Cancún is climate change groundhog day

Nowhere in the world is battling climate change a priority.

Climate change groundhog day is almost upon us. Environment ministers have gathered in Cancún, Mexico, for the annual meeting at which they never quite manage to sign a new global treaty. At least not one that includes the world's largest emitters of carbon dioxide – namely the United States and China. This year the negotiators may manage to reach agreement on some rules for how developing countries can be more transparent about their domestic climate initiatives in return for delivery by rich countries on pledges of climate finance.

Many followers of the UN climate talks blame a failure of leadership by governments or expeditious corporate lobbying for the recurring nightmare, but often overlook a basic, underlying political principle: that global deal-making cannot outpace public opinion back home. The big picture still sees the US too hidebound by its domestic travails to make any grand promises on cutting its emissions.

In the relatively climate-friendly UK, even in the teeth of the Climategate email debacle, 78 per cent of people recently polled by Ipsos MORI believe that climate change is either partly or mostly caused by human activity (the number of people who accept humanity's role in climate change is smaller, but still in the majority even in the US). However, in an IPPR poll prior to the May general election, fewer than one in five put climate change in the top three or four issues on which they would base their voting decisions.

Over time, environmental issues in general enjoy the strong support of less than 10 per cent of the UK electorate and rarely peak at more than 20 per cent. The economy peaks at roughly 70 per cent.

This pattern is repeated in many developed countries, on whose leadership the rest of the world's pathway to a clean economy rests. In the recent Australian election, climate change was typically rated eighth or lower in the list of voters' priorities. A US poll from early 2010 ranked climate change 21st out of 21 "priority" issues for the year ahead.

People's views are of course shaped by many influences and the war of attrition is doubtless being fought with considerable funding from carbon-intensive corporate interests. But the paradox of climate politics is more profound and deeply rooted than this. Safeguarding tomorrow's climate requires action today that in many cases may harm the interests not only of what environmentalists call "Big Carbon", but also consumers and taxpayers.

A report this week from the UK's Climate Change Committee suggests that the annual cost of decarbonising electricity supply could be £10bn. This cost will be passed on by utilities to households and industry. Annual household electricity bills in the UK currently add up to approximately £10bn, so it's not hard to imagine how quickly the flimsy support for climate policy could melt away as people see steep rises in the costs of heating their homes.

You don't have to be a climate-change sceptic to feel that a largely regressive de facto tax on household energy, at a time when people are already feeling the pinch, could prove an emissions reduction pledge too far.

Until the climate debate is better handled at the domestic level and the knotty question of who pays is resolved, it is hard to see how the climate cabal can escape their international negotiations groundhog day.

Andrew Pendleton is senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research: ippr.org.

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How will British science survive Brexit?

What the future of science and tech looks like in the UK, without the European Union.

Science and tech are two industries most likely to be affected by Brexit. British science and tech companies were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining. A Brexit survey run in March by Nature found that of the 907 UK researchers who were polled, around 83 per cent believed the UK should remain in the EU.

UK scientists receive close to £1bn annually for research from the EU – a testament to the quality and influence of the work done on British soil. Between 2007 and 2013, the UK sector supported EU projects by spending €5.4bn, and was rewarded in return with funds of around €8.8bn; it’s a give and take relationship that has seen growth for both.

The combined science and tech sector has laid down the framework and investment for some of the most important research projects in the world. To date, the brightest minds in the UK and Europe have combined to work on highly influential projects: the Large Hadron Collider headed by CERN discovered the Higgs Boson particle, the Human Brain Project set itself the gargantuan goal of unravelling the mysteries of the human brain, and the European Space Agency has helped expand space exploration as European and British astronauts have headed into the ether.

In May 2016, chairman of the Science and Technology Facilities Council Sir Michael Sterling announced that UK scientist Professor John Womersley will lead Europe's next major science project – the European Spallation Source  which is a "multi-disciplinary research centre based on the world's most powerful neutron source." It's the type of project that creates openings and opportunities for researchers, in all fields of science, to really materialise their most ingenious ideas.

The organisation techUK, which according to their website represents more than 900 companies, said in a statement that the result has created many uncertainties but has attempted to appease concerns by declaring that the UK tech sector “will play its part in helping the UK to prepare, adapt and thrive in a future outside the European Union.”

BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT, has reinforced techUK’s concerns surrounding uncertainty, highlighting areas which need to be addressed as soon as possible. The institute believes that discussions with the EU should focus on ensuring access to digital markets, freedom to innovate and growth of “our academic research base and industrial collaborations in computing . . . to shore up and build on a major driver of UK economic success and international influence in the digital sphere”.

Confusion over the UK’s position in the EU single market has prompted questions about the freedom of movement of labour, raising concerns among researchers from Europe about their future role in UK-based projects. The naturally collaborative nature of STEM research, the cross-breeding of ideas which foster scientific and technological advancement, could be severely hampered if limitations are imposed as a result the UK’s separation from the single market.

Speaking to the BBC, Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Prize winner and director of The Francis Crick Institute said: “Being in the EU gives us access to ideas, people and to investment in science." The Royal Society reports that researchers at UK universities house more than 31,000 researchers of EU origin. The danger of losing much of that support is now imminent.

Many other leading voices in the community chimed in too. Paul Drayson, former Minister of Science in the Department for Business, told Scientific American: “The very idea that a country would voluntarily withdraw from Europe seems anathema to scientists.” Remain advocate Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for universities and science (and brother to the leave campaign’s front man, Boris Johnson), stated his concerns to a House of Lords committee of there being very little means to make up for severed EU finances. The referendum result means that a solution to replace that money from a different source must now be sought. He also tweeted:

Despite the science and tech sector favouring a Remain vote, there were some who were leaning towards Brexit pre-referendum. Scientists for Britain, a group of UK scientists who, according to their website were “concerned that pro-EU campaigners are misusing science for political gain”, issued a statement after the referendum. They thanked leave voters for sharing their vision of the UK “outside the political structures of the European Union.”

Though there are many new policies which will need to be drawn up, it is evident that the UK’s requirement to prop itself up once outside the EU will only serve to hinder science and tech growth. The industries best served through European and global outreach are now at risk of being marginalised.

Currently in place is “Horizon 2020” – an enterprise touted as “the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever” as almost €80 million is available to researchers seeking to take their ideas “from the lab to the market”. Once Article 50 is invoked, it is crucial that any negotiations that take place ensure the UK’s spot within the programme is maintained.

There are options to maintain some European integration; gaining an “associated country” status like Switzerland could continue to strengthen the STEM sector, for example. But prioritisation of science and tech seems bleaker by the day. As a new landscape takes shape post-Brexit, we must work tirelessly to prevent our most progressive and forward-thinking frontiers caving in.