Climate Change — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:56 am on 29th January 2009.

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Photo of Lord Giddens Lord Giddens Labour 11:56 am, 29th January 2009

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Madingley, on securing this debate and on the elegant and powerful manner in which he introduced it.

I want to take seriously the title of the debate—the political aspects of addressing climate change—and argue that climate change is a political problem like no other that we have had to face before. There are many reasons for that, but I shall mention just two primarily. One is what, with the indulgence of noble Lords, I call Giddens's paradox. Giddens's paradox states that, as climate change is an abstract and to some extent future risk, it is very difficult for ordinary citizens to relate to it in such a way that they are prepared substantially to change their everyday behaviour. However, if we wait until climate change becomes a risk that is visible in that way—if, for example, we wait until there is massive flooding of the dykes in the Netherlands—it is by definition too late because at the moment we do not know how to get the emissions out of the air once they are there. I suggest that that paradox infects most aspects of national and international policy-making on climate change.

The second key difficulty is what political scientists call free riding. Free riding is everywhere in the area of climate change policy. When I came into the House of Lords this morning I walked through the car park. There was one big SUV parked there, a big Mercedes parked there and a little Prius parked closer to the entrance. You could say that the driver of the Mercedes and the driver of the SUV are free riding off the driver of the Prius, who is at least making some attempt to reduce his or her emissions, but you could also say that the driver of the Prius is free riding off people like me who came on the Underground or who—like most noble Lords here, I am sure—walked to work. Free-riding issues are everywhere in the area of climate change.

I am a strong supporter of the need, as the noble Lord said, to produce international agreements to limit emissions and, like everyone, I hope that our negotiations stretching from Bali through to Copenhagen are successful, although I have my doubts about that. However, when one is talking about the politics of climate change, it is crucial to remember that negotiations on their own do not amount to very much, even if they should reach solid agreement. Those negotiations will count at the level of the state only if states actually have the policies to implement them. Furthermore, what the industrial countries do will be crucial, as we all know, because the large developing countries, China and the others, will not take significant action unless they are convinced that the industrial societies already have in place practical and consequential policies for limiting climate change.

The noble Lord, Lord Browne, touched only briefly on the policies of the industrial countries. I have three or four points to make about them. First, almost all the industrial countries that have been the most successful in limiting their emissions have been successful by accident, not through climate-change inspired policy. Those countries include Sweden, Denmark and Japan, which is at the head of innovative technology in some areas—technology that led, for example, to the Prius. Perhaps I should not mention the Prius in the House of Lords. These things were driven primarily by the oil crisis of the 1970s. These countries started to react at that time to reduce their dependency on oil and imported gas. One of the salutary features of this is that it seems to have taken some 20 years for such technological innovation to feed through. This is a little disturbing when you consider the climate change policy that is instigated now, even in a country such as Germany, which is in the vanguard of climate change policy among the industrial countries mainly because of changes in that earlier period rather than recently initiated policies. This is cause at least for some salutary observation.

Secondly, there are still yawning divergences between the industrial countries' levels of emissions. Most noble Lords here will be well aware that the United States produces about twice as many emissions per head as the EU countries do, but even within the EU there are very large examples of free riding. Sweden, for instance, is one of the few countries in the world that has produced an absolute reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions. In comparison, emissions produced by Spain over the period since 1990 have gone up 19 per cent. So no matter what the European Union does with its policies—they are certainly well intentioned—it will be very hard to close that gap.

Thirdly, every country is struggling to produce consistent policy on climate change. This is very visible in my own Government—the Climate Change Act and the Energy Act are very important contributions—but I am not in favour of investing in further coal-fired power stations in the hope that CCS technology will prove effective, and I am not in favour of the expansion of Heathrow. However, not only this country is struggling with this issue. Germany is committed to the phasing out of nuclear power stations, but no rational observer can see that it can meet its climate change targets if it phases out nuclear power. Nuclear power is still a substantial proportion of the energy mix in Germany. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, rightly emphasised that you must have consistent policy within a range of other policies. It is not good having well motivated policies in one area and negating them by what you do in other areas. This problem is fairly formidable.

Fourthly, surveys of people's attitudes to climate change show that Giddens's paradox is alive and well. A lot of survey material in most industrial countries in the past 10 years shows that people express greater concern about climate change than they did before, but most of them are not prepared to change their behaviour and are not changing their behaviour. A recent and very good survey study by Defra in this country showed that about 17 per cent of the population are prepared to do something and are doing something in response to climate change, whether it is recycling, walking more or whatever. The vast majority, however, are not. For most people, climate change remains an issue at the back of the mind rather than the front. It will be difficult to propel it to the front.

There are three implications, which converge a lot with what the noble Lord, Lord Browne, said, and I shall ask the Minister one or two questions about them. First, we need a new approach now. Fear is not a good motivator for change, especially fear of an abstract threat that most ordinary people find it hard to come to terms with. We should therefore switch, much as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, indicated, to an investment-generated policy. We should look for positives rather than negatives. We should recognise that this involves a transformation of the economy and society as a whole.

Personally, I should like to see a visible, advanced vanguard of business leaders committed to progressing environmental goals, who have much more prominence than such a group has at the moment, visible both nationally and internationally, and whose views reach the citizenry. I do not see why we cannot have, for example, national competitions for technology and innovation, where the winners achieve national recognition. I ask the Minster whether such policies are in prospect. Are the Government working on these issues?

Secondly, climate change goes through the whole economy. We must therefore do a lot of work on the future of the economy but I do not see where it is being done. For instance, you see pronouncements such as "Wind power will generate 100,000 jobs in the British economy". That is probably not the case. Most technological innovations reduce the need for labour power. Anyway, if you generate more energy by alternative low-carbon sources, people will lose their jobs in the older industries. We need a thoroughgoing analysis of the economy. Have the Government a mechanism for providing that?

Finally, we need a lot more exchange between the industrial countries. Of course, we need something analogous to but better than the CDM. We need a lot more networking between the industrial countries, and a lot more technological transfer between them. Do the Government have plans to promote this?