Thursday 29 April 2010

Chickening out of the climate challenge

It’s the defining issue of our times. It already kills 300,000 people every year, and threatens almost everything we take for granted about the world. We need urgent action across our whole society to avoid catastrophic consequences within our lifetimes. Yet in three hours of televised leadership debate, climate change has so far been discussed for…eight minutes. Last week, we learned that Brown and Cameron want more nuclear power (Clegg doesn’t), Brown wants a third runway at Heathrow (the other two don’t), Cameron wants to do something or other about insulation and all three of them want an international solution. They all agreed it was jolly important, then moved on to spend more time discussing what they’d like to say to the pope than they’d spent on the entire avoiding-global-cataclysm question. Great.

Luckily, there have been other opportunities to examine the three main parties’ policies on climate change – for example, the Guardian environment debate (analysed by George Monbiot here), and a new national carbon calculator (which I worked on with the Guardian web team), which maps out the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and lets you play around with them.

The energy and climate change spokesbods from Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were all invited to plug their policies into the calculator to see how they measure up. Before we look at how they did, let’s remind ourselves of where we need to get to. Leaving aside the 2050 carbon reduction targets – anyone can promise anything for 40 years in the future – the science is telling us that we need to reduce the UK’s current emissions by as much as 50% by 2020 [1] in order to carry out our fair share of a sensible global cut. In other words, we should aim to halve our carbon emissions over the next two parliaments. It’s a tall order – but the consequences of not doing it are far worse, and many of the changes would benefit us in other ways (better public transport, warm homes, safer roads, healthier food, and so on).

Of the three big parties, only the Lib Dems have been brave enough to post their calculator results online. They’ve managed a 50% reduction (although it isn’t clear by when) – by switching electricity generation entirely over to wind, sun and tidal power, improving the energy efficiency of homes and businesses, cutting out food waste, reducing flights, moving people and freight from road to rail and converting half of the country’s car fleet to electric vehicles. Pretty bold stuff – but interestingly, they haven’t touched the top two sliders. These control the UK’s level of material consumption – how much stuff we use – and by leaving this untouched the Lib Dems have needed to make much bigger carbon cuts elsewhere in the economy.

However, it is worth noting that even leaving the consumption sliders where they are is a surprisingly radical thing to do. Our economy is based on the bizarre idea of endless growth on a finite planet, which requires the ever-increasing consumption of limited natural resources. Holding consumption steady – or reducing it, as the calculator suggests we will ultimately have to do – will require us to run our economy in a totally different way, finding ways to lead happy, healthy and exciting lives without relying on the myth of infinite growth. Have the Lib Dems cottoned on to this?

Labour, meanwhile, claim to have “a positive vision of jobs, empowerment and fairness with plans sector by sector from agriculture to transport…within a clear framework for carbon emissions.” Sadly, they haven’t taken the opportunity to show how these plans might translate into emissions reductions on the calculator, or how they are compatible with Government proposals for aviation expansion and new coal plants. They do say they are working towards cutting emissions to 34% below 1990 levels by 2020 – by my calculations, that’s 15% below 2007 emissions (on which the calculator is based). This is a far cry from the real reductions we need.

Intriguingly, while the Lib Dems’ Simon Hughes says that the calculator shows that we can power the UK without nuclear plants, Labour’s Ed Miliband claims that it shows the opposite. I’d suggest that the calculator simply presents the fact that nuclear power is just one option in a mix. We have other viable choices and so we can take it or leave it – which means that the arguments about the costs, reliability, risks and waste associated with nukes are absolutely crucial.

Both the Lib Dems and Labour also lament the lack of carbon capture and storage in the model – but this technology has not yet been proven to work on a large scale, so it would be speculative to include it in the calculator. Similarly, there's talk of far more efficient wind turbines, solar panels etc. in the near future, but to keep things grounded the calculator includes only existing technology. It also only includes things that we can reasonably measure – restoring Britain’s forests sounds like a good idea from the Lib Dems, but it would be near impossible to attach an accurate emissions saving figure to such a project. We just don’t understand enough yet about how carbon is stored and released from plants and soils.

The Conservatives’ Greg Clark completely fails to engage with the calculator, and instead decides to talk about watermelons. The Conservatives seem to believe that putting a price on carbon and giving out insulation grants will allow the market to sort the problem out by itself. But leaving the fate of humanity to the vagaries of the market (the workings of which are of course heavily influenced by large polluting corporations) seems incredibly reckless, and doesn’t take account of the urgency of the climate crisis. It also denies us the option of a carefully planned and fair transition to a low-carbon society, respecting the rights of workers in high-carbon industries to job transfers, retraining and compensation.

Nothing in the calculator suggests that we need to “micromanage” the details of people’s lives (Clark’s “watermelon environmentalism – green on the outside, red on the inside”). We need sensible plans for shifting our society onto a better path, and hopefully tools like the national carbon calculator can help us to understand the kind of changes we need to make.

The Guardian don't seem to have asked the Green Party to have a go on the tool. I suspect they'd do a bit better than the other three. However, this calculator was never intended solely as a tool for politicians and policy-makers. No matter how good or bad their pre-election climate proposals may seem, whoever takes power on May 6th will not take the necessary steps to tackle climate change unless there is enough public pressure to force them to do so. I’d urge everyone reading this to use the calculator yourselves, to test out politicians’ climate proposals to see how effective they really are. Map out your own vision for a low-carbon future and start taking action to achieve it, by putting pressure on decision-makers and creating effective solutions in your own community. If the big political parties won’t take this issue seriously, then it’s up to us to do it for them.

[1] According to research by Professor Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre we need UK emissions to start falling by 2012 at the latest, and then drop by 9% year-on-year. This works out at about a 46% reduction on 2007 levels by 2020 – and this figure may even be an underestimate, as it does not take into account all the latest research into climate tipping points.

Danny Chivers is a freelance carbon analyst and environmental writer.

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