Things aren’t looking good for the climate. Several pieces of bad news have this week highlighted the scale of the problem we face in turning the juggernaut of global CO2 emissions and the limits of our current efforts to do so.
Firstly, the International Energy Agency has found that despite the growth of renewable technologies, fossil fuel use is continuing to grow. The dirtiest fuel of all – coal – is growing faster than non-fossil energy sources and around half of plants built in 2011 use old, inefficient technology.
Meanwhile the EU failed to agree measures that would reduce the number of carbon permits available in its Emission Trading Scheme, meaning the price of carbon will likely stay so low as to make the scheme ineffective.
And here in the UK, we’re still struggling to secure the building of new nuclear power stations, most notably at Hinkley Point where EDF is demanding the government guarantee a price for the electricity produced for the next 40 years.
It’s no wonder that another report out today found that investors are still ploughing their money into the fossil fuel industry. The London School of Economics (LSE) and the think tank Carbon Tracker showed that companies spent $674bn (£439bn) last year on new sources of fossil fuels.
The report authors, including the economist Lord Stern who prepared a major study on climate change for the previous government in 2006, warn this is creating a “carbon bubble” that could burst when government policies limiting CO2 emissions come into force, with devastating effects on the economy.
Another way of looking at it is that industry just doesn’t believe effective regulations will come into play, essentially creating a self-fulfilling prophesy where oil companies will hold the world to ransom as the greater risk of economic turmoil will make it harder and harder for governments to actually follow through on their promises to cut emissions.
What this highlights is how vital the need for stronger leadership is right now. Politicians pay lip service to environmentalism without taking the action needed to get the public and private sector to work together to tackle the market failure that is man-made climate change.
The UK government is a perfect example. David Cameron can change his party’s logo, talk about ‘the greenest government ever’ and hug as many huskies as he likes, but it’s completely meaningless when his chancellor is championing a new fossil fuel boom.
The solutions to climate change – nuclear, renewables, carbon capture and storage, even electric vehicles – are not going to happen without state intervention. This doesn’t have to mean governments doing everything themselves, but it does mean acting in a convincing way, and backing it up with a certain amount of funding, to convince the private sector to get on board.
The reflections on Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies that have gone on in the last couple of weeks haven’t produced much consensus, despite what those who try to justify her national hero-status funeral say or believe.
But I think there are two valuable lessons from the former prime minister that could be applied to the problems we face when it comes to climate change. Firstly, the big problems of our age can only be dealt with by people who have the courage of their convictions, who are willing drive through reforms in the face of great opposition.
Secondly, if we leave things to get so bad that only rapid, earth-shaking action will be able to change things then we risk devastating people’s lives in the process (not to mention implementing solutions that may set us up for more problems in the future).