US and China emissions agreement – BBC World Service – 12 November 2014











Here is an interview I did recently for  the BBC World Service discussing why the emissions agreement between the US and China is so important.


“This is really important because the real problem with climate change is not so much technology or economics, it’s politics. It’s actually getting politicians to do what we know we can do. And I think that this is a pretty big signal, when you have both China and the US agreeing really to do a lot more than people have expected them to do. Will it be enough? I don’t think where they have got to today is going to be enough to really solve the problem, but it does take us a big step down the right road.”


“If you think of China as one of the biggest investors in one of the biggest periods of growth, what it is actually saying is after 2030 all the investment in energy in China will be low-carbon or carbon-neutral, and that is a pretty big statement for a country that is still developing. So what China has actually signalled is that there is no conflict between dealing with climate change and having rapid growth and development for poorer people.”


“There has always been this idea that somehow China is doing nothing, and you regularly hear that from the climate sceptics in this country, but the fact is that China’s has been doing a lot for a very long time.  What they haven’t ever done before is said when emissions will peak, and that of course means that they will now shift basically to renewables, energy efficiency and nuclear as a way of delivering all the energy they need for their people’s prosperity but without destroying the climate.”



You can listen to the whole discussion here



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If there is the will, there is a way – Sky News – 02 November 14



sky news logo



Here is an interview I did for Sky News discussing the draft IPCC ‘synthesis’ report, why this report is different, and what difference it could make.


“I think there are two things that are different about this report, first of all this report is not just for scientists, this was agreed line by line by government officials, so this is what the scientists and all the governments are saying is the nature of the problem. And secondly, when you read the report it’s all about what the impacts of climate change will be on human beings. So it’s not so much now about what will happen to polar bears or ice sheets or glaciers, it’s really about what it will do to agriculture, what it will do to forestry, and what it will do to the lives of people living in cities around the world, and that really does make it much more significant politically.”


“There’s no question that we have the technology and the engineering skills to do it, and also it’s now pretty clear that we won’t wreck our economy by doing it, but it will change the pattern of winners and losers, and that makes a big difference politically. So the real question is not so much whether there is a way, but whether there is the will to do what we know we can do”


Watch the full interview here


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This blog  was first published by BusinessGreen


carbon bubble march









A debate over the real value of investment in fossil fuels has raged all summer. September’s climate summit in New York brought it into sharp focus. There, Anthony Hobley of the Carbon Tracker Initiative told the assembled global leaders that tackling climate change put a trillion dollars worth of fossil fuel investments at risk.

This debate has provoked the oil majors into an unprecedented public defence of their assets’ value led by Exxon and Shell. Stripped of its detail, their argument turns on whether or not you believe governments will meet their obligation under the climate treaty to keep the rise in global temperatures below 2°C.

If they do, there will indeed be a lot of stranded assets. If they do not then further investment in fossil fuels is safe. The consensus within the fossil industries is that governments will not only fail, they will not even try very hard. Hence their conviction that none of their assets will be stranded.

Who is right is anybody’s guess. Even the governments don’t know yet. Geopolitics and capex constraints could combine to drive oil prices dramatically up. Disruptive technologies could collapse the price of low carbon alternatives further. Either would prompt a recalculation of the political risks of climate change policy.

The fossil industries’ confidence is based on their modelling of the energy future. This foresees global energy demand growing about 50% by 2050 with fossil fuels meeting over 60% of that demand. The companies draw reassurance from the broad endorsement of their view by the International Energy Agency.

This soothing analysis overlooks two problems. The first is methodological. None of the models used by the companies or the IEA incorporate any impact from a changing climate on their growth assumptions. Growth goes up, demand goes up, production goes up and the temperature goes up. All is well.

Except that the current rise in temperature of less than 1°C is already dislocating economies. Further rises will dislocate them more as both the World Bank and two former US Treasury Secretaries have recently warned.

The growth to fuel the energy demand the fossil companies expect is driven by rising incomes in the aspiring urban populations of the emerging economies. But those are precisely the incomes that will be hardest hit by climate driven spikes in food and water prices and the costs of extreme weather events. The growth will disappear as the temperature rises.

