battle for the planet Voters be warned: Britain is going to save the Earth Locked in a struggle for control of the environmental agenda, Britain's political leaders have committed the nation, and its taxpayers, to stringent new carbon-cutting policies. But, reveals Richard Gray, they are facing tough questions over how much gain there will be for the pain
Source: The Daily Telegraph 03/19/2007
As David Cameron planted a tree in north London last weekend, it was his funky trainers as much as his handy spadework that caught the attention of onlookers.
Cameron was officially marking the Conservative Party's "Green Action Day'', but there was also a message in his green-laced, camouflage-soled footwear. Central Office was happy to let it be known that they were, in fact, recycled from old firemen's trousers and car seats, part of a limited edition of 400 pairs produced to mark last year's 15th anniversary of The Big Issue.
As a symbol, it was true to form from a politician who, since taking over his party's leadership, has rarely missed an opportunity to advertise his green credentials, whether by cycling to work or putting a windmill on his house.
Cameron's intention has been to rebrand the Tories as a party in tune with the concerns of the modern-day voter. And, as the polls show, it has been working. But last week, the gameplan went awry. The Tory leader unveiled concrete proposals to tackle climate change, harsh new taxes on air travel, including a strict personal flight "allowance'' which would penalise anyone who took more than one flight a year. He drew stinging criticism from the aviation industry, tourist groups and business leaders.
Gordon Brown and his supporters were cock-a-hoop. A day later, as the Government unveiled its own climate-change action plan, the Chancellor lost no time in declaring himself on the side of "incentives'', rather than "penalties'', to encourage voters to behave in an environmentally friendly fashion.
The Government's proposals locked five-year targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions into legislation, legally binding future governments to cut carbon emissions by 60 per cent before 2050. Mr Brown opted for a light touch on details, urging, for example, people to change the type of lightbulb they use.
As one ally said: "Cameron got it wrong. He misread the public mood and made big mistakes in the presentation of his proposals. Gordon was more in tune with what people want - practical proposals and incentives not penalties.''
Whoever are the short-term winners and losers at Westminster, it is clear that an environmental "arms race'' has begun. For the foreseeable future, our politics will no longer be simply blue, red and yellow, but made up of different shades of green. Voters be warned: Britain is going to save the planet.
It is, to put it mildly, an ambitious goal. And this weekend, a number of searching questions are being asked. For example, can a country that contributes just 2 per cent of the world's carbon emissions really make much of a difference to the planet? And, if not, are politicians justified in asking the voters to dramatically change their lifestyles and, inevitably, pay more tax?
Similarly prohibitive measures are not being undertaken by China, India and America, the world's largest polluters. In fact, with the science around global warming still evolving, some ask whether now is the right time to fix on specific policy commitments at all.
And then there is the basic question: has it been definitively proved that human behaviour is causing the planet to warm? Even scientists who believe this to be the case have begun to warn of the dangers of "eco-hype'' - of exaggerating the nature and speed of climate change.
It is now generally agreed in the scientific community that the Earth is getting hotter, with environmentalists insisting the temperature rise is due to carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by human activities. Over the past 50 years, global temperatures have risen by about half a degree, which they link to a rise in carbon dioxide levels of 25 per cent since the industrial revolution. The prediction is that global temperatures are likely to rise by between 1.8C to 4C over the next 100 years.
Such rises would send British summer temperatures soaring, making it normal to experience the kind of weather seen during the 2003 heatwave, when temperatures climbed to 37C. More than 2,000 people died as a result.
The predictions for the effects elsewhere in the world are more catastrophic: widespread extinctions, swathes of farmland turned to desert and entire swathes of coastland drowning under rising seas.
The sceptics accept that the earth is heating up. But they think the warming is due to its natural cycles, and so doubt that humans are the cause. Therefore there is little humans can do to stop it.
Prof Bob Carter, a marine geophysicist at James Cook University, in Queensland, Australia, argues: "Public utterances by prominent persons are marked by an ignorance of the important facts and uncertainties of climate science.
"The evidence for dangerous human-caused global-warming forced by human carbon-dioxide emissions is extremely weak. That the satellite temperature record shows no substantial warming since 1978, and that even the ground-based thermometer statistic records no warming since 1998, indicates that a key line of circumstantial evidence for human-caused change ... is now negated.''
The debate is far from over. The arguments of doubters suffered a significant blow when Channel 4's recent high-profile programme, The Great Climate Change Swindle, which presented the sceptical view, was accused of inaccuracy. One contributor claims he was misled over the programme's content.
But there is also flak heading the way of Al Gore, the former US vice-president, who won an Academy Award for his film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. At the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, Prof Don Easterbrook, a geologist from Western Washington University, told hundreds of experts of his concerns at "inaccuracies'' in Mr Gore's arguments: "The real danger of the IPCC report and Al Gore's film is they suggest that, by diminishing carbon dioxide levels, it will solve the global-warming problem and we won't have to worry about the catastrophe they are predicting.''
