Former environment minister Michael Meacher says climate change is a global problem which needs a global solution

Now some may dismiss climate change as remote from Britain, unlikely to affect us and, anyway, some distance into the future. They are wrong. I call in evidence from US President George W Bush's top climate change modeller, Jim Hanson - perhaps an unlikely witness, but one I think who is very compelling in the situation - who said a couple of months ago: "At most we have 10 years" to make the drastic cuts in emissions that might head off climate catastrophe.

In the highly connected world these convulsions are very relevant to us.

A recent UN report warned that rising sea levels, desertification and shrinking fresh water supplies will create up to 50 million environmental refugees by the end of this decade.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimates that of 10 of the world's most dangerous diseases, nine will increase their coverage across the world because of climate change.

As the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt, rising sea levels will threaten coastal cities worldwide, including, of course, London.

Food supplies worldwide will be disrupted by intensifying droughts (that's certainly already happening), and industrial agriculture will be particularly vulnerable to a surge in pathogens and pests from warmer temperatures.

But what is really worrying is that climate disaster is still only in its very early stages, and it is not a linear, but a dynamic process of intensification.

Is this all irreversible? Some is, but by far the greater part is still to come and must be slowed down over time and halted.

But it requires much more urgent and radical change in our transportation systems, in our economic systems, our lifestyles and our civilisation, than governments or industries anywhere have yet seriously contemplated.

So what is to be done? There has to be international agreement covering the whole world about carbon emission reductions. All countries have to be involved, this is a global problem, and you cannot solve a global problem without a global solution.

By 2050, it is imperative that China, India and other big developing countries sign up to significant action, even if not immediately to Kyoto Protocol targets, to reduce their carbon emissions within a limited timescale.

The US, the biggest polluter, must also be brought in at the earliest time. That is vital.

What is surely needed is a global framework to share out equitably the total level of world carbon emissions that the atmosphere can tolerate, without putting at jeopardy the future of this planet.

That, according to the scientists, is a level of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere of about 550 parts per million.

At present, it is about 380, so 550 is about a 50% increase on where we are now. In the past 200 years we have already achieved that increase, so I don't think we have another 200 years, or anywhere near that, to prevent us getting to the 550 level.

Emissions quotas
To keep within that level, a programme of contraction and convergence has been proposed. In other words, each country would receive an emissions quota at its current emission level.

The quota of the developed countries would gradually reduce and the quota of the developing countries (because they're going to industrialise and they'll have some headroom to do that) will gradually increase, until they converge. Depending when that point is, the level of carbon emission for all countries may have to be reduced in order to keep within the agreed level.

What are the chances of achieving that at the present time? There are two obvious problems: China and India.

All the other developing countries say the Western world caused this problem through 'dirty industrialisation' during the past two centuries. So it is the West's responsibility to take the lead. And that is exactly what the industrialised countries have been trying to do at Kyoto and thereafter. The other problem is that the US, under President Bush, ' ' continues its unabated search for an oil and fossil fuel economy.

But I do think that opinion is changing. Both the New York and Californian governors, along with 150 US cities, are saying they are going to implement voluntary carbon reductions.

Renewable energy
The fundamental requirement is this: if climate change is driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, and of course it is, the most essential requirement is that the world diversifies out of oil, coal and gas into renewable sources of energy such as wind power, biomass, wave and tidal power, and solar energy.

Are renewables a feasible option? Yes, it is perfectly true that solar energy and wind power so far provide less than 1% of the world's energy total, and they still have very large hurdles to overcome.

But the potential here is enormous. It has been estimated that Europe's offshore wind potential in waters up to 30m deep could supply the whole of the European continent's power.

And China has so much wind energy it could double its electricity generation by harnessing it.

Transport systems are a more difficult issue. If the aim is to switch from petrol and diesel-driven cars to either hybrid cars or hydrogen fuel cell-driven cars, then yes, we probably need a transitional feed stock to make hydrogen for fuel cell-driven vehicles. And that's almost certainly gas, and we need a cost competitive technology to be developed as rapidly as possible to make hydrogen from renewables.

Today's lighting systems are dramatically more efficient. But any potential energy savings are swallowed up by dozens more recessed or track lights. Other energy savings are spent on more air-conditioning systems, big-screen home entertainment TV centres and additional refrigerators in the garage and elsewhere.

Now the lesson of this is the perversity of minimising cost, which is the goal of technology, rather than maximising conservation, which is the goal of environment.

But it does open up a real prospect of a different energy future, and not one based on carbon-free energy sources alone, such hydrogen fuel cells - which are frankly coming on-stream far too slowly.

But based on those technologies, huge gains in energy efficiency could power cars, houses and industry, requiring only a half of the energy that we use today.

But of course much more needs to be done if we are going to do everything that we can do at national and local level.

The EU emission trading system for the main industrial sectors should be progressively tightened. And the insurance industry has a prime role here.

You are in a very important position to start to price your premiums on policyholders' commitment to be environmentally friendly and actively cutting carbon emissions.

But energy conservation is just as important for domestic households.

It is not government or industry out there, or insurance. It is us, in the way we live in our homes, just as it is for industry.

Higher standards should be laid down in building regulations, as in Sweden.

Bigger incentives should be given to families to switch to renewables, both solar thermo panels and micro generation for water heating and house warming, as is seen in Germany.

And if a SAP (standard assessment procedure) rating as measure of energy efficiency of a house had to be provided as part of a vendor's pack at a house sale, then it would provide all house owners with a powerful incentive to upgrade insulation prior to sale.

Incentives needed
Much bigger incentives should be given to individuals, both at the point of sale and the annual vehicle excise duty, to use smaller engine cars, and to make fewer car journeys. And this is my concluding point, I think in some ways it is the most important.

If we had a cap and trade system applied to households.

In other words you were told, we pump out about 20 tons of carbon a year, next year for all of us it's going to be 19 - slowly it goes down - that would provide a market mechanism to guide individual choice, while cutting domestic carbon emissions overall.

But I simply say that nothing less meets the huge challenge that confronts us all. IT

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