25 December 2004

Give them the Earth this Christmas

By Jacqui McCarney

Mulling over another EDP report on Climate Change, whilst I walked towards the city, beside grid-locked Christmas shopping traffic, I couldn't help notice an isolated and bored, unhappy looking young child strapped in the back of a 4by4 as it pumped out fumes.

By contrast, my return journey, by bus, was greatly cheered by meeting 3 year old Tom and his mother. Tom chatted endlessly about all he saw and on leaving bus called politely "Thank you Mr Bus driver" and all the women including me, especially me, coo-ed and ahh-ed.

"Christmas is a time for children" - these contrasting pictures of childhood reflect the opposite scenarios for the future security of the young generation. Tom's life was rich and full of adventure with opportunities to develop social skills and a sense of community. In deliberately using public transport, his mother is enriching Tom's outings now, and making a strong statement about her hopes for his future and the future of Tom's generation.

Giving our children a stable and secure future can no longer be regarded as a purely private matter as road transport produces a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change - our life-style choices now will have an impact on a whole generation, as Sir David King the government's chief scientist has said "global warming is greater challenge than global terrorism".

The UK has witnessed the catastrophic effects of climate change - unprecedented rainfall; widespread flooding memorably in Boscastle; overflow of sewers pouring out raw effluent; monsoon conditions in Scotland causing mudslides and trapping dozens of vehicles; severe storms and rising sea levels claiming low lying land experienced dramatically here in Norfolk.

We can expect more extreme droughts and heat waves, like in 2003, that lead to thousands dying in France; increases in skin cancer; and of course, wars over increasingly scarce energy resources, such as with Iraq. Despite, his mother's best intentions, the future for Tom and his generation looks grim.

The third world's picture is much worse - climate change will cause disease, flooding and loss of land on a huge scale.

Ordinary people are right to be concerned for the future of their children. According to a BBC poll most of us accept that human activity is responsible for changing the world's climate and 85% are willing to make changes to help the environment. Margaret Beckett writing in Renewal said "There is a growing public appetite for leadership on the environment". Where is it? With 3 million members of environmental groups in Britain, and the Green party holding five seats and the balance of power in Norwich, Mrs Beckett's instincts are well founded, despite her Government's lack of decisive policy and action.

Tony Blair's speeches endorse the need to reduce carbon emissions; yet, he has, given the go ahead for a huge expansion of airports, and has a £30billion budget for road building.

Air travel is the fastest growing source of CO2 - we have a choice of over 400 package holidays from our local airport whilst little thought is given to the real cost to the future generations.

This lack of consistent leadership permeates down to institutions. UEA has an international reputation on climate change studies, and CRed brings some of their expertise into the community, aiming to reduce local carbon emissions by 60% by 2025. However, living near the university one might doubt the renowned environmental department's existence as one witnesses a small city on the move every day at 5 'o clock with subsequent congestion and pollution.

Getting the 58% of car using students onto bikes and buses with generously subsidised bus passes would improve car travel for members of staff who travel in long distances … encouraging staff to use electric cars now only £5,000 with no petrol or tax costs … providing an efficient, reliable and comprehensive bus service - would all help the whole city and clear the route for emergency services to the hospital. Working with the council and bus company, the university would still have a huge amount of change from the £12million, planned for a new multi-storey car park.

Whilst wishing all the children of Norfolk a happy and joy filled Christmas, we need more to wish them a happy future, and to build it. Leadership from politicians may come too late. A recent paper in Science identified reducing car use by 50%, and increasing car efficiency by 100%, as key strategies to stabilize climate change by 2050. Let's allow our children the pleasure of walking, cycling and bus rides, and ensure their rightful inheritance; the earth.