Izzy wizzy, let’s get busy! Stop the sooty show

An unfortunate orthodoxy has developed on climate change, the main elements of which are: 1) climate change is the fault of the rich nations and the capitalist system; 2) the rich nations should cut their carbon emissions drastically and compensate poor countries for all the impacts of climate change; 3) poor countries have an absolute right to develop by increasing their emissions; 4) carbon trading and offsets are a new form of global colonialism in which rich countries dump their waste carbon and make the poor pay for it.

This orthodoxy is riddled with contradictions. Many "rich" countries are near bankrupt, while many of the "poor" ones are awash with cash. This is one reason the Copenhagen conference last December failed. Deeply indebted "rich" countries are not about to make even deeper cuts in social spending, to hand over billions to "poor" countries whose emissions are soaring, and which may even be their creditors.

The final declaration of the recent climate summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, was a fine exposition of the orthodoxy: it demanded that developed countries "honour their climate debt in all of its dimensions", "decolonise the atmosphere", "assume the costs and technology transfer needs of developing countries", "deal with damages arising from their excessive emissions" and open their borders to "hundreds of millions" of climate migrants.

But, in putting the blame entirely on "rich" countries, the orthodoxy misses a key component of the climate crisis - one in which poor countries are mainly responsible. Carbon is more than just carbon dioxide (CO2). It is also "black carbon", or soot, which plays a huge role in climate change - both warming the atmosphere and accelerating the melting of glaciers and snowfields from the Andes to the Arctic.

Soot warms by darkening the air and surfaces it lands on, such as snow and ice, so that more of the sun's heat is absorbed. A single tonne of soot causes, over its typical two-week residence, the same warming as 1,600 tonnes of CO2 in 20 years. The warming caused by soot is over half again as much as that caused by CO2.

The biggest source of soot, at 41 per cent, is the open burning of biomass from the clearance of pastures, forests and farmland. Next are wood- and coal-burning domestic stoves, at 26 per cent. Transport-sector emissions follow, with 19 per cent, mainly from smoky diesel and two-stroke engines. Industry weighs in at just 8 per cent.

And the top three soot emitters are . . . Asia, Africa and Latin America, with 6.6 megatonnes per year between them. The US, Canada, Europe and the former USSR collectively emit just 1.3 megatonnes (2000 figures). The highest per-capita soot emissions take place in Latin America, at more than 2.5kg per person, closely followed by Africa. That's equivalent to four tonnes of CO2 over 20 years.

So what's the answer? First, scrap the orthodoxy. Not only does it encapsulate a way of thinking that is certain to block any international climate agreement - it's also plain wrong. Next, introduce a co-operative interpretation of the principle of "common but differentiated responsibilities", which underpins the 1992 UN climate convention - in which poor countries as well as rich contribute to climate solutions. And make the reduction of soot emissions a top global priority - one that will deliver substantial and immediate benefits for our climate, as well as improve human health.

Mark Lynas is away until August.

This article first appeared in the 17 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, On a tightrope

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide