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Senior parliamentarian calls for action, global treaty on climate change

Sir Walter Menzies Campbell (known as Ming Campbell is leader of the Liberal Democrat party in the United Kingdom.

Climate change is about the security, liberty and prosperity of the human race.

It is about the human rights of our children and grandchildren; it is about their right to live in a habitable planet.

Here at the Tyndall Centre you have done much to contribute to the world’s understanding about the reality of climate change. But the time to debate whether or not greenhouse gases actually have a greenhouse effect is over.

Climate change is happening.

The Gulf Stream is weakening. Within 20 years it could miss the UK completely.

The Jakobshavn glacier in Greenland is now moving towards the sea at the rate of 113 feet a year instead of the normal speed of one foot a year. This one glacier alone is thought to be responsible for 3 per cent of the annual rise in sea levels.

The Coast of Norfolk, 20 miles from here is at risk with every point rise in the North Sea.

We are at a crucial moment in history. Global warming is now. We have a window of opportunity within which we can affect the course of climate change. In ten years it may be too late.

Climate change is the greatest moral challenge to politicians and to people of our age.

It requires urgent action now. Not in the future, not when technology becomes available or when political parties have finished their inter-necine battles on the issue.

We are now faced with two tasks:

Halting its progress. And mitigating its effects.

The recent interest by leading politicians in the issue of climate change in the UK is welcome, if perhaps overdue.

The Tory party and Gordon Brown’s Treasury are late converts to the cause.

It is easy to make speeches warning of disaster and extolling the benefits for business of saving energy and saving money.

But it is much harder to change the behaviour of companies and individuals, and to negotiate international agreements binding other countries to targets.

Every political party in the UK is agreed that we must cut our carbon dioxide emissions by 60% by 2050.

But no party leader has seriously considered what measures are needed to meet those targets.

The stark fact is that emissions in the UK are up by 3% since 1997. Emissions from cars and air transport are going up. Carbon Dioxide emissions from power generation have risen by 15% since 1997.

The response?

A failure of nerve from the government. And a surfeit of spin from the Conservatives.

There has been a failure to ask what a carbon free or a carbon neutral economy might look like. And a failure to explain clearly what kind of measures will be needed to move us in that direction.

Today I want to issue a challenge to the Labour and Conservative parties. To think about what a low-carbon economy might look like, and to state plainly whether they are prepared to take the steps necessary to achieve it.

Moving to a low-carbon economy presents both opportunities and challenges.

But carbon emissions cannot be reduced in a flurry of snow and a dog-friendly photo opportunity.

The Liberal Democrats are rightly proud of their record at the forefront of thinking global and acting local on the environment.

And we are proud of our readiness to take tough and unpopular decisions on the environment.

It is contradictory to put a windmill on your roof, while calling for a “concerted programme of road building,” as David Cameron has done.

And it is disingenuous to boast about Britain’s green leadership while presiding over a rise in emissions and campaigning in Europe for a weakening of UK emissions targets, as the government has done.

A cross party agreement, setting a clear regulatory framework for the reduction of emissions would be welcome.

Both other political parties agree that tackling climate change is an ‘urgent challenge’.

Well I have a challenge, for them. Today I am issuing a challenge to the Labour and Conservative parties on climate change.

Let us as a matter of principle and policy agree that we should shift the burden of tax from income to the environment.

Let us agree on several practical steps for reforming our tax system to encourage green behaviour.

These steps are common sense and they do not require eighteen months of deliberation by a policy review. Indeed, some of them may well require votes during the debates on the Finance Bill.

The first is the principle of using green taxes to change behaviour. We are not in favour of higher taxes overall but green taxes are a lever by which we can ensure that our individual behaviour is collectively sustainable.

We need fairer and greener taxes, not higher taxes. Green taxes have now fallen as a share of national income from 3.6% in 1999 to 3% today. But the proportion of national income derived from green taxes should be rising not falling.

Second, green taxes, including excise duty on fuel, should not fall in real terms from year to year. Indeed the trend fall in green taxes should be reversed to help cut carbon emissions. Given that the rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions from transport has doubled since 2000, the year that excise duty on fuel started to fall in real terms, fuel excise duty should be raised in line with inflation.

Third, there should be a substantial increase in the top rate of Vehicle Excise Duty above the Chancellor's meagre £45 so as to discourage new purchases of the most polluting cars. VED is one of the simplest and easiest ways to implement the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Failure to use it effectively in light of current knowledge is negligent.

