Nothing new in Stern: we need action, not reports

November 28, 2006 12:34 | by Caroline Lucas MEP

An address to the Climate Change March in Grosvenor Square - the home of the US Embassy - in London on 4 November, 2006. Much of her speech was a response to the report issued recently by Nicholas Stern, head of the UK Government Economics Service, on the economic implications of climate change. Below is an edited version of what she had to say.

When it comes to climate change, we keep breaking records, with the hottest summer or the warmest day being a key headline on the news. I'm delighted that today we've broken a new record - and it's good news - because this must easily be the largest demonstration we've ever had in this country on climate change.

We're here, gathered outside the US embassy, because George Bush's refusal to act on climate change makes him guilty of crimes against humanity, and if George Bush is guilty, our own Prime Minister is a very active accomplice to that crime. So we have a very clear message for Tony Blair, and our message is this:

"Climate change is a far greater threat than international terrorism and it is, itself, a Weapon of Mass Destruction

"If you had spent a fraction of the resources and commitment you expended on an illegal war on Iraq instead on tackling climate change, then the world would be a much safer place.

"We don't have time to wait; so we demand - not more reports, not more surveys, not more meetings - but immediate and urgent action now

Stern Report

With the publication of the Stern report on the economics of climate change, we've witnessed the demolition of the last possible argument against acting now to avert the worst of the disaster - that it's "uneconomic" to do so.

That's very helpful. Yet this is an argument that should never be debated in economic terms alone. This is not a matter of some abstract cost-benefit analysis, but of how on earth we can continue with our current production and consumption patterns, our current profligate lifestyles, when we know that thousands of people are already paying the price of those lifestyles with their lives - the men, women, and children in many parts of Africa, for example, who are dying now, today, tonight, from famines and droughts that are driven by climate change, for which we in the North are primarily responsible.

The primary dilemma is not that we don't know what to do. The problem is rather how to build the public and political momentum to make the changes that we need - the massive investments in energy efficiency and renewables, in public transport, in re-planning our towns and cities, our buildings and public spaces - and to do so with sufficient speed -

Nicholas Stern says that climate change represents a massive market failure. However, it also represents a massive political failure, a failure of political leadership from this government, a failure of extraordinary proportions. The fact is that there would have been nothing in the broad conclusions of the Stern report that Tony Blair didn't already know. We can say that with certainty, because he told us several years ago that climate change is the greatest threat that we face. Moreover, he gathered some of the best scientific experts in the world on climate change to brief him on the science in Exeter as long ago as January, 2005. Yet under this same Prime Minister's government greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. This is a prime minister who continues to back a massive expansion of aviation capacity in the UK, who insists on embarking on an £30 billion major road building programme instead of investing in public transport; a Prime Minister who is delaying the implementation of key legislation from Europe on energy efficiency and renewables; one whose chief scientific adviser admits that we should keep emission levels at below 400 ppm but who has decided that this is a "politically impossible" message.

Such political and moral cowardice amounts to nothing less than criminal irresponsibility in the face of the clear need for urgent and radical action. When the national media tells us that now, at last, we are going to see real action on climate change, when Tony Blair tells us that the Stern report is "the most important report that has ever been presented to him in government", we are unfortunately justified in receiving such statements in a certain spirit of healthy scepticism.

I represent the Green Party, which has of course always understood that such urgent environmental issues must be prioritised. It has unfortunately taken other parties in Britain and elsewhere the best part of thirty years even to make a start on asking the right questions, and we can only hope that it's not going to be another thirty years before they start adopting the right answers. To come up with the right answers, we need to have the right questions, and this consideration leads me to a certain amount of concern about parts of the Stern report itself.

Horrifying though the list is of climate change impacts that Stern sets out - the melting glaciers, the flooding of half of all the world's major cities, the prolonged and severe droughts and famines, the displacement of millions, the spread of disease, and the extinction of species - his solutions are simply not going to be strong enough to prevent them.

