An opportunity not to be missed

March 28, 2007

An opportunity not to be missed

March 28 2007

by Stephen Hale

Stephen Hale of the Green Alliance on why governments, businesses and individuals will need to all play their part in reducing their impacts on the world’s climate.

The scientific evidence that human activity is causing potentially dramatic damage to our planet has been clear for some time. Yet our collective response to date has been breathtakingly poor. The recent publication of the climate-change bill is an important step forward. But there is much work to do to establish a policy framework consistent with the aspirations of the bill.Government, businesses and individuals will need to play their roles to bring this about.

So far, science has not been enough. Will the Stern Report on the economics of climate change prove to be the decisive catalyst for a step change in action? The report described climate change as the greatest market failure the world has ever seen. It identified potential costs of up to 20 per cent of global GDP if we fail to develop a rapid and effective collective response. This is a language that finance ministries and the private sector understand. Will they act on it? We need decisive action now to reduce CO2 emissions in the next 10-15 years. Scientists are unequivocal: failure to act will have catastrophic consequences. But as Stern argued, our response must be an effective collective one, taken up by all sections of governments, business and society. Climate change is not a challenge for any one sector. It is simultaneously global and personal, from the way we run our governments and businesses to the choices we make in our everyday lives.

Government cannot meet this challenge alone. But only government can drive (forgive the analogy) technology and changes in behaviour at the speed needed. They will need much encouragement from others to achieve the scale of change required. As the dust settles following the publication of the Stern Review, the business perspective on government action will be particularly critical in determining whether we can make the necessary step change.

Politicians are too often deterred by the fear that ambitious environmental policies will damage the economy or be opposed by business. Harnessing the positive power of the private sector has long been an important asset for Green Alliance in countering this view. Through it we have been able to demonstrate broader support for the green agenda. The opportunities to do so are growing, as the rise in public interest and the creation of new alliances such as the Corporate Leaders Group opens up space for these conversations.

The political space exists now to stake out a new approach and create a progressive coalition for action. Public understanding and commitment to action is increasing. Market research carried out by Populus last year showed that 74% of people believe that “environment/climate change is very important to me and will influence how I will vote at the next general election”. Corporate leaders are responding to this new mood, with Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Wal-Mart all recently announcing new initiatives. Others will no doubt follow.

Climate change is the defining issue for this generation of politicians. They are now talking green, but we need to work with all stakeholders to ensure they deliver action to match this. To encourage them to raise their game, we have just launched an initiative with eight of the UK’s environment groups to judge the main parties environmental credentials ahead of the next general election. This is a critical period for all those committed to tackling climate change and the broader environmental agenda. We need a constructive dialogue between all sectors to enable all players to move together. Green Alliance will be working with our NGO and corporate partners to make it happen.

Stephen Hale joined Green Alliance as director in July 2006. He worked previously at Defra as special adviser to secretary of state Margaret Beckett MP and, before that, as adviser