", which was welcome given that the UK contributes so little CO2 globally. He attacked technologies "that exist only by virtue of subsidy", which makes everybody poorer. He highlighted real environmental concerns - air and water quality, forests, the countryside - that have been pushed so far down the agenda. He said the IPCC had little credibility left now and "was extensively infiltrated by scientists from organisations like Greenpeace and WWF".

Lord Turnbull said that from his vantage point, and it was a good one, policy-makers had succumbed to groupthink.

"I have come across a number of cases where there was a strong international consensus among political elites, but for which the intellectual underpinning proved to be weak, as those elites were slow to acknowledge," he said. One was the belief in the maximum liberalisation of markets, which he confessed to buying into wholesale. Another was the Euro currency, whose supporters still can't acknowledge reality. Climate change was the third. He expected the current narrative to be replaced by one more "sophisticated, more eclectic, and less alarmist" over the next decade.

There was one omission. The debate lasted two hours but nobody mentioned cheap gas. Simply replacing the UK's coal production with gas would allow it to meet its carbon targets quicker and much more cheaply. The Department of Energy's 2050 calculator notoriously doesn't let you choose cheap gas as an option - it's a propaganda tool steering you to outcomes they want. Not one peer mentioned shale gas or shale oil.

For whatever reason, a narrower range opinions was heard from the lords than you might expect to hear in a pub or a Starbucks.

Andrew welcomes your mail.

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