Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Failure of Political Leadership on Climate Change

Wales first minister Carwyn Jones Despite 26 years of international negotiations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these emissions have been steadily rising. It is clear that world leaders are incapable of committing themselves and their nations to the required measures. I witnessed this first hand last Thursday when I watched Wales' First Minister dodge question after question on whether he would take the necessary action.

Right: Carwyn Jones, Wales' First Minister.

A brief history of climate change and global negotiations

In June 1988 politicians and scientists attending the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto concluded that "humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose  ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war." The conference recommended a 20% reduction by 2005. At this point the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 350 ppm.

In November that year the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has its first meeting in Geneva and was charged by the United Nations with assessing the state of scientific knowledge on climate change, evaluate its impacts and come up with realistic solutions. In August 1990 it produced its First Assessment Report. Subsequent reports have only changed the detail, not the general conclusions.

At the Rio Earth Summit, two years later, 154 nations took responsibility for the overwhelming majority of emissions and pledged to "aim to stabilize" those emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. But the Kyoto Protocol wasn't ratified for a further five years. It bound 38 industrialized countries (called Annex 1 countries) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012. Concentration of CO2 has now reached 358 ppm.

Later, President Bush made sure the United States never ratified the agreement and Canada withdrew in 2011. In 2012 an agreement for a second commitment period has never entered legal force.

In July 2009, G8 countries agreed that 2 degrees Celsius of average global warming above pre-industrial levels is a limit which should not be exceeded, but this would mean reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050 and emissions from developed countries should be reduced by 80% or more. It is agreed that global emissions must peak and then decline rapidly within the next five to ten years for this to be achieved.

In November of that year the Copenhagen Accord was signed to endorse the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, but it is not a legally binding document. Concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere then reached 388ppm.

Now we are looking towards a legally binding global agreement next year, when concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will be 400 ppm, but it will not take effect until 2020, and then it will still take some time for any effects to kick in.

Meanwhile, concentrations of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere continue to increase:

Major greenhouse gas trends 1979-2015

It's for this reason that I'm extremely pessimistic that it is possible for national leaders, whose agendas are all short-term, whose interests are local and subject to lobbying from special interest groups, have the courage or capacity to show the required level of leadership. Even Obama's recent efforts fall far short of the true level required.

Carwyn Jones plays the politicians' game

the Welsh Government’s 2010 Climate Change Strategy cover

The basis for his extreme pessimism was confirmed for me last Thursday. I had been invited to give evidence to the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister in Wales about progress made to date in implementing the Welsh Government’s 2010 Climate Change Strategy for Wales. In particular, how actions to tackle the causes and consequences of climate change are being implemented by all departments of the Welsh Government and how this work is being co-ordinated and monitored.

Right: the Welsh Government’s 2010 Climate Change Strategy cover

Wales as a nation has a non-binding target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 3% per year to 40% of 1990 levels by 2020 in policy areas of over which it has control (some powers are not devolved but still held in London, such as control over transport spending and energy generation). This compares to the UK overall target of 34% reduction by 2020. Additionally, Wales is almost unique in the world by having the duty of government to take due account of sustainable development written into its constitution.

These facts alone would lead one to suppose that Wales was serious about tackling climate change. But let me tell you what happened in those meeting and committee rooms of the Welsh Government offices in Cardiff Bay on the afternoon of Thursday 26 June.

The first half of the event consisted of three members of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister quizzing members of the Climate Change Commission for Wales on what they thought the Committee should be asking Carwyn Jones (who is leader of the Welsh Labour Party).

The Commission's members represents a huge body of expert opinion from other organisations such as the Carbon Trust, the Energy Saving Trust, Sustrans, the Federation of Small Businesses, National Resources Wales, WWF, the One Planet Council, and even young people represented by the youth parliament known as Funky Dragon.

There was no shortage of extremely sound advice given to the Committee members. The key points were as follows:

  1. The First Minister should take overall responsibility for the climate change agenda, which he currently does not have, in order to show leadership and make sure that all government departments work together to achieve the targets;
  2. He should set statutory targets rather than the current non-binding ones;
  3. He should benchmark the current level of emissions in different sectors, by end-user;
  4. He should quantify by default the climate change impacts of all new developments as part of their impact assessment. In particular, reference was made to a proposed £1.5 billion new extension to the M4 around Newport;
  5. He should create a programme of action that would detail how the different sectors would act to reduce overall emissions, which currently does not exist.
There were many other excellent suggestions about land use, transport, education, planning, building regulations and renewable energy. If they were all put in place, Wales would be a beacon of low carbon sustainable development.

This part of the event concluded and the members of the Committee then withdrew to a Committee Room where they proceeded to quiz the Minister. Many of us stayed to watch the proceedings from the viewing gallery.

What happened? Well the first thing to note is that the Committee scrutinises the First Minister on many topics and few of its members are experts on climate change. The second is that as officials, it was clear that they somewhat lack the passion and commitment that the Commission on Climate Change members have. For these reasons they are not equipped to respond to the First Minister's rebuttals with knowledgable counter-arguments or with the necessary level of emotion. Urbane mandarins, their language is couched in measured and leisured terms.

Carwyn Jones was able to refute every suggestion without significant censure.

  1. He refused to take ultimate responsibility and show leadership on climate change as a cross-cutting topic because, he said, "there are many cross-cutting topics and I can't take responsibility for all of them. I leave climate change for others."
  2. He refused to set statutory targets for carbon reductions on the basis that the government does not have control over transport and energy spending.
  3. On the question of the M4 relief road he trotted out the line that cars in traffic jams will emit more greenhouse gases than having them freely moving. Yet, as Paul Pearson pointed out that evening, the consultancy document on the project never even calculated the total comparative carbon budgets for the options under consideration.
  4. On the question of why building regulations for the energy efficiency of new homes are being watered down, he said it was because Wales needed more new houses and the big building firms had told him that it was too expensive to make them low or zero carbon. Yet I know several developers who can build affordable zero carbon homes - but clearly Carwyn is not aware of them and nor were the members of the Committee.
Shortly after this, in despair, I walked out. Wales has an opportunity to shine on the world stage by showing leadership on climate change beyond that being shown in England by the Westminster government. But Carwyn Jones is not up to this challenge.

Jane Davidson, Wales former Environment MinisterThe environment minister who created Wales' climate change strategy, Jane Davidson (right), has sadly left government now. She was the driving force behind several policies that championed sustainable development. Unfortunately Wales no longer has any one of her calibre and commitment in government.

But Carwyn Jones is no different from virtually every other leader of a nation state in the world, as the history of climate change negotiations shows. The fear of missing short-term other targets for housing, jobs and the economy, makes them ignore the bigger picture. They do not have expert advisers on hand – or refuse to give sufficient weight to their advice – to help them understand the multiple economic as well as social and environmental benefits of taking the requisite actions. Instead they respond to the demands of industry lobbyists and a public largely unaware of the issues and potentials.

So, is it possible for the world to act to reduce and turnaround the seemingly inexorable growth of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? Increasingly there are calls from the business sector and leaders of cities for action, but for my part, I fear all this will result in action that is too small and too late. They just do not have the economic and legal clout. I believe what is really required is for people to be paid to leave carbon in the ground – because if there is money to be made then they will take it out and sell it – but this obviously will not happen.

Barring a miracle, within 300 years sea level will have risen by up to 10 metres, the ice caps will have melted, the equatorial areas of the planet will be uninhabitable, and humanity will have suffered a population collapse. The prediction made by the scientists meeting in June 1988 will have been shown to be correct. I do hope I am wrong.

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