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Urgency is the word for tackling climate change

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 11:47

By Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

“The Greenest Government ever.” “Biodiversity is our number one priority.” “A zero-waste Britain”. Whatever one thinks about this Government, its environmental rhetoric could never be described as modest. But then neither is the scale of the environmental challenge we face; a rapidly changing climate that we need to do our best to slow and to adapt to, biodiversity disappearing in what some call the world’s sixth great extinction, and a population of 9 billion souls in forty years time which will transform the way we need to produce and distribute our food.

So how do things measure up? Not well. Take the example of green energy.

This is a time when we should be building the low carbon economy of the future; but to make the most of this, government has to take big decisions now.  Instead, we have seen: complete disarray with the cancelling of the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters; dithering over the Green Investment Bank; and a failure to invest in offshore wind. Chris Huhne seems to be trapped between his ill-thought out opposition to nuclear energy and his Tory coalition partners who – for ideological reasons – oppose action to help investment in British industry

The Government’s ideological determination to dismantle Britain’s environmental infrastructure is already clear in its first rounds of cuts. It has announced the withdrawal of funding for the Sustainable Development Commission, and the abolition of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and Commission for Rural Communities. What these all have in common is that they hold government to account for its environmental policies by means of independent scrutiny. How can it claim to be the “greenest government ever” when it is sacking the judges?

Now we wait for the huge cuts that are bound to take their toll on our natural environment. Vital for the services it provides us, just think of our mineral wealth, timber, fossil fuels, or how our ecosystems purify drinking water, produce food, decompose our waste, provide us with the means to heal the sick, and regulate our climate. Though more than half of the world’s population now living in towns and cities, we need to realise just how dependant we still are on these natural resources for our very existence.

So what do we need to respond ?

At home, it will mean looking after the countryside in a way that allows its wildness to thrive and farmers to produce more food. With a population of 9 billion, the world is going to need a lot of farmers and a lot of agricultural production; as Mark Twain neatly said: “Buy land because they have stopped making it!”

It will mean valuing the natural world for the economic benefits it brings, as well as for its ability to lift our spirits and nurture our souls. We need a tough debate on areas of policy that some will see as money, quite literally, for the birds because a cut that damages the natural environment is not a cut that can easily be repaired – look at the dramatic collapse in farmland birds and wild flowers over the last half a century. The CAP, having paid farmers to pull hedges out, is now paying them to put new hedgerows in.

It will mean winning battles in Europe as we reform the Common Agricultural Policy to shift funding in the direction of more of these agri-environment schemes.

And it will mean winning battles across the Cabinet table.

Yet, in the architecture of the new Government, we see the environment is on the wane. Extraordinarily, the new Defra Secretary of State does not even sit on the European Affairs Cabinet Committee, despite 40% of the EU budget being spent by the CAP and almost all environmental legislation and regulation stemming from Europe. And in a battle to make waste policy about changing the things we make and the way we use and dispose of them, Defra seems to be surrendering waste policy to CLG. For a department with the long-term economic future of the country at its heart, it is very surprising to find that the Defra Secretary of State isn’t a member of the Economic Affairs Committee either. This does not bode for well for the environment’s ability to win battles in Whitehall.

A Government of high aspirations so far doesn’t have a record to match. And at a time when the Green Alliance has described the next five years as the “Last Parliament” in which we can make the changes necessary to halt dangerous climate change, we need the environment to be at the heart of thinking in Whitehall. Let’s hope that we get a sense of urgency soon.