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‘Clean and green’ Speech to the Uni Of Canterbury

‘Clean and green’

Nick Herbert MP

Speech to the University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Thursday 12 November 2009

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today, and would particularly like to thank the University of Canterbury for providing me with this platform.

It’s a huge pleasure to be here in New Zealand.

I arrived just as the All Blacks were in the process of beating Wales back at home ...

... and I look forward to England winning as decisively on my return.

I had been working on the assumption that our two nations shared a common language, so I was surprised to discover that my guidebook included a phrasebook.

I now see that this was an essential travel accessory.

However, after just a few days here, I am pleased to tell you that I am almost fluent in Kiwi.

I can order greasies and jugs.

Above all, I know my true left from true right.

I have always been an admirer of New Zealand.

Your economic liberalisation of the 1980s led the world.

You invented the central bank independence which we adopted.

And you championed the environment with your ‘clean and green’ politics

Today, that mission – to be clean and green – isn’t just an economic asset.

It’s an imperative for our collective security.

This afternoon I want to talk about dangerous climate change and our shared responsibility to deal with it.

And I want to identify five key challenges which together we face in delivering the necessary action.

Dangerous climate change

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As David Cameron warned in his first Conference speech as Conservative Party Leader, “the price of inaction [on climate change] gets higher every day”.

It takes decades for the full effect of greenhouse gases to be felt on the climate: the 30 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide we will emit this year will cause harm for more than the next three decades.

And yet dangerous climate change is already happening, caused by the greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere.

Further warning signs were seen this week with news that the ice cap on Mount Kilimanjaro has declined by 26 per cent since the year 2000.

Alongside the urgent need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, we have also to prepare for the future costs of adapting to climate change.

In the UK context, we already know that rising sea levels will lead to increased coastal erosion.

As a densely-populated island, we are more vulnerable to rising sea levels, and without progress on climate change mitigation the costs of adaptation in the decades ahead will fall heavily on the public finances.

The UK Environment Agency already predicts that the costs of sea and flood defences and programmes for managed retreat from low-lying coastal areas will rise rapidly.

The New Zealand government predicts that climate change will have its “greatest impacts” on water resources, and warns that “extreme climate events such as droughts could become more frequent in eastern areas, but floods could also increase”.

Related to the rise in temperatures, and combined with population growth, is the global resources challenge: the real prospect of serious water and food shortages.

The UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington, has warned of a “perfect storm” in just two decades’ time of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources, threatening to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions.

That’s why next month’s negotiations at Copenhagen are so crucial. If the world is to avert the most damaging effects of climate change, we need to act swiftly.

Copenhagen: Consensus in the UK

In the UK there is complete unity of purpose between the Conservative Party and the Government.

We both recognise the historic importance of securing international agreement. A deal at Copenhagen should meet three criteria:

 It must be fair to the developing world, establishing a new international mechanism that provides the world’s poorest countries with the means to protect themselves against future floods, famine and drought. This will have to be paid for using funds that are additional to, not instead of, the development assistance currently deployed to fight poverty.

 An agreement must be ambitious. Domestically, the UK’s targets set in the Climate Change Act are already ambitious – and rightly so. We need the same scale of ambition on the international level. Targets for emissions reductions need to be rigorous; and the deal must secure the protection of our rainforests. Without these it will be impossible to keep warming under 2 degrees centigrade.

 And an agreement must be binding. The Conservatives were the first political party in the UK to call for climate change legislation with legally enforceable targets, and we welcome our Government’s subsequent decision to adopt them, requiring a reduction in emissions of one third by 2020 compared to 1990. In the same way a commitment to global binding targets is now needed.
In recent days concerns have been raised that negotiations at Copenhagen could fail. But even if there are setbacks, and irrespective of whether there is a change of government next year, there will be no hiatus in the British ambition to secure a fair, effective and binding global agreement to tackle climate change.

This is the first challenge we have to meet.

Addressing the sceptics

The second challenge is to maintain the consensus – the public will – to drive such international agreement and the national, community and individual actions which must follow.

It is encouraging that, across the world, public and political opinion has moved so far in recognition of the importance of this issue. We have seen both China and India recognise that their own security and environment is threatened by global warming, and both have developed plans to tackle their carbon emissions.

Yet while nations forge a consensus, there is a body of public opinion in many countries which questions the need. In this summer’s edition of Australia’s Institute for Public Affairs’ Review, one article asked:

“... if we humans are warming the planet now, how do we explain alternating cool and warm periods during the current post-glacial warming?”

There are of course other processes that have affected our planet’s temperature in the past – but that doesn’t change the fact that greenhouse gas emissions of industrial society are changing the climate now. That is the overwhelming conclusion of the world’s scientific community.

