David Cameron: Change our political system and our lifestyles

The effects of climate change are being felt right here, right now
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The Independent Online

For too long, politicians of all parties have treated the environment as an afterthought, something they need to pay lip service to but can safely ignore. This has to change, for it is central to our existence both as a nation and as individuals - which is why the quality-of-life agenda is at the centre of my political vision.

The need to tackle climate change is urgent. All of us are aware, on some level at least, of the impact that climate change is having on our world. In the United States, prompted by the recent spate of catastrophic climatic events, global warming has moved rapidly up the political agenda. Here in Britain, it is still seen by too many people as a rather distant concern - distant in terms of time, and distant geographically. But the effects of climate change are being felt right here, right now.

A report last year by the Association of British Insurers found that claims arising from storm and flood damage in the UK doubled in the period 1998-2003 compared to the previous five years. The Thames Barrier, designed to be raised once every six years, is now being raised six times a year.

We need to act now. Tony Blair was right to make climate change a central component of the G8 agenda, and we can only welcome initiatives like today's meeting of energy and environment ministers under the new Gleneagles dialogue between the G8 and China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.

But talk is not enough. We can only play a leading international role in tackling climate change if we ourselves become a low-carbon economy. Sadly, we are moving in the opposite direction: carbon emissions have risen over the past two years in Britain.

I want to see a long-term strategy for tackling climate change that combines the priorities of economic growth and security of energy supply with the need to move to a low-carbon world.

This strategy has three components. First, take the politics out of this issue. We have to constrain future governments in the face of the natural tendency to put short-term electoral considerations above the long-term interests of the country and the planet. So I will establish a cross-party commission to create a long-term policy framework for energy and the environment.

Second, we need a new statutory framework with specific year-by-year requirements for carbon reduction, and independent monitoring. This will bind future governments into action.

And third, we should establish an independent monitoring body - a new Carbon Audit Office - to examine Britain's performance on this crucial issue. This body would perform a similar monitoring and forecasting role to the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England with respect to inflation.

This new statutory framework, independently monitored, will help establish market incentives that bring forward investment in the least-cost and most environmentally sensitive sources of zero-carbon energy. I hope this will end the bias towards wind power that is built into the present system, helping to address concerns over the development of wind farms in upland areas. It should also remedy the under-investment in other forms of renewable energy, such as solar, wave and tidal power.

Different incentives will be needed for different energy sources. To encourage biomass generation we will probably need up-front government grants to kick-start the market. To encourage the production and uptake of biofuels we may need a specific regulatory obligation. And to encourage domestic micro-generation - whether solar, wind or geothermal - we need to change the planning system.

These issues are highly complex and, inevitably, inter-connected. But a powerful institutional inertia within government militates against the joined-up thinking we need. One Whitehall department promotes conservation, while another promotes unconstrained house-building; one department wants carbon reduction, another wants more roads and airport runways.

This piecemeal policy-making must change: the challenges facing us are too great for such lazy government. It is not just about ticking off a few boxes - it is about changing our political system and changing our lifestyles.

The environment affects us all in so many ways. I'm a cyclist, so I know how far there is to go before our transport infrastructure properly accounts for cyclists' needs. I have a young family, and we share our time between city and countryside - so I'm aware of the pressures on the environment in both. Green issues do not just impact on the countryside.

We need a coherent suite of policies to preserve and enhance our quality of life. And we can play a leading role globally by showing how to create a successful but sustainable way of life. We will only achieve that high quality of life and environmental stewardship if we recognise that we are all in this together, and that we have a shared responsibility to act. But the politician's responsibility is clear - to show the kind of leadership that this Government has talked about, but rarely delivered.

The author is a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party