Tuesday, 18 March 2008

One way to make the weather

Another day, another stinging criticism of the Brown government’s climate change record.

It’s not just the usual suspects.

Today, the Sustainable Development Commission says that more than half of all government departments are failing to reduce their carbon emissions sufficiently to reach levels that the nation as a whole is expected to meet.

Yesterday, the National Audit Office concluded that ministers use two sets of accounts when reporting greenhouse gas emissions. One covers emissions from international flights and shipping. Using the more stringent accounting standard, the investigation finds "there have been no reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions" from the 1990 level. A damning Guardian leader duly followed.

On Saturday, the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle argued that although “no issue has greater political potency than the challenge of climate change”, the government has been “hesitant” (such a polite word) to take the action needed. He said:

What surprises me about Brown's halting response to the climate change challenge is not that he doesn't get it or that he doesn't care or do enough about it, even though these things seem sadly true.

The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley has been uncomplimentary about the government’s environmental record. And earlier this month, former cabinet minister Charles Clarke called Gordon Brown’s policies on climate change “absolutely pathetic.”

Martin Kettle went on to an interesting, if unoriginal, conclusion:

What surprises me is that [Brown] fails to see the base political advantage that would come from capturing the issue. Because if he doesn't capture it, someone else - step forward the Liberal Democrats – will.

Lib Dem readers may see this as a no-brainer. Surely, they will say, we have the most radical, most comprehensive policies on climate change. For reasons that may be obvious, I tend to agree.

But check out the January YouGov opinion poll. This put the Lib Dems at level pegging with Labour and the Conservatives as “the party that could handle the environment and global warming best”. At 18 per cent, this was our best rating, by some way. (It must also be said that 40 per cent respondent said “none” or indicated no preference.) This is the most recent public opinion poll to ask this kind of question. Most polls since the 2005 general election have shown similar results.

Nick Clegg’s first environmental policy speech as leader was impressive -- and I blogged on it the next day.

There is much more to be done. The detailed policy programme set out in the 2007 policy paper Zero Carbon Britain needs to be kept up to date. The climate change debate moves fast, mainly in a gloomy direction, and it won’t stand still for the Lib Dems. How to promote environmentally friendly technologies is one area where more work is needed. So the policy mix needed to effect changes in consumer behaviours, especially through smart metering. With fuel prices rising, the impact of climate change policy on fuel poverty is a challenging area. So is the link between environmental policy and energy security strategies.

The Lib Dem shadow energy and environment secretary, Steve Webb, is on to this. But that's only part of what needs to happen. One of the key take out messages of Zero Carbon Britain is that climate change can no longer be simply pigeon holed as an “environmental issue”.

New agreements are needed at international level. So it’s a foreign policy issue.

Some of the most effective action on climate change will come from the EU. That makes climate change a European affairs issue.

Last year, the IPCC found that by the 2050s, more than a billion people will be at risk of increased water stress and hundreds of millions at risk of sea-level rise. The poorest of the poor in the world are going to be the worst hit. That makes it an international development issue.

Even in prosperous societies, poor people will be worst affected. So it’s a social policy issue at home too.

Action to mitigate climate change will need to come from policies on transport, on housing, on planning.

The commitment to a zero carbon Britain should run all through the party’s policies, campaigns and -- yes -- our narrative.

The Lib Dems have long called for integrated, cross-portfolio approach to climate change. We should be the only ones who can offer it. On the EU, for instance, the Lib Dems must be more credible than the Conservatives.

We can and must build such a message. The Lib Dems need to carry on where Zero Carbon Britain left off.

By communicating joined up solutions, we could, as Martin Kettle suggested, capture the issue of climate change once again.

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