Climate change at the top of the political agenda

Research over the last ten years has revealed beyond reasonable doubt that the planet has a limited carrying capacity for greenhouse gas emissions if serious destabilisation of its climate from human activity is to be prevented. In light of this, there must be a substantial reduction of these emissions if the welfare of a significant proportion of the world’s present and future populations is to be protected.

In recognition of the need for urgent international action on this issue, world leaders met in Rio in 1992 and again, five years later, last December, in Kyoto. Whilst the negotiations that took place at these two venues can be seen to represent important staging posts on the road to achieving that reduction, both the inequity and insufficiency of the targets set on each occasion are all too apparent.

Governments of the so-called developing countries have of course questioned the proposition that their targets should be commensurate with those of the developed countries on the grounds that, at present, their use of fossil fuels is so much lower. More recently, they have also quite reasonably brought out a trump card, pointing out that the source of the problem is not just current patterns of fossil fuel use: in determining the contribution of each country, it is unfair to ignore those resulting from past patterns which were and continue to be critical precursors of the problems the world now faces as the critical emissions accumulate and remain in the atmosphere for a long period. Translating the overall reduction of 50% to 70% of the emissions called for in the IPPC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Working Group reports over the last eight years onto an equity base – it is becoming ever more obvious that not only is this the moral approach but also the only politically feasible one.

As I calculated in 1990, the average reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per capita in Western European countries would have to be at least 90% below the level at that time (and that only a system based on a ration of ‘carbon vouchers’, some of which would be tradable, has a realistic prospect of success)[1]. That represents a fall from about ten tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per annum to just under one tonne. Against this, the agreement reached in Kyoto for an overall 5.2% reduction on 1990 levels in developed countries’ emissions between the years 2008 and 2012, including a European Union target of 8% and, within this, a UK target of 12.5% by then (including a 20% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions), can be seen to fall far short of what is needed.

However, the difficulty for affluent countries whose governments are aiming to respond adequately to the IPCC recommendation arises from the fact that their relative material prosperity has been achieved either because the impacts of their fossil-fuel dependent activity – not least that entailed in road and air travel – have been unwittingly overlooked or because the draconian measures required to achieve a sufficient reduction have been considered electorally too dire to introduce.

Many arguments have been put forward against sharply limiting activity based on fossil fuel consumption[2]. Under scrutiny, none provides adequate answers to the scale of the problem:

  • Scientific uncertainty on the grounds that it may be too early to say that the earth is necessarily in the grip of global warming accounted for by fossil fuel use and deforestation: yet, other than those with a vested interest in denial, a substantial consensus exists among climate scientists that it is occurring.
  • The adequacy of existing and proposed reductions in fuel consumption and pollutants through operational economies and technology: this ignores evidence revealing that the rate of growth in consumption over the last 30 years far exceeds the gains that have been achieved in efficiency – witness what has happened in the spheres of road and air travel.
  • A system of eco-oriented taxation on the ‘polluter pays principle’ introduced in order to adequately reflect environmental costs is a more realistic means of achieving the required reductions: however, not only would such an approach be socially regressive in a way that the present Government could not support, but it also implies a right to pollute if payment has been made.
  • Political realism suggests that no party could conceivably have a prospect of being returned at a general election if its manifesto included a commitment to adopting policies on delivering cutbacks in carbon dioxide emissions of over 90%: one may wonder whether the import of this statement is that we should therefore scale down the required target to a more politically palatable level!
  • Political realism also indicates that it is hopeless for any one country to act unilaterally on this issue as it needs to be addressed internationally: that line of defence was laid to rest in Kyoto where an obligation was imposed on signatory member states to deliver their targets through nationally-determined measures.
  • Considerations of the economy and employment override ecological ones which can be effectively dealt with by paying the costs of damage caused by climate change: yet it is obvious that, even if that were theoretically possible, affluent countries are not going to fund the construction of barrages to protect the world’s highly populated delta regions and low-lying islands nor are they going to absorb the ecological refugees displaced by famine and drought.
  • The problem of excessive greenhouse gas emissions can be countered through the creation of reservoirs to store carbon andcarbon sequestration by planting new forests: given current levels of emissions each year, and those forecast for the future, the scale of effective activity would be immense.
  • No alternative sources of energy exist that can realistically be substituted for many fossil fuel-dependent current activities and that therefore the reductions should be sought in other sectors where this problem does not exist: this implies that we have an inalienable right to go on, for instance, using to the car for most journeys in low density and rural areas, and flying to get across the Atlantic, irrespective of the damaging effects.
  • Significant carbon dioxide reductions are already being achieved by many industries in their practices (vide the successes of the suppliers of gas and oil such as Shell and BP and the operators of airports such as BAA), for which reason they should be commended for their contribution to the ecological goal: this is highly disingenuous given that the primary aim of their activity is to promote energy-intensive activity.

