British politicians lead the way on climate change

Last week’s announcement by the leaders of the three major UK political parties that they will work together to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy has been welcomed by environmentalists around the world.

Despite their usual political differences, British Prime Minister David Cameron, his deputy Nick Clegg, and leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband signed a joint declaration that states: “Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today. It is not just a threat to the environment, but also to our national and global security, to poverty eradication and economic prosperity.

“Acting on climate change is also an opportunity for the UK to grow a stronger economy, which is more efficient and more resilient to the risks ahead. It is in our national interest to act and ensure others act with us.”

The three party leaders jointly pledged:
  • • To seek a fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below 2°C;
  • • To work together, across party lines, to agree carbon budgets in accordance with the Climate Change Act;
  • • To accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient low-carbon economy and to end the use of unabated coal for power generation.
A positive example

Felipe Calderón, former President of Mexico and chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, said the UK cross-party agreement was a positive example to other countries struggling to act on climate change.

“A focus on the simultaneous economic and climate benefits of low-carbon growth makes sense from any angle, and can help bridge typical partisan divides,” Calderón said. “By pledging to accelerate the transition to a competitive, energy efficient low-carbon economy, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all recognise that it is in the UK’s self-interest to act now to reduce climate risk by investing in a better, lower-carbon, less polluting growth model.

“Ending the use of unabated coal for power generation is a crucial commitment and one the commission strongly endorses in our report, Better Growth, Better Climate. Globally, pollution from burning coal is a contributor to the estimated 3.7 million premature deaths each year from outdoor air pollution, while coal production also causes ill health, injuries and deaths. Other countries should follow this lead and accelerate the shift away from polluting coal-fired power generation.”

Lord Nicholas Stern, President of the British Academy and chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said the next UK government would need to ensure a step change in the pace of the transition to a low-carbon economy to meet the statutory carbon budgets and to decarbonise the power sector by 2030.

“A key part will be to end emissions from coal, which are twice those from natural gas per unit of electricity generated. The coalition government has already introduced regulations to prevent the construction of any new coal-fired power stations unless they are equipped with carbon capture and storage technology,” Stern said.

“We now need to bring a speedy end to coal-burning by existing power stations which release carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. The transition to a low-carbon economy and investment in our cities and transport to make them more efficient, less congested and cleaner have great potential to drive a dynamic, more attractive and sustainable growth story for the UK.”

Similar statements

The British announcement follows similar statements last year by the European Union, the United States and China declaring ambitious long-term emission reduction targets, and various clean energy initiatives.

The latest development also prepares the ground for the rather more arduous climate negotiations to be held in Paris in November, where countries from around the globe will be urged to agree on a framework for post-2020 carbon pollution reduction.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that energy emissions needed to be reduced by 90% by 2040. Even highly conservative agencies such as the International Energy Agency, the World Bank, the OECD and the International Monetary Fund have called on countries to decarbonise their energy supply.

Al Gore, former US vice-president and climate change campaigner, said the “political courage” shown by the British leaders was what the world most needed to solve the climate crisis.

“The degree of consensus between the three parties, which currently hold 616 out of 650 seats in the House of Commons, stands in stark contrast with the US,” Gore said. “While President Barack Obama has made climate change a core theme of his last two years in office, it remains a deeply divisive issue politically. US senators recently voted just 50-49 in support of the scientific consensus that human activity significantly contributes to climate change.”

Lagging behind

Australia is also lagging woefully behind other countries in taking action to limit the worst effects of climate change. Tony Abbott, one of the nation’s most inept prime ministers, once declared that “climate change is crap” but even this gaffe-prone politician is now slowly modifying his stance in the face of rising public concern.

On 16 February, the Australian Academy of Science released a new report, The Science of Climate Change: Questions and answers that it says is intended to “provide an understanding based on our present scientific knowledge, of some key questions about climate change”.

A member of the working group who prepared the report, Jean Palutikof, said the report raised questions that focused on the issues that “people talk about in the pub and on the train when they are trying to get their heads round climate change: How are extreme events changing? And how are sea levels changing?”

Palutikof, director of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility at Griffith University in Queensland, said that by bringing climate change firmly into the realm of people’s everyday concerns about their and their family’s well-being, the report would get people to think about taking action to address the challenge.

“This is crucial, because it is increasingly becoming clear that it is at the grassroots level that meaningful action is going to take place... Although there is a vacuum in leadership at national and international levels, at the grassroots levels of households, community organisations and local governments, there is a growing recognition of this need to adapt.

“People and organisations begin to see that there’s likely to be a financial penalty if they fail to act, and that there might be a commercial advantage in being an early adopter. These groups can almost be defined by their desire to keep their heads below the parapet – they are utility companies, farmers and agricultural enterprises, local governments and their employees.

“They are moving to protect their businesses and their stakeholders against the present and future effects of climate change and, where they can, to turn a profit through these early actions.”