FRIDAY, 1 APRIL 2016A well-known defender of the natural world, George Monbiot has championed such scientific initiatives as ‘re-wilding‘ and the de-carbonisation of our diets, and certainly stands up against the big powers to protect the biosphere. Ed Miliband, on the other hand, may not ring so many green bells. In fact, preceding taking up leader of the Labour Party and running for Prime Minister last May, Ed was the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and brought about the Climate Change Act forcing a reduction of emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 – the only one of its kind in the world.
Coming from two very different spheres, yet both clear environmentalists, Monbiot and Miliband certainly have independent ideas on how the UK can undergo the necessary and increasingly urgent changes in order to play its part in acting upon the Paris COP21 agreement.
Recently these two towering influences on UK environmental policy met at a Guardian Live event in central London and BlueSci managed to get a piece of the action. You can find BlueSci’s interviews with both of them at the end of this article.
The UN COP21 meeting in Paris in December was a hugely important moment for the future of everything. The previous record of commitments to tackle climate change has been uninspiring, though Miliband claims a more positive view: “The general record on this, is that countries have done more than they’re willing to promise they’ll do. I know that sounds a bit paradoxical, but that is the truth”. With the highest target set so far – limiting global average temperatures to 1.5ºC – it is a whole other kettle of fish as to whether countries which have previously been the most problematic (i.e. China, the US, India, Australia, and Canada) will take the necessary steps to honour a 1.5ºC target. Let’s remember that this agreement has been ratified into law in a total of 0 countries.
Particularly contentious at UN climate change meetings is the relative contributions from different countries. South Africa and India for example, have justified their plans to construct new coal-fired power stations on their status as developing countries. This may seem reasonable considering that over 20% of South Africans live in extreme poverty. However, renewable technology (particularly solar) is cheaper than ever, leading to investment in such green energies climbing to more than double that of dirty energies, with the majority of this is from developing countries. Indeed, renewables provided a record 90% of all new energy investments in 2015 accompanying (not stalling) economic growth, and given how all potential fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground to keep to temperature targets, suddenly the decisions of South Africa and India seem not so economically beneficial after all.
“An answer of no growth for people living in extreme poverty is not an answer”
Miliband agrees, wisely arguing that through the UN’s Green Development Fund “we’ve got to be able to offer the developing world a chance to leapfrog high-carbon growth to low-carbon growth, because an answer of no growth for people who are living in extreme poverty is not an answer”.
Population is another sticky issue within environmental debates. There’s no question that the spectacular increase in human population since the industrial revolution is the underlying cause behind most, if not all environmental problems that are only now entering the limelight. Our beloved Sir David Attenborough is involved in directly tackling our insatiable lust for replicating through the charity Population Matters, aiming to educate and publicise information on having small families.
“You want to have no influence in the course of events? Talk about population”
Monbiot, however is not convinced that this is a good use of energy, surprisingly claiming it to actually be counter-productive: “sometimes talking about population is a very good way of taking the spotlight off us, and saying its not us high-consumers in the West that are the problem, its those people in the other countries”, adding that “generally, those [parts of the world] that have the most children have the least consumption and those that have the most consumption have the least children”. Not directly referring to Sir David, but certainly rebutting his recent comments in an interview with Monbiot, the Guardian columnist offers profound advice: “You want to have no influence whatsoever on the cause of events? Talk about population. You can’t do anything whatsoever about it. You want an influence in the course of events? You want to change the world? Talk about consumption. Because you’re doing it all the time. Your friends and neighbours are doing it all the time. And it is the major driver of environmental destruction”.
What’s clear from scientific research is that fossil fuels aren’t the only problem. More greenhouse gases (GHG) are produced from agriculture than all of global transport emissions combined, leading researchers to suggest that giving up meat could be by far the best thing you could do for our deteriorating natural environment. Livestock emissions are a complex one though, and eating what you perceive to be ‘natural’ and animal-friendly, may not actually be environmentally better at all, as Monbiot discusses: “For those people who think, well, you know, it’s all this awful indoor battery broiler-type stuff which is going on, that has a huge cost obviously on the welfare of animals, but the free-range outdoor stuff we all know and love, that has a far greater cost on the environment. That’s a trade off: you’re either treating animals appallingly, or you’re trashing the living world… so eat less meat. A lot less meat”.
Taxing food in relation to the amount of water, feed, and other inputs required, as well as the amount of CO2, methane, slurry and energy outputs produced has been a popular idea, and was included in the Green Party’s election manifesto. The problem is an equality one: this would disproportionately disadvantage the poor. Miliband does, however, support a carbon tax targeted more towards the private sector, suggesting that “carbon tax can definitely play a role”.
On the topic of agriculture, what ever happened to biofuels? Argued by the UN as having serious potential as a fossil fuel replacement until recently, increasing worries on food security has relegated this industry largely obsolete. Equally as worrying, the conversion of natural environments into agriculture is not only the biggest threat to the world’s rainforests, but the number one cause of biodiversity decimation. We can say with some certainly, that if Monbiot was in charge, biofuels would be non-existent: “The more immediate way [to achieve 0 net CO2 emissions]…that is catastrophic for the living world, which is the mass production of biofuels… the problem with that is you need to mobilise a very large proportion of the Earth’s surface, turn it into plantation agriculture, which would be catastrophic environmentally, turf loads of people off their land, seriously threaten world food supplies”
“When you have a government that is incredibly reluctant to act, the answer is not low expectations and low ambition”
Feeling a tad overwhelmed? At the root of it all, tackling climate change challenges not only our environmental conscience but indeed the very economic system we abide by (that’s capitalism). Monbiot explains: “you just realise its such a massive challenge, that every aspiration you’ve been told to value, through every aspect of your competitive lives you’ve been told we ought to be leading, that we just cant compute it”. But don’t despair! Both the environmentalist and a the politician agree that through persistent campaigning and activism, we can and will initiate huge changes.
“Ultimately, the only thing that changes on matters like this is mobilisation” encourages Monbiot, “Do not give up. I’m not going to give up”. Miliband offers similarly empowering words: “When you have a government that is incredibly reluctant to act, the answer is not low expectations and low ambition. Lots of people said to me when I went for the zero emissions thing, there’s no way your government’s going to agree to that, there’s absolutely no way… There’s a lesson in that. Which is, just because other people are losing their ambition we shouldn’t lose ours. We know it’s more urgent, and that should be making us raise our ambitions, raise our expectations, and to get involved in the various climate organisations that there are and make your voice heard”.
You may have not been inspired by Miliband’s election campaign last summer, but that is certainly an inspiring call for action. (Such organisations he’s referring to include 350, Fossil Free, and Avaaz).
So, whilst it would be perfectly understandable if you felt the planet’s species (us included) would probably have a better chance of survival joining the mission to Mars, there’s no giving up yet, and as Miliband concludes: “I sort of feel like invoking the spirit of Nelson Mandela. If he’d given up and said ‘ah, never mind, end of Apartheid isn’t going to happen, we’ve been going on about it for a long time…'”. So, what are you waiting for?
Simon would like to thank the Guardian, Ed Miliband and George Monbiot for this opportunity