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A paler shade of green

William Hatchet26/09/2014 - 14:00

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Climate change - polar bear
Climate change - polar bear

Do people care about saving the planet any more? On the same week as World Environmental Heatlh Day, on 26h September, the world’s leaders, including David Cameron and Barack Obama (but minus the prime minister of Australia, Tony Abbott), were set to meet in New York for a United Nations climate summit. In the UK, the event was barely covered by print and broacast media, preoccupied as they were by conflict.

With a faintly pleading tone, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon had asked them to bring ‘bold announcements’ of actions to reduce emissions, strengthen climate resilience and mobilise political will, leading up to a ‘meaningful’ legal agreement in 2015. Videos on the summit’s website contain imaginary weather reports from 2050. They show, in shocking detail, mega-droughts, deadly heat waves and a year’s rainfall falling in a month.

The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 gave us the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Five years later, the Kyoto Protocol committed 39 countries in the developed world to binding targets on reducing greenhouse gases. Targets were not imposed on Brazil, India and China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases - a fact noted by US president George W Bush in 2001, when he said that the US would never implement the protocol. When the protocol, now ratified by 55 countries, came into force in 2005, it did not include the US or Australia.

With the world in recession in 2011, Canada, Japan and Russia said they would take no further action on Kyoto targets. The Canadian government announced its withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the EU was still bullish. It was on track to meet its 2005 targets and even exceed them. Paradoxically, the US, which produces more than a third of the world’s greenhouse gases, has also made reductions in emissions since 2000, mainly because it has phased out coal-fired power stations and increased vehicle efficiency. This is a fact that will allow president Obama to make more positive noises on climate change than president Bush.

The UN and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continue to drive progress, backed by science, and the New York summit will produce some positive announcements, albeit with countries peeling away and variable targets and timescales now being imposed. But with ‘green fatigue’ having set in and climate change scepticism increasingly prevalent - sceptics note that global temperatures have not increased for the past decade - it is hard not to conclude that progress on Kyoto is faltering.

What about the UK? The environmental audit committee’s latest report, an environmental scorecard, shows a growing reduction in commitment to green policies on the part of the government.

The committee is chaired by CIEH vice president Joan Walley. Ms Walley, who is standing down as MP for Stoke-on-Trent North at next year’s election, has done a huge amount to raise the profile of environmental and environmental health issues in her 27 years in parliament. From 1987 to 1995, she held posts as shadow spokesperson for environmental protection and development and then for transport. An independent and often critical voice, she has chaired the environmental audit committee, a green watchdog set up by New Labour, since 2010.

he report reminds us that in May 2010, David Cameron made an unequivocal statement: ‘We’ve got a big, big opportunity, here. I want us to be the greenest government ever - a very simple ambition and one that I’m absolutely committed to achieving.’

The report benchmarks performance against the Rio+20 Summit sustainable development goals. Its format is simple. It takes 10 subjects and gives the government a red (deterioration since 2010), amber (unsatisfactory progress) or green (satisfactory improvement) score for each.

The report awards a red for air pollution, biodiversity, and flooding and coastal protection. Gaining amber are emissions and climate change, forests, soils, resource efficiency and waste, and freshwater and marine environments and water availability. There are no greens.

The report concludes: ‘In none of the 10 environmental areas we have examined is satisfactory progress being made despite the necessary urgency.’

The failure on air quality is particularly serious. The committee observes that the UK failed to meet targets for nitrogen dioxide pollution in 34 of the 43 zones specified in the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive in 2012, resulting in the European Commission launching infraction proceedings against the UK this year.

The government’s failure on flood protection is also singled out Ñ climate change is giving us wetter winters but 2.4Êmillion properties are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea, and three million from surface water. Some properties are even at risk from all three.

Perhaps the committee is a little harsh on the government on global gas emissions and climate change. It notes that while emissions are still increasing globally, they have been decreasing in the UK. The Climate Change Act 2008 requires the government to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050 against a 1990 baseline, and the government’s carbon budgets, designed to deliver that reduction, have so far been achieved. At least that’s something that we can feel modestly pleased about.



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