26 March 2005

Resurrecting Gaia

By Andrew Boswell

Spring and the annual rebirth of nature have arrived. In the sacred, Easter Saturday is a time before suffering is transformed to new life. Today in 2005, the Easter meaning must be the very suffering of the planet, its eco and life systems.

Our planet is sacred, and daily, we hear more about damage to it. Climate Change is no longer a distant threat. The truth is simple - we are crucifying the planet and it cannot take much more. Yet, really, we have no idea of what the path of Gaia's resurrection might be.

Under this threat, we need a synthesis of pragmatic policy, technology and behaviour change. We are not short of creative ideas, but we are short on political leadership, and real climate governance.

At the G8 summit in Scotland in July, it is crucial that global leaders move beyond words to immediate action. The build up has started already: think-tanks and policy gurus are hard at work, and last week, the first-ever meeting of G8 Environment and Development Ministers was held in Derbyshire. (They kept that quiet, didn't they?)

"Catalysing Commitment on Climate Change" is a report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), published to coincide with the Derbyshire meeting. It gives excellent pro-active policy suggestions for the G8 ministers on decarbonising the global economy, whilst contributing to poverty eradication too.

In the authors' words, to prevent dangerous climate change, a level playing field must be created for energy producers, so that clean, renewable energy technologies can thrive globally. The G8 should:
  • stop multi-billion dollar hand-outs given to the fossil fuel industry, and
  • support the growth of renewable energy and energy saving technologies in developing countries, particularly small-scale renewable projects which can alleviate poverty too.
They suggest a multilateral framework. I agree. Without a great many nations involved, little can be achieved. A climate leadership group should be formed from both industrialised and developing nations, which has annual summits. Further, they suggest a system of international accountability where:
  • companies should be made to disclose their emissions.
  • the industrialised countries should accept their current and historical responsibility for climate change in developing countries, and make compensation for disaster mitigation and relief.
All this addresses the current vacuum of leadership, policy and international agreement on climate change. It is a shame that the authors didn't go a step further and propose a global system of carbon budgets for individuals and countries. This would really give a fair and pragmatic basis to their proposed climate accountability, and generate wide international buy-in from poorer countries.

This means stabilising the planet's environment by contracting global carbon emissions under the "Contraction and Convergence" scheme that allocates a per capita carbon budget to each nation. Carbon trading allows heavy polluters to buy carbon budgets from the poor, less polluting countries forcing high carbon emitting industries to start to pay the real cost of their emissions. They are then driven, by the market, to reduce their emissions, whilst developing nations can continue to develop sustainably. Over time, there is a convergence of the carbon emissions between the north and south - a fair balance of industrialised and developing nations being reached sometime between 2025 and 2100.

As a high emitter, the UK should lead with strong national policies for contraction. Where are they? They barely exist yet as the media and government still do not address the real dangers of climate change, and the climate issue has been marginalised in the current election build up,

This is not to say the other issues, such as health, taxation, terrorism, education and crime, are not important - just that voters are owed a really informed environmental debate. Instead electoral fatigue has set in as the same policies and issues are rolled-out as in previous elections.

Green policies will make a real difference to our future, and deserve real debate and scrutiny. Whatever the election result, the UK should establish a national Department of Climate Sustainability, as sustainability is currently addressed between departments, and largely falls between them.

Such a ministry should have two senior ministers to reflect its urgency, one focusing nationally and the other internationally (cf Home Office, Foreign Office). They should roll out radical policy to start contracting our carbon usage: huge public transport investments, incentives for domestic and industrial energy efficiency, localized sustainable transport and development. Their mandate should be also to ensure participation and accountability for carbon usage of local authorities, industry and citizens.

Resurrecting Gaia, our planet, will take generations, but we will, at least, have made the first step.