Acting on a promise he made at the G8 summit in July, British Prime Minister Tony Blair hosted a conference in London this week on climate change that was attended by 20 nations. Blair stressed the importance of technology for the success of the Kyoto Protocol, which sets global targets for reducing greenhouse gases by 2012.
GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Declaring global warming a "major threat," British Prime Minister Tony Blair kept a promise he made this past summer at the G8 summit in Gleneagle, Scotland.
He brought climate change experts from twenty nations to London, and warned them that international treaties like the Kyoto Protocol may not be enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Blair says a heavy dose of technology is what's needed.
We turn to Tom Burke, a long-time environmental advisor to the British government and UK businesses. Thanks for joining me, Mr. Burke.
BURKE: Pleasure. Glad to be with you.
GELLERMAN: You know, in regards to this conference in London, when all was said and done, was more said than done? Or did it actually accomplish something?
BURKE: I think it accomplished something. But I think it’s important to understand what it accomplished was really political rather than advancing the policy. I don’t think it was ever intended to make a breakthrough in terms of the negotiations on Kyoto or other international agreements.
I think the really important thing about this conference was it’s continuing the conversation that was started at Gleneagles in July that involves, really, all the world’s major players on climate change, about just how are they going to address this problem in what is becoming an increasingly urgent timeframe.
GELLERMAN: Hmm. Well, when you say it included everyone, the United States has not signed on to the Kyoto Protocol.
BURKE: No, exactly so. But the United States was present at this conference, as it was at Gleneagles. And one of the problems with the Kyoto Protocol is not so much that it was a particularly bad design, but that, really, when people signed up to it I don’t think there was a strong political foundation. And so, in a sense, what we’re having to do is go and backfill and create that political foundation now, and that’s what this conference was really about.
GELLERMAN: Do the technologies exist today that might forestall or prevent global warming?
BURKE: Yes, they do. The issue is not finding the technologies; the issue is deploying the technologies. The barriers to solving this problem are neither really technological nor economic. They’re institutional and political barriers. But they’re all well within our current competence, our current level of skill to solve, if we put the effort in. There’s a real effort-reward ratio here.
The point is, technology without investment is like a toy shop without any money to spend. We’ve got lots of technologies we could employ, but if we’re not willing to spend the money on them the toys will simply remain on the shelf.
GELLERMAN: So, where does that investment come from?
BURKE: A large part of it is going to be made anyway. I mean, we’re going to spend 17 trillion dollars this side of the world in the next 25 years on energy investment. So the core piece is, you have to use public funding to leverage the private funding that’s going to be made anyway.
GELLERMAN: Now, if you were advising the British government today, what would you tell them? What would be on the top of your list?
BURKE: The top of my list would be to say, ‘look, the only way you’re going to provide business with both a regulatory climate that has some certainty in it, and the incentives to make the technology shifts that are important, is by deploying a relatively low carbon tax and dedicating the funds from that tax to making the technology changes that we need to make.’ My sense is that the world is going to address this problem sooner or later; the faster you get going on that the better place your own technologies, your own businesses, are going to be to take advantage of the enormous opportunities that will come.
GELLERMAN: So, do you think the participants in this conference got it that the clock is ticking?
BURKE: I don’t think so. I don’t think even Prime Minister Blair who, in some ways, has been the most vocal leader, has yet really understood just how urgent it is. We have about two to three decades to get this problem right before, in a sense, we will have committed ourselves to an unstable climate, and that’s going to require much more aggressive action from governments. Not so much to try to constrain emissions as to invest in the technologies we know we have that can provide us with both the energy to fuel economic growth and a stable climate.
GELLERMAN: Tom Burke, a long-time environmental advisor to the British government, and former executive director of Friends of the Earth, is a member of the London Sustainable Commission. Well, Mr. Burke, thank you very much. I appreciate you taking the time.
BURKE: Pleasure. Nice to talk to you.
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