The Energy Secretary Ed Davey says world governments are facing a "pivotal moment" on dealing with climate change. Photo: Getty
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Why a climate change agreement next year could be global diplomacy's last stand

With the golden age of international diplomacy behind us, the UK government has today published its thoughts on why a global deal on climate change is going to happen and is in our interest.

A new joint report from Green Alliance, WWF, Christian Aid, RSPB and Greenpeace believes we will have a global agreement on tackling climate change by the end of next year. If we do, it will be an exceptional event. Nations working together is no longer the fashionable way to deal with  problems. The UN is looked upon as indecisive, the EU is seen as technocratic  and even the United Kingdom is barely living up to its name.

There has been some hesitancy from both sides of the political spectrum towards the prospect of the 2015 deal. Earlier in the year, the Fabian society produced a pamphlet calling for “a much greater focus on rebuilding democratic capacity rather than focusing on securing legislative change at a national and supranational level.”

Meanwhile, potential Conservative mayoral candidate Michael Liebreich has written in detail why he thinks past global deals have been a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. He believes an agreement will be made next year but, for him, it is a distraction from the bottom-up innovations already going on in the private sector.

There’s a lot to agree with in this argument, particularly not seeing the negotiations as a “one-off game” dictated by a central authority. It is true that decarbonisation doesn’t happen in rented soccer stadiums or badly lit conference centres, but on the ground, driven by investment in low carbon instead of high carbon.

However, these very real and exciting innovations in technology and financing are not separate from the international process but a part of it. It has been a virtuous circle: the technological deployment is accelerated by greater international co-operation and, in turn, the technological deployment makes a stronger agreement more likely. And so achieving a good deal matters, because, not despite of, the action we’ve seen on the ground. Through the frustration, we’ve learned pragmatism and possibility from past climate conferences and have a greater understanding of how top level action links to what actually happens on the ground. 

Thankfully, that does still seem to be the attitude of the UK government which has today published its own thoughts on why it thinks a global deal will happen and why it is in the UK’s interest.

Meanwhile, as is clear to everyone involved now, the US and Chinese administrations are in the most ambitious place they’ve ever been and are determined to deliver something in the Paris talks in just over a year's time. Just as it seems the golden age of international diplomacy may be behind us, climate change may show the world it's still possible for us to work together. 

But not just any agreement will do. We need more than a piece of paper and a nice photo op by the Eiffel Tower. To bring about real change, an agreement has to do several things, from linking climate action with developing the world’s poorest economies to dealing with deforestation, and our report is clear how they can be achieved. However, there are two essential  elements worth highlighting that will help countries of the world to act together for the long term.

First, governments and businesses need to trust that countries will deliver on the promises made in the agreement, which means it must have a clear legal basis that works for different national constitutions.

Second, nations need to agree to a long term goal for 2050. Which means ensuring the agreement enables ambitions to be ramped up in the future, ambition ready to be lifted every five years. This is because carbon targets will need to be revised as the science gets clearer; and, as confidence in the agreement grows, and countries implement low carbon strategies, there will be more evidence of the social and economic benefits of action and greater confidence amongst investors.

We need our political leaders to show us they are still capable of acting beyond their own borders and tackling the big issues. On 23 September, they will meet in New York to discuss the climate change negotiations being held in Paris next year. Whether as citizens or investors, we all have good reasons to care about the outcome.

With an agreement in place, everyone has a mandate to act and the virtuous circle can speed up, with both the bottom-up and the top-down processes pulling each other along further and faster towards real progress on tackling climate change.

 

Alastair Harper is Head of Politics for Green Alliance UK

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.