Fourth, the climate change levy should be reformed into a universal carbon tax. A new carbon tax should include household emissions as well as business emissions with appropriate provisions for the less well off. In the meantime, the Climate Change Levy should also be raised in line with inflation as proposed by the Chancellor in the finance bill.

Fifth, we must end the madness of subsidising pollution from air travel. Aircraft are exempt from VAT and excise duty on fuel as well as exempt from the climate change levy. Air Passenger Duty should be restructured as a tax on aircraft emissions not passengers.

I have written to David Cameron today, making clear that, provided we can reach agreement on these five points, the possibility exists of a strong cross-party agenda to reform our tax system so that it rewards green behaviour.

But let me make it clear: these principles are a minimum test of commitment. Without these simple but serious steps, a cross-party agreement on climate change is impossible.

Let me also add to the government: anyone who believes there is a moral dimension to climate change would have no difficulty in embracing these ideas.

Votes on the Climate Change Levy and Vehicle Excise Duty in the upcoming Finance bill will be clear benchmarks against which to test the Tories new found green tinge.

The public increasingly recognise the environmental problems of our age, but they are not naïve. To Gordon Brown and David Cameron I quote Roy Jenkins: By your actions and your votes you will both be judged.

Society and the economy do not function in a vacuum. Change cannot be left to the market alone. It is the role of government to set the rules, to establish the framework and to steer a course. And that involves policy decisions, not photo-opportunities.

Our simple package of green taxes would send a clear signal to business and to individuals about the direction of travel of the British economy.

In their submissions to the government’s energy review power companies such as Centrica and RWE npower called for greater certainty on future energy policy. Many of them submitted proposals for stronger cuts in emissions than the government itself proposed recently in the Climate Change Programme Review.

But what they wanted, above all, was leadership. They wanted a clear signal about what kind of energy system the government wants.

Commerce and business are adaptable. It is the essence of commerce and business to adapt and to find new ways of being profitable. But investment decisions can only sensibly be made against a secure background.

The UK has a goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 60% before 2050. What will this mean for you and me? And what will it mean for the economy?

Changing behaviour: cutting energy consumption, decentralising and deregulating the power sector, building greener homes, cutting waste and driving environmentally friendly cars is thought to be unpopular. It is seen as undesirable, uneconomical, unrewarding.

Energy efficiency is seen as wearing a hair shirt: why should we tighten our belts when other countries are polluting their way to higher economic growth?

But in truth, pursuing a low-carbon economy is not about denying ourselves opportunities for growth, it is about opening up new opportunities, including new ways of measuring progress and raising public funds.

The world will have to go green in the future, indeed it is already moving in that direction.

There are hundreds of new markets emerging, and with them new jobs. The Chinese are already investing in lightweight cars. Portugal is researching new tidal power systems. California is pioneering a form of incentives for power companies to cut their customers energy bills.

Britain should be at the forefront in breaking new ground and harvesting those opportunities. If we can have tax cuts to encourage films to be made in the UK why can’t we have incentives for green investments and green behaviour?

The low-carbon economy of the future will be built on decentralised energy supply, renewable technologies, on solar, wind, wave and tidal power and carbon capture and storage.

Low energy housing, using improved-insulation, intelligent design, sustainable water management, smart metering of electricity, and computer monitoring of demand and supply are already possible.

Cars and trains can be made lighter and stronger requiring a fraction of the energy to go the same distance and running on electricity or biomass or Liquid Petroleum Gas.

An intelligent and forward thinking government would be investing in research and development for these technologies now, something called for by the Railway Forum and by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership.

The technologies outlined above are not only greener than existing alternatives but in most cases cheaper too. A lighter car requires less fuel. A better designed house needs less energy to heat it. And a decentralised energy network should produce more efficient and cheaper energy without the losses incurred in transmission and distribution.

It is worth repeating: being carbon-neutral is not simply a worthy goal, it is a profitable economic one as well.

Of course Britain cannot solve climate change by itself. Emissions control requires international co-operation on a major scale.

But this should not be an excuse.

Pursuing a low carbon, more energy efficient economy is worthwhile in its own right since it saves money.

And, international change requires moral leadership at the highest level. Leadership internationally is best achieved through setting an example and maintaining the high ground. If Britain can demonstrate the advantages of a low carbon economy, we can lead the debate on how to control climate change.