The second is political. Governments are fickle. They blow with the wind. The fossil industries are not just on a collision course with governments committed to a 2°C world they are also on a collision course with all the businesses whose value will be damaged as the planet warms.

So far the latter have been silent in the climate debate. But that is beginning to change. Some industries are already feeling the pinch – wine and winter sports for instance. A significant proportion of the small businesses affected by floods never recover.

As temperature rise they will be joined by other, larger industries – property, tourism, forestry, agriculture. Growth for the big consumer brands, Unilever or Nestle, depends on precisely the rising urban incomes that will be hit soonest.

The value of the businesses for which a changing climate is a threat far exceeds the value of the fossil fuel industries. The business voice in the climate debate is currently asymmetric, dominated by the fossil fuel industries and their allies – the climate makers. It will become more balanced as the climate takers – the rest of the business community – finds a voice.

This will alter the political risk equation for governments. They constantly juggle competing urgencies. What is pressing today can be ignored tomorrow. The analytic and political foundations on which the fossil industries confidence is based may not be as robust as they think.

These industries face a paradox. They make high risk investments in large projects. Typically there is more than a decade between initial investment and first revenues. Then they must earn a return. This puts a premium on economic and political stability. But that is precisely what will be undermined as those investments create a world 2°C or more warmer.

In reality the transition to a low carbon economy is already well underway. The capital markets are looking ever more favourably on low carbon investments and are increasingly disappointed by the fossil industries’ returns on their $600 billion/year capex.

What matters now is whether this is an orderly or disorderly transition. If it is driven by events and climate policy failure it will be disorderly. The fossil industries will destroy value for their own and other businesses. For it to be an orderly transition governments will have to act with more ambition and consistency than hitherto. Above all, they will need to enshrine their commitment to building a carbon neutral global energy system by 2050 into next year’s big climate meeting in Paris.



Tom Burke

October 12th 2014



Tom Burke is Chairman of the environmental organisation E3G



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CCC’s response to Owen Paterson’s speech to the GWPF


The BBC and the right wing press have been making much of Owen Paterson’s anti-climate speech this week. It is a farrago of nonsense. The Climate Change Committee has produced an excellent briefing detailing why it is so wrong. It includes a number of important points that Adair Turner forgot to mention on the Today programme.










The front page of the Sunday Telegraph this week (13.10.14) suggested that we should ‘rip up the Climate Change Act’. The Telegraph, Daily Mail and others have included a preview of arguments that former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson will put to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. In this note we examine the claims that were made and the solution proposed. We assess these against the evidence and against actions being taken by the Government. Our assessment strongly rejects the claims.


Read full document here



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This piece was first published by Friends Of The Earth here


white elephant foe nukes



On a very cold morning forty years ago I got into a bright red Mini outside the FoE offices in Poland Street. Together with John Price, an Australian physics PhD, I was about to set off on a nationwide tour of the FoE local groups. Our goal was to run a series of teach-ins and public meetings on nuclear power.

The first oil price hike had only recently taken place. There was much anxiety that the world was running out of oil. This prompted a lot of governments to begin massive, heavily subsidised programmes of nuclear power. ‘Limits to Growth’ had just been published and there were many environmentalists who thought nuclear might be the answer to the oil resources running out.

Our task was to explain to the public and the FoE local groups why this wasn’t so. Then, as now, we had four arguments. Nuclear was too expensive, it was not safe; it would lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and would leave behind unmanageable radioactive waste. In short, there were cheaper, cleaner and safer ways to meet our energy demand.

As events transpired, we were right then as FoE is now and, as later, it proved to be about Thorp. In 1979, Walt Paterson wrote a long article for the Journal of the Institute of Nuclear Engineering. It traced the history of FoE’s central role in igniting the public debate about nuclear power in the Britain from 1973 onwards. It documented the extensive evidence base that FoE produced to support its position.

