Climate change: the scientific debate is over. Political and policy action must start now

The IPCC report has given the government a wake-up call.

Today, one part of the climate change debate comes to an end. The scientific debate is over. The IPCC, a huge distinguished panel of international climate scientists, has concluded that to limit climate change, the world must make a continued and substantial reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. No other scientific conclusion has been subjected to such prolonged,detailed, global scrutiny. Those responsible for our media coverage – particularly the BBC – should take note.

Time should be called on a long, rancorous, and frequently very odd debate, in which a tiny number of individuals and small groups – frequently with clear vested interests - have been given equal weight to 97 per cent of climate scientists. The Flat Earth Society still exists, but that doesn’t mean we have to take them seriously.

Of course it’s not just climate scientists – and green campaigners - who’ve recognised the pressing urgency of action on climate change. From the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, who said climate change kept her awake at night, to 83 per cent of Global 500 companies which have recognised climate change as a serious risk to their operations, to the heavily at-risk inhabitants of fragile small island nations around the globe, there’s wide understanding. As Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General has said: “"The heat is on. Now we must act."

Those opposed to “green” action in Britain often say that we can’t afford it in today’s economic climate. On the contrary, we can’t afford not to act for the sake of both economy and environment. And that’s not just because of the risk of the floods, the droughts, the heatwaves, are already having huge human and financial costs, but because of the weaknesses and the failures of the very foundations of our economy and everyday life, structures built on massive consumption of once-cheap fossil fuels that we can no longer afford.

We have a huge problem with fuel poverty in Britain, the result in part of rising energy prices – almost all due to the rising cost of gas and distribution costs in our privatised system, but also of our leaky, poor insulated homes. With not a penny of government funds currently going into home insulation, we’re not only missing out on tackling that problem – but also creating tens of thousands of good, long-term jobs, as well as cutting carbon emissions.

We have a huge problem with unemployment, under-employment and low pay in Britain. Investing in and developing renewable energy generation technologies – based around our rich wind and tidal power sources – offers the chance to generate.

The Centre for Alternative Technology has calculated that together renewable technologies and energy conservation can deliver up to 1.5 million good new jobs.

We have a huge problem with food poverty in Britain – with half a million people dependent, today, on food banks to get enough to eat. We need to bring food production back to Britain, restoring the ring of market gardens around our towns and cities, ensuring food security in our increasingly uncertain world, removing currency risk. We must end the dreadfully wasteful, destructive practice of air freighting fruit and vegetables, and cutting down our practice of shipping them around the world.

We have a growing problem of “transport poverty” in Britain – fast rising rail and bus fares that are trapping our often forced commuters into further poverty. We need to develop a transport plan for England' built at its base around walking and cycling (worth noting that 1.3 million more new bicycles were bought last year in Britain than cars registered), with affordable, reliable, timely public transport available for longer journeys. Again, more good jobs, as well as cleaner air and better public health.

There are also looming threats that we need to avert. Green MP Caroline Lucas has highlighted the economic threat of the “carbon bubble” – the unburnable fossil fuels whose valuation underlies the stock prices of some of our largest companies. We need to think long and hard about how to manage that risk, how we can keep more than half of our known fossil fuel reserves in the ground, not subsidise the potential new and risky operation of fracking for shale gas, as our government is currently doing.

It’s not surprising that we’ve seen uncertainty about climate change growing in Britain, with a recent poll showing 19 per cent of people were not sure about the human cause of it. (Although of course 72 per cent were sure). With the government failing to take action, with a Lib Dem energy secretary saying he “loves” shale gas, some people understandably thought that perhaps climate change was something they didn’t have to worry about. But they, and the government, have today been given a wake-up call.

Britain has been a leader, and we can, and must, be again. In passing the 2008 Climate Change Act, Britain stood out in declaring its collective intention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Now we need to match that with action.

Natalie Bennett is the Green Party leader

Looking out over Death Valley, one of the driest places in the world. Photo: Getty

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

Getty
Show Hide image

The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

0800 7318496