Why is Boris Johnson promoting climate change "sceptics"?

The Mayor of London's championing of Matt Ridley raises questions over his commitment to science.

On Thursday, Boris Johnson will host the second of the Mayor of London 2012 Debates, which he claims are "London’s intellectual contribution to the [Olympic] Games", and "will help define London’s vision for the next 15-20 years".

The title of the second debate is The Environment Imperative, and the Mayor’s website introduces it with the question: "How can London develop approaches to climate mitigation [sic] either as an economic response or in shaping the climate for investment in technological responses?" This is an important question. But the Mayor has made a bizarre choice of individual to answer it. The keynote speaker is Dr Matt Ridley, whom the website describes as “a renowned science writer, journalist, biologist, and businessman”.

Dr Ridley is all of these, but the website neglects to mention a few other important attributes of the speaker. The first is that his primary experience as a businessman was acquired as Chairman of Northern Rock bank, until his resignation in October 2007 in the wake of its catastrophic failure.

In its report on the bank, the House of Commons Treasury committee concluded: "The high-risk, reckless business strategy of Northern Rock, with its reliance on short- and medium-term wholesale funding and an absence of sufficient insurance and a failure to arrange standby facility or cover that risk, meant that it was unable to cope with the liquidity pressures placed upon it by the freezing of international capital markets in August 2007....The non-executive members of the Board, and in particular the Chairman of the Board, the Chairman of the Risk Committee and the senior non-executive director, failed in the case of Northern Rock to ensure that it remained liquid as well as solvent, to provide against the risks that it was taking and to act as an effective restraining force on the strategy of the executive members."

So Dr Ridley’s track record of dealing with the risks facing a business hardly gives cause for confidence in his expert advice about managing the global threat of climate change. Even more disconcerting is Dr Ridley’s affiliation to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the pressure group set up by Nigel Lawson to campaign against the government’s climate and energy policies. Dr Ridley is a member of the Foundation’s Academic Advisory Committee, and wrote a report for it which hyped the potential of shale gas.

Dr Ridley has been a very enthusiastic promoter of shale gas, but has been prone to exaggerating its contribution to recent falls in greenhouse gas emissions by the United States. He also hates wind power with a passion. In a recent polemic for the Spectator, Boris Johnson’s former stomping ground, Dr Ridley falsely alleged that wind farms may increase greenhouse gas emissions. He then went on to announce that he was offering £8,500 a year from his personal wealth, not to compensate those who were left out of pocket by the Northern Rock fiasco, but instead to sponsor a new award, administered by the magazine, for "environmental heresy".

Not only is Dr Ridley profoundly opposed to some, if not all, of the renewable technologies that might help London reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, but he also plays down the risks that climate change poses. For instance, in a Times column (£) last month, he suggested that global warming has so far had relatively little impact on the UK. But he failed to acknowledge that seven of the warmest years on record have all occurred since 2001, or that by the time we can statistically detect the effect on extreme weather, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to reduce the elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are responsible. It seems Dr Ridley does not realise that a responsible and effective approach to managing risks requires action in advance to avoid the most damaging consequences.

At the very least, Johnson is missing a massive opportunity to stimulate public debate about how London might lead on climate change, which his strategy seeks to deliver. At the worst, it is a sign that the Mayor is in thrall to a very small band of climate change "sceptics", who could fill his head with inaccurate and misleading nonsense. Dr Ridley’s recruitment as a keynote speaker is not the only sign of this. Last month, the Mayor used his Telegraph column to promote the views of his friend Piers Corbyn, who has a small business offering weather forecasts. Corbyn is also a staunch climate change "sceptic", who denies that greenhouse gases are causing global warming.

London is home to many businesses and academic institutions that host genuinely world-class experts on climate change. Why is the Mayor not seeking their counsel instead of a fringe group of "sceptics"?

Boris Johnson: in thrall to a very small band of climate change "sceptics"? Photograph: Getty Images.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.