Tory MP snubs ‘expensive renewables’ in climate clash

The Conservative Party's low-carbon ambitions were thrown into question today (3 March) as one of its MPs became embroiled in a row about the science of climate change and condemned further investment in renewables.

During a heated political debate which was supposed to focus on how the next Government will replace the UK’s polluting power stations with green alternatives, Peter Lilley took his time at the plinth to suggest that politicians of all parties – including his own – have “enormously exaggerated” the effects of global warming.

The Hitchin and Harpenden MP said there is an “extraordinary arrogance” surrounding the true cost of developing and supporting renewable energy technology, pointing out that the potential costs of implementing the Climate Change Act could be twice the amount of the maximum financial benefits for the UK.

Lilley told a packed audience: “I entirely accept that if we double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we will, according to science, raise the temperature of the earth by one degree – but so what? It was 10 degrees cooler last night than it is now and we’ve all survived that bit of climate change without too much difficulty. On average it’s 10 degrees warmer in Singapore than it is in Helsinki, but they’re both very pleasant places to live.

“Since 1997, a third of all the carbon dioxide ever emitted by mankind since the industrial revolution has been pumped into the atmosphere. Since that time, there’s been no significant perceptible change in the average temperature of the world. That doesn’t mean to say that global warming isn’t happening, it just means that it’s of the same order of magnitude as other natural factors which have offset it.

“The science should be taken sensibly and not exaggerated enormously. Not once during all the passage of the Climate Change Act in Parliament did anyone consider the cost of what we’re doing. I plead with politicians of all parties to look again at the science to see whether it doesn’t contain an element of exaggeration.”

‘Think again’

The Climate Change Act commits the UK to reducing emissions by 80% by 2050, while the EU has set a target of at least a 40% reduction by 2030. The EU target includes sourcing 27% of all energy from renewables by 2030. 

But Lilley questioned the cost of such a transition. He added: “At the moment, the cheapest way to provide electricity is fossil fuels. In future, we’ll bring down the cost of alternatives. But that isn’t the case at the moment – onshore wind is twice as expensive as fossil fuels, offshore is three times as expensive. I urge everybody to think again.”

The MP was speaking on Tuesday during the Ecobuild 2015 trade show in London, as part of a panel discussion which also included Energy Secretary Ed Davey, Labour’s shadow spokeswoman for energy and climate change Baroness Worthington, and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.

Mitigating risk 

The rest of the panel, which also included revered environmental professor Paul Ekins, unanimously opposed Lilley’s views. After 25 years of studying the subject of climate change, Ekins said he had come to “very different conclusions” to Lilley, stating the scientific and economic case for low-carbon electricty is “compelling” and that “we don’t need scientific certainty to take action to reduce risks”. 

Energy Secretary Davey added: “The Conservatives appear to have three or four different views on the subject of climate change. One thing is for certain – it is of course a risk. When you have a risk, you insure against it. Investing in low-carbon is the best and cheapest insurance that our world will ever pay to avoid the possibility of catastrophic climate change. 

“In order to move from a fossil fuel economy, we’ve got to support some of the new technologies as they develop. And the subsidies are coming down.”

Labour’s Worthington said: “Ed’s done a great job as Energy Minister but the coalition party includes interesting characters like Peter who are trying to drag the agenda into realms of ideology. He talks a lot about the science but there are so many inaccuracies about what he’s saying, I can’t even begin to start.

“Peter Lilley’s assessment of ‘cost’ is actually my investment. We have to invest whatever we do and we face a choice: we can invest cleanly, insulating ourselves against carbon prices in the future and the risk of climate change, or we can the cheapest in the short-term. For me, the pounds we are adding onto peoples bills are investment in jobs, the future and my child’s planet.”

Green Party leader Bennett, who recently topped a poll of sustainability professionals for showing the strongest leadership on climate change, was surprised by the Conservative Party’s decision to send a climate sceptic as its representative on a panel discussion about the UK’s low-carbon future.

Speaking exclusively to edie after the discussion, Bennett said: “I’m totally astonished that the conservative party sent Peter Lilley to this debate – it’s actually quite disturbing. From the party that signed up to that pledge to tackle climate change [which commits to an internationally binding deal at Paris 2015] it’s now even harder to work out what that message actually means.”

Luke Nicholls

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie