Cancún: finally, some good news

The private sector has an important role to play in the wake of the climate summit.

As the dust settles at the end of the UN climate talks, it feels as if we are entering a new phase in the fight against climate change.

The UN process has been resuscitated by the outcome of the Cancún summit. Before the curtain went up in Mexico, climate sceptics in the UK said they could hear the sound of the death rattle for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process (UNFCCC).

With the agreement of a new and fair Climate Fund, however, we can now start feeling optimistic that we have turned a corner since the disappointment of Copenhagen last year. Rich countries did agree in Copenhagen to deliver $100bn per year by 2020, and next year crucial decisions on how to raise this money must be made. This will then be channelled through the new fund to help poor countries adapt to the impacts of climate change and develop in a low-carbon way.

Companies and investors have recognised for some time now, however, that the private sector has a critical role to play in complementing government action, by climate-proofing their activities and helping to make the global transition to a low-carbon economy. This was underlined at the Copenhagen summit, where both were pushing hard for the elusive global deal that they hoped would set out a clear framework under which businesses could operate.

Company directors are paid to have their eye on the bottom line and many see that strong political action across the world on climate change could spark business opportunities, while possibly creating more jobs and reducing unemployment.

It is in their interests – as well as our own – to recognise the business potential in climate-resilient, low-carbon growth. Europe's environmental sector already employs 3.4 million people and accounts for 2.2 per cent of GDP.

In the United States, a new Oxfam report estimates that two million Americans are employed in sectors, such as water management, agriculture, insurance and disaster preparedness, that help build resilience to the effects of climate change. If new openings are not seized on, Europe risks falling behind the likes of China and the US – both poised to profit from huge investment in low-carbon technologies.

In Cancún, several company directors unveiled practical schemes to underscore their green intentions. For example, the Paris-based Consumer Goods Forum, representing hundreds of manufacturing and retail firms, including Unilever and Tesco, announced that its members plan to use their collective resources to help achieve net zero deforestation by 2020.

This and other initiatives need closer scrutiny before we know what impact they will have on the ground, but it seems to me that this could be more than just greenwashing. I'm expecting there's far more to it than that. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC, has recognised that closer partnership between the private and public sectors could offer a win-win situation.

I am heartened by this. We need every tool in the box if we are to help ordinary people cope with the damaging impacts of climate change in many of the countries where Oxfam works, including Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mexico itself.

Of course, things are not going to change overnight. Many businesses, particularly in the carbon-intensive industries, are clinging to their old ways. They regularly lobby in Brussels to block the EU from making more ambitious cuts to its greenhouse-gas emissions, from 20 per cent to 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

While they raise concerns about the competitiveness of their industries under stronger European climate action, it would be good to see these companies lobbying to raise the bar in other national capitals, rather than blocking stronger action at home.

The risk of company greenwashing was highlighted by the recent announcement of the Worst Lobby Awards when, in online voting, the European public sent a clear message that they want to see a major clean-up of the Brussels lobbying scene. The German energy giant RWE and its subsidiary npower scooped first prize for claiming to be green while lobbying to keep coal- and oil-fired power plants open.

It's going to take time to change the practices of all corporates but at Cancún we started to sense that things are moving in the right direction. Companies must now seize the fresh momentum – no one can dispute that a serious commitment by global business to change its practices could have a huge impact on the future of the planet.

There is everything to play for.

Barbara Stocking is the chief executive at Oxfam GB.

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England is now a more expensive place to study than the US. Why?

Is a university education in this country really worth £44,000, and how does our system compare to higher education funding elsewhere?

England has long sneered at American universities and their exorbitant fees. It cannot do so any longer: England is now a more expensive country to study than the US, and is easily the most expensive of eight Anglophone countries – the four UK nations, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US – analysed in a new Sutton Trust report. English students graduating from last year left university with an average of £44,000 in debt £15,000 more than Americans studying at for-profit universities across the pond.

Why do English students have it so much worse than other students in the UK? There are two answers. The first is the government's decision in 2010 to shift much of the cost of university from the general taxpayer to the beneficiaries: the students themselves. The second answer is devolution. The devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have made political choices to differentiate themselves from Westminster by prioritising keeping fees down – even when, as in Scotland, the effect is to benefit middle-class students at the expense of disadvantaged ones. Students in Wales who study in England are eligible for generous grants, meaning they pay less than £4,000 a year rather than up to £9,000. Those studying in Northern Ireland have their fees capped at £3,925. 

Even England's £9,000 fees are puny set against those at elite American universities. In 2016/17 annual, tuition fees at Harvard are $59,550 and, when all else is accounted for, Harvard reckon each year costs students $88,600. But such exorbitant numbers are not the real story. About 60% of Harvard students receive the Harvard Scholarship: a microcosm of how US students benefit from a culture of graduates giving endowents to their old universities that is still lacking in England. Scholarships and bursaries at universities in the US are far more generous than in other countries. And those who go to public universities within their own state pay far less: those graduating after four years leave with an average debt of only US$27,100 [£19,100]. This is why the average debt of US graduates is now considerably less than in England. But those who berate that even America now has a more benign system for students than England should not be so hasty. The majority of US loans are not income contingent, meaning that low earners who are already struggling still have to pay.

Governments throughout the world are grappling with how to fund send an increasing proportion of students to university in an era of austerity. In the last two decades at least 14 countries in the OECD, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, have implemented major reforms to fees, according to the Sutton Trust. In general these reforms have led to students paying a greater share of the cost of their tuition. 

So in a sense what has happened in England is merely an extreme example of an international trend. And the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, which have been hiked up twice since, has been managed better than most acknowledge: indeed, the proportion of disadvantaged students at university has actually risen by one-fifth since tuition fees rose to £9,000.

But, with the poorest students in England now graduating with £50,000 in debt, more students will be driven to ask whether a university education is really worth it. For a small but significant minority, it isn’t. A recent IFS report found that male graduates from 23 low performing institutions – though it sadly declined to name them - earn less, on average, than those who do not go to university, and end up with huge debt to boot.

No matter how expensive a university education has become, not having one is even more expensive. Throughout the world demand for university education continues to soar; in England the average graduate premium is £200,000 over a lifetime. Yet too many dunce universities are saddling students with debt without giving them anything in return.    

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.