Britain out in front?

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Last week, speaking at a security conference, Energy and Climate Change Minister Ed Davey bemoaned the lack of public awareness of how much a threat climate change is to our future security and well being – both in the UK and globally.

The Minister also recognized that decisions taken now by governments, businesses – and, by extension, by voters and consumers – means we will (or won’t) manage this risk. As he put it: “Many of the homes, the cars and the power stations we build today will be operating in the middle of the century. We are choosing our future now, but most people don’t realise it.”

This view is backed up by yet another report on the dire state of our planet – this time by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, not known for its tree-hugging tendencies. The report, called The Consequences of Inaction, says that by 2050, without changes to current policies, a world economy 4 times larger and a population much greater will mean an exponential increase in demand for food, water and energy. And ditto for the production of waste. In terms of energy, demand will be up by 80% on today’s levels, with fossil fuels still making up 85% of the mix.

This will put increasing strain on natural resources and lead to increased degradation and erosion of the environment, bringing irreversible changes that could endanger two centuries of rising living standards. Carbon emissions will double, locking in dangerous climate change. The headliner health implication for those living in cities –  the majority of the world’s population, including the poorest – will be a huge rise in premature mortality due to air pollution.

The OECD’s message is that a piecemeal, “business as usual” approach to reversing these trends will not work.  As the title suggests, the report urges urgent and holistic action by governments and business, arguing this is not only makes environmental sense, but is economically rational, given the much greater future costs of not changing our behaviour. Central to such action is “making pollution an expensive business”. Governments currently struggling with stretched public finances and high unemployment are not exempt.

Such warnings have been heard before, as far back as the Stern Review on the economics of climate change in 2006. However, listening to the budget statement last week, you’d have been hard pressed to catch a whiff of the economically rational, long-term vision urged by the OECD and George Osborne’s own cabinet colleague. Instead, what we heard from the “greenest government ever” were a few nods to the importance of clean energy infrastructure – but without any extra money and in the same breath as more road building and airport expansion – and to promises already made, such as setting up a green investment bank.

Even more worrying, as other commentators have pointed out, was the budget’s renewed support for fossil fuels. This includes tax breaks to oil companies for North Sea drilling and promotion of gas as the mainstay of the UK’s future electricity provision. All this in the name of “fiscal responsibility” – even though independent analysis shows that increasingly expensive imported gas (much of it from unstable regions in the world) accounted for 80% of the increase in household electricity bills from 2004 to 2010.

The Chancellor’s “dash to gas” comes fast on the heels of changes allowing gas-fired power stations to operate with C02 emissions at around current levels until 2045.   According to some commentators, this move undermines the electricity decarbonisation pathway recommended by the independent Committee on Climate Change, making us more likely to miss our legally binding emissions cuts targets (see the BBC’s analysis here).

Does it matter to the poor communities CAFOD supports around the world what energy sources we invest in at home? The question is answered eloquently by CAFOD partner Raymond Yoro, from Niger in West Africa, a region where  13 million people are currently facing one of the worst food crises in recent history.

Raymond Yorro, Secretary General of CAFOD partner CADEV (Caritas Niger)

Raymond explains how climate change is impacting negatively on food production in his country:

The climate has changed a lot in my lifetime. It has a negative impact on food production in Niger. First of all, there is the issue of rain. You will often hear that the rains are supposed to be good next year, but then they don’t come. There are also changes in the seasons. People expect the rainy season to start at the beginning of the month, but it might come a month late or one and a half months late. We wait for the rain, and the rain doesn’t come.

Raymond says that if he had two minutes with David Cameron:

I would ask why the powers in the North produce a lot of carbon emissions, but refuse to help poor countries take adaptation measures […] it’s like a person dumping their rubbish in their neighbour’s courtyard and then saying “Why is your courtyard so dirty?” […] Today we are already suffering from the consequences of their behaviour. That is why they need to help us.

The leadership role taken at the international level by the UK to tackle the carbon pollution whose impacts are already felt by Raymond and his fellow citizens in Niger is laudable. This includes earmarking development funds to help poorer countries cope with climatic changes that are already hurting them – and to help them access the cleaner energy they need to heat and light their homes and earn a living. This support is welcome, though more is urgently needed (as CAFOD’s recent Don’t Drop the Ball campaign highlighted).

Another thing the UK government could do is to get behind the UN’s new Sustainable Energy for All Initiative. This will be rolled out at the Rio+20 development conference in June and aims to tackle the scandal of the billions of people still lacking access to modern energy. This Initiative has 3 interlocking goals (more here): ensuring universal access to modern energy services, doubling energy efficiency and clean energy use.

But the UK must also ensure there is no backsliding when the going gets tough on the home front, setting the fastest course to meet our own emissions cuts targets. This includes shifting support away from dirty fuels to cleaner energy sources as well as boosting efficiency as the only (environmentally and economically) rational way to ensure a safe future for ourselves and CAFOD partners like Raymond.

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