With the opening of yet another summit on climate change, the warnings about the impact of global warming are becoming increasingly apocalyptic. The word “emergency” is now associated with policies designed to arrest the rise in temperatures, with the implication that unless more is done soon it will be too late.
Prof Sir David King, the UK’s former chief scientist, recently said he had been scared by the number of extreme events and called for the UK to advance its climate targets by 10 years. This rhetoric is understandably alarming people, especially the young, who fear for their future on the planet. Their champion is 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, whose emotional pronouncements are becoming the soundtrack of our age. The two-week event in Madrid – switched to the Spanish capital from riot-torn Santiago in Chile – is unlikely to assuage their fears, though it might help do so if something positive and achievable were to emerge.
This is the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP) since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, at which they all committed to deal with climate change and environmental degradation, only to fail to do so on a legally binding global basis. The gazetteer of venues, from Kyoto in 1997, through Copenhagen in 2009 to Paris four years ago, attests to a vast amount of hot air being expended to very little effect. Will Madrid be any different?
There have been considerable advances, especially in renewables such as offshore wind and other green technologies in the UK, where the election has triggered an arms race of increasingly fanciful targets. The Conservatives intend to reach zero emissions by 2050, Lib Dems by 2045, Labour “well before” 2050 while the Extinction Rebellion group argues for 2025.
Even the Tory ambition is almost certainly unrealistic and would require economic retrenchment for no obvious global gain while other countries fail to reduce their emissions. Moreover, while Britain has weakened the domestic link between economic growth and fossil fuels, we are the biggest importer of C02 emissions in the G7 group as a result of buying manufactured goods abroad. The next government should encourage investment in green infrastructure, such as more power points for electric cars. We need practical, market-driven measures rather than endless posturing and summiteering.