But instead of leading, this government has been going backwards not forwards on climate change. And the Conservatives are complicit. They both speak of a need to ‘search for’ a new framework to control emissions after the current round of Kyoto targets runs out in 2012.

There is no need to look very far. There is a framework in place which has the support of the European Parliament, and of many other countries.

It is called Contraction and Convergence, and the Lib Dems have been speaking about it since 2001.

Sir David King, the Government Chief Scientist, said in a recent report that 550 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere was too much, and that we would reach that level by 2050 if we continue as we are.

International agreement should start with what is an acceptable amount of emissions, what is an acceptable amount of climate change. It should not start – as Kyoto did – with what is ‘acceptable’ to governments.

There is a finite amount of emissions that the world can take before 2050. We have to share out pollution judiciously, and ultimately, equally. Relative targets linked to GDP or how much a country feels it can reduce are not only unworkable, but our grandchildren may well view such political weakness criminal. There must be an absolute ceiling on emissions from which an international agreement works back.

International, and by extension, national targets are a necessary part of measuring and monitoring change. Accepting that we are using more than our fair share of carbon while actively seeking to reduce it is the starting point for a sensible international conversation about national emissions budgeting.

And cutting emissions now in fact would increase our bargaining power with other nations over the next few years as the world seeks agreement.

Commitment to European action is central to any serious effort to tackle climate change.

It is only on a European basis that we can ensure energy security and sustainability. And it is only through serious commitment to Europe that we can persuade other countries to co-operate.

The planet needs hard decisions about how to negotiate these limits, not beginning another search for another framework.

If we are to meet our national goal of a 60% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, and to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities presented by the challenge of carbon reduction, Britain will need to adapt, and quickly.

Today I am announcing a new policy working group on Climate Change.

The Climate Change Working Group will meet to build on existing party policy and to look at specific proposals for reducing global, European and national emissions.

Politicians have a responsibility to explain the problems and to lay out options, to inform the debate and to lead it.

But the Labour government has consistently avoided hard choices.

And when it has introduced new measures they have been inadequate.

What would the Green Switch advocated by us, mean?

There are several fairly straightforward measures that could be implemented right away, some of which I have already mentioned.

1. Reform the Climate Change Levy

The Climate Change Levy is a positive step forward. It should be restructured as a tax on carbon across the economy to include households as well, so that the true cost of our impact on the environment is reflected in the prices we pay. Measures would need to be devised for protecting those on low incomes or those living in inefficient housing.

2. Raise Vehicle Excise Duty on Polluting Cars

The Chancellor has increased Vehicle Excise Duty on high polluting vehicles by less than half a tank of fuel. If it is to be effective as a measure to reduce emissions and encourage greener transport, VED will have to be radically redrawn to penalise emissions and reward clean cars. The top-rate of VED should be significantly higher than at present.

3. Keep Fuel Duty In Line With Inflation

Duty on fuel should keep track with inflation. The freeze since 1999 has led to a rise in emissions.

4. Tax Emissions not Passengers

We have led the way in calling for reform of the way air travel is taxed. Instead of Air Passenger Duty on each passenger, airlines should pay an emissions charge. This would reward flights that were full and penalise those wasting a full tank on a few passengers.

5. No to Nuclear Power

Central to emissions reduction is the power sector.

We have consistently called for a mix of energy sources including decentralised supply. Up to 70% of energy generated in centralised installations is lost before it reaches your home. This is no different with nuclear power.

Investing massive sums in nuclear power will make a low-carbon future less likely not more. As the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee said only last week.

Large scale investment will fossilize the UK power generation industry for the next 50 years.

Nuclear power will mortgage our future. Incentives to diversify will disappear. And future generations will be left with uncertain risks and costs.

Taxpayers are expected to pay £56 billion to clean up existing nuclear waste (that’s £800 pounds a head). As a society we cannot afford to undertake that financial burden, not to mention the security risk from terrorism.

A short term focus on nuclear energy will only increase reliance on an inefficient centralised energy infrastructure that uses half its power in moving electricity around the country.

6. Yes to Decentralised Energy Supply

In 2003 the government’s own Energy White Paper laid out an ambitious agenda for a decentralised energy system, sometimes called ‘rewiring Britain’. This agenda should form the backbone of a renewable energy action plan that will lead us towards a flexible, efficient, responsive energy sector.