In coming to terms with these arguments and counter-arguments, Government has adopted two largely irreconcilable stances. On the one hand, it has shielded itself behind the often-repeated observation that, in democratic societies, changes that do not command public support cannot be imposed. In turn, this has induced a degree of public complacency on the subject and an easily assimilated and welcome perception that the application of present and future scientific advances, combined with no more than modest changes to current lifestyles, will indeed prove sufficient to avert serious ecological damage.

The coalition of Government with its electoral considerations to the fore, and industry with its narrowly focused profit making aims, together with our tacit connivance, is in effect tempting us into a Faustian compact whereby our near-universal wish for continuous (aka-sustainable) growth, without irremediably catastrophic consequences, can be assured through the medium of technology. Like devotees of religion who place their faith in an all-loving God looking after his children’s welfare, we are being called upon to have total faith in the ingenuity of man, equipped with his ever-expanding scientific skills, to deliver answers that will assuredly deliver that growth and avert those consequences.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister in a statement at the G8 Summit early in the summer has accepted that ‘climate change remains the greatest environmental threat to our prosperity’. Moreover, both Michael Meacher and Angela Eagle, Ministers in the DETR, have recently acknowledged that the concept of Contraction and Convergence (developed by Aubrey Meyer, founder and director of the Global Commons Institute), that is reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a safe level and achieving this on a per capita basis, within a timetable determined by scientific evidence, must be taken seriously in any review of options for effectively countering climate change.

The following set of articles by distinguished experts and authorities on the subject is aimed at sharply pushing us up the learning curve by obliging us to come to terms with our unsustainable patterns of activity. They focus on providing answers to the questions of how serious is the problem of anthropomorphically-induced climate change, what can be done to reach international agreement on effective action on this, and what realistic strategies can be adopted to avert serious ecological damage.

In the first article, Sir John Houghton summarises current scientific knowledge on climate change, derived from assessments made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and looks at action that could be taken to mitigate the effects of global warming. This is followed by a paper by Alberto di Fazio showing that relying on efficiency gains and technological shifts alone reflects a serious underestimation of the magnitude of the greenhouse effect and all its consequences for the ecosystem, society, health and future generations. Tim Reader then outlines the risks to the UK environment – and to its economy and the lifestyles that depend on it – from climate change, and shows how essential it is that we reduce emissions in order to prevent enhanced global warming.

John Gummer raises issues of morality and global justice, arguing that combating climate change not only makes a moral stance a practical necessity but that the global institutions required to that end may have to override national ones. He concludes by allying himself with those who have argued for a number of years that the only solution lies in international agreement on reducing emissions to a safe level and programming this on a per capita basis.

Tom Spencer proceeds to summarise the Global Commons Institute’s model of ‘contraction and convergence’ combining equity with efficiency and enabling international management of global greenhouse gas emissions. He alerts us to how critically dependent current negotiations are on the US Senate ratifying the Kyoto Protocol without which the participation of developing countries, in particular China and India, is well nigh impossible.

David Fleming puts forward the case for and mechanisms needed to enable the principle of contraction and convergence to be applied. He demonstrates the advantages of domestic tradable quotas in which everyone has an equal entitlement of carbon units to cover their needs, and shows how this could be introduced over a period of time. In the last article, I discuss the likely implications for individuals of living on an equitable basis within the planet’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gas emissions and outline what is then entailed in terms of modifying those aspects of our lifestyles dependent on the use of fossil fuels.

In the light of the issues, evidence and arguments set down in this special issue, it is all too clear that, with the shadow of climate change hanging over us and yet our continuing subscription to the idea that only through the medium of economic growth can there be real prospect of improvement in material standards and in the quality of life, we are at a defining moment in history.

The magnitude of the problem is daunting and its implications far outside our experience and therefore disastrously prone to dismissal. But, if we do not deliver our fair share of the reduction, there can only be two outcomes: either those who do not yet use their share – mainly people living in developing countries – must be prevented from doing so or, together with future generations, we must witness and bear the costs of escalating damage from climate change – as well as the burden on our consciences. It is difficult to believe that burying our heads in the sand to avoid facing reality is an appropriate posture rather than urgently taking the path beyond rhetoric sustainability towards living within the planet’s limited capacity to absorb greenhouse gases.


Published as the introductory article to the special issue on climate change in Town and Country Planning, October 1998.

  1. Michel Carley, Ian Christie and Mayer Hillman (1991), ‘Towards the Next Environment White Paper’, Policy Studies, Vol.12.1, Spring.
  2. Mayer Hillman (1998), ‘The implications of climate change for the future of air travel’, Written Statement for the Terminal 5 Inquiry, Government Office for London, May.

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