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David Miliband

25 January 2007
David Miliband

David Miliband was appointed as the UK Government's Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 5 May 2006. He has overall responsibility for all departmental issues and leads for the UK in international negotiations on climate change. Here we talk to him about UK and international climate policy, and about engaging all sectors of society in climate solutions.

Are you excited to be taking on responsibility for climate change within the UK government at what seems like a critical time?

Climate change is the pre-eminent global challenge for people of my generation, and an increasing number of people recognise that across the public, private and voluntary sectors. So this is certainly an exciting time to be in this role, but it's a daunting time as well. It feels like there's a huge amount to do, and, clearly, if it was easy somebody else would have done it already.

The UK Government has set its sights on reaching international agreement on a long term stabilisation goal. How realistic is this while the US remains outside the international process?

We want all countries to be part of a drive to mitigate climate change. The UK strategy has been three-fold: first to get agreement on the science, which I think was the signal achievement of last year; second to promote debate about a reasonable stabilisation goal; and thirdly to develop a process, and ultimately an agreement that involves all countries. And we've got to pursue that because it's as much in the interests of the United States as it is in the interest of every other county in the world to ensure that we start living within environmental limits rather than exceeding them. Of course the US is part of UNFCCC process, although it decided not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Also, although the US Administration has rejected the Kyoto Protocol, increasing numbers of US citizens live in cities which have effectively signed up to Kyoto principles through the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement led by Mayor Nickels. We've got to build on that engagement of US citizenry, US political leaders and of course US business because all of these groups have a lot to gain from this.

What do you see as the most likely framework for action on climate change in the post-2012 era? Do you see new initiatives like the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate having a positive impact on climate change mitigation?

Firstly, I think it's important that we don't forget the national and local level. Every community and every nation has to think about how it proposes to live within its own environmental limits. In international terms, regional initiatives will be important. The EU has a major responsibility, but also an opportunity, to play a leading role in environmental policy - and there will be other regional developments. Clearly, we've also got to make sure that the prize of a global agreement is achieved. So, in my opinion, the most likely framework will incorporate the various developments at national and regional level - but in the end it has to add up to a global solution because this is a global problem. Initiatives like the Asia-Pacific partnership, in the end, have to be judged on results. Anything which helps businesses and people reduce their emissions has to be a good thing, and anything which also contributes towards an international agreement also has to be a good thing.

The EU Emissions Trading Scheme has had some ups and downs - are you confident about its future?

I'm very optimistic about EU trading because firstly the system has worked, secondly, the carbon price has held in difficult circumstances in the first year and thirdly, the EU has made clear that it's determined to ensure scarcity in the system - when it says that no country will be given a phase2 allocation above the level of current missions, that's a commitment to scarcity. The UK is one of the countries that has created scarcity in the first phase and also has one of the toughest settlements for phase 2 - and that's a signal of the UK government's confidence in the system.

How do you plan to engage those sectors outside the EU-ETS?

We've set out a vision of how you can cover the whole economy with carbon trading. The medium emitters both from the public and private sector, from the BBC to Tesco to local authorities, will be addressed through what we call Energy Performance Commitments [renamed Carbon Reduction Commitment, 23 May 2007] This is effectively a domestic trading scheme for the medium sized entities. For the 27 million households in Britain we've said we want the regulation of the energy supply industry to incentivise energy efficiency, rather than reward extra sales. And I think those are very significant steps forward.

How important will the developing countries and rapidly industrialising nations be in tackling climate change?

These nations have a critical role because we want to see their economic development, but it needs to happen in an environmentally sustainable way and they want to see an equitable sharing of burdens. I think initiatives like the near-Zero Emissions Coal Partnership with the Chinese for carbon capture and storage are really significant. I think we have a responsibly to develop those kind of partnerships which show that we are committed both to development, and to the environment, and to overall global sustainability.

Do you think there is a danger that the Government's approach to new nuclear generation facilities laid out in the Energy White Paper could undermine the case for energy efficiency and renewable energy generation?

The short answer is no. We have made very clear that there are funds and subsidies available for non nuclear renewable technologies that are not available to nuclear technologies. However, given the overriding importance of climate change it would be foolish to rule out a low carbon source of energy like nuclear.

Do you think that climate change will become an election issue in the UK?

The Tories have said that they are concerned about the environment and the test for them, just as it is for us, is a test of substance of policy. I hope it will get to a stage when no party can be considered a party of government unless it can show that it has serious environmental credentials.

How important was Tony Blair's championing of climate change at the G8 Gleneagles summit?

Everyone who was there at Gleneagles says it was very important. Tony Blair gave the climate issue profile, and he put science at the centre of the debate which I think is very significant. People recognise that he has created a huge opening - now we've got to follow through with that.

You are actively engaging the business community - is their participation in tackling climate change particularly important?

It is very important indeed. Various corporate leaders came to meet the PM and I shortly before the energy review and shortly before the announcement on the second phase of the EU-ETS, and they made the point that they had global linkages that allow them to exert pressure all round the world. Business needs to make itself a progressive force in the environmental drive because it is massively in its interests to do so, partly because of the economic opportunities from low carbon technology, but also because of the economic costs that will arise if we don't change our ways.

Do we still need to convince people that tackling climate change is good for business?

I think it's still too easy to believe that the economy and the environment are set against each other. We should never take for granted how much people know about environmental problems and about the short term nature of the costs. I think there's a danger that people think it's a problem for their grandchildren and not for them. We have commissioned the Stern Review to provide a definitive analysis on the economics of climate change.

You have made it clear that getting individuals engaged on climate change is also important going forwards. Is there a risk that people will be turned off by the gloomy nature of most communications efforts on climate change?

The pervasive sense on many issues, including climate, is that there is a danger that people can feel disempowered. But unless people understand the scale of the problem they're not going to have the motivation to act. So I think it's important that people see the facts, but it's also important that they realise there are things they can do. And that if other people do them as well then this can make a difference. This has got to be a mass process not just an individual process, and part of our job in Government is to communicate the simple actions people can take in the key areas like energy and travel. Also, critically, people have got to know that if they're going to do their bit, government is going to do its bit and the private sector is going to step up as well. And that's why our commitment to carbon neutral government, our commitment to sustainable procurement and our commitment to make sure business emissions are curbed are all critical to incentivising individuals to make a difference.

You recently put your support behind the concept of personal carbon allowances. Do you think the public in this country is ready now accept the need for a radical policy like this?

I think it is incumbent upon politicians to try and float some of the long term ideas that could make a difference. I called the discussion on carbon allowances a thought experiment - there are huge administrative and other obstacles - but we need to understand what it would mean and we need to think through, if we're not going to do that, what are the other ways to bring home the issue and get people engaged? It's a chance for government to lead the debate and we shouldn't be in the least bit reticent about doing so.

The views presented in the Viewpoint Series are not necessarily representative of the views of The Climate Group.

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