Why have they reached this conclusion?

First, since the industrial revolution, we have been pumping billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have been doing this more quickly than the planet can absorb, meaning that carbon dioxide has been accumulating. This has strongly correlated with a rise in overall temperatures.

This temperature rise is explained by the greenhouse effect. The science is well-established. The first study of the greenhouse effect was made in 1896 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. And climate change is happening because the greenhouse effect has become stronger than it used to be.

Yet the science that explains how we move from the greenhouse effect, to changes in temperature, to changes in climate is complex. This has given plenty of opportunity for sceptics to dispute whether climate change has been caused by man.

Their arguments are numerous and not all consistent with each other, but I think they can be boiled down to five main types.

First, they ask: how do we know that we put all that extra carbon dioxide in there? Well, we know, by a process that works like the carbon dating we use to determine the age of archaeological sites, that since 1850, the carbon in the atmosphere has been getting more and more like the carbon produced by burning fossil fuels and less and less like other kinds. The carbon we produced has fingerprints, and they are all over the atmosphere.

The second line of argument is that warming has stopped. For example, some sceptics say that the earth’s temperature peaked in 1998. This is true: subsequent years have been cooler, but we need to look at overall trends rather than individual years.

It would be just as wrong to cherry-pick a cold year to exaggerate warming. Over decades, the Earth’s average temperature has been increasing. This is true even though some regions may be cooler

The third argument is to cast doubt on the accuracy of the measuring equipment. A major contention (known as the ‘Urban Heat Island Effect’) was that warming appeared to take place because the weather stations that recorded temperature tended to be situated near cities, which are hotter.

But research that took the effect of urbanisation into account still concludes that the planet is warming. Other sceptics claimed that satellites measured temperature more straightforwardly. At one time it looked as if satellites recorded cooling or slower warming. But it turned out this was due to technical problems. The American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite survey shows warming in line with scientific models.

The fourth line is to say: even if the planet is warming, it has been warmer in the past. In fact it’s been more than 10,000 years since it has been as warm overall. Some sceptics still say the planet was warmer in the “medieval warming period” and the “Holocene Climatic Optimum.”

In fact, research has shown these were localised to the northern hemisphere and even then only the summer months. A variation is to suggest that periods of warming are normal, and happen towards the end of any ice age. But the current warming is ten times faster than the warming that takes place according to the ice age cycles.

Finally, the argument is made that the climate models are flawed. If you can’t predict the weather next Friday, how can you predict the climate? A major example that sceptics use is the American scientist James Hansen.

Sceptics say that the warming prediction he gave the US Senate in 1988 was too large by 300 per cent. In fact he presented three scenarios in his evidence, and the middle one was accurate.

Science is never 100 per cent accurate, but the balance of evidence is clear. Man, through industrialisation, has already caused climate change, by emitting excessive amounts of greenhouse gases. If we don’t drastically reduce these over the coming decades the risks to civilised life will be enormous.

Here in New Zealand, the impact of rising temperatures can be seen in three successive years of drought on the East coast of both islands, a climate trend which has already cost the national economy billions of dollars.

We have a duty to avert this warming because we hold our civilisation and planet in trust. Our generation will be alive for a tiny fraction of civilised human existence, but our actions will affect profoundly the fate of generations to come. We owe it to future generations to take action now to protect our planet.

Because to do so, is to respect the obligations we owe to other generations – what Edmund Burke described as “... a partnership between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Deterring change

The third challenge to effective action on climate change comes from a different quarter. Some interest groups make demands for behavioural change which are so profound and unrealistic that they risk undermining public support for the changes we can and must make.

Two weeks ago, the UK Government’s former climate change adviser, Lord Stern, effectively called for everyone to give up meat in order to deal with global warming.

Setting aside the fact that emissions from livestock account for only between 13 and 18 per cent of global carbon emissions, such comments could almost be calculated to reduce public support for addressing climate change. Of course, agriculture must play its part in reducing emissions, but we have to be conscious of the tone of such prescriptions.

While such demands may appear to be ludicrous, they get remembered by the public, and there are movements which are promoting radical lifestyle changes of this kind. In their world, capitalism is uninvented, air travel is prohibited and cars are no more. In truth, this red-green agenda is as much political as environmental, led not by science – as we must be – but by ideology. It is not so much a vision of a green earth as a flat earth.

The planet we want to save is surely a world of prosperous, free people, where wealth can be shared and opportunity is available to all. It cannot be a world where behaviour is controlled or where some nations are denied the lifestyles which we in the West enjoy.

