Time to grasp the reality of climate threat
The scientific case has been made but politicians and the public are arguing over the facts of global warming
The good news about the recession is that reduced fossil fuel demand should reduce greenhouse gas emissions, although by how much is not yet observed; the bad news is that the price of carbon allowances in the carbon markets has also been reduced as a result of falling demand. This makes investing in low-carbon technologies harder since they usually start off with higher marginal costs. That then rebounds on the ambitious talk of a “green industrial strategy” to get us out of the recession. Hence, there is now an abundance of reports showing a slowdown in all kinds of green investment, not least in renewable energy. This means that when an economic upturn does arrive, it will be just as or even more likely to be fuelled by fossil fuels.
Alistair Darling’s budget was roundly criticised by environmental NGOs for not doing enough to break this cycle. Indeed, on the face of it the budget and all the other measures announced in the last few months to restore our economy to full steam ahead do far less to fulfil our green industrial strategising than is conscionable. The headline ‘environmental’ element was £1.4bn, which the government said would leverage over £10bn in total. But in today’s market conditions, it is hard to see how much of that will actually be spent. For example, the £250m for electric vehicles will have little or no immediate effect, and some argue that since it doesn’t kick in for two years, it will actually delay the current take-up of electric vehicles. The sum of £250m would have been better spent on reducing the age limit for concessionary bus travel, and if the car scrappage grants totalling £300m also announced in the budget were targeted at public transport, many more immediate carbon savings could be made, and it might go some way towards answering the age-old objection motorists have to buses especially: they’re never there when you want them. Support for car sharing schemes might also have been more welcome. Two people sharing a car to work on my simple reckoning could cut carbon emissions by half.
So why can’t we do more to encourage immediate, low-tech behavioural changes? If there were a conspiracy theory as to why a government that has recently committed itself to a massive renewal of the nuclear power industry would want to promote the idea of electric vehicles, then the cynical explanation is obvious. Alternatively, without spending a penny the government could introduce tobacco advertising-style health warnings on all car promotional material. That might introduce some honesty into the green claims made by manufacturers. I discovered that the motor industry before the recession spent £800m a year on advertising in the UK alone. In the three-year period of the government’s ActOnCO2 campaign, which cost £12m, the competition will have spent £2.4bn. It’s no contest and wholly counter-intuitive to expect people to change their behaviour when most of the daily messages they receive tell them it’s business as usual.
But even when it does come to supporting proven green technologies, we don’t quite seem to have grasped it. Ministers often cite climate change and energy security as equal challenges. Yet the budget allocated just £10m to the development of a long-standing, proven technology – anaerobic digestion. Manure (both human and animal) and other biological wastes could be used to create biogas – a carbon neutral fuel. According to that dangerously radical green group, National Grid, if we really pushed ahead with anaerobic digestion then 50% of our domestic gas supply could be biogas by 2020. So much for reliance on unreliable gas from “Gasakstan”. The “keeping the lights on” scare, often used when it comes to justifying new coal or nuclear, simply does not stand up to close examination.
We are in a four-stage process of addressing the challenge of climate change, as Britain was in a four-stage process meeting the challenge of Adolf Hitler: denial, appeasement, phoney war then total war. I believe we are staggering between appeasement and phoney war at the present time. Our effort is improving, but in dribs and drabs, suggesting that we’ve not entirely convinced ourselves that the threat is real. It is as if we have grasped that the scientific debate has been settled but the hard, practical choices still have to pass through a multitude of sceptical arguments.
Just as Lord Halifax, a member of Churchill’s government in 1940, could still contemplate some form of deal with Hitler, so we are still playing footsy with climate change, searching all the options that might buy us a little more time before we finally admit that our backs are truly against the wall. The political establishment is not as fully convinced of the scientific case as it ought to be. In political terms, climate change has the feel of something that we don’t know enough about and which we’re not sure we care very deeply about either. It’s still “other people”, either living in the present but who live far away, as in Bangladesh, or the unborn. Neither constituency is well represented amid the immediate claims of voters who are wondering when they can next safely have a splurge on their plastic.
Colin Challen has been a Labour MP for Morley and Rothwell since 2001. He is chair of the all-party parliamentary group on climate change. His latest book, Too Little Too Late: the politics of climate change, is published by Picnic Publishing.