Johan Eliasch: Don't let politics prevent us from saving the planet

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The Independent Online

It should not be surprising that an offer from the Prime Minister to me, with a Conservative background, to conduct a review into deforestation and clean energy has, for the most part, only been of interest to political journalists.

It is almost as if party politics in Britain do not allow for such a thing as a non-political issue, with the corollary that every issue has to be fought over and owned by one party or another. Put another way, if you're working with the opposition you must be working against the Government.

This might make sense when politicians – and the public – have full knowledge of the issues under debate and the consequences of policies. But when we are all emerging out of ignorance, a little more team-work is called for.

For even though the impact of our past, present and future activities on the climate's stability is fast becoming a regular feature of the news, it is staggering how rapidly fundamental scientific discoveries are surfacing. The risks to the planet from climate change which these new facts reveal could not be more serious.

The fact that melted water from Himalayan glaciers are modelled by sober research to threaten the water and food supply of over half a billion people is one that no politician has yet come to grips with. The fact that half of all the carbon emissions since the industrial revolution have been created in the last 20 years is one which challenges the pace of change that most policies can accommodate.

And the fact that the clearance of forest in Africa, South America and South Asia generates more carbon emissions each year than the entire US economy shows just how important in all this is the issue of deforestation. Put another way, in the next 24 hours deforestation will release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as eight million people flying from London to New York. The value of keeping so much carbon locked up in trees is immense, even before we start considering the benefits of protecting the 60 per cent of global species that live in rainforests or the role these forests play in generating a third of the world's rainfall.

It does not take a rocket scientist to realise how far- reaching the consequences of climate change are and how big the global security issues the world is facing – much bigger than any other issue on the global agenda today. Climate change is too big and too new an issue for political parties that were created a century ago to react to quickly. That is why climate change does not fit in to conventional politics. It really is "politics sans frontieres".

That is why Frank Field, former Labour pensions secretary (one of the smartest MPs I have ever met) and I decided to create an organisation to leapfrog conventional politics. Rather than wait for an overarching solution to climate change to come over the hilltop, Frank and I wanted to use hard science, committed supporters and intelligent business to launch part of the answer now and help buy time for all nations to wean themselves off fossil fuels. The result is Cool Earth, which we launched earlier this summer, with the help of Sir David Attenborough, to develop a unique model for reducing tropical deforestation.

It would not be true to say that nothing is being done in this field. In some parts of the world, such as Brazil, strong progress to reduce the rate of deforestation is being made. International negotiations to help pay for this are also under way, albeit the funding currently available is like a drop in the ocean and we still lack real models of how sustainable forestry schemes can be designed and implemented with local communities.

The cost of doing so is, in fact, remarkably low. Cool Earth has created a conservation model whereby individuals can sponsor a single acre of endangered rainforest for just £70, view it on Google Maps and genuinely help to put a protective arm around the rainforest. This sponsorship secures the forest that will otherwise be destroyed in the coming 18 months and ensures local communities get better incomes from keeping the forest intact than they would from clearing it.

An acre of forest on the Arc of Deforestation protects a critical store of carbon equivalent to 25 times an individual's carbon footprint. More importantly, every one of our 12,000 sponsors is directly engaged with a new model of conservation: one that pays for the environmental services that we all depend upon, but which the developed world has, to date, provided for free. So far, Cool Earth has protected seven million tonnes of CO2.

Cool Earth is just one model that gives individuals, corporations, households and communities a mechanism to take action on climate change today. As a nation, Britain is peculiarly well prepared to capitalise on this new form of politics and lead the climate change debate. Our position on the Security Council, at the heart of the Commonwealth, at the right hand of the US and at the top-table in Europe gives us a unique diplomatic role in the essential country groupings and coalitions.

The leadership in industrial design that remains one of Britain's least championed gifts, should put us at the frontier of making clean-energy technologies accepted into consumers' lives and homes. And, most influentially, even if our press are showing signs of fatigue over climate change, it is still a critical issue for the emerging generation of non-partisan voters. It is, however, only politics sans frontieres, that does not put party affiliation before effectiveness, which has a fair chance of succeeding.

Johan Eliasch is the chairman and CEO of Head and former deputy treasurer of the Conservative Party. He is advising the Government on deforestation and clean energy