We need to learn to live within our environmental means, as surely as we must live within our economic means; to minimise waste; to conserve natural resources; to recognise the importance of biodiversity and to value nature. Lifestyles and business practices will have to change. But we cannot expect to succeed by impoverishing the West, any more than we should want to practice a form of environmental colonialism by denying developing countries the chance to acquire the living standards which we enjoy. We need to pursue sustainable growth, not reject the idea of growth itself.

Agriculture and climate change

The fourth challenge to effective action on climate change is to translate international agreement and binding targets into deliverable national plans to decarbonise our economies, to unlock low carbon technologies and ensure that carbon markets work effectively.

The actions necessary will vary between countries, and so will the opportunities to reduce emissions. In Britain, as well as revisiting existing low-carbon sources such as nuclear power, we will also need to invest in new forms of renewable energy, while the vast majority of New Zealand’s power generation is from hydro-electric sources.

In the UK, farming’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is just 7 per cent, but New Zealand’s agriculture accounts for almost half. That is exceptional for a developed country. And the nature of New Zealand’s farming means that the more straightforward kinds of emissions reduction are not possible here.

For instance, with pastoral farming, there’s no feasible way to collect manure and use it for anaerobic digestion, which is a growth industry in the UK, creating real commercial opportunities for our farmers. And with grazing land already acting as a carbon sink, positive land use change is difficult.

Putting it another way, New Zealand’s agriculture is, by global standards, incredibly greenhouse-gas efficient. But this does leave the technically difficult task of reducing the emissions caused by enteric fermentation.

These account for a third of New Zealand’s overall greenhouse gas emissions – as much as is caused by the transport and power generation sectors put together. And yet the science behind reducing these emissions is nowhere near as developed.

At the most recent UN General Assembly, Prime Minister John Key announced a Global Alliance initiative to meet “... the twin challenge of ensuring food security while reducing emissions”.

This is exactly the right approach. We cannot disregard the need for agriculture to make its contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But nor should we expect agriculture to change practices in a way that handicaps our ability to meet the global food demand of 2030.

The resources challenge in the decades ahead will rely on modern, productive agriculture to provide global food security. But we cannot permit more agricultural emissions in future just because we need to grow more food.

We have to invest in the research and development now, in order that we can cut emissions without cutting production. This will require us to share best practice and pool expertise, so that we can find solutions quickly and pursue promising technologies at the earliest opportunity.

So collaboration on policy and research for mitigating agricultural emissions is essential. Yesterday I saw the potential when I visited Lincoln University’s South Island Dairying Development Centre, which has developed nitrification inhibitor technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Almost unique in modern history, climate change is an issue that affects all countries simultaneously, not just the most advanced. We need to work together to garner the resources and expertise to deliver the necessary change, including the reduction of agricultural emissions. We particularly need to address both food security and climate change. So today I want to announce that a future Conservative Government would plan to join the Global Alliance pioneered by New Zealand.

The Good Future

The fifth and final challenge is to secure the individual behavioural changes upon which effective action to prevent global warming will depend.

There can be no doubt that arresting dangerous climate change will require significant changes to the way we live and do business. As we move to de-carbonise our economies, we need to recognise the power of markets and incentives to change behaviour.

Changes must be habitual and realisable in people's everyday lives. In a free society they require positive incentives rather than lecturing and regulation.

Environment Minister Nick Smith has talked about replacing a bureaucratic approach to New Zealand’s environmental challenges with a new ethos, incentivising people to do the right thing.

This cannot just be about policy agreed by politicians, whether they’re in Westminster or Wellington. A green consensus in favour of action on climate change that only involves the political class and interest groups is no consensus at all.

Of course, global targets, fiscal frameworks and the right political leadership are all necessary, but they are not sufficient. Without public buy-in the societal shift needed to de-carbonise our economies will not follow. In order to encourage this democratic engagement we must frame policy in a way that incentivises people to do the right things, and rewards them when they do.

We also need more hope in the public discourse on climate change. The scale of the challenges we face is indeed immense, and the worst case scenarios which follow inaction or ineffective action are truly alarming. But in promoting the need for change, we need to talk more about the benefits and opportunities of change as well as the costs.

Whenever we criticise environmentally harmful activity, we also need to be ready to promote the good that will come from living a more sustainable lifestyle, where waste is reduced, resources are used more efficiently and nature is conserved.

In short, we need to set out a vision of the future we’re trying to achieve. This is what David Cameron has called the “good future,” where we all enjoy and truly value the fruits of a cleaner, quieter more beautiful environment, and where individuals and communities live within their environmental means and use resources sustainably for their own benefit.

New Zealand has long seen the advantage of being ‘clean and green’. Today, we need to recognise the importance and the opportunity of realising that vision on a global basis.

Thank you.


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