Tony Juniper: Warm words on climate change are not enough

A climate change law would be a clear sign of the kind of the action Clinton called for
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The Independent Online

Climate change was placed firmly on the agenda at the Labour Party Conference yesterday, when Bill Clinton highlighted it as one of three great challenges facing the modern world. And while he praised Tony Blair's successes in pushing for co-ordinated global action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and made much of the economic benefits of moving to a low-carbon economy, he left no doubt that more must be done, and quickly.

Political leaders at all levels and of all colours now recognise the urgency and scale of the challenge posed by climate change. They even do a good pitch on the need for action. Sometimes, we even get a few policies. The Conservatives recently called for new high-speed trains to replace short-haul flights. Ming Campbell just put forward an ecological tax programme. Gordon Brown told us how he plans to publish a report on the environment and job creation. All this is great, but emissions are still rising.

Even here in the UK, where the public are increasingly aware, where there is an acceptance of the need for action at the highest political level, where there is constant media coverage of the latest science and an economy strong enough to carry forward action, we are still going the wrong way. Why can this be?

If the comments being made by government ministers in Manchester are any indication, then I think the Government is running scared. Instead of talking about leadership and decisive action, there was a lot of talk about the limited role of government and the importance of individual action.

Compare this stance to the strong lead taken on health, education and terrorism. On these issues, the Government said that it will act. Money will be spent, controversial changes made. But when it comes to the greatest challenge facing humanity, the public has to find solutions on its own.

Of course we can all do our bit. But if policy leads to more roads and fewer trains, more runways and no cycle lanes, more coal stations and no solar power, then changing my light bulbs is not going to solve the problem. The fact is that we need leadership. That means going out in front, taking risks and even some hits. But as Clinton emphasised, leadership means moving forward and embracing change.

Labour is not alone in its paralysis. If the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats were in power, I fear that a similar situation would prevail. The challenges we face are tough and the action needed raises contradictions to accepted wisdom right across the board. Accepted wisdom holds that cheap energy is a good thing; it sees increased air traffic as a source of economic growth; cars as symbols of freedom and regulation as a threat to competitiveness. Dealing with climate change means challenging these and other beliefs. It means facing up to change.

And none of the parties will go far enough or fast enough unless their fear of electoral backlash is calmed. One way of achieving this would be to create a level playing field in terms of political risk, a space in which policies that are controversial in the short term can be implemented for the sake of long-term necessity. We need a process whereby old assumptions can be challenged and a science-based approach to emissions reductions initiated.

Friends of the Earth believes that the most effective way of achieving such a shift would be to introduce new legislation binding the current and future governments to action to tackle climate change. Such a law would require governments to deliver annual reductions based on the requirements of the latest science. It would enable governments to create the policy space to challenge conventional wisdom, knowing that opposition parties would also be facing the same challenges of how to make the same cuts.

Governments would have a framework through which real progress could be achieved. If political speeches were a form of renewable power, we'd have met all our targets years ago. Sadly, however, the speeches have no practical effect unless they are backed by policies that are implemented.

A climate change law in the Government's next legislative programme would be a clear sign of the kind of home improvement Clinton called for. And it would provide the UK with a sound basis for international leadership on the global action required. It is wonderful that leaders like Gore and Clinton are championing the climate issue now that they are out of office. Perhaps Tony Blair will do the same when he stops being our Prime Minister. More powerful even than this, however, would be for him to set in place the means to take action before he goes.

The author is executive director of Friends of the Earth