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Leader: World leaders need to become green heroes too

Without the requisite political will, the prospects for our planet remain bleak

"It may seem impossible to imagine," wrote Elizabeth Kolbert in Field Notes from a Catastrophe, her important book about climate change, "that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are in the process of doing". Few doubt that we are living at a time of emergency. It is understood now how quickly the earth is warming, because of the increase in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases arising from human activity. If it continues at its present rate, we know what our fate will be, and yet we seem set on destroying ourselves.

So it was no surprise when President Obama said that there would be little chance of achieving a legally binding multi­lateral agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which begins in Copenhagen on 7 December. The Copenhagen event has been used as a focus of environmental efforts by governments, charities and campaigners around the world. Every movement working towards dramatic global change needs a deadline. But the green movement needs it more than most: "Just a few degrees more", writes Kolbert, "and the Earth will be hotter than it has been at any time since our species evolved". The consequences of such warming would be devastating. The world's population is 6.7 billion and that figure is projected to rise to 8.5 billion by 2030. The Met Office calculates that the number of people living in water-stressed regions, currently around 1.5 billion, could increase to nearly 7 billion by the 2050s, because of climate change and population growth. As long as there remains a deadlock between developed and developing countries over who should act first, and, most drastically, on cutting CO2 emissions, this grim outlook will not improve.

Between 1830 and 2000, 30 per cent of carbon emissions were from the US, 30 per cent from Europe and 6 per cent from China. The developed world's debt is much the greater - even if China is the largest CO2 emitter today. To overcome the impasse, a vital combination of humility and political leadership of a kind as yet unseen from any world leader - including President Obama - is required.

In Britain, leadership on climate change has been more ­impressive than in the US. Ed Miliband, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, has acknowledged the hypocrisy of the rich world's position: lecturing poorer countries on how to manage their economy and energy supplies when it is the developed world's over-consumption and model of aggressive high-growth capitalism that caused the crisis in the first place.
A problem all political leaders face on this issue is a sceptical public. Climate-change denial has become a popular sport. In the US, the number of people who believe that the planet is warming has, over the past two years, dropped from 77 per cent to 57 per cent. Meanwhile, a recent poll for the Times revealed that only 41 per cent of the British population accept as an established scientific fact that global warming is taking place and is largely man-made.

Without the requisite political will, and with the increase in public doubt that climate change is happening at all, the prognosis for our planet remains bleak. However, as our cover story (page 28) demonstrates, the world is not only populated with green villains: the heroes are plentiful, too. None of them is a politician; they are, rather, mostly activists. From Vandana Shiva in India and Wen Bo in China, to Bill McKibben in the US and Franny Armstrong in the UK, these heroes are people who lead from the bottom up, corralling support for their cause by being passionate, committed and practically engaged. If the politicians can only delay and equivocate, we must take matters into our own hands.


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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.