Friday, 26 March 2010

The new parliament must innovate to build a low-carbon economy

The next parliament is the last one that can meet the 80% cut by 2050 target. Whoever wins the general election must tackle climate change immediately

Jonathon Porritt, Thursday 25 March 2010 11.34 GMT
At precisely the moment when this government has finally got its act together on addressing climate change, public confidence in the science of climate change would appear to have hit a new low. Depending on which opinion poll you read, the percentage of people who now believe both that climate change is happening and that it's primarily happening as a consequence of the emissions of greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere, has gone down to less than 50% of us, and possibly as low as 30% of us.
That makes it a lot harder for the politicians, in that such scepticism (and even hostility) provides little encouragement that leadership in this area will play well electorally. Despite that, the government is pressing ahead regardless, and the speed and scope of new initiatives churning out of the Department of Energy and Climate Change at the moment is mind-boggling. Not only has Ed Miliband achieved more over the last 18 months than all of his predecessors over the preceding 11 years, but he's also got Peter Mandelson, Andrew Adonis and even the Treasury on board. No mean achievement.
That doesn't necessarily mean that climate change will feature as a big issue during the general lection. Labour may feel it's already done enough, and there are some who believe that the Tories have been quietly scaling back their own climate change commitment, despite David Cameron's earlier leadership. The Lib Dems and the Greens will certainly try to force it up the agenda, but past experience has demonstrated just how difficult this can be. "It's the low-carbon economy, stupid!" is unlikely to dominate as an election slogan. Which means there's still going to be all to play for once the election is over and the new parliament is in place.
What's already clear is that this will be the last parliament that will be able to do what needs to be done if we're to meet the targets in the Climate Change Act. That "80% cut by 2050" target provides a false sense of reassurance that we've still got decades to play with, and can therefore comfortably defer some of the difficult things we have to do for many years to come.
Pre-empting that kind of complacency is what the Green Alliance's new report - The Last Parliament: Priorities for Urgent Action on Climate Change - is all about. The Green Alliance didn't want just another policy wonks' treatise, so it brought together myself, Barbara Stocking of Oxfam, Steve Holliday (chief executive of the National Grid), Bob May (former president of the Royal Society), James Cameron (vice chair of climate change) as well as Green Alliance director Stephen Hale, to come up with a plan of action on climate change for the next parliament.
An odd bunch, you may say. But the reality is that there's an extraordinarily strong consensus about climate change that binds together the UK's scientific establishment, almost all progressive business leaders, the NGO community and the smart end of the UK's capital markets. The profoundly irresponsible line taken by a major segment of our media (headed by the Daily Mail and Daily Express), setting out systematically to dismantle a body of scientific work that remains largely unscathed by the University of East Anglia's hacked climate emails case, let alone by the failure of Copenhagen, has only served to stiffen the sinews of those who want to see our politicians just get on with it.
Our panel focused on four priority areas:
• International leadership
• Low-carbon infrastructure
• Developing resilient communities
• Innovating new finance mechanisms.
And all of these will have to be underpinned by a concerted effort to rebuild public support for action on climate change. A huge amount of ground has been lost over the last year, partly because of the science controversy, and partly because the government's way of engaging with the general public (through the Act on CO2 Campaign) has been ill-judged and counter-productive.
You can't beat people into submission on climate change. All the evidence shows that promoting the benefits that flow from concerted action – in terms of jobs, skills, innovation, eliminating fuel poverty, energy security, resource efficiency, increased competitiveness and so on – works so much better than threatening people (and their children) with the four riders of the Apocalypse.
Happily, there's a solid foundation to build on here. The UK has been in the forefront of international negotiations, and now has the chance to drive forward the debate about new financing mechanisms. Closer to home, we have (at long last) got the outline of a strategy to retrofit existing housing stock, and the whole renewable energy scene is picking up rapidly. The Climate Change Act remains the best thing the Labour government has done on climate change since it is was elected.
But the next parliament will have to move much faster in terms of overhauling the entire regulatory system (particularly Ofgem, the Office of Electricity and Gas Markets ) and on incentivising greener, leaner technologies. It will need to get the green investment bank announced in yesterday's budget up and running and promote a wide range of new financial products such as Green ISAs, mortgages and pensions. Local authorities will need to be given a much more central role, working closely both with the energy companies and community organisations to get real action on the ground.
All of this depends on the restoration of trust between parliament and the people. And that means, above all, that politicians will have to show they mean it themselves, acting as role models in their own lives and their constituencies.
•Jonathon Porritt is founder director of Forum for the Future and chairman of the Last Parliament panel.