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The UK Government White Paper and climate change: is there equity in the ambition?

Written by Neil Bird

There have been two major publications outlining government climate change strategy in as many weeks. First, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published The Road to Copenhagen. Now, the Department for International Development (DFID) devotes a chapter to climate change in its just published White Paper on eliminating world poverty. Both documents portray the same overall message that climate change requires urgent international action by both developed and developing countries (a theme taken up in this week’s G8 meeting).  However, is there equity in this ambition?

There is an enthusiastic optimism throughout the White Paper text that is more often associated with NGO position statements than policy documents emanating from the civil service. Whilst the government’s position will most likely be welcomed by environmental groups, will it be equally welcomed by DFID partner countries in the South, of whom so much is demanded? Is the UK being overly ambitious within the context of highly charged multilateral negotiations leading up to the Copenhagen meeting?

When it comes to the science of climate change, ambition is clearly required to address this unprecedented global crisis. However, when it comes to the politics of international relations other skills are needed. For the White Paper to state that world leaders ‘must agree’ a new global target for emission cuts (paragraph 3.11) one wonders who is saying ‘must’. If DFID claims to have learned the lessons of supporting nationally-owned development, rather than promoting externally driven agendas, then it should have questioned whether this is appropriate wording for a development agency to adopt.     

Four issues highlighted in the White Paper warrant further examination and DFID should be pressed for more detailed answers.

First, there continue to be questions asked of the UK’s willingness to accept historic responsibility for the current unprecedented levels of atmospheric carbon. Rather than focus on a global target to half emissions by 2050 (paragraph 3.15), the UK should give greater priority to charting out the actions (and costs) of how developed countries will reduce their emissions more drastically. The UK position would be more credible on the international stage were the government to give greater attention to influencing the behaviour of the USA, Canada and Australia rather than giving so much emphasis to India, China and Brazil. Mitigation was, and remains, first and foremost a responsibility of the Northern industrialised countries.

Second, halting global forest cover loss by 2030 (paragraph 3.44) appears an innocuous goal for international action. But, when this translates into preventing land-use change in tropical rainforest countries it takes the debate into another political realm. Where are small-scale farmers in such countries going to find the land to feed growing populations? How will food security be achieved? Experience with tropical forest conservation initiatives working in isolation from general land-use over the last 20 years suggests this to be an almost intractable problem – at least until such time as these societies reach a level of development where the rural poor no longer exist in large numbers. ODI research into the socio-economic implications of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) is pointing to some of the issues that need to be addressed.

Third, a very positive view is taken of the potential of the carbon market and market-based finance to provide the necessary level of funding for climate actions. The White Paper suggests as much as half of the financing for climate change actions will be met in this way (paragraph 3.18). Well, there is no evidence presented to substantiate the likelihood of securing this level of funding and as a result it should come as no surprise that there is continuing scepticism over this potential in the South.

Which brings us to the fourth issue, where the White Paper appears to stray into unchartered territory. Just who should pay for the climate change reparations in developing countries? By calling on the ‘economically advanced developing countries’ to meet some of these costs (paragraph 3.16), the White Paper appears to move the debate to a position where an agreement at Copenhagen appears less, rather than more, likely.  Research by ODI, available at the website, Climate Funds Update, shows that most developed country pledges to provide additional funding have yet to be met.

So, both the White Paper and the DECC departmental paper may be ambitious statements of intent, which propose what appear to be effective measures to combat global climate change. What is less clear from the UK development agency’s White Paper is whether the proposed government strategy is truly equitable in the eyes of developing countries. We shall find out in December, but in the meantime, readers may have their own views.