14 May 2009: The Lancet, energy efficiency and wind farms

“Climate change is the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”

These are the opening words of an editorial and also a major report published this week by the Lancet and University College London Institute for Global Health Commission (see Managing the health effects of climate change). Rising global temperatures will lead to increased famine, the spread of tropical diseases and death through extreme weather events. And more than a sixth of the world’s population live in areas reliant on glacial meltwater, which will, in time, diminish or disappear totally. Poor countries and people are not the only ones threatened – we all are – but, as usual, the poor will suffer more.

The report states that:

“The most urgent need is to empower poor countries, and local government and local communities everywhere, to understand climate implications and to take action.”

The motive for this should not only be humanitarian, but also be a recognition of historic responsibility:

“High-income countries have caused almost all the anthropogenic climate change that has occurred to date, and they must now face extremely challenging political and economic choices if climate change mitigation is to be achieved.”

So, what is the rich world doing? Not nearly enough, but at least not nothing. New York Mayor Bloomberg recently announced a plan that would require NYC buildings – responsible for 80% of the city’s emissions – to be audited and made more energy efficient. Not surprisingly, the property lobby is strongly opposed, but can and must be defeated over this. Retrofitting existing buildings will cut emissions, save money, improve health and comfort and create many jobs immediately.

It was also announced this week in the UK that three companies – Eon, Dong and Masdar – will construct the world’s first 1Gw offshore wind farm, the London Array (though not actually in London, but in the Thames Estuary between Kent and Essex). This will generate enough electricity for about a quarter of London’s homes and has strong public and environmental group support, but was in danger of being abandoned for financial reasons. Shell was one of the original partners, with Eon and Dong, but withdrew, claiming that they would focus their renewables effort in the US. (In truth, their focus is actually on the environmentally disastrous Canadian tar sands.)

The drop in the value of sterling increased the London Array’s costs by about 30% because, even though the UK has Europe’s best wind resource, no turbines are currently built in the UK. Therefore, Eon called for an increase in the Renewables Obligation payments for offshore wind and, in the 2009 Budget, the government duly delivered a 25% increase.

These developments prove that there is no conflict between beating the credit crunch and controlling climate change. And on energy policy many governments are now moving in the right direction. Sadly this isn’t true on transport policy. They must – by cancelling airport expansion, taxing aviation fuel and investing the money in railways.

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