Review of the Year 2009: Climate change
The heat of the moment
Wednesday 23 December 2009
Despite the crippling economic crisis, green challenges remained prominent on the political and public agendas during 2009. This contrasts with previous downturns, during which the environment has been generally relegated to the "to do later" list. The reason it didn't disappear this time is because it is ever more clear that "later" might be too late – especially in relation to the climate change challenge. Most serious politicians get this, so do many businesses. The question is can we convert this realisation into practical change?
Negotiations leading to this month's Copenhagen climate summit were conducted with this purpose in mind. Considering the divergent national interests that exist between the nearly 200 countries involved in this most complex UN process, it is perhaps not surprising that the science-based treaty needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is still elusive. The situation was not helped by the selective leaking of private emails from a few climate change scientists.
This action, clearly calculated to cause maximum political damage before the Copenhagen summit, gave further impetus to the campaign of a few of the so-called "sceptics", who seek every means available to discredit what is now very clear mainstream climate science. I suspect that history will regard this little flurry as comparable to the Battle of the Bulge – a last high impact but doomed counter-attack on what is ultimately an irresistible weight of evidence that underlines the gravest threat to human wellbeing. In any event it had almost no impact on the talks.
Fortunately, there is now a US President who sees the dangers posed by climate change. Sweeping away years of Bush intransigence, the arrival of Barack Obama in the Whitehouse has given new life to action on climate change. Unfortunately, however, many of the political difficulties that previously shaped the US position remain very much in place. The opposition by many senators (including Democratic ones) to new measures to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions provides a case in point, so does the covert campaign run by the American Petroleum Institute, and exposed by Greenpeace, to give the impression of grassroots opposition to pollution reduction measures. Presently less obvious than climate change, but equally challenging in it's implications, the continuing degradation of biodiversity and the related loss of so-called ecosystem services crept onto the agenda in 2009. A landmark study by a group looking at The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) published in November set out in cold economic terms how the continued development of human societies relies fundamentally on the functioning of natural systems. While this may not be a surprising conclusion to the ecologically literate, TEEB carried forward a vital agenda that will build momentum in the years ahead – not least because of the growing interest from various international companies who can see future risks for their businesses arising from depleted nature.
The story that gained most public traction on this subject was about the loss of honey-bees. Their decline, taking place across many countries, reminded us how much of our food relies on the activities of these communal insects. Remove the bees and our food security goes with them. TEEB pointed out how a myriad other services necessary for meeting our needs must be properly valued – the rain created by forests and soil fertility maintained by microbes among them.
The kind of economic analysis provided by the TEEB process inspired several prominent figures to make comparisons with the financial crisis, and to point out that while it might be possible to bail out banks, we will find it far harder to inject liquidity into bankrupt Nature.
A leading voice in this respect was the Prince of Wales, including through his Prince's Rainforests Project (PRP). The task of this initiative was to find ways of making the forests "worth more alive than dead". Working with similar logic to that presented by TEEB, Prince Charles used his PRP to help countries form consensus on a new financial mechanism to pay countries for the ecosystem services that their forests provide to the world.
The PRP suggested that in a similar way to how we pay gas, water and power bills to utility providers, the world should pay for the rainfall, carbon and biodiversity benefits provided by the intact rainforests. The findings of an intergovernmental process initiated by heads of state at a meeting hosted by the Prince in April helped to shape discussions in Copenhagen. In 2010 we will hopefully see the benefits of this work starting to make a difference on the ground.
Closer to home during 2009, I have been inspired by the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts and the ambitious habitat restoration projects they are taking forward in what is perhaps the most modified and least natural landscape in England – the East Anglian Fens. These organisations have received a lot of attention this year for the large-scale efforts they are making in seeking to repair some of the damage caused by a centuries-long process of drainage and habitat degradation. Using two of Britain's oldest nature reserves as core areas (Wicken Fen and Woodwalton Fen), the plan is to expand out and to restore very substantial areas to a more natural condition, thereby making them more resilient to the effects of climate change, and at the same time slowing down emissions through stopping the erosion of peat.
For reasons of climate change and deforestation, 2009 saw several campaigns to encourage reduced meat consumption. Lord Stern (famous for his review of the economics of climate change) caused a stir when he said that meat was off the menu for those looking for a greener diet. Friends of the Earth had a more positive message for omnivores, concluding that we could have our meat and eat it – but less of it, and produced in better ways.
Those who have spotted what seems to be the fundamental contradiction between policies to promote endless economic growth on the one hand, while achieving ecological goals on the other,
should take heart from developments in 2009. Perhaps the boldest move came from President Sarkozy of France, who through a commission on the measurement of economic progress asked leading economists to look at different ways of judging the performance of societies, other than through the lens of GDP growth. The luminaries involved, including Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, concluded that we need new measures of progress, to embrace human wellbeing and the state of natural capital.
Perhaps this kind of analysis will soon become mainstream, and help shape a more informed debate about the development choices we face. The need for such a shift was very apparent in 2009 when the British Government signalled its support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport. The argument in favour was the need for economic growth now and in order to better compete with Paris and Amsterdam, who have bigger airports than London. While the case for new airports was being made by Ministers, there was widespread disappointment that the UK's economic recovery was not more clearly linked to the greening of the UK's infrastructure and housing. There was talk of a green recovery, but precious little evidence of that in policy and investment choices made by government.
It was not all old economics for Her Majesty's Government in 2009, however. Gordon Brown showed real leadership in using international meetings to call for a Tobin tax on currency transactions. This would be a simple way to raise a lot of money (potentially tens of billions of pounds) from the financial markets which each year trade more than 500 trillion dollars worth of foreign exchange. The money could be used to help poor countries adapt to the effects of climate change, to help them achieve low carbon develop and to save the rainforests.
As well as raising money from what the chair of the Financial Services Agency, Adair Turner, described as at least in part "socially useless" activities, a tiny tax on currency exchange transactions would help to dampen down some of the risk-taking that helped cause the financial crisis in the first place. While Brown and Sarkozy made the case for the Tobin tax, there was predictably fierce opposition from others, especially the Americans.
Top level commissions and international politics aside, we have all seen change in our daily lives in 2009. From the banning of energy-wasting light-bulbs to the introduction of more ambitious recycling schemes and from dozens of new models of more efficient cars to more and more wind turbines on-shore and off-shore, we are at least beginning to turn some corners.
2009 perhaps ended with an anti-climax in that the Copenhagen summit did not achieve what it needed to, but progress continues to be made. 2010 will be no different. But what to expect? I hope 2010 will see an intensified discussion about the kind of economics system we need to survive and thrive in the 21st century. 2010 might also see a stronger focus on the need to protect other ecosystems services. An international summit of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in the second half of the year should be a major focal point. I am also hoping for some positive progress in the General Election – including through the first Green Party MPs being elected to Parliament – but then I am a candidate!
Tony Juniper is an independent environmental adviser and the Green Party's General Election candidate for Cambridge
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