The coalition must not go soft on climate change

Britain should be playing a leading role in helping green the world.

This week, politicians, campaigners and business leaders from around the world are gathered in Brazil for the Rio+20 Summit - the biggest gathering on sustainable development since the first Earth Summit in Rio twenty years ago.  Rio+20 is a chance to chart a path to a safer, greener, more equitable economy, particularly for the world’s poorest. The government has said that Rio+20 should be a workshop not a talking shop.  But to have credibility on the international stage, it isn’t enough to talk the talk; they have to walk the walk. Sustainable development starts at home - and here the government has some tough questions to answer.

The government claims it is ambitious for change, however with the forest sell-off, a stalemate on carbon reporting, indifference to growing food and rural poverty at home, and the debate over the planning reforms, this ambition has not been matched by action. We have a Tory-led government ideologically wedded to a failed economic approach and a Chancellor who sees the environment as a barrier to growth.  The government is ignoring the voice of businesses who want regulatory certainty and is bowing to the Treasury’s anti-environment, anti-regulatory rhetoric. 

With Britain back in recession and the global economy flat-lining, it is easy to understand why the government is pushing sustainable development to the backburner – claiming it a luxury that can only be afforded when times are good. But it is precisely because we are living through tough times that we need to look to new ways to kick start the economy.  And if we wish to ensure that our children don’t have to suffer even tougher times in the future, this is an imperative.  We want our government to take a leading role in helping shape the world around us. Rising energy prices, higher food bills and changing weather patterns are inter-linked. What happens in one part of the world affects us all – whether it’s a food crisis in the Sahel in Africa or soaring unemployment in Greece – and we will only succeed in tackling them together.  Britain can and should be playing a leading role in helping shape the future of our planet. 

The UK must diversify its economy at home to drive green growth by investing in clean energy, green technology and resource efficiency.  We need a government that wants to lead the world on sustainable development, eradicating poverty and creating the green jobs and industries of the future.  Instead we have a government that is out of touch with anyone who cares about our natural environment or creating sustainable jobs for the future.

The World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 defined sustainable development as: ‘Development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In other words, development that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. The original Rio declaration in 1992 set out important goals to eradicate poverty, reduce unsustainable production and to protect the world’s ecosystems. But the 20 years since Rio have seen continued and, in many cases, growing global and domestic challenges posed by climate change and over-exploitation of natural resources.

But there is appetite for change. The last Labour government passed the landmark Climate Change Act setting a target to reduce our carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, the growth in fair trade products and the level of public support for campaigns like Make Poverty History are all signs that change is possible. Last year, over 600,000 people signed the petition against the government’s plans to sell off our public forests, a clear demonstration that the British public don’t share the government’s laissez-faire attitude to our natural world.

The Labour Party has a long legacy of leading the way in international development and campaigning to protect our natural environment. The government should seize the opportunity of Rio to help create new, sustainable jobs and growth in low carbon and environmental industries.

Mary Creagh is the shadow environment secretary, Caroline Flint, is the shadow climate and energy secretary, and Ivan Lewis is the shadow international development secretary

SERA the Labour Environment Campaign has today published a collection of essays on Rio+20 and the challenges of sustainable development with contributions from Mary Creagh (Shadow Environment Secretary), Caroline Flint (Shadow Energy Secretary), Ivan Lewis (Shadow International Development Secretary), Linda McAvan MEP, Richard Howitt MEP and others.

Environmental activists march during a demonstration against the forest code and the Belo Monte Hydroelectric plant construction, in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.