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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Sales Advisor - OTE 18k-23k

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of Ford's leading Parts Who...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to learn ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Lead

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the North West's leading providers of w...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

No wonder 1,000 women a year are getting abortions because of extreme morning sickness. When I was suffering, my doctor said it would 'cure' me

Jo Crosby
 

Election catch-up: It looks more and more as if we should get used to Prime Minister Miliband

John Rentoul
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders