“We can achieve green growth”

Ian Pearson is minister of state for climate change and the environment in the British government. On the eve of his first ministerial visit to China under the UK-China Sustainable Development Dialogue, he spoke to chinadialogue’s editor Isabel Hilton.

Isabel Hilton: This is the first ministerial meeting in the UK China Sustainable Development Dialogue. What do you hope to get out of it?

Ian Pearson: We hope to get an agreement on the strategy for the UK-China Sustainable Development Dialogue for the next couple of years. This will include joint work in sustainable consumption and production. When you look at the embedded carbon in the products that we buy and the fact that China manufactures most of them these days, it’s clear that we have a common agenda here. It will also include, amongst other areas, natural resource management. Under this theme, some work has also been done on forestry policy and we hope to take that forward as well – global deforestation is a huge issue that we need to tackle. The Chinese have been particularly keen to talk about urban development and of course the biggest issue today is climate change – the science and some of the daily reports we are now seeing are very worrying.

IH: Your department has given some support to Is the UK China Sustainable Development Dialogue between governments and experts or do you envisage a wider dialogue?

IP: I would like it to be all of those. I think government to government dialogue is important but there is another element to the Dialogue – it includes the engagement of a range of stakeholders – we’ve been pleased how much of the latter we’ve seen so far under the dialogue. China’s 11th Five Year Plan has sustainability written into it and I think it’s a remarkably impressive document.

IH: Although China’s last Five Year Plan missed several of its environmental targets. Is it your impression that the 11th Plan will hit them?   

IP: I get the sense that they are taking it more seriously this time. There’s nothing like talking to people to really get an assessment of how important it is to them. I know the priority has been growth – and trying to ensure balanced growth, but sustainability has risen up the agenda in China.

IH: After twenty years of growth in China, there has certainly been a change of tone and a shift in official statements from the top. How much of a priority is it now for China to balance the economy and the environment?

IP: I think the environment is being given a higher priority under the 11th Five Year Plan and in the way that it will be implemented. I don’t think there’s any doubting that. The Chinese government has recognised the severe pollution problems that have been created as a result of its rapid industrial development and is taking practical measures to deal with that.

IH: How far do you think it goes?

IP: China is such vast country this can’t just be driven from the centre. It requires people in towns and cities to develop policies and to work on environmental issues. In such a vast country, performance is bound to be patchy. But I think a lot has happened in Shanghai. Shanghai wants to set higher standards environmentally and in terms of its economy and skills base. And if you talk to the mayors of Shenzhen or Guangzhou, they want to do something about it too. They still want to grow, but they are committed to doing something about the environment as well.

IH:  What do you think Britain can learn from China in this process?

IP: I’d be interested to hear more about the green GDP report that China has produced. I also think we can learn from the Chinese commitment to building the world’s first carbon neutral city in Dongtan. I’m pleased that ARUP, a British-based international company, have provided a lot of expertise in this. In terms of the scale of their ambition to tackle the environment in creating a city like that, there’s something we can learn. We need to be looking at our proposals for developing new homes in the Thames Gateway with the same degree of ambition that the Chinese are adopting in Dongtan.

IH: You are minister for climate change and this dialogue is about sustainable development – can you explain the connection between climate change and sustainable development?

IP: Sustainable development, as I see it, is about one planet living. If everybody consumed resources at the same level as the UK, we would need three planets to live on – and we’ve only got one. It’s about living within our environmental means as well as our economic means. In the past we’ve just put the word “sustainable” in front of everything and devalued what sustainable development means. But one planet living can give us all a moral purpose.

IH: But this is not something the UK has achieved, so why should China listen to the UK on this question?

IP: We certainly haven’t achieved one planet living, but we believe that’s the direction we need to go in – and go in quickly. Our economy has grown by over 40% since 1990. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions went down by 15%; it’s estimated that if we hadn’t taken action our greenhouse gas emissions would actually be 15% higher today, rather than 15% lower. We have put in place a range of different policy initiatives – we were the first country in the world to introduce a climate change levy and the first country to introduce an emissions trading scheme. We were the architects of the European Trading Scheme. We were the first country in the world  to introduce an energy efficiency commitment on energy supplies, which has already produced around £3 billion of benefits in terms of energy efficiency measures, whether it be loft insulation or energy-efficient light bulbs in people’s houses.

The UK needs to do more, both domestically and internationally, but I don’t think people should forget some of the things we actually have done – and in a fairly painless way. I don’t think that our economy has suffered. So my message is that we can achieve green growth – and China can as well. It’s going to be vitally important that China does exactly that, because in the next 10 or 15 years it is set to be the world’s biggest economy. And the US has got to do it as well.

IH: At the launch of chinadialogue about ten days ago, a Chinese journalist came up to me and said: “What China needs is money and technology, not dialogue.” As you embark on this dialogue, what do you feel about that?

IP: I don’t think China needs money, but I do think it needs technology. I think we have a historical responsibility as a result of our past CO2 emissions. The message should be: the UK has discovered that there are better ways of industrialising, we think it’s worth your looking at them. There are opportunities for growth in ways that we weren’t aware of when we were growing strongly back in the 19th century.

IH: But the British government comes under a lot of criticism at home for the rather stately pace of all this. Missing your own emissions targets for a government which is quite keen on targets is rather embarrassing, isn’t it? You could have been more vigorous more early, surely?

IP: I do agree we should do more. We must do more, though I certainly wouldn’t use the phrase “stately pace”. We certainly haven’t given up hope of achieving a 20% reduction in CO2 by 2010. Measures in the energy white paper next year will also help set us on the path to a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. We will continue to look at what more we can do as a government. It’s an increasingly urgent task, and although we’re only 2% of the world’s problem, I believe we have a moral responsibility because we were the first nation to industrialise. You can only credibly give international leadership if you’ve got credible domestic policies. You’ve got to walk the walk.

IH: People are now thinking beyond 2012 to the regime that will follow Kyoto. What would you like to see China do for that regime?

IP: Firstly I’d like to see China fully participate in the debate. It’s good that China has been involved in the Gleaneagles dialogue process, which provides a unique space in which we can collectively discuss what needs to be done, rather than getting into negotiating mode where lines are drawn between different parties. China has got some of the best scientists, the most thorough analyses to be found anywhere in the world. China knows that as it grows it’s going to be a world-leading force. It knows that climate change and climate security is going to be an issue for China. I’m very optimistic that China will come to the conclusion it’s in their own interest to do something about tackling their CO2 emissions. 

If you look at the figures for world population growth, we will grow to 9 billion by 2015. If you look at the carbon costs of feeding 9 billion people – you can’t avoid carbon when you’re producing food — that amount of carbon equates to the amount you can safely emit into the atmosphere if you’re going to avoid dangerous climate change.

In other words, everything that’s non-food related will have to be zero carbon: we will need zero-carbon power generation and zero carbon transport by 2015.

It shows the scale of the challenge. Zero-carbon power generation is possible. I’m keen that in the UK and Europe we lead the way. We need to say that all power generation in Europe will be zero carbon by 2020.

(During his visit to China, Ian Pearson will be meeting Du Ying, his counterpart at the National Development and Reform Commission. He will also be taking part in a roundtable event on Sustainable Development Governance and will attend the Asia Carbon Expo.)

Ian Pearson is the minister of state for climate change and the environment in the British government.

Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue

Homepage photo by Lance Webel