In December this year there will be a UN climate change conference in Paris. Scientists and environmentalists have said that this is the last chance for governments to act to keep the increase in global warming to within 2 degrees. The effects of a 2 degree rise in the temperature of the atmosphere are serious enough, but rises above this level will increasingly threaten human life on the planet.
Population, Consumption & Global Warming
Increasing population and increasing consumption have caused global warming by the continued burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Global warming is causing more extreme weather, droughts and reduced crop yields, more wildfires, rising sea levels and flooding, loss of sea ice and glaciers, changes to the range of animals and plants. But increasing population and consumption have had other consequences as well. The resources of the planet that we rely on: the forests, rivers and lakes, the seas and oceans, the diversity of wildlife, the soils and minerals, are all being depleted or destroyed. The current world population today is 7.35 billion (considered by some environmental scientists to be already two to three times higher than what is sustainable). This is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 (and it is not expected to level off as previously thought).
And humans are living in increasingly crowded and polluted cities in a state of growing inequality and scarce resources. Desertification and conflicts over water scarcity and land grabs are leading to increased migration.
People in Developing Nations Want the Same as Us
The over-consumption of food, fuel, building materials, and manufactured goods in developed countries has played a major part in the depletion of the earth’s resources, but people in the developing world understandably desire the same things: more and better housing, heating and lighting; more cars and roads, more electrical goods, more shops and malls, more food and more meat, more flying as people want to travel overseas, and so on. An obvious example is China. China today has 78 million cars. If China was to have as many cars per person as in Britain (approximately one car for every two persons), then the number of cars in China would increase ten-fold to 705 million. This alone would require the current number of barrels of oil produced in the world today to increase from 87 million a day to 132 million a day. To build this number of cars (and to build their replacements when they become obsolete) would require a dramatic increase both in the materials that would have to be extracted from the earth, and of the energy required to build them. Also to be considered are the additional roads that China would have to build and the effect of a huge increase in pollution in its cities, many of which are already heavily polluted.
It is self-evident that the resources of the earth on the planet are finite; our exploitation of those resources is unsustainable. With the UK general election taking place on 7 May, are people in Britain aware of these issues?
How do people find out what’s going on in the world?
People in Britain get their news from an average of 3.8 different sources ie. newspapers, TV, radio, website or app, or social media. The main reason given by people in Britain for following the news, almost three in five people, is to find out ‘what’s going on in the world’. The top ten media news sources in 2014 were, in descending order, BBC One, which is used by 53%, ITV by 33%, BBC website/app by 24%, Sky TV by 17%, BBC News channel by 16%, The Sun by 11%, BBC Radio 2 by 10%, The Daily Mail by 9%, BBC Radio 4 by 9%, and Channel 4 and Google jointly used by 8% (Ofcom figures)
And so for the first time, adults are more likely to access the internet or apps for their news rather than newspapers, 41% compared with 40%. In any case, you will read very little about what is happening in the world, let alone the issues referred to at the beginning, in tabloid newspapers in Britain, and I don’t think that you will much about them either in some of the broadsheet newspapers.
So newspapers are no longer so influential. Television and websites are now the main sources of news for the majority of people, and the effects of global warming and environmental issues are covered by these media, though the depth of the reporting is extremely variable. But these global issues are overwhelmed by other hard news such as the economy and jobs, housing, the NHS, education, crime, immigration, welfare and pensions.
What are the issues that voters are most concerned about?
Pollsters have been out and about trying to find out the issues that voters are most concerned about. When it comes to global warming and sustainability, the issue doesn’t seem to come up at all. The nearest seems to be the vague ‘care for our environment’ or the all-embracing ‘environment/transport’. This may be because pollsters have pre-determined what should be on the list of issues that voters are asked to rank as ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’. Of course they might be right: that it isn’t on their lists as global warming is not a priority issue for most voters.
But it is not as if the threat to the human race is below the news radar. On Wednesday this week, the Independent reported climate scientists as saying that there is now is a one in ten risk that atmospheric temperatures could increase by 6 degrees by 2100. This would lead to cataclysmic changes in the global climate with unimaginable consequences for human civilisation. Would you fly on an aircraft if there was a one in ten risk of it crashing? Are we all keeping out heads in the sand. Is it a case of tomorrow being just another day?
What are the political parties going to do about global warming & sustainability?
Does the coming general election give us a chance to elect politicians who will tackle these issues? Below is a table of what the political parties have to say, based on their manifestos, about issues that are related, however remotely, to global warming, the impact of humans activity on the environment or sustainability.
