Opinion: Are we going into a climate trance?

Britain (and most of the world) was in “shock” about climate change for a few years. But the credit crunch and the economic recession have now caused a climate “trance”. A trance? In this, of all years. A new global deal on emissions targets needs to be reached at December’s UN climate change conference in Copenhagen.

Not long after he was elected president, Barack Obama spoke of the “shock” and “trance” syndrome, that brings panic and then paralysis over America’s reliance on fossil fuels. Andrew Revkin, of the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, has traced two international climate “shocks” in the last century. The first shock started in the summer of 1988, with the northern drought and James Hansen’s first dire warnings about global warming. It was followed by a trance, as energy prices fell and the first Persian Gulf War erupted. The ensuing trance lasted for much of the 1990s.

The second shock began with the European heat wave of 2003 and intensified from 2005 to 2007 as Hurricane Katrina and “An Inconvenient Truth” put climate change in the headlines. The peak was reached in 2007, as the fourth IPCC report was published.

Evidence of a new British (and, possibly, Europe-wide) climate trance has piled up over the last year. People have become much more worried about their jobs, cash flows and house prices. In January 2007, Ipsos MORI found that 19 per cent of voters saw the environment as a top issue facing Britain. By the end of 2008, just 6 per cent held the same view. Over the same period, the proportion seeing the economy as a top issue went from 14 per cent to 66 per cent.

The media may also be falling into a climate trance. Maxwell Boykoff of Oxford University, who studies the way 50 newspapers in 20 countries (including the UK) cover climate change, told DotEarth last month: “Apart from that Oceania blip in mid-2008, it does seem like stagnation or decreasing coverage.”

Consequently, politicians may be less inclined to take forward “costly” climate policies. For years, the EU has been a world leader on climate change policies. But some members have become more worried about the possible implications for their industries and economies. December’s European summit kept the targets to cut emissions by 20 per cent (compared with 1990 levels) by 2020, with an offer to raise this to 30 per cent if other countries joined in on an agreement. But the EU emissions trading scheme will now include big concessions and opt-outs for heavy industries. Last month’s big UN climate change meeting in Poznan showed how hard it may be to reach a deal at Copenhagen.

Those concerned about the future of the planet need not despair, just yet. Whilst the climate “shock” may be over, the last year also showed that a 1990s style “trance” simply will not be an option.

First, there was new scientific evidence that global warming is happening faster than expected. Climate scientists now predict that late-summer sea ice in the Arctic will end within three to seven years. They previously thought this would not happen till the late in the century. Melting of the sea ice could have serious climatic effects. Other research showed that after a decade of stability, methane concentrations in the atmosphere (which have a much more powerful global warming effect than CO2) have been rising strongly in the last 18 months.

And anyone taken in by Christopher Booker’s weird claim that “2008 was the year that man-made global warming was disproved” should look at the latest findings about global temperatures from the WMO and the Hadley Centre. Also, this WSJ article.

Second, the Climate Change Act 2008 set a statutory target to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 and set up the Committee on Climate Change, to provide an independent source of advice and scrutiny. So it will be harder for UK governments to duck their responsibilities to future generations. The CCC’s first report and draft carbon budgets appeared in December and provided more proof that big emissions reductions are inevitable.

Third, the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases are planning action to tackle climate change. The incoming US president, Barack Obama has promised to bring the US back into the UN Climate Change Convention. He says that his “number 1 priority” will be to invest £150 billion over 10 years in building a new alternative-energy economy. China is increasingly recognising the need for all countries to be part of a fair plan for global emission reductions. The UK and the rest of Europe cannot afford to buckle now.

We don’t need to have another trance. Some solutions to climate change have been reframed, as investments that will stimulate demand (jobs) and make the transformation to a low-carbon economy. The specifics are: boosting energy efficiency; investing in renewable energy sources and electric vehicles; and changing building methods.

Even with the promise of a “green economy”, the risks from paralysis are still real. The tough question is who will invest in this new economy? The cost of the government’s renewable energy strategy, which aims to ensure that 15 per cent of the UK’s energy comes from clean sources (as required by the EU targets), has been estimated at £100 billion.

The economic turmoil, and falling oil and gas prices, have deterred investors and lenders from putting their money into clean energy investments that look too risky. Confidence took a hit in April, when Shell pulled out of the London Array, the UK’s flagship offshore wind project. The cost of offshore wind farms has led Centrica (owner of British Gas) to review the economics of its £4bn wind power investment programme. There have been some encouraging developments as well. Still, the New Energy Finance leading index of clean-technology companies has fallen from a high of 450 points 12 months ago to 175 points at the start of January.

The public need to be broadly on side with the range of measures needed to tackle climate change, so that the government and the EU cannot afford to let up.

And whatever governments and businesses do, everyone will need to change their behaviours, if we are to have any chance of achieving the EU and UK emissions targets.

Investors are looking for clarity and certainty from government energy policy. The government must also take the lead on “green stimulus” measures, with home insulation and energy efficiency improvements as the obvious place to start. Nick Clegg picked up on this in his “green road out of the recession”. So far, the government has failed to match its rhetoric with credible policies. New models of financing should be looked at too.

The public are much more likely to engage if the UK and the EU follow though on their climate commitments, across all policy areas. They will also be looking for the opportunities and the sacrifices to be fairly shared – and for any innovations and personal behaviour changes to be good for their bank balances.

But will Gordon Brown deliver?

Neil Stockley chaired the Liberal Democrats’ climate change policy working group in 2006-07. He has his own blog, http://neilstockley.blogspot.com.

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11 Comments

  • David Heigham 6th Jan '09 - 4:07pm

    A worthwhile climate deal will really begin to bite two or three years from now. That is what we must keep our eye on. we cannot make a great deal of difference to economic behaviour more qutckly than that.

    As the Obama team may have realised, it follows that tough financial incentives to improve our polluting behaviour are ideal instruments for putting our public finances right after the grand economic stimuli.

  • “The cost of the government’s renewable energy strategy, which aims to ensure that 15 per cent of the UK’s energy comes from clean sources (as required by the EU targets), has been estimated at £100 billion.”

    What are the equivalent figures for the Lib Dems’ energy plans? What percentage from renewables, and at what cost?

  • David Allen 6th Jan '09 - 11:29pm

    Good post. I would only point out that we’re not just weathermen. We can also change the political weather, by speaking out for ourselves.

    It is chastening to re-read what we were saying about climate change back in 2006, when we had the confidence to give the subject the importance it deserves:

    http://www.libdems.org.uk/home/summation-in-the-tax-debate-by-chris-huhne-mp-72949;show

    “This is the greatest threat to our civilisation – indeed even our species.”

    We don’t talk like that now. We should.

  • That wasn’t a rhetorical question above, by the way.

    Does anyone have any idea what Lib Dem policy is on renewable energy – target percentages, timescales, costings, sources of funding – anything at all??

  • Why does Climate Change mean UK temperatures would rise. Take away the Gulf Stream and The Nova Scotian Halifax would be much the warmer.

  • Geoffrey

    Thank you. I see the targets are 30% by 2020 and 100% by 2050. In terms of the estimate above, I suppose that must represent an additional cost of £600bn over 40 years, at today’s prices. What I don’t see is where the money is supposed to come from.

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