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Is The Tide Turning On Climate Policy?

Written by Benny Peiser

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November 14, 2008
by Benny Peiser

Just as the UK toughens up its Climate Change Bill targets, cracks are emerging in the global effort to cut CO2 emissions. Andrew Forster spoke to climate policy analyst Benny Peiser about the 'big picture' debate that could colour transport policy here

Green pressure groups and opposition MPs may have welcomed the Government's toughening up of the Climate Change Bill's emissions reduction targets but for Benny Peiser it merely illustrates that Britain's politicians have no grasp of reality when it comes to cutting emissions.

FULL INTERVIEW

"The political class of Britain is in denial. They just don't see or they don't want to see that they are on their own now. No other country is following. It's exactly the opposite, they are all retreating, whereas Britain is saying, 'Oh, we are not going far enough, we need even more reductions.' "Everyone else is saying, 'Hold on, stop, we need to think. Is that really what we want, is that viable economically? Should we go it alone? Or shouldn't we put some pressure on the rest of the world? But Britain says, 'We'll go alone.' Apart from the question whether it's actually feasible economically and energy wise and so on, it's politically nonsensical."

Peiser is a political scientist and social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University. From there he edits CCNet, a climate policy news network read by 6,000 policy-makers, journalists, academics and interested individuals across the world. "Basically, everyone in the international community and at government level who is working on climate policies is reading CCNet nowadays," he says.

Growing up in Germany in the 1970s he helped found the German Green Party that acted as a trailblazer for green politics globally. Nowadays he describes himself as a "free market environmentalist", albeit one who takes a "more pragmatic and less ideological perspective".

LTT first interviewed Peiser two years ago (LTT 30 Nov 06), just after publication of Sir Nicholas Stern's report on the economics of climate change and at a time when the topic was rocketing up the agenda in transport. "The political, economic climate has changed beyond recognition globally, in Europe and in Britain, from the time we last met," he says. "Then we were at the peak of the climate change concern. I said this has to run its course, it's unstoppable, everyone is shouting 'The house is burning' but eventually it will cool down. I did not expect that to happen so quickly and dramatically.

"A number of dramatic things happened long, long before the credit crunch. In fact I believe we would have had a similar cooldown even without the credit crunch because all the signs were there." One of the major changes was the West's realisation that developing world countries such as China and India were catching up an amazing speed both economically and also in terms of their carbon dioxide emissions. "That caused people to realise that it's not that simple to cut emissions - it's impossible for those countries to turn their economies around. Today I read that the CO2 emissions in China will double over the next 20 years. Double! So obviously that puts everything into perspective.

"The other big change was the realisation that all the alternative energies don't make a big difference - wind, solar - they are still minute in terms of energy generation and are hugely expensive." Peiser reels off more problems - the controversy over biofuels, the opposition to 'green' taxes such as on fuel and vehicles in Britain, and voters' rejection of a broader green taxation programme called 'Green Shift' in Canada. "I could go on and on with problems that piled up. Nothing we have heard over the last ten years about changing the way we live and creating a low carbon economy is actually working."

Cold feet in Europe

Peiser says these problems have been crystallised in Europe, until now, the global leader in championing emission reductions. "This is the fascinating new development. Europe has basically abandoned any unilateral climate policy."

Last March EU leaders pledged to cut Europe's emissions of greenhouse gases by 20%by 2020 (against 1990 levels) and up this to 30% if an international agreement were reached to replace the Kyoto Protocol on emission reductions that ends in 2012. But last month the brakes were suddenly applied to Europe's agenda by a bloc of eight member states (seven from the east who are heavily reliant on coal and Italy which still has a major industrial base). "The really seismic shift in Europe is the emergence of a strong group of opposing countries against the whole agenda," says Peiser. "They say they want a little compromise here and there but basically they don't want the whole thing. You don't junk it from one day to the other, so it's a gradual step-by-step process. Basically they now see it as an inconvenience both politically and economically."

