Thursday, 3 December 2009

Leaders must act to save planet in Copenhagen

The devastation caused to parts of Britain and Ireland by the recent floods came just weeks before international leaders gather in Copenhagen to discuss how best to combat climate change.
The floods devastated Cockermouth inCumbria and more than a dozen towns and villages in Ireland, including the centre of Cork. The River Suck burst its banks in County Leitrim, flooding the town of Ballinasloe and cutting off major roads to the northwest. About 40 families had to be evacuated by boat
The British and Irish army were deployed in their respective countries to save people from the worsening weather conditions. A policeman, Bill Barker, lost his life in Cumbria when a bridge he was standing on collapsed.
Britain’s Environment Secretary Hilary Benn claimed the flood was a one in a 1,000 year occurrence, compared to the one in 100 year ferocity which the Cumbria area had fortified to withstand. This was no doubt very reassuring to all those who lost their homes. There were some recriminations over whether adequate provision is being made for these types of natural occurrences in both countries.
Whether these were freak storms or not it would seem such occurrences are getting more commonplace. Floods have hit Ireland in each of the last three years. Two years ago in the UK it was the Midlands that was hit with floods in Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. Previous to that Cornwall was flooded.
There can be little doubt that these climatic changes are due to the effects in some way of global warming. Water levels are rising and the weather conditions are changing.
Another sign of rapid change comes with the news that the Thames Barrier has been raised 64 times in the last 10 years up to 2007. This compares to 10 times in the first decade of its existence. Interestingly, it would take a one in a 1000-year occurrence to overwhelm the barrier – not very reassuring given the same ratio applied in Cumbria.
All of this devastation and statistical evidence ought to be enough to focus minds at the Copenhagen summit. Yet there seems to be little urgency from world leaders. US President Barack Obama will show up briefly.
The British Government to its credit does seem to recognise the need to take international action to combat climate change. Prime Minister Gordon Brown will attend Copenhagen and has warned of the consequences of failure to act decisively. Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband has also been actively lobbying in European capitals to ensure some coming together on a united agenda.
The inconsistency with the British Government comes when matching words and actions. There are moves to combat global warming but comparing say the £800 million put into flood defences with the billions pumped into the disastrous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan gives some idea of policy priority. Indeed, David King, the former chief scientific advisor to the government warned that climate change was a far bigger threat to the future of the nation than terrorism.
If world leaders are to seriously address climate change they need to recognise that the devastation being caused is intricately linked to the current economic model. If things continue as at present there is no doubt that the world will be devastated by ever-greater catastrophes. Whether these are dismissed in piecemeal style as one in a 100, one in a 1000 or one in 10,000 occurrences it will get a lot worse.
Damage done to the environment must be reflected in economic indicators. So for example, air travel should come to reflect the damage it does to the environment. Similarly, train travel would get cheaper because it is sustainable.
Take the journey to Copenhagen by way of example. Travelling by train costs £320. Taking a plane costs £72. If environmental factors were taken into account, the train would cost £70, the plane £600.
Other moves can be made to promote sustainable living. Why not take all tax off electric cars and offer incentives to businesses that operate fleets of company cars to go electric? There is an argument for making environmentally friendly forms of travel like rail free. No new house should be built in the UK or Ireland that is not carbon neutral.
Why not invest heavily in green technology? This is a new area that the UK and Ireland could major in, creating the new products and exporting to the rest of the world. There has been some investment but nothing like that undertaken in say Germany.
Britain and Ireland are uniquely placed to take advantage of energy devolved from the wind and waves.
There also need to be technological transfers to growing economies like India and China in order that they can develop sustainably.
The third area in need of addressing is people’s own lifestyles. It is not good enough to simply recycle a bit more and use the car a bit less. This crisis is such that it does genuinely mean a return to a more basic, less damaging style of living. The consumer lifestyle developed over the past few decades has brought the world to the brink of destruction. For everyone to live like the US and Europe do at present would require five planets. We have just one, so the maths says that lifestyles will have to change dramatically.
It is not too late but time is running out. To really address climate change requires sustained action at a number of levels – individual, community and government. Let’s hope world leaders recognise the very real dangers and act accordingly at Copenhagen.

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