Gain, not pain

John Prescott calls for urgent action to tackle climate change,
and says that it would benefit everyone

At the start of this new millennium, we have a real chance to tackle climate change and promote sustainable development.

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today. I do not think there can be any doubt now that it is taking place and will have serious impacts on all of us.

It is a cruel irony that Millennium Island, the first place on Earth to greet the dawn of the new millennium, may be submerged by rising seas by the end of the century. But rising sea levels are only one of the many possible consequences of climate change. More intense storms, water shortages, flooding and freshwater inundation are also predicted. All of these have the potential to significantly disrupt lives, ecosystems and economies.

But action is being taken. The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 laid the foundations for a global change in attitude. It raised the threat of climate change to the top of the political agenda. For the first time, developed countries faced up to their responsibilities, and agreed to start reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Successive negotiations followed, culminating in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. This milestone agreement legally binds developed countries to emissions reduction targets to be achieved by 2008-2012.

We have already made a great deal of progress, but this does not mean we can become complacent. There is still much work to be done. The Sixth Conference of the Parties (COP 6) at The Hague in November will be vital. At COP 6 we will need to agree much of the detail left unresolved at Kyoto. This will mean compromise on all sides.

But whatever the outcome at COP 6, I can give my guarantee that the United Kingdom will continue to take action to reduce its emissions. It is up to us in the developed world to demonstrate to developing countries that it is possible to reduce emissions without damaging economic growth.

That is why I recently launched the United Kingdom’s Draft Climate Change Programme. The final Programme will be released before COP 6. We are putting in place an integrated set of policies and measures which we estimate could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 21.5 per cent by 2010, almost double our Kyoto target.

Win-win action
I strongly believe that this can be achieved through win-win action. For example, reducing emissions will also make industry in the United Kingdom more efficient, bring jobs and open new markets. We will all benefit from cleaner air, less traffic congestion and warmer homes. Tackling climate change can mean gain, not pain.

All sectors of society will need to play their part. We have set a target of 10 per cent of electricity to come from renewable sources by 2010. We will reduce transport emissions through promoting public transport and sending messages through vehicle and fuel taxes. And we are introducing two new measures focused specifically on business.

The first is the Climate Change Levy – a tax on the business use of energy. This is not a stealth tax on business. The levy will be revenue-neutral with all the proceeds recycled back into business through lower welfare contributions and extra support for energy efficiency.

The second is a domestic emissions trading scheme. This will offer business a cost-effective and flexible way to achieve emissions reductions. We have been working closely with industry, and are optimistic that an emissions trading market will be up and running in the United Kingdom by spring 2001.
Reducing emissions will also make industry more efficient
It is only by taking action now to reduce emissions that we will be able to move to the low-carbon economy of the future.

We in the developed world are largely responsible for the situation we are now in. We must take the lead in cleaning it up. But it is right that developing countries will also need to be part of the solution for the future. Dealing with climate change will require greater efforts by all countries.

And I recognize that many developing countries are already taking action to improve energy efficiency and limit the growth in their emissions. This is a welcome development and I encourage these countries to publicize their achievements.

But whatever action we take now, it is predicted that over the next decades the world will experience significant climate change due to past and current emissions.

This highlights the urgent need for all countries to start planning for the future impacts of climate change. The infrastructure we develop now needs to be able to cope with the conditions we expect to see in the coming decades – not just those we are currently experiencing.

Balancing priorities
This is not just an issue for governments. Business also needs to think about climate change in its long-term planning. The cost of ignoring it could be huge.

Climate change will affect us all - it is already affecting us. That is why achieving a successful outcome at COP 6 is so important. We must balance the often competing priorities of environmental credibility, equity and efficiency. It will require vision and leadership from all involved.

The process began at Rio, it came of age at Kyoto. The next staging post is The Hague. Let us make sure we do not squander the opportunity. Future generations will never forgive us if we do

The Rt. Hon. John Prescott MP is Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions of the United Kingdom.

PHOTOGRAPH: Angelo Doto/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | The right to diversity | Gain, not pain | Changing course | From summit to summit | Empowering the poor | The environment millennium | Focus On Your World | Competition | A critical priority | Flashing indicators | Sea changes | No wires attached | Now for vigorous action | Malmö Ministerial Declaration | Young, impatient and soon to be in charge | Green spot in Africa

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate & Action, 1998, including:
Tony Blair: Opportunity, not obstacle
Rubens Ricupero: The new green marketplace
Ernst Urich von Weizsacker and Hermann E. Ott: Tax bads, not goods
Richard L. Sandor: Trading gases
Issue on Climate Change, 1997, including:
Robin Cook: Everything to gain
Jose Maria Figueres Olsen and Christiana Figueres: A climate of change (Beyond 2000) 2000
John Prescott: Seven threats to the seven seas (Oceans) 1998