Wake up call

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Jeff Rooker on tackling the long-term implications of climate change

If timing is all then a good example is the debate on climate change that I will be opening for Labour later this week in the House of Lords. No technical expertise is required. All of that was included in David Attenborough’s recent lecture on BBC1. A real visual update of the dangers to the planet as well as the positive actions we can take. Mitigation is all very well, but avoiding the dangers is much more important.

Writing for The Times earlier this month, Philip Collins drew attention to a 30 year old speech by Margaret Thatcher, since which “no senior politician has succeeded in making climate change a cause”. Tony Blair, Al Gore, David Cameron, both Milibands all tried and failed to deliver a memorable climate change speech, he opined. But the material in the then Prime Minister’s address to the United Nation’s general assembly was more dramatic and the scale vast. Remarkable for both its science-based admission that human actions are at fault and the way it sets out the potential of irreversible damage to the planet.

More recently, the 2006 Review of the Economics of Climate Change by Nicholas (now Lord) Stern has clear lists of the dangers, recommended actions and the economic impacts. Our scorecard against his recommendations is not too good.

It is a global issue. We have just eleven years to the 2030 potential tipping point to keep the rise in global temperature to 1.5°C or otherwise face potential changes which we cannot control. The long term targets to get to 2050 as either carbon free or an 80% reduction on the 1990 figures will be irrelevant if the global temperature has gone above 2°C or even 3°C. Catch up on Attenborough on BBC iPlayer to understand the consequences.

Carbon emissions are made by all countries but those likely to suffer most are not the big five carbon emitters of China (30%), the United States (15%), the EU28 (10%), India (7%) and Russia (5%). Together, they account for two thirds of the global total.

While coal burning must stop completely, worrying reports from Global Energy Monitor in the Institution of Engineering and Technology journal show China has quietly restarted construction on dozens of suspended projects. Even under President Trump (perhaps nobody’s told him), the United States is on course to phase out coal by 2030.

Having started it all with our Industrial Revolution, the UK is today a low emitter on the world scale. But we are also part of the third largest emitter and, whatever happens with Brexit, will remain in the EU integrated electricity market. We therefore have responsibilities from both a historical perspective and to next generation.

Even if our science remains world class, we are not doing well. However you look at the statistics, the young climate change activist Greta Thunberg was correct when she referred to the UK’s “very creative carbon accounting”. And the IPCC report last October is a real wake up call to tell us “the house is on fire”.

Yet the UK has continued population growth, big doubts about the new nuclear build required to provide the base load, insulation rates on housing have fallen, and planning permission has been given for a new coal mine. We have also abandoned wind generation on land, and listed building consents continue to stop the use of clean energy technologies. The best solutions need to be market driven but regulated – something that gives confidence to nations, manufactures and households to make changes they can accept and live with.

It is not too late but actions to change are really urgent. I have changed my mind on the third runway at Heathrow and fracking. We also need to address the simple truth that climate change does not fit into our current political system.

Lord Jeff Rooker is a Labour Peer and a member of the Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee

Published 29th April 2019

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