Nowhere in that evidence base will you find any objection to nuclear power ‘in principle’. This particular campaign was an expression of the founding principles of FoE. One of those principles is that whatever our ethical motivation for a campaign, the policies we proposed should be based on solid evidence. Another, was to pick specific issues on which to campaign that focussed attention on wider issues.

Among the most successful of FoE’s early campaigns was the whale campaign. Much as FoE cared about whales, the point of the campaign was to dramatise the wider need to preserve all endangered species. If you couldn’t save the whale, what could you save? Similarly, the focus on nuclear power was not just on the choice of technology but on the wider issue of what kind of energy policy was best for the environment.

So, does it matter that a slipshod piece of journalism got FoE’s position wrong on the BBC? I think it does but not because whether FoE is arguing about safety or economics matters. It has, and hopefully will continue, to argue both. And when it is appropriate and fits the media’s fickle attention, I hope FoE will add the rest of the compelling suite of arguments about why nuclear power is a distraction.

Harrabin’s sloppiness with the truth matters for a far more strategic reason. FoE, along with the rest of the environmental community, is widely trusted by the public. Trusted far more than journalists or politicians. This trust has been built up by generations of FoE staff and activists over forty years. The source of that trust has been FoE’s commitment to basing its policy on sound evidence.

FoE is, in principle, committed to protecting the environment. It is also, in principle, committed to opposing anything which is in its judgment, damaging to the environment. But those judgments are based on the best evidence it can assemble. Those judgements, like any judgements, are subject to change as circumstances change. But the whole point of principles is that they do not change with circumstances.

To describe FoE’s opposition to nuclear as ‘in principle’ is to attack the basis on which public trust in FoE has been built. That is to suggest that there can never be any evidence that would change the judgement that nuclear power is bad for the environment. The public, quite rightly, does not trust anyone who believes they cannot make a mistake. Opposing nuclear power in principle would be to assert infallibility and would be deservedly distrusted.

Furthermore, the public understands principles. They are things you stick to even when the going gets tough. To change your principles as the winds of opinion change is to show moral cowardice. For Harrabin to accuse FoE of changing its principles is to further attack the basis on which FoE’s trust asset is built.

So Harrabin was wrong on two counts. FoE has never opposed nuclear, nor as far as I know, any other technology on principle. Nor has FoE ever changed the principles it does have to suit the headlines. As this century progresses the forces we have long opposed will work harder to weaken us. It will be ever more important to know what our principles really are and to protect them and the public trust that we built standing up for them from attack whether motivated by carelessness or malevolence.


Tom Burke

September 18th 2014




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Tackling climate change is more of an opportunity than a threat



our future our voice



Here are three pieces I have done this week for the BBC and Sky News. They are about Ban Ki Moon’s climate summit in New York. A key point that I make is that climate change is impacting on people’s lives right now. Another is that there are more opportunities than risks in acting ambitiously to tackle it.


BBC World Service 22nd September 2014






“It’s now becoming increasingly clear that renewables are the place for investment to go. A world in which you are having to invest massive amounts of money simply to get more fossil fuels out is looking increasingly unattractive financially, and you’re seeing all the oil companies already in trouble with their capital expenditure. So what I think we are seeing is something that is both morally good but also very smart in business terms”



BBC News 22nd September 2014







“We have seen what’s been happening to the oil industry  getting overextended, having real difficulty finding new investments that generate good return on their assets, they are all cutting back on their capital expenditure. So people are really beginning to see that investments in this sector are under stress. And then they are seeing events, and seeing the kind of demonstrations we saw all over the weekend, all over the world, beginning to push governments into taking more action of climate change. Well at that point, the future value, given that you have to wait a long time before you get your money back in the oil industry, that then begins to look a lot more risky, and I think that is what the Rockefellers are being shrewd about.”



Sky News 23rd September 14







“The real problem here is to get people to realise that it’s not about ‘doom mongering’ there’s a much smarter, cleaner, more efficient world available which will also reduce the pressure on the climate. We have got to stop thinking about it as a binary situation, yes or no, good or bad, it’s more complicated than that, a bit like the situation in the middle east, but there is much more opportunity in that than there is threat.”



