“The Politics of Climate Change” – report of an online event hosted by the University of Exeter

The online event on 15 July 2021 was chaired by Professor Gail Whiteman, Professor of Sustainability at the University of Exeter Business School and founder of Arctic Basecamp, whose mission is to ‘speak science to power’. The panellists were: Rt Hon George Eustice MP, the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Luke Pollard MP, the Labour (and Co-op) MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, and Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and Amelia Womack, the Deputy Leader of the Green Party of England and a scientist with an environmental and sustainability background.  

Professor Gail Whiteman started by asking the panellists, on a scale of one to ten, how serious they felt the G7 leaders were in their commitment to climate action, especially in the context of floods in Germany, and heatwaves and wildfires on the west coasts of Canada and the USA.

George Eustice rated the G7 commitment to net zero planning as eight out of ten, citing growing political awareness globally with the change in the administration in the US being crucial and China, Brazil and other nations doing more to engage actively.

Luke Pollard was also optimistic with a scoring of seven out of ten, though he worried about the victory of soundbites over substance, as the UK was failing to reach its own net zero targets. He expected the US would show the way in COP26 though he really hoped the UK would lead by example.

Amelia Womack also rated the commitment as eight; but for genuine action just five out of ten, since we are already struggling with a 1.2˚C increase in warming when the Paris Agreement aims to limit the rise to between 1.5˚ and 2˚C. She felt optimistic because people power was driving the demand for change and the global challenges we must tackle going into COP26.

Gail Whiteman then asked where the panellists saw progress coming from and what the government had to do.

George Eustice noted that previous Conservative governments had established the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which recently published the Pathway to Net Zero by 2050 in the Sixth Carbon Budget. The UK government was embracing the CCC’s recommendations and was aiming for a 78 per cent reduction in emissions by 2035 by, for example, increasing offshore wind turbines to decarbonise energy and by banning new fossil fuel vehicles by 2030.

Luke Pollard said a plan was needed from government to show where business could invest. He thought 2050 was too far away and that the UK was not hitting its own targets thanks to lack of action from the Treasury, so we need clear direction and clear action. In the south west, for example, there are hardly any electric charging points, and in one of the poorest regions in the UK investment was needed which delivered on social justice. The current measures are only viable for people with agency over their homes and cars rather than for people on low wages or in rental properties.

Distribution of charging points  https://www.zap-map.com/statistics/

Amelia Womack pointed out that businesses need a level playing field; they realise that climate change is their biggest risk and want to secure a sustainable future. The greenest option must be made to be the easiest one. We can’t look to create a green version of our current world but should reimagine a different vision. Upfront costs now will save money in the long term. The agents for change are businesses and individuals, whilst the press must also play its part.

Gail Whiteman asked whether scientists would have the same influence during COP26 and in government as they have during the pandemic.

George Eustice said scientists would be at COP26 and government has its own scientific experts, including Patrick Vallance. He acknowledged there would be challenges but noted the UK had achieved a 40 per cent reduction in emissions since 1990 with a 75 per cent increase in the size of the economy over the same period. He expected future reductions would need:

  • a regulatory framework
  • the right financial incentives
  • continued changes to contracts in the energy sector
  • emissions trading mechanisms

as well as technology and innovation.

The international scene was important and the UK could not do this alone. Other donor nations must work with the UK, which has already pledged £11.5 billion for global projects towards ‘resource mobilisation’ to look after the vital components of ecosystems so we don’t make matters worse.

Amelia Womack challenged the Secretary of State over the 40 per cent reduction claim as our consumption patterns are not counted. She added that trade deals should ensure we don’t continue to buy stuff from other countries with the dirtiest production methods and noted that the EU is introducing a border carbon tax.

George Eustice agreed that any emissions trading scheme must include a border carbon tax and consumption levels, rather than just emissions, must be accounted for. He anticipated an eventual carbon consumption tax and noted the UK was the first government to bring in measures for due diligence in supply chains. For example, chocolate manufacturers must use palm oil from sustainable sources.

Luke Pollard illustrated the lessons learned from community-based action with the first national Marine Park in the Plymouth Sound.

A community of scientists, councils and businesses had come together to tell the story of Plymouth Sound, which included:

  • having some of the world’s best marine and plastics scientists in the south west;
  • an understanding that various environmental protections exist in law, but are not widely known, so they mark need to be communicated more effectively to the public and
  • knowing that 20 per cent of the area’s children have not seen the sea and 50 per cent have never been to a beach.

Cross-party consensus and including local people has helped the community cherish and value their local area much more. £9.5 million National Lottery funding and government backing has just been achieved through applying the same principles the Labour Party used while setting up the National Parks.

George Eustice added that key aims for COP26 were to protect 30 per cent of terrestrial environments and 30 per cent of marine environments – 20 per cent have already been designated. A Green Paper later this year will look at all the levels of protection – eg Special Areas of Conservation (SAC), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), birds and marine protections.

Amelia Womack said there were more scientists needed in politics because ecology was complex. She asked how George Eustice could justify HS2 and road-building schemes, which ruin the environment.

George Eustice thought a key thing was to add protection for older woodland (140-150 years old); currently only ancient woodland is protected. He agreed the presumption should always be that existing woodland is protected but conceded HS2 is very controversial. He pointed out Biodiversity Net Gain is being introduced into the planning system.

Gail Whiteman asked about the role of finance, explaining that she works on the Circular Economy and Green Finance.

Amelia Womack started by saying the world we want to build won’t look like the world before. There will be libraries of things and repair workshops – sustainable working is exciting because it will support communities in better ways of working.

Climate change is happening now and the damage is very costly. Lord Stern told us 15 years ago it would be cheaper to pay now to protect people by means of long-term risk reduction.

George Eustice added that Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England {and now the UK Prime Minister’s Finance Advisor for COP26 and UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance: Ed] , had helped set up and would now chair the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. Eustice agreed finance had to change.

Luke Pollard said this wasn’t up to government or business, but business and government to use their purchasing and investment powers, like Mark Carney’s Green Bond ideas. There does need to be a different kind of climate finance model globally.

He added that, sadly, the UK was stepping back from its international commitments by cutting the aid budget – we should be leading on values first, not with culture wars …

He asked whether financing the transition will be part of COP26.

George Eustice replied that he hoped so. The UK has already made the biggest commitment so far with £11.5 billion pledged, 30 per cent on nature-based solutions. There are International Climate Finance (ICF) commitments and they and other governments are looking at credible mechanisms for Green finance markets eg Leveraging Energy Access Finance (LEAF). Amazon is looking at Green Bonds.

Gail Whiteman’s final question was: what gave you hope and would you be taking the train to COP26?

Luke Pollard replied ‘Beavers’, as they have been rewilding around Plymouth, and Build Back Better; he would go by train.

Amelia Womack said that more people wanted to make a difference – petitions, protests, actions – and many young people are campaigning for social justice and environmental justice. Yes, to going by train.

George Eustice concluded that he hoped there was a genuine global momentum now; the G7 communiqué was substantial and there seems to be a mood change around the world. Huge amounts of preparatory groundwork had already been done by Zoom for COP26. He said he wasn’t sure what the final delegation would be, but he was likely to go and would travel by train.

Gail Whiteman said the Arctic Base Camp would be represented at COP26 and thanked the panellists and Emma Clark for arranging the event.

NB: The government publish regular updates about climate change and environmental trends, focusing on climate change impacts and the global response.