Rewiring Britain will require investment in infrastructure as well as changes to the monopolies of electricity distributors who are currently encouraged to sell more power not less. It will require learning from the innovative experience elsewhere such as that of California in reducing energy demand and saving customers money.

We need to look at how computer management of demand and supply as well as good ideas like Performance Based Regulation, which rewards energy conservation measures, can cut emissions.

If we remove barriers to connection and simplify planning procedures for new installations, it should be possible to generate 20% of our energy from renewables by 2020, as the British Wind Energy Association claims.

7. Sustainable Building should be the Norm

A low-carbon economy will require a revolution in housing design and patterns of energy consumption in the home.

UK building regulations are among the weakest in Europe. Sustainability must be an essential presumption in planning and building regulations.

The voluntary Sustainable Building Code proposed for public buildings binding for all new build, and elements of it applicable for renovations and refurbishments.

It is necessary to reward efficient construction and energy consumption, not only in the savings from reduced energy bills. In some towns in Holland for example, householders can get rebates on their council tax for reducing domestic waste.

8. Encourage Energy Efficient Appliances

Energy efficiency should be reflected in fiscal incentives for consumers to purchase green appliances, and to discourage inefficient or high energy technologies such as high polluting cars, appliances with ‘standby’ functions or electric heating installations.

9. Change Planning Laws

Both local and national government should do much more to encourage the use of microgeneration in the home and in public buildings. Planning regulations should be framed to encourage microgeneration not inhibit it.

10. Tighten the EU Cap on National Emissions

The European Emissions Trading Scheme is the most ambitious of its kind and the main lever with which European governments can ratchet down emissions. The UK will miss its own domestic target of a 20% reduction in emissions by 2010. Instead of seeking a loosening of the ETS National Allocation it should be looking to tighten it up. The range of figures produced by the DTI on how tight the cap should be, is not ambitious enough. We can and should, do better.

We must press for international agreement on effective targets but we should not wait for agreement to act ourselves.

We all have a role to play.

We can turn down the thermostat, we can insulate our lofts better, we can buy energy efficient light bulbs.

Those who buy cars can switch to driving environmentally friendly cars.

We can drive less. We can fly less.

And most importantly, we can make our views known to our governments.

The money to be saved and the money to be made by making the green switch are huge.

The United Kingdom can be a leader in the carbon market, still in its infancy, yet already worth £11 billion annually.

I want the UK to make that switch as soon as possible and to lead the world by example.

When I was a child, the smog in Glasgow was sometimes so bad you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face.

But then we woke up, we realised what we were doing and passed new laws in Britain and in Europe. Factories were retro-fitted, power stations cleaned up. Rivers cleaned and fish returned.

It is easy to forget how innovative and adaptable it is possible to be.

Here at the Tyndall centre in Norwich you have already applied your minds to great effect to become world leaders on the subject of climate change.

Now that climate change is established as a fact, the next task is convincing world leaders to do something about it, and doing something about it ourselves.

The task of finding a global agreement to stop the planet from warming is a task which demands the best from us all. With it, we shall rise to this, the great challenge of our times. Without, the prospect is grim.

I am determined that we shall not throw away in one generation the precious heritage of the centuries, and that we shall all play our part in rising to this challenge.

I am determined that we account to our children and grand children for what we did not what we said.

Editorial Notes: "Sir Walter Menzies Campbell (known as Ming Campbell and Old Father Time), CBE, QC, MP (born 22 May 1941, Glasgow) is a Scottish advocate and the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for North East Fife. He was elected leader of the Liberal Democrat party on 2 March 2006." (Wikipedia) It's a strange experience for an American to read how the political parties in Great Britain are vying for leadership on global warming. Aubrey Meyer posted this speech on the Global Commons Institute (GCI) website. Click on the link for "Frequently Updated News". The item is at the end of the list. GCI advocates Contraction and Convergence (C&C Bill in the House of Commons: - www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmbills/092/2006092.htm). Aubrey notes that Sir Campbell is strongly in favor of the measure and mentioned it in his speech:
But instead of leading, this government has been going backwards not forwards on climate change. And the Conservatives are complicit. They both speak of a need to ‘search for’ a new framework to control emissions after the current round of Kyoto targets runs out in 2012. There is no need to look very far. There is a framework in place which has the support of the European Parliament, and of many other countries. It is called Contraction and Convergence, and the Lib Dems have been speaking about it since 2001.
-BA

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