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Ainsworth: Climate Change policy beyond 2012

Speech to the Europia Conference at the Institute of Civil Engineers, London

"Let me begin by thanking Peter Tjan for his kind invitation to share some thoughts with you today. As an Opposition politician I feel honoured to have been asked to share a platform with a group of people who are actually in charge of something. It is our aspiration, as Conservatives, to be back in charge of something at the first opportunity and, when that happens, one of our most pressing obligations will be to put in place effective domestic measures to deal with Climate Change.

I applaud the way that Tony Blair has made climate change one of his international priorities. Although the UK is responsible for only 2% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, we do, still, have a loud international voice, and it is entirely right that our current Prime Minister has tried to use our voice to forge international agreement on what he himself has described as "the most serious threat we face".

But the ugly truth is that while Tony Blair has been exhorting the world to work together to deal with Climate Change, our own domestic CO2 emissions have been rising.

What this demonstrates is just how hard the task of tackling Climate Change already is. I fear that that the longer we go on delaying decisive action it will only get harder.

To stay with the UK scene for a moment, the good news is that the political salience of climate change as an issue has never been greater.

As Jonathan Porritt, the Chairman of the Government's Sustainable Development Commission would avow, the new found interest of the media, the public and even, it seems now, of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in environmental matters might well have something to do with the emphasis which the issue has received from David Cameron since he became Leader of the Opposition.

At last the environment has got the political spotlight it has long deserved. That is the good news.

The bad news is why.

Scarcely a month goes by without some new scientific evidence which reinforces the notion that the actions of mankind and, in particular, our addiction to fossil fuels, are causing irreparable damage to our climate and - by extension - to our ability to survive the consequences of climate change.

A couple of years ago it was still semi-respectable to debate the science, to ask whether human beings were really part of the problem; whether there was a problem at all.

The debate has moved on. The question now - and it's not just a question for politicians, it's a question which the public are increasingly interested in - is whether we are totally screwed or whether there is something we can do about it.

The answer is that there is a great deal we can do. But there is not much time.

It is one of the many paradoxes thrown up by the fact of climate change that we have very little time to put in place very long term structures to meet the challenge.

These structures must be delivered, I am sorry to say, by politicians; and they must be both national and international. I know there are some who say, "Keep the politicians out of it, technology will do the job" - that won't wash.

In May last year, Tony Blair received a letter signed by thirteen of the UK's Business leaders, they included the Executive Director of BP and the Chairman of Shell, which offers worthwhile food for thought for your conference today.

They said that it was clear that the international community needed to stabilise Greenhouse Gas emissions at levels which would prevent climate change, and they welcomed the Government's commitment to a 60% cut in emissions by 2050.

But they pointed out that current levels of investment, though growing, in low carbon technologies, were not nearly sufficient to meet the scale of the challenge.

They said that we needed a step change.

They said that to achieve a step change in the level of investment in low carbon technology required a strong policy framework. In the absence of such a framework, they said, it would be difficult for the boards and investors to accept the high upfront costs of the investment needed to bring low carbon technology on stream.

They said, "We believe that in order to ensure that the long term investments that our companies make are consistent with a shift to a low carbon economy, policies now should set targets for the year 2025That is the view of leading UK businesses, as expressed to their Prime Minister.

I agree with them. And I also think that exactly the same approach should be adopted internationally.

Climate Change is a global problem, and it requires a global response. Tackling it demands not only technology but a policy framework to focus the minds of the political and investment communities.

Without that focus, action will be too slow and too patchy to save us from the greatest threat we face.

And that is just one of the problems created by the current reluctance of some major CO2 emitting countries to engage in positive discussions about a binding international framework to tackle climate change.

Just as, domestically, mixed signals to the business community are unhelpful to investment and innovation; so internationally mixed signals are an open invitation to inertia.

It says a lot about where we are and how far we have to go that a commitment to engage in discussions about what is needed post Kyoto should have been hailed as some sort of diplomatic triumph at Montreal.

This is not an academic issue. It is real, and threatens our future and that of our children. Most immediately, it threatens the developing world.

The time for debate has passed. We need international action now.

The building blocks are already there. The Kyoto Protocol will not solve the problem of climate change, but it its importance lies in the fact that its existence proves that an international structure to deal with the issue can be achieved.

The EU Emissions Trading Scheme will not, in its present form, do much to reduce the EU's contribution to climate change, but its existence is worth celebrating. It is another example of how it is possible to construct an international framework to deal with CO2 emissions.

So we know it can be done. The Kyoto Protocol provides a blue print.

It is entirely right that this seminar in looking at what needs to happen after Kyoto expires in 2012. We need to start thinking and planning now. Nations and businesses will need time to prepare.

Nobody pretends that this will be an easy process, but the question is not whether we should, but how we should set about engaging the countries and peoples of the world in, as the Pew Centre puts it "a long term effort that fairly and effectively mobilises technology and resources to protect the global climate and sustain economic growth".

I am not for wearing a hair shirt. I do not believe that saving the planet is incompatible with economic progress.

In fact engaging the capital, the energy, the imagination of industries like yours to deal with climate change is already unlocking new business opportunities. By way of example, research by Berkley University suggests that California alone stands to reap a $60 billion reward from the development of solar technology.

Of course there will be costs as well. But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reckons that the global impact on GDP of stabilising CO2 concentrations at 550 ppm range between 0.2% and 2% by 2050. That is less than one year's worth of global economic growth.

If the science is right - and we must assume that it is - the cost to the global economy of not taking action will be infinitely greater. Besides, as somebody once said: "It may not be cost effective to save the planet, but it's probably worth trying anyway".

So, we need technology and we need a fair and effective international framework which is acceptable to the US, China and other fast developing nations, and to the poorest countries in the world where climate change will hit hardest and first. This means combining long term focus and direction with a near term flexibility which is sufficient to accommodate different national strategies.

The long term focus must be on setting tougher mandatory CO2 mitigation commitments based on a cap and trade system; and on shifting from an economic model which is based on burning fossil fuels to one based on -

- Efficient energy production and use; there are enormous opportunities to improve energy efficiency and reduce the base load requirements for fuel.

- Increased use of low carbon energy sources; such as solar, wind, wave, tidal and - possibly nuclear (but, as you will know, in the UK the jury is still out on that option); and

- Capture and storage of carbon from fossil fuels - where I suggest that the expertise of the oil industry has a particular vital role to play.

I am not remotely qualified to take a view on the scale of current and future oil reserves. Many of you will, I am sure, have seen Jeremy Leggett's analysis of this issue, and will have your own views on when "peak oil" will occur. I don't know whether to believe the "early toppers" or the "late toppers".

But what is clearly obvious is that oil is a finite resource and that our global demand for it is rising sharply. The trajectory is unarguable, and it is heading towards global insecurity.

That is another reason - and by no means the least - why this subject of your seminar today is so important.

If I have sounded a little apocalyptic this morning, it is because the more I have thought about these issues the more worried I have become.

As I have said, there is a great deal we can do; but there is not much time.

The enemy is inertia and inertia is not the fault of industry, it is the result of a lack of political will. If that failure continues we are in danger of becoming the first species to monitor, with infinite and painstaking attention to detail, its own extinction."

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