Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Kyoto protocol coming into effect. It was, and remains, a landmark moment in our efforts to tackle climate change and therefore affords us a chance not just to recall how important the protocol was at the time, but to take stock of the debate and where we go next.
Kyoto, which the UK signed in 1997 in my first months in office, was hugely significant in reaching the first agreement between nations to mandate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. We were one of the very first countries to sign on to it. Under the protocol, industrialised nations committed to cutting their emissions by an average of 5.2% by 2012 (as compared with levels in 1990). The UK went further, committing to a 12.5% - which we successfully met.
More than that, it placed climate change firmly and irreversibly on the agenda. Kyoto was only ever to be a first step, which subsequent governments and international agreements have built upon. It has since been pushed further up the agenda by impassioned local, national and global activist groups who, even in a time of great national distraction around Brexit, have ensured this remains a priority for fear of the world we will otherwise leave for our children and grandchildren.
Today, as we mark this anniversary and look to the next major United Nations climate conference - COP 26 - set to be held in Glasgow in November, the challenge feels more urgent than ever - even with the progress we have seen. The net zero target important, but meeting it will be hard and it has the potential to be both disruptive and painful. So, we must work through practical solutions to deliver the target that bridges public opinion, rather than cede the debate either to those with the right motives but the wrong policies or to those with neither the right policies nor the right motives. We need policy that is radical but practical, supporting business and communities to grow sustainably.
At the time of Kyoto coming into force I made clear that action in the UK - or the West - alone will not be enough.
As I wrote in The Independent in 2005: “we are acting locally but we also need to think globally. Even if the UK achieves every emissions target we set ourselves, we will have tackled a mere 2 per cent of the problem. That is why international action and consensus is so important.”
Between now and 2050, for instance, Africa’s population is set to double. This alone brings with it great opportunities but also new realities. Its energy needs will increase vastly, as ours did here in the UK during the Industrial Revolution. If we are not able to find ways to support these countries to grow sustainably, all of our work for decades in the UK and globally will be in vain.
So alongside ensuring that we deliver our commitments sustainably we must be imaginative and bold in helping other parts of the world meet their targets without penalising them in their ambition to expand their economies to meet growing demographic pressures.
Ahead of COP 26, my Institute’s policy team is focusing on the political and economic challenges of reaching net zero in the UK by 2050. They will therefore explore the sequencing, financing and implementation of coordinated policy responses, as well as the measures to understand and address the distributional impacts - making sure the public is not divided into winners and losers. We will be publishing work in this area over the next few months.
It’s this domestic plan of action and political coalition that will be vital to give the UK the legitimacy and credibility to once again show global leadership and bring other nations on board at November’s summit.
I have always been an optimist and remain so. The issue of climate change, and the lack of the unified political will to tackle it, is alarming and is one of the central issues of our time. But through cooperation, solidarity and global action we can meet the challenge. Kyoto showed where there is a will there is a way, let’s show it can be repeated again - through radical and actionable steps at COP 26 - and ensure that the world inherited by future generations is not just stable but of abundance.