Trust the people on climate change

While inconsistency with respect to climate change runs so deep in government policy, how can we expect people to behave differently?
Stephen Plowden
1 March 2010

“Major developed and developing countries have signed up to tackle the problem and to limit global warming to two degrees. As countries enter their emissions cuts in the formal register by January 31st, they can and should make good on this.” That was Ed Miliband’s comment on the Copenhagen conference. So it is surprising to learn that   Britain’s own plans for tackling climate change are based on an approach which is expected to result in an increase in global warming of at least two degrees.  

The government’s plans are derived from the report Building a low-carbon economy – the UK’s contribution to tackling climate change, published by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in December 2008. In the CCC’s favoured scenario, global emissions of greenhouse gases peak by 2016. They then decline each year either by 4%, in which case the CCC calculates that there is a 56% probability that by 2100 the mean global temperature will be more than two degrees above its pre-industrial level, or only by 3%, in which case this probability rises to 63%. The CCC’s report treated these outcomes as acceptable and then considered what reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would be required to achieve them. Acknowledging that developed countries will have to reduce their emissions by more than developing ones, it recommended that Britain should set itself the target of reducing its emissions by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. The government accepted that recommendation.

Why was the CCC so relaxed about a likely increase of more than two degrees? Not because of doubts about how serious such an increase would be. The CCC shares the view of most climate scientists that the consequences would be very grave. But apparently it ruled out any action which would inhibit economic growth, and seems also to have concluded that a more demanding target would indeed have that effect. These views are not stated explicitly, but are implicit in the report, as, for example, in the following statement in the executive summary. “The good news is that reductions of that size [a cut in emissions of  at least 80% by 2050] are possible without sacrificing the benefits of economic growth and rising prosperity.”  Presumably the suggestion is that greater reductions would threaten economic growth and therefore cannot be contemplated.

We have a duty to future generations, and indeed to people now living, to leave them a world in which they can live and which would be worth living in. Obviously we should be prepared to make sacrifices in pursuit of this duty, just as earlier generations made heavy sacrifices to preserve our way of life. I doubt that the CCC’s distinguished members would dispute this moral obligation, but perhaps they feel that the British people would not accept it.

What sacrifices would be necessary? The report points out that many of the actions needed to combat global warming are ones that it would be desirable to take for other reasons.  That is clearly true. The urgent need to reduce our dependence on imports from countries with unstable and potentially hostile regimes is a good reason to reduce our consumption of oil and natural gas. Everyone should live in a well insulated home. Better road safety, reduced oil consumption, lower noise and stress, provide sufficient grounds for lowering speed limits and enforcing them properly. The economic growth on which the CCC, in common with the government and most political parties, lays so much emphasis is presumably growth in GDP, but GDP is a measure of activity, not welfare. Once a certain level of material prosperity has been reached, and the great majority of readers of this article will have reached it, although millions of our fellow citizens have not, further increases are of trivial importance compared with the quality of the social and physical environment.

When all that has been said, however, it is difficult to believe that reductions in the use of fossil fuels of the scale and speed required could be achieved without some painful adjustments to our way of life. We need the CCC to tell us what  adjustments we would have to make in order to achieve a 1%,5%, 10% . . . chance of the rise in the average global temperature exceeding two degrees.  Or, since several developing countries at Copenhagen asked, with good reason, for a commitment to limit the rise to 1.5 rather than two degrees, perhaps it would be better for the CCC to base its probability calculations on that limit. Once the CCC had provided that information, it would be up to the people and Parliament, not to the CCC as an unelected quango, to decide what path to choose.

Would people be willing to make the sacrifices required to safeguard the living conditions of posterity? Since public opinion surveys show that forty per cent of the population are sceptical about global warming, there must be some doubt about that. But why are people sceptical? Wishful thinking and some irresponsible journalism do not help. But surely the most important reason is that the government’s rhetoric about the importance of combating global warming is not matched by its deeds. Its actions over a wide range of topics suggest that this is not a high priority after all.

The government assigns a value to represent the importance it attaches to preventing the emission of a tonne of greenhouse gases. The figure is so low that the total value of all Britain’s emissions over a year comes to less than two per cent of GDP. The implication is that if someone could suggest a way of eliminating all our emissions, but the annual cost would amount to two per cent of GDP, the answer would be “no thanks, that’s too expensive.” If the allies had not been prepared to spend more than two per cent of GDP in fighting the Second World War, they would not have won. In every High Street there are shops that keep their doors wide open in the bitterest weather. When Brighton and Hove City Council refused to give a pub planning permission for a patio heater, on the grounds that patio heaters wasted energy, government inspector overturned the decision, saying   that these heaters were the most efficient form of outdoor heating and pubs had to attract and retain custom. The government largely failed to concentrate its efforts to stimulate the economy out of recession on “green” measures. It did not even insist that people who replaced their old cars by new ones under its scrappage scheme would be given a grant only if the car they bought was among the least polluting in its class. Its plans for the road programme, high-speed rail and the expansion of airports are based on the crudest business-as-usual, predict-and-provide assumptions.

I believe that the British people would be prepared to make sacrifices, even heavy ones, for the sake of posterity if the need was clearly explained and the burden was fairly shared. A properly explained and fair programme could even unite and inspire the country. But we need greater honesty and leadership than has yet been shown.

Perhaps the Government’s most conspicuous failure of leadership is its policy on aviation. On current plans, aviation would account for some 25% of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although the Government’s target for the economy as a whole is to reduce emissions by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, for aviation it asks only that emissions be kept to their 2005 level, even though travel by air doubled between 1990 and 2005, and it seems to believe that technical advances will allow emissions to be kept down even while journeys and flights increase very substantially. The common argument that growth in aviation is essential for the health of the economy does not hold water.  Recent advances in telecommunications enable a large proportion of business trips to be replaced by teleconferencing, and in any case business trips account for less than 30% of international journeys to and from British airports. This market is dominated by British residents travelling for leisure purposes. Global warming apart, there are other strong reasons for limiting air travel. Providing for people going abroad on holiday should not take priority over safeguarding the environment of people living near airports. Over-visiting is destroying the attractions which people go abroad to seek; over the last sixty years huge damage has been done to the  Mediterranean littoral, and now more distant holiday destinations are also under threat.

It makes no sense to say that global warming is the greatest challenge that humanity faces but is not as important as cheap foreign holidays, but that, in effect, is what Tony Blair did say at the 2005 General Election and what the government is still saying now. No doubt, restrictions on flying would be unpopular with many people; it is just for that reason that they are a critical test of environmental determination. It is not enough to drop plans to expand Heathrow, as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats say they would do. The cuts in greenhouse gases required from aviation should be at least of the same proportions as those required from other sectors. If the more gloomy accounts of how global warming is developing are correct, then aviation should be cut more than other sectors. Most air travel is discretionary; keeping warm and producing and distributing food are not.

More stringent targets for aviation should not be used as an excuse for easing the targets now imposed on other sectors. Instead, the target for the overall reduction to be achieved by 2050 should be raised from 80% to 90% of the 1990 amount. That would show that Britain really is serious about the need to prevent the earth’s temperature rising by two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

At the election, environmentally minded people should ask all the parties whether they will make these commitments. If they won’t, then don’t vote for them.                                

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