Stern is working to an assumption that stabilising CO2 levels at 550 ppm will be sufficient to save us from the worst of climate change, by keeping the increase in temperature at less than 2 degrees Celsius above its pre-industrial levels. Yet many believe that this would be insufficient. The committee report from the Exeter conference on climate change held at the beginning of last year, which brought together the best scientific evidence in the world, warns however that "limiting warming to a 2 degree increase with a relatively high certainty requires the equivalent concentration of CO2 to stay below 400 ppm ".

Even 2 degrees Celsius is well above the level at which grave impacts will be felt by hundreds of millions of people. Achieving it would mean rich countries such as the UK cutting average emissions by around 90% by 2030 - not 60% by 2050, as Stern proposes. A 90% cut by 2030 is going to require not just new technologies, but different cultures, different economies, different expectations - in short, nothing less than a different way of life.

In Britain it is only the Green Party that is saying clearly and unequivocally that we can't possibly get out of the crisis we're facing using the same economic paradigm that created the crisis in the first place. While new technologies will certainly have a role to play, on their own they will simply never be enough to offset continuing increases in global consumption. In other words, more efficient planes or cars won't help if the total number of planes in the sky and cars on the road continues to increase at the current phenomenal rate. What is needed is a completely different economic system, based not on ever-increasing economic growth, but on meeting people's real needs.

Contraction and Convergence

An alternative paradigm exists, one that is gaining momentum. Based on the idea of Contraction and Convergence, it relies on the outstanding work of the Global Commons Institute, a body which has spent years developing and promoting a framework that sets a contraction budget for global emissions consistent with stabilising emissions at the maximum safe level. This budget would be shared internationally by means of the achievement of a convergence to equal per capita shares globally by an agreed date.

This is the only genuinely equitable approach, one which ensures that the developed countries, which are most responsible for high emissions, take the greatest responsibility for cutting them. Poorer nations will be able to continue to grow, as long as the world's total emissions reduce year-on-year, and the gap between per capita emissions in the developed and developing worlds grows progressively smaller.

Nationally we need a system of domestic carbon allocations as well. Under such a system, each of us would have an individual carbon quota, providing both a fairer and simpler alternative to emissions trading or green taxation. In addition, we need the government to abandon its £30 billion road building plan, as well as cancelling of all airport expansion plans. The Government's White Paper on Aviation envisages catering for a trebling of the number of passengers using UK airports by 2030, in spite of the fact that aviation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. We need instead to rein back expansion, recognise limits, remove tax breaks, reassess air freight, reduce noise, respect the countryside, revisit rail, revise the economics, review airport plans and rethink the whole approach.


While it's true that to make adequate cuts in our greenhouse gas emissions will require nothing short of a revolution in the way we run our economy, the way we measure human welfare, and the way we produce and consume, it most certainly does not mean that we should increase our reliance on nuclear power. Nuclear power is uneconomic, unsafe, unpopular and unnecessary. If nuclear energy is the answer, then it must have been a very stupid question.

Oil Peaks

There is another compelling reason to move towards sustainable energy sources. The global peak in oil production is likely to occur sooner than many expect. Some think it could be happening now, or in just a few short years. Yet whether it's five years away or twenty-five years away, it's clear that we have to end our addiction to oil. With oil prices set to rise, and keep rising, the likelihood of further conflict over oil increases. A large scale switch to renewables is a move towards peace , and away from the chaos and conflict and abuses of human rights which oil expansion brings with it.


Let me just finish by saying that some people think that we will never be able to persuade the public as a whole of the need to act on such a radical agenda; that while it may be economically and technically possible to tackle climate change in time, it might not be politically possible. What this means is that we have to get better at communicating our positive vision of a low carbon future, of the positive benefits that will come with the changes we need to see. A low carbon future doesn't mean shivering around a candle in a cave; on the contrary, it would be a future of more jobs, stronger local communities, less poverty and greater security. It might just be one where we're happier too - instead of chasing ever more materialis wealth and energy-intensive economic growth, we could prioritise our relationships and our communities, and value people for who they are, not for their performance against targets or their earning potential.

Dr Caroline Lucas represents the South-East Region of England in the European Parliament. A member of the Green Party of England and Wales, she participates in the Greens-EFA Group. For a more detailed analysis of UK energy policy from Dr Lucas and her colleagues in the Greens-EFA Group, see So much hot air? A report on the performance of the Uk on energy and climate issues

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