Britain needs 'Chinese' approach to climate change

Pollution levels in Chinese cities might have something to do with their heightened awareness of environmental issues, too
Pollution levels in Chinese cities might have something to do with their heightened awareness of environmental issues, too
Alex Stevenson By

China is showing a "leadership" on climate change which the UK is lacking, the chair of an influential Commons committee has told Politics.co.uk.

Environmental audit committee chair Joan Walley said the Chinese government had a "set of plans and the ability to deliver them" – in contrast to David Cameron's government, which she accused of paying "lip service" to the decarbonisation agenda.

Her comments came after the latest Ipsos Mori Global Trends survey revealed British people's appreciation of the need to act on climate change is among the worst of the 20 countries surveyed.

Fifty-eight per cent of British respondents agreed with the statement that 'we are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits quickly'. Only Japan and the US had a lower percentage, while China topped the poll with 91.1% agreeing.


Walley said the Climate Change Act, which has legislated to ensure Britain cuts its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, meant the UK had the long-term framework to tackle climate change.

But she criticised the government for failing to demonstrate a commitment to pursuing the target, blaming the short-termism of the five-year electoral cycle.

"We haven't got leadership in terms of dealing with this," Walley said.

"Whatever's China's position on the world stage in respect of international negotiations on climate change, what they have got is a very clear robust set of five-year plans and the ability to deliver them."

When asked by Ipsos Mori whether they agreed with the statement that 'the climate change we are currently seeing is largely the result of human activity', only 54% of Britons agreed. Thirty-two per cent disagreed.

This contrasted with seven countries, including France, Spain and Italy, which saw at least four out of five agreeing that humans are to blame for climate change.

Britain's apparent climate scepticism was reinforced by its position in the table of answers to the statement that 'the climate change we are currently seeing is a natural phenomenon that happens from time to time".

Forty-eight per cent of Brits agreed with this statement, compared to just 22% of people in Japan, 34% in Sweden and 39% in Germany.

Britain's latest equivalent of a five-year plan – its fourth carbon budget – has been undermined by the government's decision to delay confirming it until the last day before the summer recess.

That foot-dragging – branded "bad for business, consumers and the UK's energy security alike" by WWF-UK – sums up Britain's problem, Walley suggested.

"When all the time you're faced with the day-to-day emergencies, policymaking becomes about the short-term," she added.

"We need to fix that in the government and in the City. At the moment we haven't got a mechanism for factoring in transitional costs which will balance out in time.

"You can see it's not just right for the environment, but economically and competitively as well."

Walley said the government's failure to embrace climate change was behind British voters' relative indifference towards the issue.

Could the government do even more to raise awareness of climate change?

Her theory has been reinforced by research from Washington DC think-tank the Worldwatch Institute, which has criticised the 'ecoliteracy' agenda of addressing the knowledge gap instead of the issue it believes is the real problem – the 'behaviour deficit'.

"Knowing that change is needed is clearly not enough to motivate it in most human behaviour," contributing author Monty Hempel said.

"Individuals must have a sense of urgency and personal control over prospective outcomes and goal achievement before they will commit to meaningful action or new behaviours."

Worldwatch's radical claim is that around the world there are "growing political pressures to replace a barely functioning democracy with something closer to technocratic oligarchy".

But Walley hopes that western democracies can cope by embedding sustainability education into the national curriculum.

She also wants to co-opt local authorities into the fourth carbon budget in order to allow accelerated changes in areas which are more environmentally-minded than others.

"Electorate that values these things may well sign up to it," she added, "but we need it right the way across the country".

Comments

Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.

Newsletter update