The Politics of Climate Change
In 2004, Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that “unchecked climate change has the potential to be catastrophic in both human and economic terms,” signalling a commitment to tackle the issue of global warming head on. Three years on, and those campaigning for a greener Britain are still waiting for change.
There have been some positive signs since Labour came to power in 1997. In addition to a few powerful speeches, Blair has announced that he would offset the carbon emissions of his family’s holiday travel. The Secretary of State for the Environment, David Miliband, has also shown an awareness of the scale of the problem. Earlier this year he declared, “every part of the way we work, go to school, the way we live is going to have to change.” More recently, he backed ‘carbon labelling’ for food sold in the UK, promising to work with food producers to create a system whereby consumers can compare the environmental impact of their purchases.
Furthermore, David Cameron’s re-branding of the Conservative Party is a sign that climate change has now become of the key issues over which MPs will fight for the moral high ground. It now seems that politicians from all sides are starting to acknowledge the problem, and in this sense at least the UK is doing a lot better than the United States.
However, it easy for politicians to talk in general terms about the problem we face; it is far more difficult to deal with the specifics.
In January, Environment Minister Ian Pearson caused a stir when he branded Ryanair “the irresponsible face of capitalism.” The airline responded by claiming that it was the greenest in Europe, having invested heavily in fuel-efficient engines. This defence is hard to sustain; a seat on one of Ryanair’s flights to Milan could cost as little as 19p, plus around £25 in tax, which clearly undermines any claim by the company that it is concerned about carbon emissions.
However, what has become clear is that Mr. Pearson’s comments do not necessarily reflect a consensus within the government. A few days after the Environment Minister identified cheap flights as a key factor contributing to climate change, the Prime Minister suggested that the ‘stop flying’ message was too impractical. To ask people to stop flying, he said, was “like telling people you shouldn’t drive anywhere.”
The issue of road transport is also an increasingly important (and controversial) topic, and is an area in which Labour’s record is particularly unimpressive to environmentalists. Since 1997, road traffic has increased by 10%, and the government is spending £1 billion every year on expanding the road network. Despite this, the real cost of motoring has decreased since Labour came to power, whilst public transport has become more expensive.
Emissions from vehicles on the road now account for one fifth of the UK’s entire carbon output. The government has so far been reluctant to take bold steps to curb the number of journeys made by car, and it is easy to see why. Plans to introduce pilot road-charging schemes caused a significant backlash, and prompted nearly 1.8 million people to sign an online petition voicing their opposition. Unsurprisingly, the government was accused of inventing another ‘stealth tax’, and the Daily Mail fumed about the prospect of “Big Brother black boxes” in every car.
For the government to make any real progress in tackling climate change, it will have to overcome huge opposition. Jess Raw, a second year student and part of the team that organised February’s Go Green Week, believes the media has an important role to play.
“Rather than coming up with sensational scandals about ‘stealth taxes’ and ministerial miles (the distances clocked up by politicians’ cars), the media in the UK needs to come to terms with the enormous pace of climate change and the massive impact that it will soon have on all of us, and get behind the government’s efforts at making fast, bold environmental policy decisions.”
It is perhaps inevitable that a large part of the population will resist any big changes to the way we live our lives. But while many green campaigners would accept that it is difficult for politicians to formulate policies that have a significant impact, it is far harder to accept the fact that the government has actually made it more difficult to make any progress at all.
Many environmental campaigners would argue that for every step forward, the UK takes two steps back when it comes to tackling climate change. A good example is the approval of plans for a fifth terminal at Heathrow back in 2001.
"The decision to expand airport capacity mean that within a few years all other sectors of the UK economy will have to be carbon neutral, zero emission, if we are to meet our climate change target,” explains Dr. Peter Newell. “This is clearly implausible but results from a refusal to stop the massive growth in airline use."
Dr. Newell, currently at Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation, believes the problem lies in the inconsistent approach to confronting the issue. “What we should be aiming for is a sustainable trade, energy, agriculture and transport policy rather than a separate climate change policy. The problem at the moment is that any gains made by reducing emissions through environmental policy are being systematically undermined by the growth in fossil fuel use associated with these other sectors."
The issue of consistency is key, and is particularly significant when applied to Britain’s transport network. ‘Pay-as-you-go’ driving schemes and congestion charges are a good way to encourage people to use public transport, but their impact is undermined by rising prices and a lack of investment in the alternatives.
It could even be argued that the government has, on occasions, tried to pass the buck. Acknowledging the problem of rising train fares, a spokesperson for the Department of Transport recently stated, “its the commercial decision of the operators on how to set their fares.”
The government has arguably shown a lack of imagination, will power and bravery in confronting the problems with Britain’s transport network, and this neglect has seriously undermined the UK’s ability to reach its goal to reduce carbon emissions by 60% by 2050.
Green activists may view Labour’s progress so far as poor, but there is reason to be optimistic. Climate change is now viewed as an immediate and real problem by much of the population and by all three of the major political parties, and we can expect more competition between party leaders to appear greener than the opposition.
However, there are those who argue that partisan politics can only take us so far. "We need consensus over environmental reform,” warns Ed Sanderson, who is currently President of the University’s Liberal Democrat group. “Any political capital gained from green issues is at the expense of a cross-party, cross-ideology solution to the crisis we face.”
The problem is, of course, that this sort of consensus is not easily achieved. Political parties have to win votes and secure funding, and these two goals are not always conducive to the sort of bold approach that is required. "The problem for many mainstream political parties,” says Dr. Newell, “is that they rely upon economic interests that feel threatened by action on climate change for their funding and support. This presents a serious obstacle to taking effective action."
Therein lies the problem. The stark reality is that when confronted with a choice between tackling climate change and winning an election, most politicians are clear where they stand. Only when these two options are no longer incompatible will real progress be made.
Written for The Warwick Boar, 6th March 2007