Oliver Letwin: Climate change is the big test for Blair and G8

If discussions end with a whimper rather than a bang, we will have moved backwards

Share
Related Topics

On Africa, even if Gordon Brown's International Finance Facility proposal has been reduced in scale, there has been real progress. But on climate change, the signs so far are not encouraging. If, despite frantic, last-minute negotiations, the G8 climate change discussion ends with a whimper rather than a bang, we won't merely have failed to move forward - we will have moved backwards.

The risk is that, if the Prime Minister's hype isn't followed by visible advance, the world's media will conclude that it is all too difficult; the diplomats will become disenchanted; and the politicians will find it even more difficult to raise the necessary enthusiasm the next time round.

Some sceptics will, of course, be delighted if Mr Blair's attempt to put climate change centre-stage fails. They argue that we should not commit resources to the uncertain challenge of climate change when we could be addressing problems whose existence is certainly not in doubt - above all, global poverty. There are mischievous moments when one could wonder whether Mr Brown is covertly in this category.

But the sceptics are taking a reckless gamble. They are betting that, by avoiding action now, we can save some eco- nomic costs in the short term, without facing an immense social and economic penalty in the long term. If they are wrong, and the mainstream scientists are right, the long-term price of saving some money now will be terrible.

This is an unequal bet. It is not worth risking catastrophic climate change in the future for the sake of avoiding a mild reduction in the rate of global economic growth today - especially when many of the measures required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also have wider environmental benefits.

The key to progress is the UN Convention on Climate Change which the last Conservative Government persuaded the US to sign. Ironically, this convention explicitly signs up to the scientific concerns that Mr Blair is now finding it difficult to persuade Mr Bush to accept.

It begins with the words: "acknowledging that change in the Earth's climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind, concerned that human activities have been substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, that these increases enhance the natural greenhouse effect, and that this will result on average in an additional warming of the Earth's surface and atmosphere and may adversely affect natural ecosystems and mankind ..." One could hardly be clearer than that.

Given the existence of the convention, and the clarity of its intent, there is little (if any) point in the G8 having long, metaphysical debates. The Prime Minister's task, as the master-negotiator, is to find a practical way of maintaining momentum. This must mean using the framework provided by the convention - and the meeting of the convention countries in Montreal later this year - to coax the United States on one side and the emerging giants of India and China on the other into simultaneous movement. Simultaneity is the crux, because it is the fear of competitive disadvantage, rather than the fear of the absolute economic costs, that is really driving the reluctance of the three great, dynamic economies of the US, India and China to take serious action.

What is needed is a system of mutually assured action, in which each party eventually agrees to a package of targets and delivery mechanisms, secure in the knowledge that all other parties are headed in the same direction.

It would be wholly unrealistic to expect an agreement of mutually assured action at Gleneagles. But what could still be achieved is the establishment of a critical path towards such an agreement. This would provide a new momentum and prevent the over-hyped Gleneagles meeting turning into a serious reverse.

The right analogy for the climate change negotiations is not global poverty. It is nuclear weapons and strategic arms reduction. We need to move from a position in which we are threatened with mutual destruction to one in which, through a series of strategic carbon reduction treaties, we achieve progressive economic and environmental détente. Perhaps what we are missing is Henry Kissinger?

The writer is the shadow Environment Secretary

React Now

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

Commercial Litigation NQ+

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: NORTH HAMPSHIRE NQ to MID LEVEL - An e...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Legal 500 Firm

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solic...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?