Opportunity, not obstacle

OUR PLANET 9.6 - Climate and Action

Opportunity, not obstacle


says that reducing emissions of greenhouse gases can increase competitiveness, employment and quality of life

Tony BlairClimate change is one of the great challenges facing our world. I do not, for Our Planet, need to run through the possible impact on our environment, and all who share it, if even the more cautious estimates of global warming and its consequences prove correct.

No one knows for certain how big the impact of climate change will be and how quickly it will happen. But the best evidence we have is that human activities are having a discernible impact on our climate. There is an uncertain future for us all unless we halt the rise in greenhouse gases being pumped into our atmosphere.

The choice before us is to act now to try to negate the effects or leave our children and their children to face the consequences of our inaction. I am delighted to say there is internationally a growing acceptance of the need to act.

I believe the agreement at Kyoto was a historic turning-point in tackling climate change. For the first time developed countries agreed to legally binding targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Overall emissions will be cut by more than 5 per cent below 1990 levels. The European commitment has been shown in our target to reduce emissions by 8 per cent, a target now being shared out between Member States.

At the special session of the United Nations General Assembly on the environment last year, I stressed the importance of getting agreement at Kyoto for all countries in the world. I pointed out that none of us would be able to opt out of global warming. I warned that failure at Kyoto meant failing our children because the consequences will be felt in their lifetime. I am proud of the role that John Prescott, the United Kingdom Deputy Prime Minister, played in helping forge that agreement.

All change

So far, so good. But I also warned in New York that we must deliver on the commitments we made. The real task and achievement will be for each country to meet its share of the reductions. It is important to realize that Kyoto is only the first step, vital as it was, and further progress will not be easy. It will require all of us - government, consumers and business - to change our ways of living and doing if we are to achieve this target.

But I want to strike a more positive note here. I believe too much of the debate on climate change has centred on the cost or 'pain' of reducing emissions. Virtue does not just have to be its own reward. I believe we should focus more on measures that reduce greenhouse gases but also improve our quality of life and the competitiveness and success of our firms. Let me give some obvious examples. Better insulated homes mean warmer homes, cheaper bills and lots of jobs. Improving energy efficiency leads to reduced costs for business. In the United Kingdom, we are working towards an integrated transport system, to offer attractive alternatives to some of the car use for some of the journeys we have to make in our daily lives. We believe this could make our towns and cities less noisy and less polluted.

I would strongly argue that tackling climate change should be approached not as an obstacle but as an opportunity. I understand why, for instance, there is some concern that the demand for reductions in emissions might be damaging for business and economic development. But I believe there is no contradiction between continuing to generate wealth while halting and reversing the side effects of those developments which are contributors to climate change.

This is important. As I have said, we all have our part to play in combating climate change. Just as all countries have a role to play in reducing global emissions, so all sectors within society must contribute to meeting national targets. In the United Kingdom, we have initiated programmes aimed at 'Greening Government' and encouraging the public to think environmentally. We will do more.

But the active support of the business community is vital. Without it, reducing emissions will be an uphill struggle. The facts speak for themselves. In producing the goods and services we want and transporting them to where we want them, business in the United Kingdom accounts for almost half the total national carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

We have been fortunate in the United Kingdom. I am pleased to say the business community has shown itself largely to accept the need for action on climate change and has endorsed the role played by its Government in seeking agreement on the Kyoto Protocol.

The Advisory Committee of Business and the Environment (ACBE), consisting of highly respected board-level businessmen from top companies under the chairmanship of David Davies, has recently produced a study into the ways in which business can successfully contribute to meeting this challenge. The report concludes that if business responds to the climate change challenge now and in the right manner, it will be able to manage and control the process in a cost-effective way, put in place long-term solutions and maximize the gains in terms of new markets and increased competitiveness.

ACBE, in its report, put forward a number of interesting and useful recommendations to both government and business. They are all based on the need to retain business competitiveness while reducing emissions. The Committee considered a range of policies and approaches designed to encourage all areas and sizes of business to respond to the climate change challenge while retaining the valuable business tool of flexibility.

