Politicians warm to world's most pressing issue
Published in The Scotsman, 11 October 2008
Old-fashioned debates are all the rage, and so is climate change. A Question Time-style event this week gathered politicians and activists to present their solutions to the world's most pressing issue. Organised by Stop Climate Chaos, a coalition of green and development organiations, it brought together three of the main parties - with the others two, feebly, 'unable to contribute'.
Labour was represented by Sarah Boyack, MSP and Mark Lazarowicz MP, the SNP by Rob Gibson MSP and the Greens by Patrick Harvie, heir-apparent to their wicker throne.
Two other green thinkers added sensible substance. Dan Barlow of WWF Scotland, and Chas Booth of the Association for the Conservation of Energy. Rob Edwards, the environmental journalist, chaired.
The first question, the big one, which climate change debates often boil down to, is the menu of suitable energy technologies. We were reminded that a mix is inevitable, with no single approach adequate. No matter - the green sleeves were rolled up.
Nuclear power was dismissed by all but Sarah Boyack.
The coal industry's emerging hope - to prepare today's new power stations to pump carbon emissions back into disused gas fields tomorrow - was likened by Mr Harvie to a rampant male declaring himself 'condom-ready' - with no guarantees of protection. Worth considering, however, is what this could do for existing power stations. Yorkshire's Carbon Capture and Storage scheme hopes to pump tens of millions of tonnes of CO2 under the North Sea.
However, with 30% of our electricity generation capacity set to be obsolete in the next 10 years, and 70% in the next 20 years, our panel needs to push for consensus on the bigger power generation mix, fast.
Wind power attracted remarkably little debate, with no mention of the 5,000 or so more turbines needed across the UK to meet our renewable energy targets.
Decent transport links North roused Mr Gibson to an outburst on behalf of his constituency, but high-speed trains were dismissed as 'no silver bullet' by an impassive Mark Lazarowicz.
Scotland's forthcoming Climate Bill, with 80% reduction targets by 2050, was recognised by all as an essential framework policy. Mr Barlow, Mr Harvie and Mr Booth stressed the need for aviation to be included - with emissions growing so fast they could eclipse all savings elsewhere.
Sarah Boyack wants 'binding' carbon targets to be set at departmental level, to avoid manouvering and infighting between, say, energy and transport. Confusingly, she could not agree to the need for 'statutory' targets. That particular debate will feature strongly in the coming months.
So what was agreed upon? More grass roots action, home-grown veg, wood growing in the Highlands, and unanimously, the energy efficiency theme. Mr Booth smiled, then kept quiet. Distributed energy, small, local-scale combined power generation, is a way to exploit efficient technology (which Edinburgh University pioneered in the building we were sitting in).
People need to see action, now, before they die of boredom before the debate really begins. Energy efficiency technologies are uncontroversial and save money. A humble suggestion to the panel - get on with it.
Curiously absent was talk of Scotland's place in global carbon targets and trading - the capitalists' invisible green hand - which will drive the momentum to allow us to export know-how and technology. Scotland must look outwards, and see the opportunities that climate change represents.
Finally, self-belief is critical. Mr Harvie promises to inject fresh ideas into Scottish politics and recognises, deep down, the scale of change necessary to tackle climate change. His passion and enthusiasm - albeit from a relatively safe harbour - will help keep the incumbents in Holyrood and Westminster honest. They need to get on with the institutional changes, and not be afraid of upsetting the apple cart.