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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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.