2005-04-10

UK govt record on climate change

It being election time, its a good time to examine the UK Labour govts record on climate change, and how its actions have matched up to the rhetoric/promises. Perhaps I should put in a note re conflict-of-interest: I'm a green party member (indeed, a candidate in the forthcoming elections) and election agent for south cambridgeshire green party (and their webmaster too).

The general tone of this assessment, in case you want to skip the details, is that the rhetoric has been good but the action disappointing.

I don't dismiss the value of the rhetoric, though. Compare it to the Bush presidency, which has done its best to downplay climate change: Blair has said some strong things, like "What is now plain is that the emission of greenhouse gases, associated with industrialisation and strong economic growth from a world population that has increased sixfold in 200 years, is causing global warming at a rate that began as significant, has become alarming and is simply unsustainable in the long-term. And by long-term I do not mean centuries ahead. I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly; and possibly within my own. And by unsustainable, I do not mean a phenomenon causing problems of adjustment. I mean a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence." (#10). Well: you can't get much plainer than that, and Brown says much the same. Greenpeace could ask nothing better, from a speech. In fact (from my own WGI perspective) he has gone rather further than he might (see here too). Whereas Bush has never acknowledged that humans are causing climate change.

So: rhetoric OK, what about action? If you were faced with a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence you'd be doing some pretty serious things, yes? Well, no. "The UK government is not doing enough to tackle climate change, according to a report by a parliamentary committee. The Environmental Audit Committee attacked ministers for believing that new technology and market mechanisms will reduce greenhouse gas emissions." (from the BBC; thanks HET). And the reason why is not hard to see, when reports say stuff like: "Eighty-thousand houses need to be demolished yearly for the next decade if the UK is to meet its climate change commitments, research suggests. Such demolition of older houses built to low environmental standards would be four times the current rate, Oxford University researchers said. It would mean the replacement of about 14% of homes, with 220,000 new homes built and others improved. ". (BBC again). The govts isn't going to be keen on spending money on that, when money is tight anyway (arguably they have done a fair job demolishing old houses in Iraq, but that doesn't help). Its a commonplace to note that the only reason the UK is at its current emission levels is that the Thatcher govt encouraged/permitted replacing coal fired power stations with gas. Labour has done nothing comparable; and its given way to the car-driving lobby over fuel prices.

Looking at the Blair speech again, lower down (after a review of some modest things) he says:


I want today to highlight three key parts of my G8 strategy.


First, I want to secure an agreement as to the basic science on climate change and the threat it poses. Such an agreement would be new and provide the foundation for further action.


Second, agreement on a process to speed up the science, technology, and other measures necessary to meet the threat.


Third, while the eight G8 countries account for around 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is vital that we also engage with other countries with growing energy needs - like China and India; both on how they can meet those needs sustainably and adapt to the adverse impacts we are already locked into.
.

This isn't impressive. Point 1 is perhaps a nice idea, not sure exactly what it means, probably it means "get the b*st*rd Bush to agree on what everyone else knows" (at least as far as the basic science goes; well we have IPCC, what more do you want?; perhaps the "and the threat it poses" is the point at issue). Point 2 is vague-to-useless. Point 3 looks like a sop to the Bush-y view that developing countries need to sign up too. Nice idea, but with rich folk like us (we are rich, aren't we? People tell us so, but nowadays it seems that both parents in a family need to work whereas in the good old days only one half did...) not doing much, why should the developing folk do more?

And at the end of it all, the reason that there is less action that the rhetoric suggests, and why for example Blair is supporting a new runway at Standsted with little regard to the extra CO2 it will generate, is that while people will generally nod to the dangers of climate change, they don't want action to get in the way of their cheap flights or their driving or... So anyway, its not all Blairs fault: he will, quite often, do what the voters want (the Iraq war being an obvious exception).

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