Climate change is real, says Tony Blair, who has pledged to make it a top priority of Britain’s G8 presidency in 2005 and to secure the international agreement that is necessary to avert disaster

Mankind’s effect on the environment, and in particular on climate change, is large and growing. From the start of the industrial revolution more than 200 years ago, developed nations have achieved ever greater prosperity and higher living standards. But through this period our activities have come to affect our atmosphere, oceans, geology, chemistry and biodiversity.

It is now plain that the emission of greenhouse gases, associated with industrialization and strong economic growth from a world population that has increased six-fold in two centuries, is causing global warming at a rate that began as significant, has become alarming and is simply unsustainable in the long term. And by long term I do not mean centuries ahead. I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly, and possibly within my own. And by unsustainable, I do not mean a phenomenon causing problems of adjustment. I mean a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power that it alters radically human existence.

The challenge is complicated politically by two factors. First, its likely effect will not be felt to its full extent until after the time for the political decisions that need to be taken has passed. In other words, there is a mismatch in timing between the environmental and electoral impact. Second, no one nation alone can resolve it. It has no definable boundaries. Short of international action commonly agreed and commonly followed through, it is hard even for a large country to make a difference on its own.

But there is no doubt that the time to act is now. It is now that timely action can avert disaster. It is now that with foresight and will such action can be taken without disturbing the essence of our way of life, by adjusting behaviour, but not altering it entirely. Just as science and technology have given us the evidence to measure the danger of climate change, so they can help us avert it. The potential for innovation, for scientific discovery and hence, of course, for business investment and growth, is enormous. With the right framework for action, the very act of solving this problem can unleash a new and benign commercial force to take the action forward, providing jobs, technology spin-offs and new business opportunities as well as protecting the world we live in.

But the issue is urgent.

The evidence
Apart from a diminishing handful of sceptics, there is a virtual scientific consensus on the scope of the problem. As long ago as 1988 concerned scientists set up an unprecedented Intergovernmental Panel to ensure that advice to the world’s decision-makers was sound and reliable.

Literally thousands of scientists are now engaged in this work. They have scrutinized the data and developed some of the world’s most powerful computer models to describe and predict our climate. To summarize: the 10 warmest years on record have all been since 1990. Over the past century, average global temperatures have risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius – the most drastic temperature rise for over 1,000 years in the northern hemisphere. Extreme events are becoming more frequent. Glaciers are melting. Sea ice and snow cover are declining. Animals and plants are responding to an earlier spring. Sea levels are rising and are forecast to rise another 88cm by 2100, threatening 100 million people globally who live on land lying below this level.

Despite this, there is one overriding positive: through the science we are aware of the problem and, with the necessary political and collective will, have the ability to address it effectively.

Environmentalism begins at home
Global leadership is needed to tackle the issue. But we cannot aspire to such leadership unless we follow our own advice. Britain has led the world in setting a bold plan and targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We are on track to meet our Kyoto target. The latest estimates suggest that greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 were about 14% below 1990 levels. But we have to do more to achieve our commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010.

There are immense business opportunities in sustainable growth and moving to a low-carbon economy. But business itself must seize the opportunities: it is those hi-tech, entrepreneurial businesses with the foresight and capability to tap into Britain’s superb science base that will succeed.

We need to invest on a large scale in existing technologies and to stimulate innovation into new low-carbon technologies for deployment in the longer term. There is huge scope for improving energy efficiency and promoting the uptake of existing low carbon technologies like photovoltaics, fuel cells and carbon sequestration. What we need to do is build an international consensus on how we can speed up the introduction of these technologies.

The Carbon Trust, a UK government-funded company, is helping businesses to address their energy use and encourage low-carbon innovation. In total, efficiency measures are expected to save almost 8 million tonnes of carbon from business by 2010, more than 10% of their emissions in 2000.

In short, we need to develop the new green industrial revolution that develops the new technologies that can confront and overcome the challenge of climate change; and that above all can show us not that we can avoid changing our behaviour, but that we can change it in a way that is environmentally sustainable.

International action
We believe that trading is the most cost effective way to reduce emissions. The establishment of a carbon trading market throughout the world’s most important economic area in 2005 will be an enormous achievement, and will change the way thousands of businesses think about their energy use.

In Britain and throughout the world, the expected rapid growth in demand for transport, including aviation, means that we must develop far cleaner and more efficient aircraft and cars. A big step in the right direction would be to see aviation brought into the EU emissions trading scheme in the next phase of its development. During our EU presidency in 2005 we will argue strongly for this.

From Europe, we need to secure action worldwide. It needs little imagination to appreciate the security, stability and health problems that will arise in a world in which there is increasing pressure on water availability; where there is a major loss of arable land for many; and in which there are large-scale displacements of population due to flooding and other climate change effects.

It is the poorest countries in the world that will suffer most from severe weather events, longer and hotter droughts, and rising oceans. Yet it is they who have contributed least to the problem. That is why the world’s richest nations in the G8 have a responsibility to lead the way: for the strong nations to help the weak.

Such issues can only be properly addressed through international agreements. Our efforts to stabilize the climate will need, over time, to become far more ambitious than the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto is only the first step, but it provides a solid foundation for the next stage of climate diplomacy.

We know there is disagreement with the US over this issue. In 1997 the US Senate voted 95 to 0 to refuse to ratify Kyoto. I doubt time has shifted the numbers much. But the US remains a signatory to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the US National Academy of Sciences agrees that there is a link between human activity, carbon emissions and atmospheric warming. Last year, the US energy secretary and commerce secretary jointly issued a report again accepting the potential damage to the planet through global warming.

Britain’s G8 strategy First, I want to secure an agreement as to the basic science on climate change and the threat it poses. Second, we want agreement on a process to speed up the science, technology and other measures necessary to meet the threat. Third, while the eight G8 countries account for around 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is vital that we also engage with other countries with growing energy needs – such as China and India – on how they can meet those needs sustainably and how they adapt to the adverse impacts we are already locked into.

Given the different positions of the G8 nations on this issue, such agreement will be a major advance; but I believe it is achievable.

This article is an abridged version of a speech given by the British prime minister in 2004

Tony Blair
Tony Blair is Britain’s prime minister.