Climate Change and Sustainable Development: A Perspective from Britain

Cambridge, United Kingdom—Stars and a full moon covered the sky over this city on the night that the eye of Hurricane Sandy crossed over my house in Pennsylvania. And, at the end of BBC’s all-night coverage of the presidential election, Mitt Romney gave his concession speech just as the sky began to lighten. Such is what it means to spend part of my sabbatical at the University of Cambridge.

The U.S. election and Hurricane Sandy obscured other developments that are also important. I took my sabbatical here to see what Britain is doing on sustainable development and climate change. My most recent book on U.S. sustainability, Acting as if Tomorrow Matters: Accelerating the Transition to Sustainability, was published in June.

The United Kingdom provides an important reference point for the United States because of our common language and history as well as the similarity of our legal systems and culture. Americans have stronger ties with few other countries than they have with Britain. While Britain is far from perfect, it is considerably ahead of the U.S. on sustainability and climate change.

Some snapshots:

• People here generally understand that climate change is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. The media in this country noted New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s endorsement of Barack Obama because of climate change, and Obama’s reference to global warming in his victory speech. But they were also critical of the near-total avoidance of this issue during the campaign by both candidates. Climate change denial is not as significant in Britain’s political landscape as it is in the United States.

• The United Kingdom adopted its basic climate change legislation in 2008, while George W. Bush was president. The law commits Britain to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 (from 1990 levels). The country is using five-year carbon budgets to meet these objectives. An independent body called the Committee on Climate Change is both advising the government and reporting on progress. There is no comparable law in the U.S., though Congress came close in 2009 and 2010.

• In 2008, the UK Government created the Department of Energy and Climate Change to ensure that climate change and energy issues are addressed together. A government department with climate change in its name also has considerable political significance. The U.S. simply has a Department of Energy, with real but limited ability to address climate change.

• The United Kingdom and other members of the European Union have set a target of meeting 15% of their energy demand from renewable sources by 2020. (Renewables provided only 3% of the UK’s energy in 2009.) The country is on track to meet that target, in no small part because it leads the world in offshore wind energy. In fact, major energy companies, investment firms, and a respected former Conservative party leader (Michael Heseltine) are all saying that a stronger policy framework must be put in place to support the investment necessary to meet the country’s carbon reduction goals. Renewable energy already provides a quarter million jobs, and this could double in the years ahead. The U.S. has no comparable national commitment, though many states are increasing their use of renewable energy.

• As part of the country’s commitment to address climate change, Parliament adopted legislation at the end of 2011 to foster energy efficiency and a low-carbon economy. Among other things, that legislation creates a “Green Deal” for financing energy efficiency improvements in residential and commercial properties without up-front payments. A small surcharge on electric bills provides funding, and costs are to be repaid from reduced energy bills. In the United States, this kind of activity is occurring in many, but not all, states.

• Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions are decreasing; U.S. emissions are increasing, though at a slower pace than previously. The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions declined 23 percent between 1990 and 2010. They are projected to decline a further 25% from 2010 levels by 2025, primarily because of growing use of renewable energy and other changes in electricity production. By contrast, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased 10.5% between 1990 and 2010. In the absence of further regulation, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase by only 2% between 2010 and 2035, according to the Energy Information Administration, ”due to a combination of modest economic growth, growing use of renewable technologies and fuels, efficiency improvements, slow growth in electricity demand, and increased use of natural gas, which is less carbon-intensive than other fossil fuels.” Significantly, U.S. per capita emissions are about double those of the UK.

• The House of Commons in Parliament has an Environmental Audit Committee that monitors the country’s commitments and actions on behalf of sustainability and climate change. It is made of members of members of the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Green parties. It issues periodic reports making recommendations on embedding sustainability in the operations of government, on the green economy, and on sustainable food. It is also reviewing the Government’s 2013 budget, “focusing on how the Government should be supporting a green economy in the context of its intention to secure economic growth.” There is nothing like this committee in the U.S. Congress.

• In 1994, the United Kingdom became the first country to produce a sustainable development strategy to make its environmental, economic, security, and social goals work together. Revised strategies were issued in 1999 and 2005, although the coalition government that took power in 2010 has yet to issue a strategy. There was also a Sustainable Development Commission, which operated for a decade as an inspired force on behalf of sustainability in government and, in its later years, as a government watchdog. In what was allegedly a budget cutting move, the coalition government ceased funding the Commission in 2011. The Government has not issued a new sustainable development strategy, though the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (this country’s analogue to the Environmental Protection Agency) issues reports on what the government is doing on behalf of sustainability. The U.S. has never had a national sustainable development strategy.

• A fungus that is likely to be devastating to Britain’s ash trees, evidently introduced from continental Europe and originally from Japan, was first discovered in this country in February 2012. Its effects are now being seen in many places. The fungus (Chalara fraxinea) spreads by wind, and there does not appear to be any cure or treatment. The fungus has the potential to wipe out Britain’s 80 million ash trees. The fungus is raising many questions about how effectively the country protects its borders from plant diseases. Sadly, ash trees in the United States are threatened by the emerald ash borer, an Asian insect accidentally introduced in the 1990s.

• Prime Minister David Cameron, whose Conservative party runs the Government in a coalition with the Liberal Democrat Party, promised in 2010 that his would be the “greenest government ever.” There is skepticism about this claim, backed by some evidence (see above for examples, although it is not clear that his Government can fairly be blamed for the ash fungus). Still, it is remarkable that he made that statement at all, and that he continues to make it.

So a country very much like ours is in many ways treating sustainable development and climate change as opportunities to create jobs, improve security, strengthen its economy, and protect the environment. Could the better parts of this story be replicated in the United States?

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