Turning East

Published by ePolitix, in February 2005.

The message from the scientists was clear. The world’s climate is in greater trouble than we thought. This, stripped of the detail and caveats, was the powerful conclusion from the 200 scientists who gathered in Exeter at Tony Blair’s invitation at the beginning of February.

Contrary to the impression created by some media commentators, there is no great dispute among climate scientists. A study of the peer reviewed literature published last December found that not one of the 982 papers published on climate change in the last few years questioned the fundamental finding that human activities are its cause.

This event was the first in a series that the Prime Minister has planned in the run-up to the G8 meeting over which he will preside at Gleneagles in July. To his enduring credit, Blair has consistently made it clear that climate change is one of the most serious threats facing mankind. He long ago set it as one of his top two priorities for the G8. In Davos, he set out his intention to carry this over to the EU presidency which he will hold in the second half of 2005.

He also took the opportunity to convene a roundtable of global business leaders with whom he will meet twice more this year. Then there are the Energy and Environment Ministers Roundtable in March to be opened by Gordon Brown and a meeting of G8 Environment and Development Ministers later the same month. Both will focus on climate change.

But activity should not be confused with achievement. There are some obstacles to be overcome before these undoubtedly good intentions result in real progress on climate change.

The Kyoto Protocol came into force this month. It should have been a potent boost to the Prime Minister’s efforts. Britain is one of the few countries clearly on course to meet its emission reduction obligations under the treaty. Instead the Prime Minister finds himself mired in an unseemly row with the European Commission.

This came about after a noisy campaign by the CBI precipitated a clash between Patricia Hewitt and Margaret Beckett. The CBI, supported by the DTI, wanted to revise the level of the so-called ‘cap’ on carbon dioxide emissions Britain had asked for to join the European emissions trading scheme. They argued the level was set so low it would harm the competitiveness of British industry. They pushed for an increase of 3%.  When this proposal was fiercely opposed by DEFRA the issue went to the Prime Minister for resolution.

He sided with the DTI and the CBI. But no-one at No10 seems to have grasped how damaging this would be to his credibility as a world leader on climate change. The Prime Minister had already committed Britain to going beyond the reductions required by the Kyoto Protocol and had supported the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s call for even more draconian reductions by 2050.

It is hard to believe that a 3% increase in permitted emissions really was the difference between life and death for Britain’s industry. And if it was, how on earth was that same industry going to cope with the even more stringent reductions to come. Not surprisingly, the European Commission has refused to bend and Britain will now have to comply with its original proposal. Few people expect the early demise of British industry.

This sorry affair has confirmed the impression that the Prime Minister listens more attentively to business than to anyone else. It has also reinforced the perception he left in Washington and elsewhere that, for all his personal commitment to climate change, he is not willing to invest much political capital to get results. To retain his credibility on the issue he now needs to demonstrate that he is willing to do more than simply manage the climate change headlines well.

Which brings us to his second big obstacle. The United States. Or, to be more precise, the Bush Administration. It came into office in 2000 determined to kill the Kyoto Protocol, an effort then thought by the White House to be a ‘one day story, below the fold’. The failure of this effort has not diminished their distaste for anything to do with the climate.

Bush has already made it clear that he will use his renewed political capital aggressively. What this means for climate change was apparent at the latest round of climate negotiations in Buenos Aires. There the Americans went out of their way to be obstructive and block any discussion of what should happen after the Kyoto Protocol comes into force.

The danger for the Prime Minister is that his whole G8 effort on climate change will be judged only by whatever the President has to say in Gleneagles. 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 something of a quandary. If he presses Bush hard in public to do more, he will embarrass the President. As he has made manifestly clear in the past, this is not a task for which he has any appetite. If he does not do so and the President offers him nothing more than his current disguised denial, he will confirm his disinclination to invest political capital to deliver results.

Politicians escape such difficulties by changing the subject. That is exactly what Mr Blair should do. He needs, at a minimum, to get President Bush to accept that the climate problem is more urgent than had previously been thought. Then he needs to change the subject and lead the EU and G8 into a discussion about China.

China is already planning to build 562 coal fired power stations between now and 2030. If they are built with current technology then there is no prospect that we will stabilise carbon dioxide concentrations at any safe level. Faced with the prospect of social turmoil if it cannot generate enough electricity to maintain the momentum of economic development China has little choice but to burn coal.

A strong EU-China partnership on rapidly deploying advanced coal gasification and carbon sequestration technologies, energy efficiency 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 American 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.

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.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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