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Environment Keynote Speech

September 21, 2004 12:00 AM
By Norman Baker MP in Liberal Democrat Conference

Norman Baker MP on conference podiumConference

This year two startling statements have sounded the alarm very clearly. The first came from the Government's Chief Scientist, Sir David King. He warned us that climate change is - quote - "the most severe problem we are facing today more serious even than the threat of terrorism."

Days later a group of international scientists predicted that more than a third of all species could be extinct by 2050. That means a species could be lost every 45 minutes - a frightening prediction with sadly a far better basis than other 45 minute claims we have heard recently.

There is no question that the human race is conducting a gigantic and unpredictable experiment with Planet Earth with potentially horrendous consequences and no Plan B in sight.

The key challenge is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that enables ecosystems to adapt and survive while permitting sustainable food production and sustainable economic activity to continue.

The scientific consensus is that the most that the planet can bear the global warming safety line is a temperature rise of 2 degrees relative to pre-industrial levels. According to the United Nations Environment Programme we will without doubt reach that figure by 2100 even if drastic action is taken now And it could be far, far worse.

This summer has provided a taster of what could be in store with floods in Boscastle, landslides in Scotland and a devastating succession of hurricanes hitting the Caribbean and Florida. Of course freak weather events have always occurred and no one event can definitively be put down to climate change. But what is clear is that what was freak is now becoming almost commonplace, more extreme, and less predictable.

Meanwhile other less visible but no less worrying changes are occurring. The North Sea for instance is heating up alarmingly, by an astonishing 4 degrees Celsius in recent years causing the disappearance of plankton that basic and vital element of the food chain. This scientists say is why hundreds of apparently healthy seabirds have been washed up this year on the Norfolk coast. It's why colonies of kittiwakes and guillemots off Shetland are heading for their worst breeding season on record.

Then there's the melting of glaciers the thinning of polar ice sheets the vanishing of coral reefs. And so the list goes on

In the words of an ancient Chinese proverb

"If we continue down the road which we appear to have chosen the danger exists that we may end up exactly where we are heading."

Clearly we must change direction.

Climate change a more serious threat than terrorism says David King. Yet from our Prime Minister we hear a great deal about terrorism and precious little about climate change. Indeed, when he was put on the spot over this he told MPs:

"Looking very long term if I look at when my children are my age yes I think that is the key issue that faces us"

Very long term? Tony. The problem is here and now and needs to be tackled here and now Climate change is a weapon of mass destruction and far more real than the ones you've been vainly combing Iraq for.

He still doesn't get it, does he? He thinks it's enough to tick a box once a year with a ritual green speech using the right language pressing the right buttons churning out the same old spin He was at it again last week. Offering every possible assistance short of actual help.

He simply won't provide leadership when it really matters.

Just look at this government's record since 1997. Road traffic up 8% and up 25% by 2010. Aircraft emissions up 23%. Energy use up 7%. Household waste up 19%. Radioactive waste up 9%. And most tellingly carbon dioxide emissions up 2%.

So I say this to Tick-Box Tony. We've had more than enough warm words and hot air from you Let's see some action.

Then there's Michael Howard. It was he who when Environment Secretary granted an amnesty to river polluters tried to repeal key European environmental legislation and colluded with the United States to water down climate change targets.

His so-called environment speech last week was a sad joke. No vision No admission of past failure. Just the unedifying spectacle of the Tories vying with Labour for bottom place in the green league table. Under Howard, Britain would once again be the Dirty Man of Europe just as it was when he was in office.

You can't trust the toxic Tories to care for our environment.

But there's even worse over the pond where George W Bush refuses even to recognise that climate change is happening. He must be one of the few people in the world still in denial. But then he did receive $44 million dollars from the fossil fuel chemical timber and mining industries in his last presidential campaign. Perhaps that's why one of the first things he did when elected was to renege on Kyoto and why he failed even to mention the environment in his 2004 State of the Union address.

The US with 7% of the world's population is responsible for 36% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions a figure rising all the time. And as domestic oil runs out rather than introduce sustainable energy policies that reduce dependency on oil Bush scours the world and its unstable regimes for more and more of what's left If he wants to protect the American way of life he would do better to move rapidly towards more sustainable energy sources.

As far as the environment is concerned George W Bush is Public Enemy Number One.

But you know, it needn't be like this. Yes, some adverse effects of climate change cannot now be stopped. But we can aim to hold that change inside that 2 degree safety line.

