Unity on climate change has never been more urgent

Learning from the devastation in the Philippines

The rising death toll from Typhoon Bopha which hit Mindanao in the Southern Philippines this week highlights the vulnerability of communities around the world to the impact of climate change and serves as a timely reminder to government representatives currently at the UN Climate Change Conference in Doha of the need for urgent collective action.

I witnessed myself the devastation that such violent storms can cause during my visit with UNICEF UK to Mindanao just a year ago in the aftermath of Typhoon Washi which killed thousands of people. Seeing the devastated area and talking with the government, NGOs and survivors in the refugee shelters it was clear that despite the tragedy reconstruction was already underway. During my visit I was told that typhoons and tropical storms were less common in the south of the country but climate change means that more areas are becoming increasingly vulnerable. I can’t help but think about the people I met who had lost everything and were trying to rebuild their lives. As a result of climate change those same people may now be facing situations such as this with increasing regularity. 

It is the most vulnerable in society who are likely to be the ones who will be the most affected by these events. UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 756 million children living in the ten countries most vulnerable to climate change and at least half of all people who die in disasters are children. They experience unimaginable fear and confusion as they attempt to deal with the loss of the most stable aspects of their lives, whether that is family members, their home, regular meals or schooling.

The Philippines is listed as the sixth country in the world most vulnerable to climate change and the response to Typhoon Bopha has been a good example of how preparatory measures can save lives. The people in affected areas had been warned by phone messages, the media and the government. It is vital to ensure the most vulnerable, including children, are adequately prepared and the new global institution for finance, the Green Climate Fund, should be constructed in a way that ensures it helps to deliver protection for children in the most vulnerable countries.

As international leaders meet this week at the 18th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP18) ambitious action is needed to ensure global emissions are reduced. We cannot afford not to recognise the impact of climate change on the lives and wellbeing of those in developed and developing nations alike. Governments must also ensure that they mobilise new and additional funds for 2013 and beyond to meet the global goal of $100bn a year by 2020. It is essential that the resources are available for the adaptation measures needed to ensure that children in all nations do not grow up in a world of further climate extremes. I hope that COP18 will put the needs of children at the heart of initiatives to limit the damage of climate change.

As people in the UK battle to save their homes from floods, families in America seek to repair the damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy and this latest typhoon claims further lives in the Philippines the importance of our commitment to address climate change has never been clearer. It has confirmed to me once again how we are united in our differences. The capacity of people to weather the storm must be equal no matter on what continent the storm lands and the current UN negotiations provide an important opportunity to demonstrate a united response to the global problem of climate change.

Tony Cunningham is Shadow International Development Minister, MP for Workington

Damage wrought by Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines (Getty Images)
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.