Policy v persuasion – balancing the climate change equation
05 February 2009
Scientists say decisive action is needed to combat climate change. But how do we get energy consumers to accept that they've got to be less profligate? Chris Ames questions the political will to risk unpopularity
Dealing with the climate change emergency means bridging the gap between "what the science tells us we have to do and what the politics seems ready to do", according to internationally renowned scientist Dr James Hansen.
The director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies warns that human behaviour could produce a completely different, ice-free, planet. "The truth is, we have reached a point where we have an emergency. The idea that humans can burn all the fossil fuels and put that CO2 back in the atmosphere is just unacceptable," he says.
Carbon targets themselves will not be enough. Hansen says: "Policy- makers don't yet understand that per cent emission reduction goals are not going to work if they are not accompanied by coal phase-out."
He argues for immediate research and development work into fourth generation nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration.
Hansen was speaking at the Environment Agency's annual conference, which highlighted the level of disagreement among politicians and experts. All agree about the need for urgent action over climate change, as well as adapting to cope with its worst effects. What they disagree on is the scale of the intervention that will be needed to mitigate the problem.
European environment commissioner Stavros Dimas (who drew up the climate and energy package that was agreed at December's EU summit) appeared at the same session as Hansen. He says that while the targets in the package are aimed at discouraging coal-fired power stations, countries like China will continue using coal "no matter what we say and no matter what science tells us".
Dimas describes the EU package as "easily the most far-reaching legislative package on fighting climate change anywhere in the world". But he clearly regrets allowing it to be watered down under "a lot of pressure" from the business lobby.
Asked what would be the one thing he would change about the package, Dimas replied that he would go back to his original target of a 30 per cent unilateral cut in emissions by 2020 rather than the current plan for a 20 per cent cut, rising to 30 per cent if other countries make comparable reductions.
Dimas believes Britain continues to play a leading role in the call for action to address climate change. But Climate Change and Energy Secretary Ed Miliband unwittingly highlights the difference between talking a good game and taking action.
Miliband told the conference: "I am more aware than ever of the scale of the challenge... We need to pick up the pace." But he added: "We have to take people with us – the challenge is per-suasion, not just policy." He makes clear that he draws the line at risking unpopularity. Asked about the impact on carbon targets of expanding aviation, he resorted to a classic New Labour triangulation: "I'm not going to say to my constituents, for example, 'well, you can't fly any more'."
The Agency's chairman, Lord Chris Smith, is a critic of the government's aviation policy, particularly over Heathrow expansion. He says that with carbon emissions above the worst case scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "the current decade will determine our ability to prevent dangerous climate change".
Lord Smith says the Agency is "setting a path to improve the resilience of England and Wales to the effects of climate change". But he is no longer prepared merely to pick up the pieces of extreme weather and believes the Agency has an increasing role at the heart of climate change policy. In an apparent extension of its role, he says: "We will be working to prevent, as well as adapt to, climate change."
Dr Paul Leinster, the Agency's new chief executive, says it is "increasingly playing a central role in greenhouse gas reductions, with nearly half of all the emissions in England and Wales influenced by policy mechanisms that the Environment Agency delivers".
As for adapting to climate change, Leinster acknowledges that this is "a daunting challenge", a point illustrated by Sir Michael Pitt, whose report into the 2007 floods was published earlier this year. According to his "very rough estimate", 3.5 million people in Britain live in areas where they are "likely to be killed" if a reservoir fails. Most do not realise this and many, such as school headteachers, would not know what to do if the phone rings, saying: "You've got 10 minutes to get out."
Sir Michael says the Cabinet Office "slid out" a diagram showing that the risk of flooding was "right up there with pandemic flu and terrorism".
"I am very much of the view that we have to give it a higher public profile," he says, adding that flood risk is treated with much more openness in the rest of Europe and the US than in Britain.
London mayor Boris Johnson agrees with Miliband and Lord Smith that the recession should not divert government from the urgency of the situation. He jokes that this is not the time to "take our foot off the gas" and backs Lord Smith's call for a "green new deal".
But a day after expanding the Building Energy Efficiency Programme to all London's public sector buildings, he announced that he was scrapping the western extension to the congestion charge zone.
He justifies this by reference to public opposition and the fact that "this part of London is already struggling", proving that politics and economics still trump the environment – even in an emergency.