The first priority must be to bring the US into some sort of international climate change agreement. Clearly Bush is a lost cause but Kerry may not be. What a pity that our Prime Minister was so busy sucking up to President Bush that he couldn't find time to meet Kerry last time he was stateside. He should rectify that now.

In the medium and long term however there needs to a global agreement all countries can sign up to. That means it must be fair. That's why we Lib Dems advocate a policy of "contraction and convergence". Contraction reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions. Convergence sharing out equally emissions across the planet on a head, not a wealth count Without such an arrangement developing countries in particular will simply not sign up.

We can start here in Britain by putting our own house in order.

Liberal Democrats will act to cut energy consumption by promoting energy conservation and improving energy efficiency. That is not only good for the environment but will mean cheaper energy bills for householders and businesses alike.

We will do far more to develop renewable sources of energy so that within 40 years 60% of our electricity will come from such sources. And we won't simply rely on windfarms. We need to exploit the waves the tides the sun even perhaps the hot rocks under the ground.

If we do all this then we need not fall back on nuclear waste. And lets be clear about the problems it poses and that the nuclear lobby conveniently ignores.

The waste that will stay radioactive for hundreds of years. The serious terrorist threat that nuclear sites pose.

And of course the £48 billion bill that the taxpayer must pick up in order to clean up existing nuclear sites. And this was the power source we were told would be too cheap to meter Incidentally to keep that gigantic cost down the government is proposing to import nuclear waste from other countries for disposal. Making Britain a nuclear dustbin may please the Treasury but very few others.

In transport Liberal Democrats will do far more to make public transport attractive and so encourage people out of their cars and onto buses and trains. We need public transport which is safe reliable, frequent clean and cheap. Did you know that since 1974 the real cost of travelling by rail has gone up 84% and by bus 71% while the cost of motoring has actually fallen by 2 ½ %, trends which have continued under this government?

We will change the government mindset that says money spent on roads is investment while that spent on public transport is subsidy. We will reduce the horrendous overheads on the railways. Why is it that to lay a mile of railway track in this country is fantastically more expensive than in say France?

On the roads we recognise that for many the car is a necessity particularly for those in remote rural areas. Ironically it is in such areas that petrol prices are highest but lowest in places like Central London where good public transport networks exist. We will use road pricing to protect those who are truly dependant on their car while charging more to those who have an alternative but choose not to use it. We will also cut costs for those with smaller cleaner cars while making the gas guzzlers pay appropriately In motoring as elsewhere the polluter should pay.

We will ensure that the government as the country's biggest purchaser sets higher environmental standards in procurement so giving a lead to the private sector. For instance the government is still importing timber from unsustainable sources. Some of it is even being used in the construction of the new Home Office building as my colleague Sue Doughty has revealed Official figures even show that we are importing quite a bit of wood from Vatican City - not universally known as a great timber growing area .There can't be that many old pews.

We will do all this and more in a radical programme to save the environment. And if we are to succeed we must do so on the basis of freedom, fairness, and trust.

A freedom to enjoy clean air and clean water. A freedom to eat wholesome food. A freedom to enjoy the planet we have It is not however a freedom to fly-tip to pollute or to behave selfishly in a way that is detrimental to others. Sometimes the behaviour of the individual has to be constrained for the greater good.

Fairness is a key environmental test too. Fairness across the world in tackling climate change unfair trade and access to clean water. Fairness at home with a programme of green justice linking environmental protection with our social justice agenda.

And trust.

I want people to trust the Liberal Democrats. Trust us to adopt the right policies even if they are uncomfortable sometimes. To mean what we say and have the courage to follow it through. To tell it straight to persuade people both of the seriousness of the challenge we face but also that we can both collectively and individually make a difference.

The environmental challenge is the great challenge of this century. To meet that challenge we need to create a cleaner fairer, freer society one where human happiness matters more than GDP If we can do that we will not only have averted environmental disaster but made a world more at ease with itself.

Charles Kennedy is determined and I am determined that wherever you bite into the Lib Dem stick of rock you will find the word environment writ large. It is not an add-on It must run through all we do and all government does.

That's why our next General Election manifesto will once again feature green action points related to every policy area. It's why in parliament we have created a team of shadow green ministers covering every government department. It's why in our own modest way we have at this conference replaced plastic holders with bags from sustainable jute and why all future Lib Dem conferences will be carbon neutral.

Above all it's why all those in this country who care about the environment and care about the future should vote Liberal Democrat at the next General Election.