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Climate change: the risks we can’t afford to take Part 5

The risk of a lack of vision

Climate change: The risks we can’t afford to take Part 5: The risk of a lack of vision

The UK’s Climate Change Act provides a framework within which government can take bold steps towards creating a low carbon economy. And while the Act is an achievement in its own right, the real achievement will be the delivery of what it promises. And yet the debate on the government’s response to the Act has been much less prominent than the debate around the Act itself, as though we can take for granted that emissions, which in many cases are still rising, will suddenly begin to fall as a result of its existence. In the fifth and final publication in this series, Stephen Hale, director of Green Alliance, argues that the real risk to the achievement of the targets set out in the Climate Change Act, is the lack of a compelling and unifying vision of a low carbon future for the UK, and the political commitment to making that vision a reality.

The debate on the response to the Turner report has been relatively low-key to date, and certainly far less high profile than the Climate Change Act that brought Adair Turner’s climate change committee into being. But it is how government delivers the Act that really matters. Sadly, we’ve seen how great targets can end up: 2010 will see the missing of two targets whose existence was heralded as a victory when they were introduced. First, the target to eradicate fuel poverty in the UK and second, the Labour government’s pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. We need a vision and an implementation plan to ensure that the Climate Change Act does not go down in history in the same way. The government’s understanding of what constitutes a vision and implementation plan seems woefully inadequate. There appears to be the view that existing policies will deliver the UK’s basic climate change targets, and that even the stretching ones are within reach, or that the UK has plenty of policy, and we simply need to give it time to take effect. At Green Alliance we are convinced that the Turner report demands a substantive shift in the government’s approach to

climate change. Not only because existing policies have so far failed to reduce our emissions from their soaring trajectory but also because our response to this issue needs to be able to keep pace with the science, as Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, argued earlier in this series.

“What is required is a clear, comprehensive and compelling vision.” This is in part an issue of policy design. But we believe that the Turner report demands far more than a technical review of the policy mix. What is required is a clear, comprehensive and compelling vision. This vision of the UK must be one that will inspire industry, unions, researchers and scientists, and give business clear goals to work towards. A vision that will inspire industry’s future employees, who today are still in school, with the prospect of rewarding and meaningful careers in sectors of the economy that do not yet exist. A vision that will give confidence to investors who are assessing whether or not the UK will be the place to invest their limited funds earmarked for low carbon technology development, and one that will convey a sense of urgency and

purpose to all those in the public, private and voluntary sectors will ultimately make the transformation possible. We had hoped that the government’s emerging low-carbon industrial strategy would provide this kind of vision. So to find out that the strategy itself was limited to a seven page document and website was both disappointing and uninspiring. The scale of the challenge is immense. Pointing in the direction of a low carbon future is simply not good enough. We need maps, guidebooks, transport and financial incentives to travel there. This must be a plan that will deliver on both climate change and broader industrial policy objectives, to simultaneously address the climate and the economic crises. In the USA, President Obama has shown how to kick-start low-carbon spending, with a comprehensive spending package in his fiscal stimulus. It has won support from environmentalists, industrialists and trade unions alike. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then it’s time to show the Americans just how much we like them. A real vision must come with a new, strengthened framework of tax, trading, regulation and spending; a suite of policies that can help get us on the path to achieving it. None of these policies on their own can deliver the changes needed. In particular, we

“The Turner report demands a substantive shift in the government’s approach to climate change.”

have consistently argued that the government has exaggerated the contribution that trading can make, and underplayed the contribution of regulation and public expenditure. Although trading can provide a much needed carbon price, on its own, it cannot deliver the certainty that business needs, nor action in the timescale required. Changes to the tax system must be aligned to the overall goal of creating a low carbon economy. We should use the tax system as a lever for behavioural change, to encourage consumers to choose greener options and create markets for low carbon goods and services.This could begin immediately, for example in the form of fiscal and financial incentives for domestic energy efficiency improvements which can supplement in the short term achievements through the CERT scheme.

“We need to see leadership across the political spectrum. ” Sometimes however market mechanisms simply aren’t enough. Recently Green Alliance hosted a delegation of regulators from California who showcased how progressive regulation across a range of sectors, such as energy efficiency standards for consumer electrical products and green

building standards has helped drive California’s per capita electricity consumption down to half the American national average. Clever regulation has played its part, but the longstanding determination on the part of the Californian administration to work towards a vision of their state as a leader is what has really driven the change. In the current economic climate the private sector will not deliver what is required, in the time frame in which it is required, without further intervention from government. On carbon capture and storage for example, a decision taken on commercial grounds alone might lead towards a decision to wait while the price of the technology falls. But we simply do not have this option if we are serious about meeting our emissions reduction targets and decarbonising our electricity supply. There is a compelling public interest case for accelerating the deployment of this technology now, by incentivising investment in both precombustion and post-combustion carbon capture and storage. Of course spending requires money and this is the toughest challenge. Both the taxpayer and the consumer will have to take a share of the upfront investment needed to avert devastating costs and suffering later on. That won’t be a welcome message at the Treasury. That said, if Gordon Brown wants

to be hailed for getting this right, that is the issue on which he must now focus. And he must focus on how to do this in the most equitable way. But this is not just an issue for one person, or even one party. We need to see leadership across the political spectrum. The need for solutions that address both the long-term future of our economy and our climate is the central political challenge of this generation. We must bring together the best creative minds and begin to address the question of how we can make this most necessary transformation desirable, both economically and politically. The political leaders who achieve this will secure their place in history. We must break out of the current mindset of incremental change and tinkering around the edges. We must stop pretending that we are doing enough already, for we are not. Choosing to believe that the vision is there, when all we have is a sketch, would perhaps be the most dangerous risk of all, and it is one that we can’t afford to take.

Green Alliance 36 Buckingham Palace Road London SW1W 0RE Tel 020 7233 7433 Fax 020 7233 9033 Green Alliance is a registered charity 1045395 and a company limited by guarantee 3037633

This publication forms part of Climate change: the risks we can’t afford to take, a Green Alliance publication series. For more information visit Series editor: Thomas Lingard, deputy director, Green Alliance The views expressed in this series remain those of the individual authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Green Alliance or its funders.

Green Alliance’s 2008-09 climate change theme has been generously supported by Shell, RWE npower and Eon.

Climate change: the risks we can’t afford to take Part 5: The risk of a lack of vision ISBN 978-1-905869-21-3 © Green Alliance, April 2009 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Green Alliance. Within the UK, exceptions are allowed in respect of any fair dealing for the purposes of private research or study, or criticism or review, as permitted under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, or in the case of reprographic reproduction in accordance with the terms of the licenses issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.

Green Alliance Green Alliance is an independent charity. Our mission is to promote sustainable development by ensuring that environmental solutions are a priority in British politics. We work with representatives from the three main political parties, government, business and the NGO sector to encourage new ideas, facilitate dialogue and develop constructive solutions to environmental challenges.

Climate Change: the Risks we Can't Afford to Take: Part 5: The Risk of a Lack of Vision  

We have asked five leading commentators to set out exactly how they see the risks that we face and why in their view they are risks we can’t...

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