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Cruising for a bruising

The prime minister seems to have woken up to the reality of climate change. So why is his government so recklessly keen on encouraging the aviation industry?

June 1, 2004
4 min read

Tony Blair hasn’t said a lot on the environment. So a speech in April suggesting that climate change “would dominate the world agenda in the years to come” certainly came as a pleasant surprise. Apparently, some within Number 10 are actually concerned about the issue: Geoff Mulgan and David Miliband, the current and former heads of the Number 10 policy unit, have talked about the “contraction and convergence’ model for addressing climate change. (I wonder how Blair reconciles his new environmentalism with his support for the US war to secure Iraqi oil supplies.)

Blair’s statement on climate change came at the unveiling of the Climate Group, a body of companies, states and NGOs committed to moving forward on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The government has set a target for reducing emissions by 60 per cent by 2050: an admirable aim that requires concerted action. Yet the Climate Group is a curious launch pad for this mission. Its supporters include oil companies Shell and BP, who won’t be in too great a hurry to limit use of their core product.

The organisation is not the first forum to offer corporations the opportunity to take a lead on climate change. Corporate lobby groups have been tagging on to the Kyoto process for years. As concern over climate change has grown, and action of some sort has become inevitable, these groups have moved towards “constructive engagement”: working from within to prevent governments laying down regulations that would encourage business to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

It is possible that the government, with its small contingent of climate-change realists, hoped to overcome the strategy of the corporates by inviting some of its proponents to the high table. But if this was Blair’s thinking he hasn’t applied it in practice. The chance for the government to demonstrate that it was prepared to stand up to industry came a week after the Climate Group launch, with the release of figures that set limits on industry greenhouse gas emissions to be allowed under the EU’s emissions trading scheme. Disappointingly, the figures were watered down from a draft published earlier in the year.

Blair did possibly raise a few corporate eyebrows by making the vital point in his Climate Group speech that “some kind of trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection” had to be confronted. Contraction and Convergence research has, after all, highlighted a 100 per cent correlation between the output of carbon dioxide emissions and GDP from global industry over the past four decades. This relationship was indirectly referred to in April in the government’s review of its 2003 energy white paper. The review suggested that, despite a fall in the level of energy consumed per unit of GDP, a “step change” improvement in energy efficiency was still needed to meet the white paper’s objectives.

It’s quite a considerable step that needs to take place if greenhouse gas emissions are to be meaningfully reduced. Energy efficiency is a start, but, more than that, the government has to be honest about the need to tackle consumption. One of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases is air travel, for which the government has so far shied away from producing any kind of political vision. Blair holds out for technical fixes to lessen the polluting effect of aviation fuel, and insists: “It is just not feasible to say that we are going to cut the number of journeys that people make.” His government has decided to allow an expansion of UK airport capacity, despite a warning from the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee that “if aviation emissions increase on the scale predicted by the Department of Transport, the UK’s emission reduction target will become meaningless and unachievable”.

It’s true that promising less in terms of material wealth for the sake of more in terms of health and overall wealth isn’t an immediate vote-winner at the ballot box. But this is the programme with which politicians will increasingly have to engage. They have the duty to explain how plentiful cheap flights lead to increasingly chaotic weather conditions to the detriment of us all. And they have the responsibility to outline not just the need for climate stability in 50 years time, but the policies that will lead to a genuine decrease in fossil fuel emissions – policies that start now.

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