Going beyond Bush

Pubished in The Guardian, on 26 January 2005.

This week, Tony Blair has begun climbing the Everest of expectations he has built for himself on climate change. Yesterday, the prime minister breakfasted with Britain’s leading environmentalists. Today, when he speaks to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he will again stress the urgency of the issue. Tomorrow, he will meet privately with business leaders to seek their support for faster action on the climate.

Next week, there will be a major conference on the science of climate change in Exeter. Then, just before Easter, there will be an unusual ministerial roundtable of energy and environment ministers, which the chancellor, Gordon Brown, will open. No one should doubt the prime minister’s personal commitment to this issue. But, on this as on so many other issues, the real question is whether his good intentions will be translated into a practical political strategy.

Blair is not starting from a high point. His decision to seek an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide Britain would be allowed to emit under European legislation caused outrage. Why he sacrificed so much credibility for a 3% increase in emissions is difficult to imagine. It could hardly have been the difference between life or death for British industry. And if it was, how will we achieve the even more ambitious future emission reductions he has already said are necessary?

This mistake was compounded last week by the bizarre public threat to sue the European Commission if Britain did not get its way. Then there was the baffling refusal to allow the commission to set Europe a 60% aspirational target of the kind the prime minister has himself set for Britain. This series of errors means he begins his climb from well below base camp.

Bringing the US closer to the rest of the world on climate change is a key goal of Blair’s G8 strategy – the west face of his Everest. This confused start will comfort the White House, confirming the impression left by his visit to Washington after the re-election of President George Bush that, personally important though this issue is to Blair, he will not spend much political capital on it.

The prime minister is firmly convinced that he can persuade Bush to do more about climate change. He may be right; he can be persuasive. The problem is that as he leaves by one door, the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, will enter by another. He, too, can be persuasive.

Bush has already made it clear that he will use his renewed political capi tal aggressively. What this means for climate change was apparent at the latest round of climate negotiations in Buenos Aires, when the Americans were obstructive and blocked any discussion of what should happen now that the Kyoto Protocol will go ahead.

The danger for Blair is that his whole G8 effort on climate change will be judged only by whatever Bush has to say at July’s summit in Gleneagles. But a government unwilling to sign up to Kyoto’s limited goals will not suddenly be ready to do more. Nor, in its present budgetary circumstances, will there be any eye-catching commitment from the US to spend realistic amounts of money on carbon-light energy technologies.

This leaves the prime minister in a quandary. If he presses Bush hard in public to do more, he will embarrass the president. If he does not, he will embarrass himself. But nor can he abandon his attempt to climb the west face of his Everest without exposing the limits of his influence in Washington.

Politicians escape such difficulties by changing the subject. That is exactly what Blair should do. He must open an assault on the more promising east face of his Everest and give everyone something else to talk about. He has so far overlooked the chance to use his G8 initiative as a springboard to lead the EU, whose presidency he holds for the second half of the year, into developing a powerful investment-driven relationship with China on energy security and climate change.

The Chinese government increasingly understands it is between a rock and a hard place on the climate. It must maintain its rate of economic growth to avoid social turmoil. To keep up that rate of growth, it must expand its electricity supply. To do that securely, it must burn a lot of coal. If it burns a lot of coal, the climate will change. Because the Chinese environment is particularly vulnerable to a changing climate, an unstable climate will quickly lead to social turmoil.

Faced with certain trouble today or likely trouble tomorrow, the Chinese, like any other government, will deal with today’s problem first and hope that something turns up for tomorrow’s. This matters for the rest of the world because China is already planning to build more than 500 coal-fired power stations between now and 2030. If they are built with current technology, there is no prospect that we will stabilise carbon dioxide concentrations at a safe level.

A strong EU-China partnership on rapidly deploying advanced coal gasification and carbon sequestration technologies, wind and other renewables and harmonising high technical standards for vehicles and appliances would alter the political landscape on climate change substantially.

Anything China can do, India can do too. Such a strong, and potentially trade-promoting relationship between Europe and two of the most powerful growth engines of the global economy would certainly catch the attention of the US business community. Only Americans will eventually persuade America to do more on the climate, and the prospect of lost markets will carry rather more weight there than even the best science.

To climb the east face of his Everest, Blair needs to do two things urgently. The first is to recognise that the G8 is a device for generating headlines but that the EU has real economic clout in the world. The second is to persuade President Chirac of France and Germany’s chancellor Gerhard Schröeder to join him in making an opening to the east on climate.

To do this he will need to convince them that Europe must focus the same level of attention and resources on securing its climate security in the 21st century that it was successful in focusing on achieving food security in the 20th century. That will mean ensuring substantial provision for action on the climate in the long-term EU budgetary framework, which is under development in Brussels.

This will not be an easy task. But it is likely to be more productive than trying to persuade the US to do more. And, if nothing else, it will lessen the chance that the only thing anyone will remember of the Blair year of the climate, with all its high expectations, is that President Bush turned him down again.