Geoffrey Lean: Save the world? It needs more than hot air

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Could Tony Blair save the world from what he has identified as its greatest peril? No, not Osama bin Laden and the threat of global terrorism. But global warming.

Could Tony Blair save the world from what he has identified as its greatest peril? No, not Osama bin Laden and the threat of global terrorism. But global warming.

Last week - one of the worst yet for his Iraq venture - he made his move. In a major speech he voiced his determination to break the deadlock in the world's attempt to combat climate change, which he described earlier this year as "long term, the single most important issue that we face as a global community".

He is well placed to do so. Next year, in a rare combination, Britain will both chair the G8 summit of the world's richest nations and hold the presidency of the European Union; Mr Blair has announced his intention to put global warming at the top of both bodies' agendas.

Experts agree that he is the leader best placed to pull it off - all the more so if George Bush is re-elected President, thanks to his much-vaunted special relationship with the "toxic Texan". And he is beginning to see political advantages in it too.

Senior ministers privately point out that major success could outweigh the Iraq fiasco in the history books. And the Government's own private polling shows that the environment is one of the most important issues to erstwhile supporters alienated by the war. So high are the stakes that Michael Howard, the Leader of the Opposition, presented his own credentials to tackle global warming in a pre-emptive speech the day before the Prime Minister.

Climate change certainly merits such high-level attention, and Mr Blair is right to identify it as the world's greatest challenge. For, as he pointed out in his speech, it is "so far-reaching in its impact, and irreversible in its destructive power" that it threatens "radically to alter human existence" - and to do so "within the lifetime of my children certainly, and possibly within my own". The signs, as he also pointed out, are all around us - in melting glaciers, shrinking snow cover, earlier springs, rising sea levels, increased floods, heatwaves and "violent weather extremes".

So it is good that Mr Blair says he is up for it. But is he up to it? As so often, there is no doubting his sincerity. In Paddy Ashdown's words: "He's like Don Giovanni. He means it when he says it." But the follow-through is often lacking - as a range of unfinished tasks from House of Lords reform to joining the European single currency testify. There will be two early tests. How will he handle Russia and the United States abroad? And will he turn his rhetoric into practical action at home?

Russia should be top of his EU agenda, for it will decide whether the Kyoto Protocol stands or falls. This summer President Putin signalled that he would ratify the treaty, bringing it into force, as part of a complicated trade deal with Europe, but Russian opponents of Kyoto have been fighting back. The deal needs to be closed and Mr Blair's close ally, Peter Mandelson, the new EU trade commissioner, is central to this.

The United States will not, and cannot, ratify Kyoto; it would now require politically impossible cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. So Blair, rightly, is looking beyond the treaty to try to get it involved in the next step.

This will be easier if John Kerry is elected President. But there is an opportunity even if he is not, for opinion is shifting. In 1997 the Senate unanimously opposed the Kyoto Protocol, but last year it only narrowly defeated a bill that would have enforced big unilateral cuts in US emissions. Public opinion is ahead of government on this, and is solidly in favour of such action - and several big Republican states have begun to take it.

If President Bush is re-elected, Mr Blair should call in his debts for supporting the war in Iraq. He should also use his enormous standing in the United States to appeal directly to the American public. But he is likely to bottle out. He seemed to be preparing an alibi for doing so in his speech, by falsely suggesting that political opinion had not changed much since the 1997 vote.

At home, at first glance, Mr Blair's record looks good. Britain has already exceeded the cuts in emissions required under the Kyoto Protocol, years ahead of schedule. But this is all down to previous Tory governments: emissions have actually risen since Labour came to power. And this week Mr Blair did not announce a single concrete measure to reverse this.

Instead the Government has been distracted into a largely fruitless debate about the relative benefits of nuclear and wind power as sources of electricity that do not contribute to global warming. It has plumped for wind for the time being, while not ruling out developing nuclear in a decade or so. But it has lost the public relations battle. Nuclear is being widely portrayed as the only alternative that could replace polluting fossil fuels; wind as an expensive and unpopular irrelevance that ruins the landscape.

For what it is worth, ministers have largely got it right. Nuclear power, properly accounted, is about twice as expensive as wind power - and it takes much longer to build. The market simply will not invest in it. Poll after poll shows that, far from being unpopular, some 80 per cent of Britons favour wind and that those who live near wind farms favour it more. Tomorrow the wind industry will start a PR fightback, featuring people and towns that want more turbines near them.

But the debate misses the point. Neither wind nor nuclear - nor both together - will do the job. Apart from anything else, they are confined to electricity generation, just part of the energy supply. The cheapest, quickest solution - and the only one with a chance of making a difference quickly enough - is the relatively unglamorous business of saving energy.

Every pound invested in conservation saves seven times as much carbon dioxide as one spent on nuclear power. The potential is enormous, but the record appalling. The Government has watered down its commitments to save energy in buildings. At Mr Blair's insistence, it abandoned its initial ambitious plans for public transport, and scrapped the Conservatives' automatic rises in fuel tax, that were encouraging more efficient cars.

Even the Secretary of State of the Environment, Margaret Beckett, in a frank television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby broadcast today, admits that other countries have done more. The world will not take Mr Blair's mission seriously unless he does more. "We cannot aspire to such leadership," he admitted in his speech, "unless we are seen to be following our own advice." Precisely, Prime Minister.