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OXFORD UNION – 20 May 2010: ‘This House would put Economic Growth before combatting climate change’

Last month the World Bank was asked to approve a $3 3/4 billion loan to South Africa to build a massive new coal-fired power station – Said to be the fourth largest in the world.

The South African government maintained that the power station was essential for the country’s economic development and for the relief of poverty that only economic development can bring.

The global environmental movement conducted a strident campaign against it, urging the rest of the world’s governments to block the proposal.

As a result, the United States, the United Kingdom and three other European countries declined to support it. But all the developing world Board members voted in favour, and the loan was agreed.

And, I put it to you, quite right, too.

This is the practical reality of the motion before the House tonight.

Are we, or are we not, in favour of the ending of world poverty?

Are we, or are we not, in favour of bringing to an end, as quickly as is humanly possible, the widespread malnutrition, preventable disease and premature death that acute poverty brings, which currently afflicts tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people around the world today?

That is what this motion is about.

“Combatting climate change” – attractively alliterative though it is – is a curious phrase.

The climate changes all the time. It always has and it always will, and in different ways in different parts of the world.

What is presumably meant is combatting global warming.

Now here I have to make a confession of ignorance.

Strictly between ourselves, and unlike so many much cleverer people, it seems, I don’t actually know what the temperature of the world is going to be in 100 years time.

But what I do know is that, if it is warmer than it is today (and maybe it will be, although we know that there has been no recorded warming at all over the past 10 years or more), mankind, which is nothing if not adaptable, will use all the resources of modern technology to mitigate the adverse effects of any warming, while taking advantage of the many benefits that warming may bring.

The opposition will tell you that that isn’t good enough; that we must move urgently and swiftly to decarbonise every aspect of our economies, in the arrogant and hubristic belief that by doing so we can determine the temperature of the planet and prevent it from rising more than a further degree or so.

Happily, that ain’t gonna happen.

I say ‘happily’, because the economic cost, and the human cost, of decarbonisation at the present time would be appalling.

Which is why it won’t happen.

The reason the world relies overwhelmingly on carbon-based energy at the present time is not because of the political strength of the oil industry.

It is because carbon-based energy is far and away the cheapest form of energy, and is set to remain so – no doubt not forever – but for the foreseeable future.

Decarbonisation, in other words, means moving from relatively low cost energy to high cost energy, thus slowing down very substantially the pace of economic development.

Which is why the great global climate change conference in Copenhagen last December ended in total and predictable failure.

Its purpose, as you will recall, was to agree on a successor to the Kyoto accord which required the developed world to cut its carbon emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.

And the successor was to be a legally binding accord to cut global emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2050.

This is much more than 10 times as demanding as Kyoto was.

If the Kyoto 5% cut is achieved – and it is far from clear that it will be – the principal reason will be that the developed world has, through the migration of manufacturing industry, effectively outsourced a large part of its emissions to countries, such as China and India, without Kyoto constraints.

Except in the unlikely event of world industry migrating to Mars, a global target removes the escape route of outsourcing emissions.

Mind you, the world recession has also helped temporarily to reduce emissions and thus make it possible that the 2012 target may be attained.

After last year’s G20 meeting in London, a Mr Gordon Brown announced that he had ‘saved the world’ by securing agreement on measures to bring the recession to an end.

If our political leaders has actually meant what they say about climate change, the G20 meeting would have been about how best to perpetuate the recession.

Be that as it may, it is scarcely surprising that, at Copenhagen, the major developing nations, notably China, already the world’s largest emitter, and busily building a massive new coal-fired power station every week, and India, whose population is set to exceed that of China within the lifetime of most of you here today, said ‘no way’.

Making it clear that their overriding priority was the fastest possible rate of economic development, and thus the fastest possible eradication of poverty, they declined to play ball.

So does it matter that carbon emissions are going to carry on rising, as they most certainly will do?

Let’s have a look at what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, had to say in its most recent Report.

The IPCC is, it has to be said, a somewhat compromised organization, but its conclusions represent the conventional wisdom on the issue.

On the IPCC’s own projections, if nothing is done to curb carbon emissions, the worst case scenario is that, in 100 years time, average living standards in the developing world, instead of being more than 9 times as high as they are today, will ‘only’ be more than 8 times as high as they are today.

If this relatively benign outcome seems surprising, the explanation is that the IPCC assumes continuing rapid economic growth in the developing world over the next 100 years.

I hope they are right.

But if they are not, then on the conventional growth/emissions/temperature nexus on which their projections depend, there won’t be the warming, either.

So does it really make sense to condemn tens of millions of people in the developing world today to preventable malnutrition, disease, and premature death in the hope of preventing this scarcely disastrous misfortune?

Of course not.

Moreover, the projected adverse consequences of warming, should it occur, are in fact the marginal exacerbation of already existing problems, such as hunger, drought and disease.

These problems can – and should – be addressed directly, to much greater effect, and at a fraction of the cost of global decarbonisation.

Fortunately, as I have said, global decarbonisation isn’t going to happen.

The Chinese and the Indians aren’t stupid.

And they have made their position clear.

Other countries, too, are now discreetly watering down their decarbonisation policies and commitments.

Sadly, this country alone, although we account for less than 2% of global emissions, has made a unilateral (and thus entirely pointless) commitment to rapid and virtually total decarbonisation.

Although the commitment was made by the previous Labour Government, it has been endorsed with even greater enthusiasm by the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition.

As if our economic predicament were not bad enough as it is.

Truly, those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

Finally, let me congratulate the Union on the framing of this motion.

Argument over this issue far too often focuses overwhelmingly on the science of global warming.

But while that may well be the most interesting aspect, it is not the most important.

It is essential to recognise, as this motion implicitly does, that – even if you accept the conventional wisdom on the science – it does not follow that decarbonisation of the global economy, even if it were politically achievable, which it isn’t, makes either economic or human sense.

I put it to you that to seek to condemn tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people in the developing world to unnecessary poverty, and to the malnutrition, disease and premature death that acute poverty brings, so that politicians and environmentalists can strut the world stage claiming that they are saving the planet, is morally contemptible.

I ask you to support the motion.

Editor’s Note: The motion was carried by 135 votes to 110.