International pressure for green action

The government-commissioned report on the prospects for the world economy, ‘Should We Continue Polluting As We Do?’, was released last week. Headed by Sir Nicholas Stern, the Government’s chief economist, it catalogues the different economic possibilities that await us in different environmental situations and proceeds on a worst-case scenario basis. In this case, global temperatures would rise by five degrees Celsius by the end of the century, which, through various knock-on effects, would reduce global consumption per head by as much as 20 per cent. Poorest countries would be hardest hit. It would cost us 1 per cent of global GDP to avoid economic catastrophe, which would involve stabilising greenhouse gas levels, which in turn is brought about through the reduction of emissions after allowing them to peak in around 10-20 years’ time. We would, in effect, be swapping a massive recession for a mini one.

Reaction from the three main parties was unsurprisingly similar. The Prime Minister reacted to the report with front-page-grabbing clarity: “We can’t wait the five years it took to negotiate Kyoto – we simply don’t have the time”.

The massive weight this report carries can be judged by the fact that both parties have stepped up their green PR recently. The environment secretary, David Miliband, announced a major green tax plan, while David Cameron has been feeding the media hints, from taxes on air travel to installing a wind turbine at 10 Downing Street. Gordon Brown said he wanted Britain “to lead the world in creating a stable and sustainable economy founded on low carbon”.

The responses are both global (extension of emissions trading schemes to other countries) as well as national (‘green taxes’) in scope. The response from some of the major polluters has, however, been decidedly muted. The US, still the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, has yet to commit to any significant reduction in emissions. With the administration currently committing all its energies into the midterm elections, and the considerable power of the car and energy lobbies in congress, it looks unlikely that any comprehensive national programme will come out before the next presidential election. There does seem to be more hope over the level of individual states; in August California became the first state to impose caps on carbon dioxide.

Large-scale action can work when all the participants are willing (EU), but is disastrous when the central authority lacks the will to do anything politically or economically unpopular (as in China or the US at federal level). Tackling climate change through a patchwork basis will surely take too long – more than the 10-20 years recommended by Stern for the commencement of reductions. Without the kind of positive central authority to implement these measures, the market will surely circumvent the local regulations by moving the problem to a less-regulated region, probably developing countries – the people most at risk from climate change. Environmental consultant Dr. Matt Prescott recently said that these measures would require “immense moral courage” – not only to do it, but to be the first to do it. But who should act first?

By Tom Smith

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