Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Overdrawing on Earth's Bank
I like Hilary Benn, I really do. He's bright, he's got style, humour, and has a slight streak of the renegade. But, at the end of the day, he's a politician, and yesterday infront of an audience in Islington, he did as politicians do so well - he dodged the tricksy questions.
Mr Benn, our Secretary of State for the Environment, had come to tell us about the outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Bali on the 3 - 14th December 2007 and to speak on what the UK government are doing on the homefront. (Bali in a nutshell: nothing binding, but US and China agreed at the 11th hour to enter into the ongoing negotiation process providing no emission targets were set, deforestation to be included in future talks, technology transfer between developed and developing nations to be promoted, and pretty much everyone bar Bush accepts the climate change science. He calls it an historic breakthrough, I call it a compromise - I suppose it all depends on how high you set the standards you want to see achieved. Mine happen to be higher). Mr Benn takes a remarkably robust view that the UK is taking great strides in tackling climate change.
But I am a grouchy environmentalist today, and from where I sit, the UK record over the past 12 months does not stack up to much achievement at all (under Labour our emissions have actually risen over the last 10 years), nor do we compare well to Europe (we have a lamentable 2% share of renewable energy in the EU, 1/10th wind power and 1/250th of the solar power that the Germans have produced). Whilst the German renewable industry increased jobs by 25,000 in 2007, we in the UK were laying people off.
Question: Why does the government not have a coherent and effectively co-ordinated policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020? So far it has been a heavy focus on nuclear in the UK, which will, if fully realised, only give us a 4% reduction by 2025 at the latest. This won't solve our (it has to be said - unambitious) 20% reduction by 2020. All we have are piecemeal announcements.
Mr Ben reminds us that we have the Energy Efficiency Commitment (energy suppliers are required to achieve targets for the reduction of carbon emissions in the UK household sector), promotion of energy efficiency (is this making any real difference? Efficiency actually encourages more use - look at increase of energy efficient cars), the introduction of the EST Green Homes Service in April and the Climate Change Bill is moving onwards - due back in for it's third reading in the house of lords at the end of March (aiming for Royal Assent in Spring 2009 - just before the next election).
40% emissions are due to the individual, say Mr Benn. So therefore we must focus on reducing the emissions of the individual. But this seems to be flawed analysis to me. If the source of the emissions, namely use of fossil fuels, is not remedied and replaced with clean alternatives (i.e renewable energy), then those emissions will continue to be released. Energy efficiency certainly delays the inevitable, but in the long term it matters not when those emissions are released - they are still going to be released, and remain out there for hundreds of years. The energy source has to be replaced - it's that simple, even a child understands this. Like many in this country, I want my energy use at home to come from renewable sources, not fossil fuel - but to actually have microgeneration installed is so ridiculously costly and enormously fraught with hurdles (planning permission, grant application etc), that it is just not a viable for the time being.
He concedes that there are exciting technologies and innovation out there, but not much industry take-off on home shores: there are lessons to be learned from Germany, he says quite rightly. This is because they, like a growing number of EU countries, have a successful and ambitious renewable energy policy framework of feed-in tariffs which means thousands of homeowners have now installed microgeneration and their renewables market is flourishing. We do not - and as a consequence we have not.(More on this coming soon)
Mr Benn points out that we are the first country in the world to adopt binding emission targets (60% by 2050 is proposed under the Climate Change Bill - and recent reports say that this is far too low, that we should be aiming for). However, often it's not so much what is said to be done, but rather the sins of omission that are so glaring. Governmental targets are all fine and well, but useless when the market mechanisms are not put in place to foster growth and development. Nor is action taken when targets are not fulfilled. That's part of the reason why we have such a poor uptake of renewable energy so far.
Turning to community and business issues, Geeta Sing, owner of the fabulous organic Duke of Cambridge pub, raised a vital issue: that of the need for business incentives to encourage sustainable businesses like hers. One of the hurdles she faces is the incredible difficulty and expense in sourcing food locally. It's not for shortage of small farms outside London, but that of transporting it in individually. She suggests a practical solution: efficient food hubs which local restaurants and food outlets could share, thereby creating a self-sufficient London. As she pointed out, the organic and environmental movement has grown out of individual responsibility. We need more than ever assistance from the government now, to help support farmers markets and local food suppliers - all too pertinent with the pending oil crisis looming ahead.
The Secretary of State for the Environment calls for us to live within our means. We all know what it is like to be overdrawn at the banks; well now it's time learn to live within the earth's capacity. For the last 200 years we have been overdrawing on the Earth's Bank, and the penalties are beginning to kick in. Time to remedy it before it crashes. Mr Benn, this I am in full agreement with.