John Redwood MP: We need some common sense - not targets - on global warming
John Redwood has been MP for Wokingham since 1987 and chaired the Conservative Party's Economic Competitiveness Policy Group. He has held a number of ministerial and shadow cabinet roles and writes a regular blog.
We need some common sense over global warming. The failure of the world’s leaders to agree a target based approach in Copenhagen should come as no surprise. They were unable to do so at Kyoto, where the USA, China and India opted out. Some of the European countries which did sign have so far failed to hit the targets they promised to meet.
The 2009 European Environment Report showed just five of the fifteen EU western member states already hitting their Kyoto targets. Countries like Spain, Italy and Canada experienced substantial rises in CO2 output in the early years of the Kyoto plans.
Some think a target-based approach is the answer. There are several problems with such a policy. There are no global sanctions against countries who sign up and then fail to hit the targets. Some states like China are reluctant to commit themselves to long range targets, as they see their growth and economic development as more important, and difficult to predict accurately. Some states like the European countries that have not hit their targets so far will sign up, but fail to deliver.
Most of these targets fall to be delivered by some future government at some date long after the next election, so governments can find it tempting to sign but to defer the action hitting the target would require. Many governments have in the past signed up to targets without having any detailed idea of who has to cut their carbon output. The targets require big changes of behaviour by many in the society, but governments find it difficult or unpalatable to force people to change their lifestyles to that extent.
To me, the three main environmental issues that we need to address here in the UK are flooding, water supply and transport. The truth is the UK will not be able to tell the world how much carbon dioxide to exhale and vent in exhausts from central heating and transport systems. Mr Brown tried very hard to get a deal but was not even part of the crucial meeting of the five countries led by the USA which gave us what agreement was reached at Copenhagen.
This is not an issue within UK democratic control. It is also subject to manipulation. A country with a rising population will find it much more difficult to hit targets than one with a declining population. A low income country will find it more difficult than a high income country to limit growth. What is in the control of our government is how we respond to the threat of floods, how we regulate and organise our water supply, and how we configure our transport networks.
People who worry about global warming think there will be two main adverse consequences for the UK. They fear long hot dry summers when we might have insufficient water. They are concerned about warm wet winters when too much surface water leads to floods. They are right to be worried about both a water shortage and potential flooding. We have experienced both in recent years. Too much building on flood plain is causing regular and unacceptable flooding. A big increase in the UK population in recent years has not been matched by extra water capacity. We need to tackle both issues.
I am trying to persuade the government planners that we need to stop building on local flood plains. It is shocking to visit people in their brand new homes just after their first flood, as I have done. We need to intensify the efforts of the Environment Agency to manage the the main rivers better. We need more ditches, sluices, holding areas for excess surface water.
I am also trying to persuade our water companies to put in more reservoir capacity, so if we are ever blessed with a hot summer we can water out plants and take our showers without fear of running out. If the forecasters are right about the climate you only need reservoir capacity to bridge summer to the wet autumn each year.
Which leaves me with transport. We need to improve our rail and road networks, so traffic can flow more rapidly with more capacity. That cuts congestion and pollution, and makes our lives easier. To me this is all environmental common sense.
We have to accept we do not rule the world. There is no way we can make India and China forgo energy intensive growth. With their 2.5 billion people that will mean a lot more energy use. What we can do is work away at fuel efficiency to cut our bills, at insulation to limit our heat losses, and at better transport systems to cut out waste.