Peiser says the opposition actually runs much wider. Even the German Government, which has traditionally been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the 'green' agenda, is worried that emissions reduction policies could be disastrous for its heavy industries. "The reality is now sinking in that the policies have a cost," says Peiser. Though the French presidency is working to find a compromise deal by next month, Peiser says, crucially, there will be an opportunity to amend it next year once a cost effectiveness study has been completed. "The original aim of the EU was to go into the UN negotiations showing the rest of the world, 'look we have this 20% reduction and if you're good, 30%'. That was the intention. This has been given up. Full stop. It's gone through the roof. They have now made their climate policy dependent on China, India and the US. So they have said we won't sign any post-Kyoto deal unless they also cut emissions.

"You might say how come? If you want to save the planet one day and now you think other things are more important than saving the planet, what has changed? I'm pretty sure that part of the reason has to do with the fact that we're not in any way experiencing the kind of warming that people were predicting. 'Hmmm, why did no one tell us that warming could actually stop for a time? Nobody told us that! Everyone said, CO2 rises, temperature rises. No one said CO2 accelerates, temperatures stop.'

"I think the debate would be different if we saw significant warming. But for the time being, the politicians think, 'Hold on, is the world different today than it was ten, 20 years ago? Is here an emergency, something we have to really completely overturn our economy and risk social stability, do we really need to do it?' And  I  think most politicians have come to the conclusion that's not the case. And so the tone has changed and people have calmed down and are taking amore reasonable position, which is good."

Peiser believes climate scientists are losing their influence in the debate. "One of the big losers in this is the scientific community. Because their advice is no longer sought and their advice is no longer followed. Why? Because they've overdone it. I don't think the decision-makers trust their advice. Not because they are climate sceptics - don't get me wrong, I don't think they are - but I think the exaggeration of the problem has made it difficult for decision-makers.

"In politics you need some kind of wiggle room- you need some kind of space to weigh the different interests - you can't just go in one direction and put everything in one basket - it doesn't work because there are too many conflicting interests. And here, basically what the scientific community has been telling the decision-makers is: 'You have to put everything into this basket. There is no option. If you want to save the planet this is what you have to do. 'This automatically leads to a lot of interests being neglected or hurt and this is now being recognised."

A deal too far?

Efforts to reach a global deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol are supposed to culminate in a United Nations conference in Copenhagen next December - one that Stern has described as the "most important meeting since the Second World War in shaping the planet's future". The basis of the deal was outlined this summer in a declaration by the G8 group of major economies who set a goal of achieving at least a 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050 (which, says Stern, translates into an 80%reduction for developed nations such as the UK on the basis of burden sharing).

Peiser is sceptical that a global deal containing mandatory emission reduction targets can be struck even if President Barack Obama gives new impetus to emission reductions in the US. "He will be the green president and you will see a lot of changes in the rhetoric," he says. Obama has also pledged to implement an Emissions Trading Scheme similar to Europe's but Peiser doubts it will be a high priority in the current economic climate. "Obama's advisers have already announced that any US climate legislation will have to be delayed until the new administration has solved the economic and financial crisis. In other words: let's wait and see."

"Do I believe there will be a global agreement? No. This is where the runaway train crashes into the buffers." The problem, he says, is that the price of a deal is too high for all sides. The developed world insists that developing countries such as China and India must commit to emission reductions. "Can they afford to cut emissions? No, there is no way. Their economies are booming, the energy demand is increasing at astronomical levels, they're scouring the planet to find resources. Can they cut CO2 emissions? No. Impossible." Meanwhile, China says that if developing nations are to cut emissions than the developed nations must devote a massive 1%of their GDP to help them do so.

"It's a blame game now," says Peiser, and he sees the G8 declaration as part of that. "No one will say this has collapsed. They'll say, 'OK, well, we'll meet again in a year - there will always be another conference.'" There may even be an agreement on aspirational reduction targets. "But a target in its own right doesn't really matter if you don't have a solution to get there. And the solutions are not there."And so, emissions will keep on rising, and atmospheric concentrations will go up far beyond the 450-550ppm CO2e that people such as Stern say should be the limit. "If you want to know what I think is going on inside Prime Ministers' offices around the world, it's 'Let's kick this into the long grass.' Because that is what it will take to approach the problem. The short-termism is gone.