The report looked at reducing reliance on carbon-based energy and the issue of achieving a behavioural change in the way energy usage is approached in business, and called for a stronger business focus on energy efficiency and carbon saving, urging all companies to consider their actions in the light of this challenge. Importantly, ACBE has recognized that increased efficiency and reduced waste can bring substantial cost benefits for the individual company, as well as contributing to national targets for reducing emissions.

To encourage more companies to take advantage of the savings which are available through energy efficiency, the United Kingdom Government is running a programme which provides information on energy efficiency best practice to both large and small companies. The results of this programme for individual companies can be significant. For example, a snack food company saved $1,536,000 and reduced CO2 emissions by 12,000 tonnes in the first year after introducing a series of initiatives to reduce waste. Another company, a brewery, is making annual energy savings of $166,400, rising to $240,000 as a result of a more efficient refrigeration plant brought in to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). In reaching their business decision to invest in new equipment they recognized that this was a good opportunity to reduce energy costs.

ACBE's report also highlights the important role played by technology in meeting the challenge of climate change. It recommends that business should not only endeavour to apply and exploit those greenhouse gas reduction technologies currently available, but should carry out research and development on projects with potential for the middle and long term. I support their recognition of the contribution of technology to our climate strategy. The United Kingdom Government is already promoting the increased use of environmental technology through another of its best practice programmes. It aims to stimulate energy savings of $512 million per annum by 2015. In looking to the future, ACBE has pointed to the United States Climate Change Initiative as one way in which government and business can work together in this area.

Of course, the motives behind the development of such technology are not altruistic. The environmental technology market is big business, and set to get bigger. It is estimated that the global environmental market is currently worth $280 billion. By the year 2000 this is set to increase to $335 billion, and to $640 billion by 2010. Whilst it is all too easy to rely on old tried and tested methods, we need to look to the future. Forward-looking companies will recognize this valuable niche in the market and work to exploit it.

There are concerns that the push to improve environmental performance in developed countries may draw business away to 'pollution havens' where the rules are less stringent, or that by pushing for international action to reduce emissions we may hinder the growth of developing countries. I agree that we must share responsibility for meeting the climate change challenge, but accept that we should not expect developing countries to curb their legitimate aspirations for economic growth, as well as the need to eradicate poverty. However, I believe that companies investing abroad can be seen as a positive force for change, encouraging the take-up of environmentally preferable technology. With global markets and many businesses working on a worldwide basis, we must work to ensure that the older, more damaging technology is made obsolete. The sharing of best practice must extend beyond borders. Improving environmental performance and reducing emissions and resource use make good business sense, bringing increased efficiency and savings, wherever a company is based.

Positive force

The issue of engaging developing countries in the process of reducing global emissions will be one of the major topics at the Fourth Conference of the Parties in Buenos Aires when ministers from around the world meet to continue the work begun at Kyoto. Another key area they will have to address will be establishing the rules and procedures for the flexible mechanisms in the Kyoto Protocol - international emissions trading, joint implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism. In their work on climate change, ACBE supported such initiatives and have argued for an integral role for business. They see that by allowing the market to seek out the lowest cost options for emissions abatement, the targets could be approached in the most cost-effective manner.

I share this business enthusiasm for flexible mechanisms; used properly they will help to reduce developed country costs of emissions reductions, with tangible benefits for developing countries. At Buenos Aires the United Kingdom, in partnership with our European Union colleagues, will seek to ensure that these mechanisms operate in an effective and efficient manner and that the benefits they provide will be real and quantifiable.

We must act with determination at Buenos Aires to enable the Kyoto Protocol to achieve its full potential. To be honest, we cannot afford to fail. To meet the continuing challenge of climate change we must address the issue as a positive force for development, be flexible in our thinking and in our approach to potential problems. I believe there are significant benefits to be achieved for our health, wealth and society, and that to ignore these opportunities would be to rob our children's future through our own short-sightedness.

The Rt. Hon. Tony Blair MP is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate Change 1997
Michael Meacher: A stronger conscience (Looking Forward) 1999
Colin Marshall: Change in the air (Tourism) 1999
John Prescott: Seven Threats to the Seven Seas (Oceans) 1998
Shridath Ramphal: Now the rich must adjust (The Way Ahead) 1997
John Gummer: Valuing the environment (Culture, Values and the Environment) 1996

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