Pascale Palmer talks to the Secretary of State for energy and climate change Chris Huhne
1. What and who inspired you to enter politics?
My family has always been political; particularly on my mother’s side, whose ancestors included Welsh and Scottish Liberals. It was an especially good history teacher at school, however, who really triggered my interest in how things can be made to change in society.
Later, as a journalist I visited India and saw successes and failures of development policy; and Tanzania, where I saw how a well-meaning programme of moving nomads into villages (so that they could enjoy better health and education services) utterly failed to take account of the impact of higher levels of cultivation on poor soils, leading to serious problems of desertification. It was this realisation of the futility of ignoring ecological constraints that really awoke my interest in environmental policy. I am therefore particularly pleased to be the Secretary of State for a key environmental department in the coalition government.
2. Why do you personally think climate change is such a crucial issue?
It is the most important issue facing society. Uncontrolled climatic change has the potential to make the planet uninhabitable for humans. Even if we avoid this catastrophic outcome, climate change could wreck economies and hurt the poorest countries and the poorest communities the worst. At the same time, many of the actions needed to tackle climate change – such as reducing energy use and switching to cleaner forms of power generation – have the potential to improve our quality of life, and should be adopted in any case.
3. On an international politics level, what are the hurdles to tackling
The main problem is that developing countries remain unconvinced that developed countries are fully committed to reducing their own emissions which, after all, are responsible for most of the global warming effect seen so far; and poorer countries do not wish to see their own development constrained by accepting what they see as unfair targets. We need both to tackle these obstacles, for example by developing long-term sources of financing to assist developing countries, and also by demonstrating within the UK how we can build a successful and prosperous low-carbon economy. The latter will also help to encourage those richer countries, such as the US, which have adopted less ambitious targets, to move further and faster.
4. The coalition has only been in power for a few months, but what have been the challenges so far of bringing two different parties' policies together on climate issues?
This is the first coalition in 65 years. Coalitions can provide strong and decisive government because of their broad support – let’s not forget that the last coalition government won a world war! The Prime Minister has already made clear the priority with which he regards tackling climate change and protecting our environment. He has publically stated that he wants the new Government to be the greenest ever, with a focus on real action. Liberal Democrat and Conservative ministers are working extremely well within my department and across government to push forward these priorities.
5. Last December's United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen have been broadly viewed as a failure. This year the talks take place in Cancun, Mexico; what hopes do you have for a binding deal that protects the world's poorest?
International negotiations are complex and reaching an ambitious international deal on climate change will not be an easy task. However the UK is committed to making every effort to achieve success. Over 120 countries [are] associated with the Copenhagen Accord and over 70 of those set out targets and actions they will take to limit emissions. Copenhagen demonstrated that there is an appetite for international action. The UN negotiations in Bonn earlier this month were positive and constructive. We need to see that translated into substantial but realistic progress at Cancun later this year.
6. CAFOD and many other NGOs have worked hard on climate change at political and supporter levels; what do you see as the role of civil society in the fight against dangerous climate change?
Civil society has played and must continue to play a vital role in the fight against climate change. We are fortunate in the UK to have NGOs and wider civil society that are amongst the world leaders on promoting action on climate change and in helping to create pressure on Governments around the world. Tackling climate change will be an historic task but I believe by working together in partnership we can and will meet this challenge.
7. What do you feel a faith-based NGO brings to the issue that secular
I think that the faith aspect is hugely important here. One of the most powerful forces in the fight against climate change is the voice of faith groups. The ethical values, local community roots and international reach of our great faith traditions can have a tremendous influence in the global debate and having a voice that directly resonates with these communities is a real strength.
8. What suggestions do you have for supporters at constituency level to
lobby their local MP on climate change?
This is a very valuable role for local supporters. While most MPs are convinced of the urgency of the climate challenge, sadly not all of them are – and the recent disputes over the science of climate change have not helped. You can target those who are less convinced, providing arguments and evidence (particularly of local impacts) and helping to counter the voices of the ‘climate-deniers’. For those MPs who are more progressive on the issue, you can help reinforce the case for ambitious action, making this as much as possible an area in which all main parties agree.
9. Does the coalition government believe that climate finance to help the poorest nations adapt to and mitigate against climate change should be offered in addition to the existing aid pledge of 0.7 per cent of the UK's gross national income?
The Government has confirmed our commitment to donating 0.7 per cent of GNI in overseas aid from 2013. UK climate finance for 2011-14 will be determined through the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), which will report in the autumn.
10. The High Level Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing (AGF) is looking into recommendations on innovative climate financing for the poorest. CAFOD is calling for these recommendations to be ambitious so that predictable and additional climate finance can be delivered to the poorest communities. What is the coalition government's position on innovative sources of finance?
Through the AGF process, the government is fully committed to playing its part in the creation of new international sources of funding for the purpose of climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing countries.
AGF members first met in March (London). At that meeting, they launched the analytical work of the group, which is now underway and driven by AGF deputies, with two Working Groups established to consider public and private sources. Within these Working Groups, eight work-streams have been set up on: carbon-market public revenues; aviation/maritime revenues; carbon related revenues (carbon taxes); IFIs (international financial institutes), MDBs (multi-lateral development banks) and [the] IMF (International Monetary Fund); financial transaction taxes (FTT); direct budget contributions; public instruments to leverage private capital; carbon markets/ offsets. Each of the work-streams will consider the sources against a range of criteria, including their revenue raising potential, their predictability, and their additionality.
I am looking forward to playing my part in the AGF, and will be participating in the next meeting in New York. Getting finance flowing to where it’s needed the most will be a crucial step towards agreeing a future international climate agreement, and we must aim for an ambitious outcome.
11. CAFOD is launching a new carbon footprint scheme to help parishes reduce their ecological impact. How important do you think individual and community action is in the fight against dangerous climate change?
Communities have a crucial role to play in pressing for changes in behaviour at every level of society. Every voice is vitally important in the fight against climate change and every action can make a difference. So, I want to thank you for what you are already doing to reduce CO2 emissions in your own homes and communities. Simple things like turning down the thermostat can add up to a surprisingly big difference and can also save money on energy bills. Many local communities are also developing their own renewable micro-generation schemes, and there is plenty of good experience to be emulated. I would also encourage you to get involved in the call for an ambitious international agreement on climate change. Come to our website www.decc.gov.uk/internationalclimatechange  to find out more. Climate change is about the future of our planet and it really does concern every single one of us.
(c) Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's Advocacy Media Officer. www.cafod.org.uk