In the table, I’ve given a mark for each party’s commitments set against thirteen policies that Greenpeace say are needed ‘to save the planet’. This is not say that the policies of Greenpeace are necessarily accepted by scientists and environmentalists, but they provide a benchmark. Greenpeace’s policies in brief are:
- Reduce emissions from the UK power sector to near zero by 2030
- Increase renewable energy generated to 15% of all energy by 2020
- Upgrade the electricity grid to harness wind power
- Rule out all emissions from new coal-fired power stations
- Cut CO2 emissions by 42% by 2020
- Retro-fit existing buildings to ensure zero-emissions
- Stop all airport expansion, including Heathrow’s proposed third runway.
- Refocus taxation onto pollution so as to support new green industries and drive down emissions
- Support the manufacturing supply chain to help Britain compete in the global low-carbon economy
- Set up a green infrastructure bank to lend to low-carbon projects
- Help to pay for low-carbon development in developing countries
- Improve local communities’ ability to generate their own clean energy.
- Introduce government backed bonds to allow investors and savers to fund green projects
Greenpeace though steers clear of having a policies on population growth such as those proposed by Population Matters, nor on the effect of over-consumption on the planet, which can only be reduced by making substantial changes to our economic system. Both of these options are unmentionable in both national and international discussions on sustainability.
|Conservative||Protect the environment and Green Belt in the planning system
Spend more than £3bn to 2020 improving the environment
Phase out subsidies for new onshore wind farms
Invest £500m over the next 5 years towards making most cars & vans zero emission vehicles by 2050
|Labour||Freeze energy bills until 2017 and give energy regulator new powers to cut bills this winter
Reduce carbon emissions generated during electricity production to zero by 2030
Prioritise flood prevention
End the badger cull
|Lib Dems||Double renewable electricity by 2020, aim to decarbonise the power sector by 2030, leading to a zero carbon Britain by 2050
Plant 750,000 trees a year
Charge for plastic bags
Promote use of electric cars and public transport
|UKIP||Repeal the Climate Change Act 2008
Protect the greenbelt
End so-called ‘green taxes’ to cut fuel bills
Prioritise support for organic farms
|Greens||Phase out fossil fuel-based energy generation and nuclear power
Reduce all UK greenhouse gas emissions to 10% of their 1990 levels by 2030 to tackle climate change
Invest in renewable energy sources, flood defences and building insulation
|SNP||Wants UK government to adopt Scotland’s ambitious carbon reduction target
Wants UK government to have a dedicated Climate Justice Fund
Energy Company Obligation to be funded through taxation and not as a levy on energy bills
Maximise support for offshore wind, ensuring Scotland sees maximum investment
|Plaid Cymru||Oppose fracking
Welsh Climate Change Act to set carbon emissions targets for 2030 and 2050
Increase investment and energy generation from renewable energy sources
So it seems that political parties are going to do very little about global warming and sustainability. Discussion on the impact of global warming and the effect of human activity on the earth’s environment appears to be non-existent in the 2015 UK general election. According to a report in the Independent, even the Green Party, which is by far the most environmentally minded political party, has been criticised by scientists and campaigners for turning its back on its main mission by largely ignoring the crucial issue of climate change in the run-up to the general election.
Our electoral system works against political parties acting on global warming
Part of the reason for this must be our ‘first past the post’ electoral system. 60% of parliamentary seats are regarded as ‘safe’ because the election of the MP for a particular party is a forgone conclusion. The vote of people in these constituencies who support other candidates is wasted. In the other 40% of seats, many people have to vote tactically for the party that has the most chance of beating the party that they don’t want to win, rather than for the party that they would like to vote for. ‘First past the post’ means that votes for anyone other than the second place are votes for the winner.
The Green Party is fielding candidates in a record 90% of electoral constituencies so it seems to be the case that it can’t be seen to be supporting policies that are not priority issues for the majority of voters. Unfortunately, even though 5% of voters say that they would vote Green, according to the current opinion polls, the Green Party only has a chance of winning in three constituencies at most out of the 650. If there was a voting system that better reflected these voting intentions, the Green Party could expect to win 32 seats. This number of MPs could influence policy on global warming and the environment, and the Green Party could then be more up front about its mission.
There is a downside to a more proportional system of representation of course, which is that some small parties can have socially divisive policies or undemocratic leanings. Proportional representation however, or variants of it, seem to work in the elections for devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as for the election of MEPs to the European Parliament, and in many other countries in the EU. Making sure every person’s vote counts should be more important to democracy that a system that gives unfair advantage to the two largest political parties.
When Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, chairperson of Imperial College London’s Climate Change Institute, was asked recently about how little climate change was being discussed in the election, he said ‘It’s like Titanic sailing into waters with icebergs, and yet what we hear is a debate in the bar about who is going to buy the drinks’.