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When the debate on the Fourth Carbon Budget began in Whitehall in 2012 the Treasury had a clear view. No. Meeting its requirements would be too damaging to Britain’s economy. How did they know this? Their model of the economy told them so.

The Fourth Carbon Budget covers the period from 2023 to 2027. The Treasury’s model told them that agreeing this Budget would knock 1% off GDP in 2027.  The Treasury cannot tell you confidently what Britain’s GDP was last year. They are even less certain about what it is going to be next year. This makes believing you know what it will be in 15 years time pretty heroic.

In the event, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary combined to over rule the Chancellor and after some huffing and puffing and a bit of delay the Fourth Carbon Budget has been adopted. You should not imagine, however, that this is the end of it. The Treasury will take advantage of every little downward ripple in the economy or scare about energy security to try to re-open the question such is its confidence in its model.

WWF also has a model. To be more precise, Cambridge Econometrics has a model. A rather well regarded one as it happens. WWF asked them to see what meeting the first four carbon budgets would do to Britain’s economy. They came to a rather different view. If we did so we would be better off not worse off.

Their results, just published, show that If we succeed in delivering the Fourth Carbon Budget then, by 2030, Britain’s GDP will be 1.1% greater than it would otherwise have been. Families will be £565 a year better off. There will be 190,000 additional jobs. The Treasury’s tax take will go up by £5.7 billion a year. We will use 30% less oil and 55% less gas not only hugely improving our energy security but also knocking £8.5 billion off our balance of payments deficit.

With benefits like this you would think that the Treasury would be falling over itself to accelerate the decarbonisation of the economy. Instead it is throwing up obstacles at every turn. Some of this is clearly ideological. The green has been washed off the Conservative Party by the rise of UKIP. But more of it is simply they really believe they are right.

We base a lot of really important political and economic decisions on the basis of our model of the economy. So how is it possible that two different groups of experienced modellers, modelling the same economy, can come to such dramatically different answers to the same question?

And even more importantly, which one should we believe?

Models of the economy are fickle beasts. The problem is that different modelling groups use different equations to describe the same economy. Furthermore, modelling outputs are hugely dependent on the choice of inputs. Change an assumption here, import some disputed data there, and pretty soon you get different answers to the same question.

This greatly undermines the utility of economic modelling in public policy decisions. Different interests shop around for models, assumptions and data sets that they hope will give them the answers they want. Politicians simply use them as arsenals to be raided  for ammunition to defend positions they have already adopted.

Different climate models, for all their uncertainties, offer a far more consistent  description of the real world than is offered by different economic models. This is a result of the intensive and transparent effort managed by the IPCC to provide useful knowledge to inform policy making. It is long past time that economists subject their modelling to a similar transparent, global process.

So the honest answer to the question of who is right, WWF or the Treasury, is I don’t know. I do know who I would prefer to be right and I do know that it matters. If the Treasury is wrong we will have taken a pass on a load of immediate benefits and put the stability of the climate at risk. If WWF is wrong we will have delayed increasing our wealth by a few months.

However, we would all be better off if we stopped guessing.  The Treasury and the WWF should sit down together and work through their differences publicly. They should do this on-line so that we can all follow along. In the 21st century there is no excuse at all for such a fundamental analysis to go on behind closed doors whether they are green or black.


Tom Burke

September 9th 2014






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Tusk – not as bad for climate as it first appears?


This piece first appeared on the E3G website












The appointment of Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, to replace Van Rompuy as President of the European Council has provoked jitters within Europe’s environment community. No-one would ever have described Poland under his leadership as an environmental leader. He seemed to relish his role as the brake on European ambition on climate change.

Coming from a country as heavily dependent on coal for its energy, and nervous about any dependence on Russian gas well before Mr Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine, this behaviour is hardly a surprise. Prime Ministers are there to protect and promote their countries’ interests. He may not have been right to identify a dirty and dying industry as in Poland’s interest but he was effective in defending it.

