Conferences and climate change: why I’m not giving up on the Lib Dems

September is the time for new beginnings. School children crush auburn leaves with their shiny new shoes as they head off to start another term, students embark upon the frenzy of freshers week, albeit not the first time for some, while the media reawakens from its summertime slumber, all silly season stories abandoned. As the year stretches before us, it’s time to talk of fresh pages, renewed resolve, the welcome chance to start again.

Starting again has been the strapline for 2012. It was only a year ago that we were all transfixed, both in horror and embarrassment, by the scenes of wanton looting and violence erupting around the UK, at times drawing unfortunate comparisons with Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 28 Days Later. A year on, and the same director charmed us all with his dreamy interpretation of Britishness for the Olympics opening ceremony, leading to a summer of patriotism, pride and community spirit.

With so much positive change, and possibly (dare I suggest it) the sort of change we can believe in, what next for our politicians? As the Party Conference bandwagon drew into blustery Brighton last Saturday, all eyes were on the Liberal Democrats as they made their pitch to voters everywhere. As the junior partner in an often uncomfortable coalition, they have been faced with tough decisions, as party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg seems to reiterate almost daily, while journalists and political pundits everywhere are falling over themselves to douse their 2015 electoral prospects with scorn.

But I’m not writing the Lib Dems off yet and here’s why. However the coalition climate is changing, the Lib Dems remain clear on climate change: that it is having an increasingly dramatic and harmful effect on communities in developing countries and we need to ensure that we act now. During the course of the conference, the party passed the motion ‘International Cooperation on the Environment’ which called for the UK Government to take a lead on creating a more sustainable economy and cleaner environment, pushing other EU countries to adopt the UK’s carbon emission reduction targets, for the UK Government to work with the G77 to develop Sustainable Development Goals on food, water and energy and to reform the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). As Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey put it, the Lib Dems ‘are not for turning’, on the issues of climate change and the green economy.

Tearfund will be attending all three party conferences and hosting events on climate change and corruption, in partnership with other organisations. In Brighton, we joined the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum in St Paul’s Church, for a well-attended debate on ‘How to deliver climate justice in tough economic times?’ chaired by Sir Alan Beith MP and featuring speeches from Duncan Hames MP, Fiona Hall MEP, Tearfund’s Head of Policy, Laura Taylor and CEO of A Rocha UK, Herb Enmarch-Williams.

I’ve attended far too many events in which politicians wax lyrical about climate change without focussing on its impacts or identifying the urgent need to take action, but on this occasion I was genuinely encouraged. Our panellists spoke openly and honestly about the imminent threat that climate change poses to communities globally and the impact that it is already having on the world’s poorest people, before discussing the action that needs to be taken to effect change.

The problem is all too predictable. World leaders have pledged to deliver climate finance of $100 billion a year from 2020 (so far, so good), but there is still no indication as to where this money might come from. At the moment, the money is coming from the aid budget which is diverting money away from other important development initiatives, like increasing access to education, improving provision of water and sanitation and health services. It is clear that we need to find a source of finance for climate change adaptation. But in tough economic times we cannot expect taxpayers to dutifully pick up the tab, whether or not we believe that globally, we’re all in it together.

One option, which a number of the panellists touched upon, is the carbon pricing of international shipping. Hardly a headline topic it seems, nor something that might be condensed down into a clever marketing slogan or knowingly trendy ad campaign. But nevertheless, what it lacks in style, carbon pricing more than makes up for in substance.

The fuels used by the international shipping industry (called “bunkers”) are currently untaxed, even though shipping is responsible for around three per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The development of an effective and fair, market-based mechanism would both curb shipping emissions and raise finance to meet global commitments on climate change action. Once a rebate for developing countries is taken into account, around $10 billion a year could be raised as a contribution to meeting the $100 billion promised for climate action. At a time of economic difficulty, focusing on a sector that is currently untaxed globally and also contributes to curbing global carbon emissions, would be fair and environmentally sound. It’s a viable option and an opportunity which, while the tipping point for catastrophic climate change looms like the iconic iceberg, we cannot afford to ignore.

So back to new beginnings. If 2012 was the year of starting over, 2013 has the potential to be the year of real change. With the UK taking the helm of the G8 presidency, now is the time for our Government to show real global leadership, to be relentless in pushing for action on climate change and a meaningful solution to the climate finance conundrum. Carefully constructed speeches are one thing, but we’ll only ever judge our parliamentarians on their actions. At a time when public support is wavering and political tensions are high, the Lib Dems have the chance to show what they stand for, to be a party of meaningful action. So do the Lib Dems have it in them to be brave in the face of opposition and really fight for meaningful action on climate change? And will they be unapologetic for their determination to ensure that climate action is not derailed by political point-scoring and short-termism? The signs are very encouraging but for now, at least, they have a long way to go.

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