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Climate Change and the Common Good

by Baroness Worthington

Posted: 27 Apr 2015

Climate change is a huge global threat; one which can at times feel utterly bewildering. It is now clear, in so far as science is ever certain about anything, that we are drastically altering our life-sustaining climate. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that we have already emitted half of what might be considered a 'safe' carbon emissions budget and that at current rates, the remaining half will be used up less than 25 years from now.

We need to change course and quickly but action by any one individual or any one country alone cannot guarantee a resolution. So we are trapped in a tragedy of the commons where we must collectively respond or those refusing to take part will render our efforts ineffective.

The solution is through effective leadership.

In 2008, the UK passed the world's first Act of Parliament committing us to legally binding targets to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions through a series of successive 5 yearly carbon budgets. I was lucky enough to play a role in the passing of this landmark piece of legislation. Since then, other countries have followed our lead, just as we argued they would when faced with scepticism as to why we should set ourselves unilateral targets.

Thanks to that Act, the UK now has a relatively robust framework for addressing our own emissions. But the tragedy of the commons remains. Which is why it is now vital that all major emitting countries adopt similar targets to reduce their contributions to the climate change risk. Fortunately, leadership in both the US and China has now created much more favourable conditions for a new international climate agreement being reached in Paris this year. Whether it will represent a truly proportionate response to the risk is debatable but it will certainly send a vital signal that there is a far higher degree of willingness for countries to work together in a common framework.

Paris is not, however, the only important negotiation taking place this year. New Sustainable Development Goals and associated funding streams are also expected to be agreed in the UN in September. Global inequality and climate change are intimately intertwined and we need advances in both if we are every to achieve a harmonious and sustainable global community.

There is, however, another important potential barrier to progress that the UK could help to address and that is what the Governor of the Bank of England described as the 'tragedy of the horizon', meaning the increasingly short-term thinking evident in our financial sector. Circling St Paul's are a host of financial institutions and companies with a global reach. If we are going to successfully change our economy to free it from greenhouse gas emissions we will need to see trillions of pounds diverted away from polluting practices and into cleaner alternatives. Energy policies can help to achieve this and indeed we have in the UK been supporting renewable energy since 1990 and now have a growing clean energy industry. At EU level we have the world's largest cap and trade scheme, which puts a price on pollution, a policy that my NGO Sandbag works to make stronger.

However, huge investments still flow into new fossil fuel infrastructure and trading, including in fossil fuel based commodities and stocks and shares, makes up far too high a proportion of the financial sector's activities. We need to deflate what is commonly referred to as the 'carbon bubble' and policy makers, politicians, regulators and finance experts now need to come together to work out how.

I hope that St. Paul's Institute, as it explores the relationship between economics and the common good, will continue to convene conversations that can lead to solutions to this problem. In my role as a legislator I stand ready to take part in those conversations and advance the ideas that will hopefully emerge both here in the UK and internationally.

Baroness Worthington recently spoke at St Paul's Cathedral as part of our event titled 'Climate Change and the Common Good: The Cultural Challenge'.  A full video of this event is available on our website here.

About this author

Bryony Worthington is Shadow DECC Minister in the House of Lords, and also a member of the Shadow DeFRA team. She was made a life peer in November 2010.


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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.