This skill may not work as badly for the climate as it first appears. It is worth remembering that Tusk is Merkel’s pick whatever the No.10 spin machine tries to make you think. Their relationship is close. Climate change matters to Merkel and she now leads Europe on it. Tusk is unlikely to pick unnecessary fights with his sponsor and also his strongest ally as President.

Furthermore, being the President of the European Council is a fixer’s job. Van Rompuy was more successful than expected because if he had a personal agenda he kept it very much to himself. The President’s task is to find and secure the agreement of the leaders of the member states. This means Tusk is now charged with promoting and protecting the common interest of Europe. This may make it more difficult rather than easier for his successor in Poland to put the brake on European climate ambition.

Finally, the Council is only one of the Union’s institutions. The Council has to work with both the Parliament and the Commission. What ultimately happens to EU policy is a result of a resolution of their pushing and pulling on each other. This makes tedious copy for the media but is actually a more robust way of dealing with an increasingly uncertain world than it is given credit for.

The new Parliament is in place but yet to show its intent on climate change. The new Commission takes office in November. How they will relate to each other and what kind of influence on the Council they will have remains to be seen. The appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the Commission however raises an interesting prospect.

Lyndon Johnson was far more substantively successful than any subsequent US President. He was a creature of the Senate and knew better than his successors how to make it work for him. Juncker is the pick of the European Parliament. This makes for a new and potentially more dynamic relationship between the Council and the other two institutions.

Against this background it is too early to call the impact of Tusk on European climate ambition. There have been two interesting straws in the wind from Juncker. He was far keener than his predecessor in having a strong energy efficiency target. Access to more European funding for efficiency improvements would help Poland more than most. There is also some talk of bringing the energy and climate directorates together. Since your energy policy is your climate policy this would make achieving a resolution of the security-affordability-climate equation less fractious.

The Tusk big idea which propelled him to prominence in the debate on Europe’s future was the idea of an Energy Union. In its original form it was transparently a plug for Poland’s coal and was met with a mixed reaction. Turn this into an Energy and Climate Union driven forward by a combined energy and climate directorate and well led European institutions might be able to accomplish something most of its governments have so far failed to do.


Tom Burke

September 1st 2014




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fragile city & risk nexus












This is a new short book I have written with leading urbanist Charles Landry. It brings together for the first time two disconnected narratives. The first is about the future of the cities in which half the planet’s population now lives. The second is about the interaction of climate change with food, energy and water security – the risk nexus.

The success of cities – they are now responsible for 80% of the world’s economic growth – flows from their creativity in managing a torrent of material and social change. Urban politicians mobilise business, public authorities and civil society to deliver collective solutions to shared problems. This allows them to channel the turbulent stresses of city life in more sustainable directions.

Climate change threatens the fragile stability that city politicians must maintain. It does so directly by imposing huge additional costs on the physical infrastructure essential to urban life. But it also does so indirectly by undermining the food and water security without which cities quickly become dysfunctional.

Cities everywhere have not waited for governments to act. They are nimbler, more able to deliver the innovative and integrated responses required to deal with the risk nexus. But however enterprising and creative they are their own efforts will be overwhelmed if climate policy fails.

But governments are hobbled in their efforts to meet this challenge by their lack of legitimate authority. Some have the authority to act but without the legitimacy to command the support of their population. Others have legitimacy but cannot assemble enough authority to act decisively.

In both cases city politicians, closer as they are to the base of society, are better placed to respond to climate change. But they are isolated from each other. In our short book we argue that cities, if they are to continue to succeed, must combine together to negotiate a more explicit and binding political contract with their national capitals on how to manage the risks and opportunities of maintaining climate security.


Tom Burke


The book can be bought online for £9.95 here

You can find more information about the book here


fragile city & risk nexus










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This piece first appeared in BusinessGreen




There is no-one at home in Britain’s political parties. Increasingly they are empty shells with ever fewer members. On a good day less than 400,000 people belong to all our political parties combined. That is about 0.5% per cent of the population. This is a precipitous decline from the four million who belonged to Britain’s political parties in the fifties.

