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Emission impossible?

Ed Miliband will need all the political skills he can muster to get a deal in Copenhagen

Would Ed Miliband swap the life of a leading cabinet minister for that of a street activist? There was a revealing moment in New Delhi at the start of this month when he said in an aside that he sometimes had the "fantasy" of doing so. The Climate Change Secretary was contemplating the need for people around the world to mobilise and lobby politicians before December's make-or-break global warming summit in Copenhagen.

His partner on the south Asia tour, the International Development Secretary, Douglas Alexander, often says that "these negotiations are far too important to be left to the negotiators"; a mass movement of support is needed to achieve change. As Franklin D Roosevelt once told a group of reformers: "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it."

Indeed, the hazards of international negotiations were demonstrated in New Delhi, where initial talks were conducted in the shadow of the US's crude demand that India - one of the fastest-growing nations in the developing world - cut carbon emissions in a way industrialised countries never did. As Miliband pointed out to me, between 1850 and 2000, 60 per cent of global carbon emissions came from the US and the EU.

“It was hard going at first," said one diplomatic source. But then there was a transformation with the arrival of Jairam Ramesh, Miliband's new opposite number, who until India's most recent general election in May was a commerce minister, responsible for some of the country's major economic reforms. Ramesh, who seems to have become Miliband's new best friend, is going to be one to watch in future talks.

A former student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the 55-year-old has in recent years been a key adviser to Sonia Gandhi, leader of the governing Congress party. In July, after a heavy-handed approach by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, he told her: "There is simply no case for the pressure that we [India] - who have among the lowest emissions per capita - face to reduce emissions."

In contrast, the British ministerial duo were careful not to be "prescriptive" as they walked a fine tightrope in Delhi, according to those close to the discussions. So much so that occasionally it was not entirely clear what the UK was pushing for.

But the softly-softly approach seems to have worked. On the same day as the talks, India published a document, described as "crucial" by the Brits, projecting between 2.8 and five tonnes of carbon dioxide per person in 2031, plus an estimate of India's current per-capita emissions at 1.2 tonnes - below the current four-tonne global average.

India is also "skipping" some of the usual stages of development: in Kolkata, the ministers visited a housing complex run on solar power. The country is heading towards 20,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2020. It will make fuel efficiency standards mandatory from 2011 for all cars. And it already generates 8 per cent of its power from renewable energies - again surpassing Britain.

Miliband returned from India "hugely impressed" with its grasp of the crisis and the need for action. Alexander told me: "My sense is that India wants to be part of the solution . . . For millions of poor people around the world, the coming weeks are not so much a window of opportunity as a window of necessity."

But the task is far from easy, and the stakes could not be higher. As the ministers pointed out to me on the trip, it is dangerous to
assume there is a "plan B". Much as he may dream of being an activist and not a politician, Miliband, as Britain's lead negotiator on climate change, will need all the political skills he can muster to get a deal in December.


As well as leading the fight for a deal in Copenhagen, Ed Miliband doubles up as the man behind Labour's manifesto for next year's general election. It is debatable which is the harder job: bridging the gap between the developed and developing worlds on carbon emissions, or devising fresh policies for a fourth Labour term. But Miliband is optimistic about both. "The manifesto is going well," he told me, gazing out of a plane window on the south Asia trip. "The truth is that, despite all the difficulties, Labour has the ideas - whether about social care, climate change, equality - that will raise standards and make a difference to people's lives." In contrast, "There is real pressure on the Tories, who either have nothing to say or say more of the same." Meanwhile, one main manifesto commitment from 1997 remains frustratingly unfulfilled: that of a referendum on electoral reform.

Will Miliband, a natural constitutional reformer, advocate such a vote? It would be an electrifying - and potentially game-changing - gamble. But Downing Street sources say the Prime Minister has yet to be convinced.


A survey by the National Army Museum to coincide with the opening of its "Conflicts of Interest" exhibition, looking at the role of the British armed forces since 1969, delivers a blow to neoconservatives and liberal interventionists. A clear majority of the 2,000 people questioned believe British troops should never have been deployed to either Iraq or Afghanistan, and only 5 per cent "strongly" agree with UK involvement in those conflicts. Meanwhile, more than 71 per cent see the army's prime role as "defence of British territory and British citizens". Current and future defence secretaries, take note.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Where next?