For the public, the science of global warming remains baffling. Advocates on both sides of the argument can produce reams of statistics to support their opposing views. A poll by ICM, published yesterday in the Guardian, revealed that voters are less engaged with green issues, and more doubtful of the ability of politicians to tackle climate change, than either Gordon Brown or David Cameron might have thought. More than a third said they did not believe MPs could tackle climate change at all. Between them, the Tories and Labour attracted only 30 per cent support for their green strategies.
This growing public disaffection may be behind a sudden move by some prominent climate-change scientists to warn against sensationalist predictions on the part of the environmental lobby.
"It is dangerous for politicians to say the science of climate change is now complete,'' said Dr Piers Forster, an earth and environment researcher at the University of Leeds and a lead author on the UN's influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Dr Forster believes human activities are without doubt causing the climate to warm, but insists that it is impossible to make clear policy decisions at local or even on continental-wide levels at this stage.
"We really don't know how it is going to effect our day-to-day lives over the next 100 years,'' he states. "People are making decisions about exactly what to do without making sure they are based on the best scientific evidence we have.''
Fears about this "eco-hype'' were echoed yesterday by two senior members of the Royal Meteorological Society at a conference in Oxford. Profs Paul Hardaker and Chris Collier hit out at researchers who, they say, are "overplaying'' the global warming message. Some of their peers, they warn, are making claims about future impacts that cannot be justified by the science. Regardless of the ongoing debate, Britain's political parties have chosen to fight among themselves for the privilege of saving the planet. Last week, it was the Government's draft Climate Change Bill that won most praise - although it also attracted criticism. It aims to use the law to bind future governments to cutting carbon emmissions by 60 per cent.
Environmental groups claimed this did not go far enough towards addressing the problem. The latest report from the IPCC, published in January, said that an 80 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions was needed to prevent concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere from rising further.
Under the draft Bill, businesses could see "caps'' being placed on the amount of carbon dioxide they are allowed to emit. Those wishing to use more energy would be forced to buy low-carbon technology or purchase carbon credits.
Julian Morris, the executive director of the think tank International Policy Network (IPN), believes this could harm Britain by making it more expensive for companies to operate here. "Companies that are able to will simply move their production to countries where they don't have such penalties. While we will see greenhouse gas emissions going down locally, we may end up shifting those emissions elsewhere.''
The Government estimates that meeting the 60 per cent reduction target will cost about one per cent of the country's gross domestic product. But experts fear that Britain is still ill-equipped to switch to a low-carbon lifestyle.
"It is not obvious we have all the infrastructure and institutional tools in place to do this properly just yet,'' warned Dr Dave Frame, of Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute. "The clean technology needed to reduce emissions is not in place.''
Unlike the Tories, the Government excluded the aviation and shipping industries from its Bill. As well as calling for new taxes on air travel, Mr Cameron's consultation paper included levying VAT or fuel duty on domestic flights for the first time.
While there were a few noises of approval from environmental groups, the policy was branded a "tax on fun'' by the travel industry and consumer groups. Business leaders warned that it would harm the economy by stifling commercial travel. Critics point out that aviation accounts for just 10 per cent of the carbon emissions from transportation and about 2 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions. And, despite concern about the rapid growth of the aviation industry, less than half of the UK's population flies each year.
"There is little point in Britain going heavily after the aviation industry, unless it is part of a wider approach internationally to cut carbon emissions,'' said Mr Frame. "Trying to lead behaviour change through taxation works only if people have something to change to. At this stage, we run the risk of green taxes becoming a way of raising revenue rather than changing behaviour.''
Despite their embrace of radical environmental policies, neither party has a convincing answer as to why Britain should take the global lead on climate change, other than as a "moral obligation''.
In worldwide terms, Britain contributes just a fraction of total carbon emissions - about 544 million tons. By comparison, America pumps out more than 5,844 million tons. China and India, two of the fastest-growing economies, emit 3,263 million tons and 1,220 million tons respectively. China alone has more than 2,000 coal-fired power stations in operation and a new one opens every four days. If the UK stopped all of its emissions today, China would have replaced the lot within a year.
In such developing countries, climate-change issues receive little attention. What concerns the people and politicians is how to drag themselves out of poverty. Almost 300 million Indians still live on less than 50p a day: convincing them that development must be balanced with care for the environment is not easy, even though they are most at risk from climate change.
"The climate debate has been captured by people who have at heart an interest in exerting control over people's lives rather than letting them live better lives,'' said Julian Morris, from IPN. "It is extremely sad to see Britain's political parties trying to capitalise on this.''