We were joined by an interesting line-up of speakers: William Hague (Foreign Secretary),Chris Huhne (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), Ambassador Mxakato-Diseko (South African Ambassador for COP17, Durban), and Martin Davidson (Chief Executive at the British Council).Rick Edwards (of Channel 4 fame) chaired the discussion and put questions from the international audience to the panel.
Audience members got to ask questions on a number of topics, including: the UK’s key role in the international climate negotiations, the need for engagement of the wider public (especially young people) on climate change, and most importantly the expected outcomes of this year’s UN climate summit.
Here are just a few of the things to emerge from this discussion.
Climate Change: Still an Inconvenient Truth?
Whilst the entire panel acknowledged the severity of the current economic downturn is extremely relevant in the approach to tackling climate change, it was also agreed that this could not be used an excuse not to act. The South African ambassador described our “opportunity as humanity to stop and think and reassess how we’ve been doing things.” .
“What I do know is that it changes everything we’ve ever known, about economic prosperity, the emancipation of women, and the freedoms that young people have enjoyed in Africa; and will undermine the basis for achieving the Millennium Development Goals” [Ambassador Mxakato-Diseko]
In South Africa they must know all too well of the importance of securing ecnomic growth without jeopardising vital efforts to end poverty. As the only female panellist and the only representative from a developing country, she stressed that although all countries will struggle with the effects of climate change in some way, these effects would be felt first and worst by vulnerable groups of people, particularly women and those in poverty.
Martin Evans, of the British Council, also agreed that the challenge in climate change actually gives us the opportunity to encourage innovation and supporting extraordinary young visionaries and social entrepreneurs who offer new ways of running businesses and operating in our world.
“Future economic growth will depend upon us tackling the issue of climate change successfully”. “The Economic costs of climate change globally [could be] between 5-25% of GDP... but it would only take 1% or 2% of GDP to tackle it.” [William Hague, in reference to shocking figures from the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.]
The Future of Renewable Energy
Other questions to the panel, raised an interesting debate about the future of renewable energy here in the UK. The UK is known in international circles as a leader on climate change- but there was definitely a sense that greater ambition and consistency is needed as far as our domestic energy policy is concerned. Chris Huhne responded by sharing his hope that new low-carbon goods and services industries would push forward a “New Industrial Revolution”, allowing our economy to thrive whilst moving away from fossil fuels for good.
Chris Huhne was proud to announce that DECC has a “4 pronged strategy” for tackling energy security. He explained that his department’s main policy priorities would involve: reducing energy consumption in homes , government support and targets for increasing UK renewable energy production and developing Nuclear power and Carbon Capture and Storage technologies too.
However, this proved to be a contentious topic, given the recent announcement of drastic reductions on Feed-in-tariffs for solar photovoltaic technology in the UK, a decision which many believe will cripple this important and rapidly growing industry. Investment in renewable energy is widely accepted as an essential step towards ending our unhealthy reliance on fossil fuels and grow the economy. It was unfortunate that the climate secretary’s comments did little to reassure the audience of the government’s commitment to support them with financial incentives.
Climate Change & Conflict : A threat to global peace & security?
Another interesting question was asked about the potential for conflicts over natural resources (water & fossil fuels) to intensify under runaway climate change, threatening international security now and in the future.
The foreign secretary agreed that the UK government would be actively “supporting countries working together to manage scarce resources in a co-operative way”. Young people should be engaged more than ever before in “the evolution of a new diplomacy”, given their unique positions as the future stewards of the world, according to Ambassador Mxakato-Diseko. She was hopeful that young people would be integral in solving global problems such as climate change and that conflict could be successfully avoided by planning ahead and “banking on the future”, harnessing the ideas and dynamism of youth.
Countdown to COP: Hope or despair??
Finally, the panel expressed mixed feelings on the outcomes of the upcoming UN climate summit. This year could be our last stop on the road to climate catastrophe, as far as civil society activists and the scientific consensus are concerned .The pressure must therefore be kept on negotiators to make something happen, and fast, if we are to avoid dangerous levels of warming. For the world’s poor and vulnerable people, the outcomes of COP17 simply must be fair, ambitious and binding, if they are to have any chance of survival.
Unfortunately, the panellists conceded that COP17 is unlikely to yield any unilateral agreement-somewhat understandable if we remember just how many BIG issues are on the table- but agreed it should be recognised as a ‘signpost’ towards the framework we need to achieve. With climate change threatening the quality of life that young people will experience in the near future, it was hardly surprising that this consensus left us in the audience less than satisfied. But, there were some promising elements of the discussion, for example; it was encouraging to hear Chris Huhne reaffirm the UK government’s commitment to a second term of the Kyoto Protocol, with plans to push for this amongst the EU member states, although this is by no means the only action required.
The clear message from this discussion, was that it is essential that we keep up the pressure on our policy-makers here in the UK, before and during the UN climate talks in Durban.