Global warming and the economic effect

THE doomsday scenario for global warming is as chilling as ever, but in the shadow of economic meltdown there are fears that Rio+20 will just be a talking shop.

Twenty years ago this weekend, the biggest meeting of world leaders ever seen was taking place. More than 160 presidents and prime ministers, including George H Bush, John Major, François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl were meeting to discuss climate change at what was billed, grandly, as “the Earth Summit”.

The Berlin Wall had fallen: organisers were pumped up with a sense that, finally, the world could come together for the sake of the planet. An 11th-hour deal was brokered, a historic framework convention was signed – without legal force, but committing nations to greenhouse gas cuts. The term “sustainable development” entered the language. And a stream of further summits, stretching out into the coming decade, were agreed upon.

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Next week, the world of environmental summitry descends again on Rio de Janeiro, for what is being described as “Earth Summit +20”. But the mood is very different. Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel are not expected to attend; Obama’s presence in particular is deemed counter-productive to his re-election bid, as the Democrat president attempts to win over climate-sceptic voters in swing states. And the build-up to this summit has been so low-key as to be unnoticed. United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon warned last week that progress on any kind of deal has been “painfully slow”. Preparations are going ahead anyway in Rio for the imminent arrival next week of the 50,000-strong army of government ministers, bureaucrats and NGOs. But the optimism of Rio 20 years ago has given way to low expectations and scepticism.

That is a paradox, for the warnings of global destruction which prompted world leaders to meet in Rio in 1992 are only becoming more urgent. In a paper published in the journal Nature last week, a group of international scientists declared that the trends of rocketing population growth, rising temperatures and rapid development had left the Earth at a “tipping point”.

“The net effects of what we’re causing could actually be equivalent to an asteroid striking the Earth in a worst-case scenario,” said lead author Anthony Barnosky. “I don’t want to sound like Armageddon. I think the point to be made is that if we just ignore all the warning signs of how we’re changing the Earth, the scenario of losses of biodiversity – 75 per cent or more – is not an outlandish scenario at all.” By the time a child born today turns 58, “we’ll live in a hotter world than it’s been since humans evolved as a species,” the report concluded.

Families across the developed economies, however, find themselves preoccupied with the more pressing and immediate task of coping in a world still reeling from the financial crisis. The environment, it is argued, is all a bit Noughties; one of those issues that people can no longer afford to take seriously. It may be grave, but does anybody have the time to care? And, even if they do, does anybody believe that yet another summit will have any impact anyway?

Eight years ago, to demonstrate his green credentials, David Cameron was filmed swishing through the Arctic snow behind a pack of huskies, promising to nurture the future of the planet. These days, the idea that the prime minister would find time in his schedule to head to the Arctic is fanciful. It is not just his priorities that have changed, but those of the British public as well. The economy has intervened. In 2007, just before the credit crunch hit, 19 per cent of the population rated the environment as the most important issue facing the country. That has now fallen to just 4 per cent. According to the most recent British Public Attitudes Survey, people view pollution or rising temperatures as being less dangerous to the environment than they did at the turn of the millennium; they are also more sceptical that a problem exists at all.

Possibly, the survey added, “the rise in public scepticism may be connected with a sense of environment ‘fatigue’.” The story about the environment, one campaigner notes, has not changed much in the decades since Rio: the Earth was in peril then; it is still in peril now. The survey also noted the public may feel “distant geographically or chronologically” from the impact of environment threats.

So nobody cares? Not quite. Environmentalism may have fallen down the list of priorities among the British public, but a large majority still say they are concerned about the effects of climate change. There has also been a coming together of environmental and economic concerns, as more people seize the chance to use low energy light bulbs or insulate their loft aware they can reduce emissions and save cash.

Green MSP for the Lothians Alison Johnstone says: “Do green issues really exist? My own feeling is that people see these issues as common sense. If you look at these things like our built environment and think of the difference that good home insulation can make. It can find jobs and reduce carbon emissions and cut bills.”

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Gordon Cowtan, a director of the Fintry Development Trust, which has sought to ensure energy self-sufficiency in the Stirlingshire village, says: “If you go back to Rio 20 years ago, from then and for the next ten or 12 years or so, there was a general increase in people’s interest in the issue. I would say at about seven or eight years ago, it peaked from the media point of view. It may have fallen off the radar for the media because at present the big stories are to do with the economy – but it is still on the radar.”

Few people appear to believe any more that grand political summits are making a difference. The erosion in belief may have begun in the Japanese city of Kyoto in 1997, when promised targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were signed shot through with holes. That weariness was revived at the flop of the 2010 summit in Copenhagen. A long-standing theme, going right back to Rio, has been the stand-off between the developed and developing worlds over who should take the lion’s share of the pain, and pay for it. This year at Rio there are concerns that, if heads of government aren’t present, there won’t even be the figures in the room who can discuss a deal in the first place.

So is this destined to be one giant talking shop? Ban Ki-Moon is battling to ensure some form of action plan is agreed, criticising governments for putting their national economic interests before the bigger picture. He hopes the summit will set out Sustainable Development Goals, in which new targets to protect the environment and the Earth’s resources are spelled out on everything from protecting oceans to ensuring cities offer a more liveable lifestyle. For the UN secretary-general, the aim is not to see a new treaty signed, but to steer the globe on to a different economic path – the low- carbon, low-impact one which some consumers in the UK are beginning to adopt. “For too long we have tried to consume our way to prosperity,” he says. “Look at the cost: polluted lands and oceans, climate change, growing scarcity of resources from food to land to fresh water, rampant inequality. We need to invent a new model; a model that offers growth and social inclusion… that is more respectful of the planet’s finite resources.”

The aim is to establish the credentials of the “green economy”. The Scottish Government is to form part of the UK’s delegation to the summit, also known as the Conference on Sustainable Development, keen to promote its own credentials as a promoter of low-carbon growth. Stewart Stevenson, the minister for environment and climate change, says: “The low-carbon economy offers a huge opportunity for us, creating tens of thousands of jobs and re-industrialising our economy. And as we create green jobs at home we are helping other countries develop renewable energy, and also tackling the devastating impact of climate change on the world’s poorest. It is this joined-up vision that I will take to Rio.”

Claims that the dipping economy is overshadowing the environment are a false argument, say environmentalists. Their hope is that, with faith in the broken economic model at a low, Rio could provide a better road-map for how the world rebuilds the economy out of the ashes of the crash. Tom Ballantine, chair of Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, says: “Of course people are concerned about the economy. But what is beyond doubt is that focusing on the economy alone is not enough. We need to concentrate equally on the three pillars of sustainability: the social, the environmental and the economic.”

Andy Myles, of Scottish Environment Link, adds: “We still have a long way to go before we replace the idea in politics and in the media that GDP is the most important thing in terms of measuring the success of society. We have to get politicians and the media and business to understand that we have to measure economic health, social health and environmental health, all equally, if we are going to have a sustainable human society.”

This virtuous circle may sound fine, but it involves hard choices. Green energy will come with a massive price tag. Moreover, as every supermarket shopper knows, organic, green consumerism may be socially and environmentally healthy, but they cost more.

The ideals going into Rio are as high as ever. But, at a time of economic pain and growing scepticism, the task of forcing the world to focus on them will be tougher than ever.