Monday, January 15, 2007

A Little Haven for the environment

South Shields MP David Miliband chaired Friday's climate change conference, which was kindly sponsored by Nexus, and Mr M has promised another conference in a year's time. Mr Miliband, who described doing nothing about climate change as "playing Russian Roulette with the Earth", proved an excellent chairman, and gamely took snipes about government inaction over climate change and Tony Blair's addiction to air travel. He started with the ethical high ground, accepting that the UK had an obligation to lead the way in climate change as "the richer you are, the more you contribute to the problem."

After Mr Miliband's introduction first up was Bernard Garner, the Director General of Tyne and Wear transport organiser Nexus. His main thrust was that to meet the challenges of not just global warming, but also congestion and sustainability. Public transport needed more investment and more regulation, and he pointed to the success of London's regulated public transport system as an example.

Then Tony Juniper, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth gave an impassioned and inspiring talk, putting climate change in the context of people. Global warming wasn't just about temperatures and hockey stick graphs or economic reports on the cost/benefit of combating climate change. It was people's lives - massive food shortages due to environmental degradation and climatic instability. Mass migration and the inevitable social impacts.

He built upon Mr Miliband's suggestion of the UK's moral obligation to lead the way, as "we enjoy the benefits of a society which is built upon fossil fuels, the impacts of which being reason we are here today. It's not fair to expect developing nations not to want that, and as a nation we are rich enough to help these countries enjoy their own industrial revolutions, but built upon clean renewable energy. At the same time the UK will be reaping the economic benefits and advantages of being innovators in sustainable development."

In a nod to Tyneside's industrial heritage, Mr Juniper said that we could harness local shipbuilding skills (what's left of them anyway) to form the basis of "a massive development in our marine renewable energy resources".

I have a correction to make. In my previous post I stated that Woking council had achieved a 77 per cent cut in CO2 emissions. When Woking council's Chief Executive Ray Morgan got up to speak next, he announced that during his time at Woking:

- CO2 emissions have been cut by 82 percent
- energy consumption have been cut by 52 percent
- sustainable energy generation has increased by 82 per ent
- self generated energy (heat and power) has increased by 11 percent

All of these changes have not had a negative impact on local council tax bills.

We know that South Tyneside Council is doing very little (a target of only 5 percent reduction over five years) but Woking's achievements illustrate that, as Ray Morgan put it, "climate change is not just a challenge - it's an opportunity". Sadly, no officer from South Tyneside council raised any comments during the Q&A sessions.

Finally, Chris Bywell, Head of Innovation & Integration at One North East got up to speak. Despite his apparent enthusiasm for sustainable business and decoupling growth from emissions (straight from the green handbook), no one was convinced with his assertion that North East business was environmentally sustainable. He failed to solve the contradiction between North East business demands for more road space and the inevitable additional emissions that more cars filling that space would bring.

One of the main themes of comments from the floor (and Mr Morgan) was that government wasn't taking enough action, failing to provide councils and business with an adequate framework and objectives. The planning system will go to pot under the Barker Report (Mr Morgan's point) and the government was ignoring the warnings of the Stern Report. Fortunately the over-used 'hot air' analogy wasn't used too much.

The final question of the conference took us back to the moral and ethical theme, but not quite as I suspect as Mr Miliband expected. The question, from a young woman from Apna Ghar, hung in the air, unanswered. It was deceptively simple and naive but was full of power, because it brought us back to the most human part of the debate. Why does the government "sponsor an arms industry which brings so much death and misery, and contributes so much to environmental destruction."

The same could be said for the government's support for road building, airport expansion and it's failure so far to reduce the UK's emissions. Why?

Hopefully next year we won't need to ask these questions.

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