"If Britain's politicians really believe they can turn the country in the next two or three decades into this low carbon or zero carbon economy then they are facing a harsh reality. Can you believe that the Labour Government is in power since 1997 and has made climate change top priority for the last ten years and hasn't even been able to bring down CO2 emissions - I mean that tells you everything you need to know. "Sometimes it's hard to accept reality because it's so against all your beliefs but in real life it's important, particularly if you're a decision-maker, to accept reality. Even if it's completely opposite to what you'd like reality to be. Once reality hits you, you are either able to accept it and change your view and to adapt or you are just an autistic politician and you stick to your idea regardless."

The Climate Change Bill does, of course, allow the UK to achieve its targets using an unlimited amount of international carbon credits and Peiser says that even Britain now appears to be playing a different game behind all the green rhetoric. "It is becoming ever more evident that safeguarding the UK's struggling economy is far more important than living up to the Climate Change Bill. Gordon Brown seems bent on approving a third runway at Heathrow, not least to demonstrate that he is serious about protecting Britain's competitiveness. I would not be surprised if he employed the jobs argument for Heathrow in an attempt to call the Tories' green bluff at the next General Election."

Less radical solutions

Peiser says how policy develops will depend partly on how the science evolves. "I have come to believe we might not know for the next 20 years who's right and who is wrong on the science. I mean how long is this lull in warming going to last? If it's going to warm quite significantly in the near future, and I don't rule that out, obviously then the debate will change. People will say, 'Well, this is exactly what we predicted, CO2 emissions are accelerating and here you have the proof that the climate is warming accordingly.'"

Much will also depend on the economic climate. "If the downturn is just a blip and in 12 months time everything is hunky dory then this debate will go on and on but if there is a really serious economic crisis then climate change won't feature as a big issue for the foreseeable future. Decisions that are regarded now as crucially important will just lapse for the time being - no one will want to enforce policies that add to the burden." Overall, he expects the debate to become more measured. "My personal view is that whatever happens it will in all likelihood be more sober than it used to be. So decisions might be less radical, more gradual rather than dramatic." And, without a global deal, countries including the UK will pursue more carbon-intensive policies such as new airports and roads. "It's a competitive world and you either play the game or you lose out."

When the history of the global warming movement is written, Peiser says people will see similarities with past movements."A lot of the dynamic needs to be seen in a historical context of apocalyptical mass movements - the anxiety, the fear, the wish for salvation, the need to solve the problem immediately, the concern that the disaster is imminent. All these features resemble previous movements.

And from my reading I think it will sober up and become a more rational debate about problems and solutions. Because that's what we've had through the last 2,000 years - it heats up, it peaks, and then people realise that the solutions are much less radical and more complex than originally thought."

'Yes, we need to cut fossil fuel use but...'

I want to get rid of the fossil fuel  economy as well - don't get me wrong," says Peiser. "This concern should be there even without fears of climate change because we have a problem in energy - we are far too dependent on foreign reserves which I think is unhealthy. "I want to get rid of the fossil fuel economy but in a way our economies can survive and handle. And I think we're doing it the wrong way round. Perhaps it makes more sense to say, 'Look, let's develop the technologies first and then come to the reduction.' Here it is the opposite - we get the targets first and the targets somehow force everyone to change their lives.

"My personal concern is how these policies make people worse off. So you save the planet allegedly but people are actually suffering as a result. Clearly what we've experienced in a place such as Liverpool over the last 12-18 months is that people have had to give up their cars and have to spend much more on their heating. "It was a big mistake of the Labour movement to jump on this environmental issue and forget the interests of their core voters by making energy more expensive, fossil fuels more expensive, and cars and driving and flying more expensive. "The solution to our energy problem - regardless of climate change - is a technological one. And that's where the main focus should be - because everyone accepts that CO2 emissions will go up for the next 20 or 30 years.

"The focus should be incentives for industry, research institutions and energy companies to come up with alternatives. Make it a real lucrative area of research and innovation to come up with alternatives first, then you can think about targets."

Copyright 2008, LTT

http://www.staff.livjm.ac.uk/spsbpeis/LTTPeiser-Nov08.pdf

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