Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Miliband's moment

South Shields MP David Miliband is a key player in a defining moment in British history. Not over the next Labour leader bun fight, but in the publishing of the Draft Climate Change Bill, released today. The UK will be the first country in the world to introduce a legal framework for reducing carbon emissions and it's an achievement to be proud of.

The Bill is a remarkable monument to people working together for a common cause. It was born as Early Day Motion 178, tabled by former Environment Secretary Michael Meacher, signed by 412 MPs and supported by thousands of British citizens through Friends of the Earth's Big Ask campaign.

South Tyneside is a local pivot to the story. South Tyneside Friends of the Earth has spent the last year or so campaigning for public support, getting hundreds of people to sign 'Ask your MP' postcards. One thing that STFOE volunteers found was the wide geographical range of visitors to South Shields. People from as far away as Canada showed interest at the stall under the bridge on King Street, and UK residents visiting from from Falkirk and Liverpool signed postcards.

To his credit, Jarrow MP Stephen Hepburn was one of the first MPs to sign the EDM. Beats tilting at statues.

However, South Shields MP David Miliband has been a minister of one sort or another during the campaign, which meant that unfortunately he felt tied to ministerial convention which prohibits ministers from supporting EDMs which call for legislative change. He met with local green activist Bryan Atkinson last year to discuss a climate change bill and the meeting spawned the recent Climate Change Conference in South Shields.

Today's news of Mr Miliband's carbon crusade was slightly depressed by him showing symptoms of Labour's schizophrenia over transport. His swipe at the Conservatives' throwaway policy on aviation that, "criminalising aviation isn't going to save the planet", implies that there is an anodyne solution to flying. Labour's projected growth in aviation is at odds with the need to reduce it. There is no way to square this circle; Branson's super fuels, Blair's magical airframes or Miliband's offsetting won't reduce the air industry's fair share of emissions whilst the number of flights are growing. However flawed, the Conservatives seem to be at least thinking about the issue.

But the draft Bill is very far from perfect. There's no year on year annual emissions target mechanism, a 'carbon budget' if you like, essential for the timely monitoring and management of emissions reduction. As Shadow Environment Secretary Peter Ainsworth said:

"To be truly effective, any bill should have three elements: annual emission reduction targets, an independent body to set as well as monitor these targets, and an annual carbon budget report from the secretary of state."

The Bill's target of a 60 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050 has been overtaken by recent findings by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change which suggests that a 90 per cent cut is more appropriate. So if the higher 90 per cent isn't going to be the target initially, the Bill must include a mechanism to allow increases to the 2050 target.

You can expect to see business groups like the CBI and the power industries throw their political and economic muscle at the consultation in an attempt to dilute the Bill even further, which means groups like FOE will have at least another year campaigning to make the Bill even stronger and fit for purpose.

But at least we have a Bill on the table to debate. Considering that there were no voices in the cabinet publicly supporting a Climate Change Bill, that's a worthy enough success for now.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will try to garner some credit for the Bill reaching Draft stage, but the applause should go to two environment ministers, one past and the other present, Micheal Meacher and David Miliband.

Michael Meacher for Labour party leader with DM as DPM anyone?

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