This week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has served as a stark reminder of the scale of the task the world faces on climate change. The report concludes that climate change is already happening, it is set to get much worse, and there will be profound consequences for the UK and the world if action to mitigate it is not stepped up now.
Now the Government must consider how this will impact on our approach to foreign policy. With the armed forces reduced in size, and our commitment to the conflict in Afghanistan winding down, this could be a period where foreign policy is no longer overshadowed by military engagements.
The Paris Conference in December 2015 will be an opportunity for the world’s leaders to reach agreement on a legally-binding agreement to ensure we take the action needed to prevent a catastrophic global temperature rise of above 2 degrees.
This is an area of policy where the UK’s vast resources, global influence, and diplomatic network could be put to good use.
As the first country in the world to pass binding legislation to tackle emissions the UK has a great deal of credit in the bank – credit that, unfortunately, is beginning to be eroded by the softening commitment from the Coalition Government.
What would success in Paris look like? An agreement that includes for the first time all of the major CO2 emitters and which contains a commitment to mitigation and legally binding rules. It will also need to address issues of finance, deforestation and climate adaptation.
Many people worry that such a treaty is too difficult to achieve given the unlikelihood of any US President persuading the Senate to ratify an international treaty. But over the last year, under President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, there has been a fundamental shift in US attitudes to climate change.
The attitude of the US and what it does will invariably impact on the approach that China takes, but we should recognise that climate change, and related issues around air quality and environmental degradation, are issues that China’s leaders take extremely seriously.
The politics of this will naturally be challenging. Some present this as a choice between addressing climate change and ensuring economic growth, but that need not be the case. This agenda also represents an enormous opportunity for the UK – we are already leaders in green manufacturing, and it is one of the few areas where the UK currently has a positive balance of trade with China. It also brings with it a host of related benefits in terms of energy security, better housing, and greater sustainability for business.
For a safe and prosperous future, and for a chance to engage a new generation in one of the biggest political issues we have ever faced, leading on climate change and the Paris Conference must form an essential part of any Government’s foreign policy agenda.