All 650 MPs are drawn from this rather shallow talent pool. Assuming, rather generously, that half those members are active, Britain’s political talent pool is about the size of Bournemouth. So something more than simply nostalgia for a mythical golden age may explain why our current crop of political leaders are so lacking.

By comparison, the membership of the RSPB is about 1.2 million and that of the National Trust perhaps 4 million. Membership of a political party makes you part of a marginal fringe of society. Belonging to an environmental body puts you deep in the mainstream of British public life.

This hollowing out of political parties has significant consequences. Fewer members means less income. That leads to ever more intimate relations with business and union leaders to pay for the party, especially at election time. This inexorably distorts agendas and priorities.

It also means the parties can no longer communicate directly with voters. Instead they must rely on the media to build the electoral coalitions necessary to achieve office. This makes them hugely dependent on the prejudices of editors whose primary interest is retaining the loyalty of their paying customers.

Political discourse thus becomes over focussed on the near term, emotionally potent, social issues whilst paying less attention to analysing the difficult, strategic issues that make up the national interest. In recent decades politics has boiled down to choosing which celebrity politician you prefer to micro-manage marginal improvements in public services which are actually quite good.

Of course, these realities are camouflaged by a hurricane of heroic spin whose primary purpose is to keep voters confused and distracted. The result is an ill-informed electorate, ill-prepared to deal with the multiplying stresses generated by a changing world. The empty political parties of both the right and left have been unwilling to seek electoral mandates to deal properly with an avalanche of looming threats to prosperity and security of which climate change is the most serious.

Parties of the right are pre-occupied with their drive to reduce taxes, regulations and spending by government. Their core purpose is an ever expanding realm of personal individual choice. They believe markets are always wiser than governments. As Mr Cameron has painfully discovered, it is difficult for politicians from the right to accept the level of government activism required to tackle a changing climate.

Left wing parties seek to maximise economic growth as fast as possible to create the wealth to improve public services and alleviate poverty. Anything thought to put economic growth at risk is anathema. They are not so viscerally opposed to government interventions as those from the right but they are timid, preferring marginal change to the transformations needed.

As far as national politics is concerned choice boils down to a leader who has gone form hugging a husky to throwing out the ‘green crap’ or one who after four years has yet to make a significant speech on the environment. Some choice!

But if national politics is failing the environment, the same cannot be said for local politics. After the Earth Summit in 1992 local authorities picked up Agenda 21 with far more enthusiasm – and impact – than national government. All over the country local authorities got stuck into developing their local sustainable development agendas. This was followed in 2006 by the Transition Towns movement which mobilised local communities to build a more sustainable future.

The same is now true on climate change. Throughout Britain, and across the world, cities everywhere are not waiting for national governments to act. City leaders are closer to their citizens than national leaders. They have more legitimacy to speak for their people and are better able to build consensus around common purposes and a collective response to shared problems.

They are nimbler than national governments, more able to deliver the innovative and integrated responses required. They are already doing so. City leaders everywhere are bringing together business, communities, voluntary bodies and public authorities to reduce their emissions, invest in renewables and become more resource efficient.

But however creative and enterprising cities are their own efforts will be overwhelmed if climate policy fails. Superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call. Few cities are sited in countries that can afford one $60 billion relief effort let alone the many that will be required if the 2°C threshold is passed. On current rates of carbon emissions this could well be before 2050.

The efforts by many cities around the world to make themselves more environmentally and socially sustainable are impressive and inspiring. They show what can be done where political leaders are still close to the base of society. No national political leadership has been anywhere near as effective in mobilising its people to deal with climate change. But unless city leaders can combine with each other to exercise more political authority at national level their best effort will be undone by the enfeebling emptiness of our political parties.


Tom Burke

August 18th 2014.



Tom Burke has recently written more on this theme with Charles Landry in their pamphlet ‘The Fragile City and the Risk Nexus’ purchasable online from or by clicking on the image below


fragile city & risk nexus













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