Too Little, Too Late


The frustrations of a House of Commons backbench politician who takes anthropogenic climate change seriously are well reflected in Colin Challen’s recently published book Too Little, Too Late: The Politics of Climate Change. He opens with a memorable verbatim account (from his notes) of a two hour “ping pong match” at the 2007 Bali conference in which the Chinese finally overcame developed world opposition to a modest proposal about how technology transfer should be discussed in future. It was enough to make one wonder how on earth any significant agreement can come at Copenhagen. But realist though Challen is, he’s not a quitter and his book plugs away at the issue.

He turns to the 1930s and Churchill’s persistent warnings about the threat of fascism as a possible analogue to the climate change situation today. Defining the four phases leading up to the Second World War as denial, appeasement, phoney war and total war, he wonders whether some countries, such as China, are now at the stage of appeasement – trying to ameliorate a problem one is nevertheless decisively doing nothing to stop; others such as the UK and the EU may have begun the phoney war – setting targets which might go some of the way to sorting the problem out but whose performance has yet to be proven.  The wartime theme appears from time to time throughout the book.

His detailed discussions cover many aspects of the political approaches to climate change, particularly in the UK.  Grand global promises he eyes with some suspicion, citing the 1970 commitment from developed countries to devote 0.7% of their GDP to overseas development, a target honoured by only five countries by 2008 and well missed by most.  Carbon markets and emissions trading schemes he is also wary of, pointing to the ease with which they may not actually lead to any reductions in emissions. The markets will need to be ruled with an iron discipline if they are to deliver.  Contraction and convergence frameworks provide the discipline which most appeals to him.

In discussing renewable energy Challen compares the contradictory ways in which the UK has moved (or not moved) towards renewable energy with the focused German approach and its much more successful outcomes both environmentally and industrially.  Photovoltaics may not seem the best bet for German power generation, but it has served to get ahead in R&D, export opportunities and employment growth.  The feed-in tariff, which pays a guaranteed price for every KWh produced from a renewable energy source, decreasing over the 20 year period of the guarantee, has served to finance renewable energy in most EU member states, but the UK has shied away from the government role required for such a system.   Challen has an interesting discussion of the 19th century railroad mania which started in the UK in 1844.  There has been no equivalent in modern times of such a major investment scheme accounting for so much of a country’s economic activity, though there might be a comparison with the allocation of resources to Britain’s defence during the second world war.  Why not a renewable energy “mania” today? asks Challen. He notes with approval the new sense of engagement that has come in recent times from Ed Milliband, with the joining of government responsibilities for energy under the same roof with climate change in the Department of Energy and Climate Change.  (I thought while reading this of our benighted Minister of Energy  in New Zealand who complains that energy policy has been captured by climate change policy and needs to be separated!)  There is also some readiness under Milliband for the UK to look more favourably at feed-in tariffs.

His chapter on nuclear power speaks of “the great nuclear delusion” and is scathing of the claims made for it as an energy solution.  Currently it supplies 18% of the UK’s electricity supply.  There can be no new sources from nuclear building until the existing plants are rebuilt. This would likely be by about 2020, a date well after emissions have to start falling.  Concentration on a nuclear solution takes attention and money away from more significant measures.  He quotes an analysis which claims that keeping nuclear alive means diverting private and public investment from the cheaper market winners – cogeneration, renewables and efficiency – to the costlier market loser.

Challen is a strong advocate of personal carbon allowances. They fit very well with the contraction and convergence framework he favours.  In this context he has an illuminating discussion of whether emissions should belong to the producer or the consumer.  The UK’s emissions may have lowered, but the emissions embedded in their imports have risen quite dramatically.  Not surprising in view of the fact that in 2005 the top 10% of the world’s population was responsible for 59% of its consumption (and the bottom 50% for 7.2% of consumption).  He asks pertinently on whose carbon inventory China’s emissions should appear in view of such figures.  He sees personal carbon allowances as “a concept of brilliant simplicity, a predictable and orderly reduction of GHG emissions year-on-year, with flexibility in an enclosed system, independent of taxation and providing complete transparency between goals and delivery”.  The powers that be go no further than describing the concept as “an interesting thinkpiece” and “ahead of its time”.  Challen grimly notes that rationing was accepted without significant opposition once war was under way in 1939 and 1940.

Challen, a Labour MP,  founded the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group. He discusses failed attempts to get cross-party consensus, though records some successes, including agreement that the UK’s goal should be to take a fair share of the responsibility for keeping the global temperature increase to within two degrees and that the 2050 emissions reduction target should move to 80%.

It can be a dispiriting picture.  Challen comments that the UK has not hesitated to spend nearly 1% of GDP on resuscitation of the consumer binge economy with all that implies for greenhouse gas emissions. Dealing with climate change could be achieved with not much more than that.  He sees the urgent need for us to use less while we still have the choice as a society, but is profoundly aware of the vested interests which sap political will and of the materialist definition of self-esteem which currently holds sway in society.

Nevertheless the battle for change must be joined.  It’s a battle Challen will be fighting outside parliament after the next election – he is leaving to devote his time to climate change matters, and expects to work in Africa and focus on the economics of global warming, with Sir Nicholas Stern.


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