Leading article: We must force the polluters to pay


It is most unusual for a single Government-commissioned inquiry to make the sort of splash generated by the Stern Report yesterday. But we live in unusual times. For Britain, like many other parts of the world, is in the process of coming to terms with an immense challenge to our way of life on this planet.

Of course, much of Sir Nicholas Stern's report on climate change sums up what this newspaper and many others have been saying for years. The scale of the threat is spelt out. There will be tens of millions of refugees as a result of flood, fire, drought and famine by the end of the century. A sixth of the world's population could be facing water shortages. Economic disaster looms too - and not just in the developing world. Up to 20 per cent of global output could be lost. Wildlife will suffer grievously too, with potentially up to 40 per cent of all species dying out.

Nor are solutions outlined by this report new. Sir Nicholas cites the urgent need to put an appropriate price on carbon through taxes, international emission trading schemes and tough regulation. There must be much greater government sponsorship of clean energy technologies. Stringent energy efficiency standards should be imposed on buildings and electrical appliances. These are all measures outlined in this newspaper's climate change manifesto last week.

Perhaps the report's most significant contribution lies in its lucid analysis of the situation - plus the fact that it comes from such a respected economist. The debate about climate change has spread from the realm of environmental activism and scientific conferences into the world of hard economic realism.

Sir Nicholas describes the progress of climate change as the "greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen". And global warming is undoubtedly a challenge to the political ideology of free markets that has delivered such prosperity to the developed world. But, contrary to some rather defeatist assertions, this does not mean we have to spurn liberal economics. Instead, there must be a recognition that those of us who are generating excessive carbon emissions are imposing "costs" on the world and future generations. In other words, it is time we forced polluters to pay.

The report is not apocalyptic. Sir Nicholas is at pains to stress that it is possible to combat climate change and maintain global economic growth. But this will not be pain-free. Sir Nicholas estimates that the cost of stabilisation will be 1 per cent of annual global GDP by 2050. There will also be gains: as Sir Nicholas points out, green technology could become the world's biggest growth industry. Moreover, the costs of doing nothing will be far greater. "The benefits of strong early action considerably outweigh the costs," says the report. This is an offer we cannot afford to refuse. But ultimately it is our political leaders who must choose whether to accept that offer on our behalf. There is evidence of radical policies emerging (although the proof will be in the delivery). The tax proposals of the Environment Secretary David Miliband, leaked at the weekend, and the promised environmental regulations on new homes, are encouraging. They demonstrate that the environment is now at the core of domestic politics. Gordon Brown, whose track record on this is mixed, signalled his attention to dominate the issue at the report's launch yesterday. Clearly, this is in response to David Cameron's seizure of the green agenda in the past year for the Conservatives. But it is good to see the environment at the heart of the political battlefield; this can only be beneficial to us all.

It is worth noting, too, the failure of the Liberal Democrats, who appear to have gone missing in action. According to a weekend poll, only 14 per cent of the public believe Sir Menzies Campbell is the political figure who cares most for the environment, despite all of the Liberal Democrats' pioneering work. This must be judged a terrible failure of leadership.

Amid fierce competition for the green vote, a political consensus over the need for radical measures is almost in place. But there is a looming danger: if green taxation is seen as simply another stealth tax it could provoke a backlash. Mr Brown does not have a happy record on this front. Any future tax rises must be handled sensitively, and accompanied by genuine cuts in other areas of taxation, to avoid discrediting the environmental cause.

Of course, climate change is not just a domestic issue, and Sir Nicholas's report also addresses the international picture. Mitigating climate change is a "global public good". Every nation has an interest in avoiding the extreme weather that it creates. The greatest global warming challenge in the coming century will certainly be the rapid industrialisation of countries such as China and India. Yet, as the report argues, rich countries, which have pumped out the majority of carbon in the earth's atmosphere, have a moral responsibility to lead by example.

We should not get carried away by the hype over this report. It is only a starting point. The difficult work of forging international agreements and imposing restraints on energy use is all to come. Time is against us. Stabilising carbon emissions at 550 parts per million in our atmosphere would require global emissions to peak in the next two decades. That is a frighteningly tall order.

Yet we must remain optimistic. The scientific case has been made. The economics have been laid bare. The solutions are emerging. The public is ready for action. What is required now is a generation of politicians around the world with the courage to do what is necessary.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon and her former boss Alex Salmond  

I voted Yes in the referendum – but that doesn't mean I'm going to vote for the Tory-esque SNP

Alasdair Clark

If I were Prime Minister: I'd shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid

Marina Warner
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power