GREEN ECONOMY

- Thursday, 28th June 2012

 

Old Windmill

Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I oppose the motion. I suspect that I will be the only person to do so. It is not because we cannot have green economy. We could-indeed, we once had a totally green economy. We relied on windmills to grind our flour, on watermills to saw our wood, on horsepower for transport, and on biomass-as burning wood is now called-for heat, but we abandoned those when we discovered that coal could fuel a steam engine, that oil could fuel the internal combustion engine, and that gas and nuclear could give us electricity. Since then, we have enjoyed huge increases in our material standard of living based very largely on comparatively cheap energy from fossil fuels.

The great Victorian economist, Jevons, pointed out nearly a century and a half ago why coal had ousted wind:

“The first great requisite of motive power is that it shall be wholly at our command, to be exerted when, and where, and in what degree we desire. The wind, for instance, as a direct motive power, is wholly inapplicable to a system of machine labour for during a calm season the whole business of the country would be thrown out of gear.”

Much the same can be said about the unreliability of solar and the discontinuity of tidal energy. My hon. Friends may want to return to a mediaeval economy that relies on unreliable, high-cost water, sunshine, wood and wind, but I do not. I am a conservative, not a reactionary. Of course, it may be that some time in the future new sources of energy will become available that are as reliable as, and cheaper than, fossil fuels-perhaps thorium reactors, nuclear fusion or cheaper battery storage, in conjunction with the intermittent renewables that we are developing at the moment. I will rejoice if those come about, but they are some way off.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that since the time of the quote he read out, we have had three further industrial revolutions, which makes his assumptions completely obsolete, and that we are in the middle of a further clean-tech and biotech industrial revolution that will

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make obsolete the previous assumptions on industrial revolutions? Has he taken that into account in his calculations?

Mr Lilley: I do not know which industrial revolutions the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but they certainly did not rely on our subsidising the use of more expensive energy to replace less expensive energy.

There are perfectly respectable, if not entirely convincing, arguments for saying that we have to replace cheap energy with expensive, less reliable energy to reduce carbon emissions, and that that is a price worth paying, to coin a phrase. However, the premise of this debate is that we can generate economic growth by introducing fiscal measures to subsidise and promote green energy. Let us be clear what that means: it means subsidising the replacement of comparatively cheap and reliable energy from fossil fuels with more expensive and intermittent energy from renewables.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the debate should really be about whether we want to switch from higher-emitting to lower-emitting sources of energy, rather than having this complete confusion all the time about its being a question of carbon emissions or renewable energy? Renewable energy is very expensive, but there are plenty of sources of non-renewable energy that would be far less carbon-emitting.

Mr Lilley: My hon. Friend is quite right. We could halve our emissions by switching to gas from coal, but that does not please the greens.

Andrew George: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Lilley: I am sorry, but I have given way a couple of times.

To suggest that we can make ourselves richer by adopting more expensive energy is self-evidently ridiculous. Most of what has been cited as evidence of green growth involves creative accounting on a scale that would make Enron blush. First, there is the suggestion that a green sector has arisen, which allegedly employs 1 million people, produces goods and services worth £120 billion and, as the Deputy Prime Minister said the other day, contributes 8% to our GDP-although the House of Commons Library can find no source for that figure, other than the Deputy Prime Minister.

Those figures aroused my natural scepticism, so I tracked them down and found that they came from a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report published earlier this year, entitled “Low Carbon Environmental Goods and Services (LCEGS)”. My scepticism was confirmed by the opening words, which explain:

“The definition of the LCEGS sector is the result of five year’s work”.

You bet it was! It carries on:

“The definition is broad”-

I can believe that-

“and includes activities that may appear under the overlapping headings of Enviro, Eco, Renewable, Sustainable, Clean Tech, Low Carbon or No Carbon (and any other we might have missed).”

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That is not my comment, but theirs. It goes on:

“In the strictest sense it is not a ‘sector’ but a flexible construct or ‘umbrella’ term for capturing a range of activities spread across many existing sectors”.

What does the sector contain? A quarter of it or more has nothing to do with low-carbon activities at all, but relates to things such as sewage and water treatment, double glazing and controlling noise. Those are all excellent things, but they are not what we are talking about today and nothing to do with the low-carbon economy.

The biggest sector within the low-carbon sector looks promising: it is called “Alternative Fuel Vehicle” and employs 105,000 people, making it the biggest employment area in the low-carbon sector. I thought, “Terrific, we are employing 105,000 people making electric cars.” Sadly, however, we are not. I know one of the producers of electric vehicles and, alas, it is no longer producing them. It turns out that the name relates to mainstream and other vehicle fuels. We are not starting off some great manufacturing revolution through all this subsidy at all.

Laura Sandys: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Lilley: I will, because I intervened on my hon. Friend, even though it will use up my time.

Laura Sandys: The largest wind farm in the world is off the shore of my constituency, and 5,000 people are going through the port of Ramsgate on the construction side. The investment that has come in to the area has been significant-

Mr Lilley: That is fine, but my hon. Friend has read her speech. It is a question I was hoping for.

The growth of such sectors is either natural, in which case it is splendid, or it is the result of subsidies, in which case it is tosh. Subsidies can boost one sector at the expense rest of the economy, but we cannot make ourselves richer by providing subsidies. If a person moves a pound note from their left-hand pocket to their right-hand pocket, they are no richer. Subsidies can make us worse off, however. If we invest in offshore wind, which is twice as costly as conventional energy generation, we get half as much energy for a given sum of money. That makes us worse off, not better off.

Joan Walley: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Lilley: Only if the hon. Lady is going to prove that we make ourselves better off by producing half as much electricity for a given sum of money. She is not. If she gives up on that, I am glad.

The only way in which subsidies might conceivably generate an economic revolution is if we subsided the producers of goods and services that we could export;, but we are not allowed to do that under European rules. Instead, what we do is subsidise users, consumers and those who install generating capacity in this country. Unlike the Chinese and the Koreans, we are not allowed to subsidise those who manufacture wind farms or photovoltaic cells. We may want to, but we are not allowed to. The pretence that the subsidies that we are giving will promote infant industries is untrue.

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Andrew George: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Lilley: No, I have given way lots of times, including when it has reduced my own time.

Let us give up on the belief that we will create a new industry. All we are doing is subsidising jobs in other countries, whose manufactured goods we import. It is quite clear from a look at the detailed figures in this bogus sector that we are not creating an infant industry.

I will now give way to the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who wished to intervene, because I have a couple of minutes to go.

Andrew George: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He must address the fact that the low-carbon goods and services market, including the renewables sector that he is talking about, is worth £3.2 trillion a year, employs 28 million people and is growing at a rate of 4%. Either we turn our back on that as a market for the UK or we engage with it, in which case we have to have production capital here.

Mr Lilley: Exactly, but who is we? If we is the Government, the hon. Gentleman is proposing that the Government subsidise industries to go for that £3.2 trillion world industry. In fact, that is a bit of an exaggeration, but let us suppose that the figure is correct. The Government are not allowed to do what he wants because of European Union rules, which he supports. We cannot offer infant industries subsidies in this country, or indeed anywhere else in the European Union, although some of our partners may do so in concealed forms. We do not and cannot, so let us not pretend that we are doing so.

The subsidies that we deploy in this country go largely towards generating electricity by more expensive means than is necessary, which increases the cost base of our industry and makes it less competitive across the board. I hope that companies in this country will set up businesses in this sector, as in any other sector, to win exports across the world, but the Government are not allowed to support those companies, and let us not pretend that they are doing so when, in fact, they are subsidising imports.

 

 

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