Gillian Keegan: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) and hear about examples of best practice in Scotland, that fantastic member of the United Kingdom.
There is no doubt that our actions are changing the planet. Our relentless consumption of the earth’s resources over centuries has consequences, and today we are starting to see them. Many of our once abundant coral reefs are bleached white and left lifeless. Vast expanses of land where rain forests once stood are stripped bare for farming. Even in Europe, some reports suggest that deserts will expand across the southern Mediterranean. We are destroying the earth’s natural carbon sinks, and with them, the wider biosphere—so much so that our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. Not since the extinction of the dinosaurs have we seen such a loss of plant and animal species. According to one study, current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than they would be if humans were not around. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list found that more than 27% of all assessed species on the planet are threatened with extinction.
We have the facts about what is happening to our world today, and we know why these changes are occurring, so in theory the solution should be simple. In one sense, it is—we need to stop producing carbon dioxide and implement strict protections for vulnerable ecosystems. But to do that, we need both the political will and a sense of economic realism. We need to take the people of the country with us, which is why this must not be a party political issue.
I have heard the calls for putting the UK on to a war-like footing, immediately banning combustion engines, limiting flights and turning off the taps to traditional fossil fuels. It can be tempting to get swept away on this wave of emotion and the calls for drastic change. There is a serious risk of gesture politics overtaking pragmatic, sensible policy making. Setting goals without a plan is wishful thinking. We need a plan, but it must be carefully constructed to avoid the mistakes of the past. We all remember diesel cars—we were all convinced that we had to buy them. As a result, the market share went from 14% to 65%, and look what happened next.
We need to ensure that these actions are complementary. I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on the United Nations global goals for sustainable development. We need to check that the policies we put in place are coherent, because some policies to pursue one goal may impact negatively on another goal. This is the whole world’s ecosystem we are talking about, and we need to take account of that.
Intervention Derek Thomas: My hon. Friend is right that we need to take people with us and ensure that this works for them. Does she agree that if we provide enough charging points for electric vehicles and support people to purchase them, we can help to clean up our environment and significantly reduce the cost of living, because electric vehicles are so much cheaper to run?
Gillian Keegan: Yes. Last year I went to the Nucleus conference at Goodwood and saw one of the world’s leading electric car manufacturers, NIO—a Chinese company—which is solving the problem in a different way. Instead of creating lots of charging points, they had changeable units that people could pick up and drop off in a garage, like we do with Calor gas on the continent. We need to consider all the best practice, because we do not want to get policy wrong again.
Intervention Wera Hobhouse: The hon. Lady is right; we need to get this right and take people with us. Is it not also true that we are up against some strong vested interests? We should not underestimate how much those with strong vested interests in the fossil fuel industry and the car industry would like to continue as before, because that would be easiest for them. They are going to push back, and that is the challenge we face in this House.
Gillian Keegan: As politicians, we are very used to strong vested interests; in fact, most of us can spot them a mile off. I worked in car manufacturing for eight years before coming to this place. Those companies have made radical changes to their manufacturing processes and designs, and all of them are moving to electric vehicles. We must be generous to those businesses and industries. There is sometimes a little bit of anti-business rhetoric in this place, and we ought to remember that those businesses do most of the investment in most technology innovation in this country.
Intervention Wera Hobhouse: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again; she is being very generous. I am not anti-business. My family runs businesses, and I understand how business works. They need to have the right incentives. When I talk to those in the car industry, they say that the Government need to send a strong message out to the industry and investors about where they are going, and currently they are failing to do that.
Gillian Keegan:Having spent 30 years in business, I can tell the hon. Lady that no business waits for politicians to give them the answer. They do not; they innovate, they invest in innovation and they invest in where there market is going. In fact, they often create the market.
We need to take drastic action, but we need to do it in a way that is not drastic. This became apparent to me during the Extinction Rebellion protest. When it came here, I spent an hour listening to, learning from and debating the points raised by one group. One of the suggestions made by some in the group was the introduction of a one child policy here in the UK. That would be a rather totalitarian response, and it is unnecessary given our already declining total fertility rate of just 1.76 in 2017.
That said, there were plenty of sensible ideas as well, such as installing solar panels on all new builds, putting in alternative fuel boilers and ensuring we are insulating homes properly, which is one of the simplest things that can have a massive impact. We should all be doing it, and I hope to see some action on that. Obviously, we should also be moving to greener modes of transport, reusing and recycling, and restoring peat land and planting millions more trees a year. All of these offer many financial and environmental benefits.
It is fundamental to remember that to become a carbon neutral country, we will need to invest in technological development and to incentivise, with incentive schemes, green infrastructure and much more. However, I believe we must be cautious about policies and ideas that negatively impact on growth; for example, calls that limit people to one long-haul flight, which was another Extinction Rebellion idea—it did confirm that it meant return flights—and one short-haul flight per year. As someone who has worked internationally for 30 years, I would clearly be out of a job, because I used to take 200 flights a year. It was my job to grow business and to grow jobs, and such flights are sometimes part of what needs to happen in a globalised world.
Intervention Sir Oliver Heald: Does my hon. Friend agree that, as Britain is a leader and is looked to internationally on how to tackle this, if we were to crash the economy, were able to take only one long-haul flight a year and to have only one child, and so on and so forth, we would be seen as a country that had failed and nobody would follow our example? Does she agree that we have to be realistic?
Gillian Keegan: I absolutely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. It is absolutely key to be realistic. Again, technology does offer a lot of benefits that will help us to sustain our environment and to reduce the need for business travel—for example, by keeping in touch by other means.
The Government have shown that we can grow the economy and reduce the national carbon footprint. Since 2010, we have deployed 99% of the UK’s solar panels. We are now home to the world’s largest offshore wind capacity. In total, we have quadrupled our renewable output. It is not surprising that, last year, we produced over 37% of our energy from renewables, all while growing our economy.
Local authorities need to act, too. I am proud to say that Chichester District Council has voted that there is a climate emergency. Importantly, as Councillor Susan Taylor recently said, it will deliver action, not just words. The council is already seeking to employ a climate emergency officer, who will ensure that a plan is developed to reduce our carbon footprint.
We must not be complacent: we must do more locally, nationally, internationally and individually to grow a truly global green economy. Looking at the big picture, Britain has always been a world leader, and we must continue to build on our target-led, technology-driven approach. We were the innovators of the steam power that drove global industrial development, and we now owe it to the world to lead the renewable green revolution.