Question Time:

Climate Change

Posted on 09/01/12

With the UN COP17 Durban Climate Summit to commence 20 days later, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office held a Climate Change Question Time on the 8th November. I attended this as a member of Plan UK's Youth Climate Network (YCN), alongside members representing youth groups from UNICEF, the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC) and Oxfam.

The event in Westminster was held to link young people from the UK and South Africa, allowing them the opportunity to pose questions to a panel including figures who will hold influential roles at Durban. The panel consisted of William Hague (Foreign Secretary), Chris Huhne (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), Mxakato-Diseko (Ambassador of South Africa) and Martin Davidson (Chief Executive at the British Council). A live webcast of the Q&A session was broadcast and some of the questions originated from this international audience too. As part of the orchestrated nature of such events, the questions asked had all been preselected from some sent by the audience prior to the day. Yet this, whilst allowing the panellists to prepare themselves, did not always impede the questions from probing into controversial grounds.

One questioner asked whether climate change is now, more than ever, an 'inconvenient truth'. The panel reached a general consensus in agreeing that, to the contrary, the economic downturn provides perhaps the greatest opportunity for changing the current status-quo and finding ways to move to a sustainable way of living, which in itself would help to tackle future economic growth successfully. Chris Huhne went one step further by suggesting that the world is at the beginning of a third revolution (akin to the industrial and electrical revolutions), on the basis that after previous similar recessions, growth did not come through traditional but new areas of business. Whereas, in the 1930's, this was the case for the emerging car industry, he believes that low-carbon goods and services will come to serve such a role. However, Dame Mxakato-Diseko added that climate change is likely to pose a great threat for reaching the Millenium Goals, to female emancipation, education and income generation in developing countries due to its adverse effects in such, already typically impoverished, regions.

The next question addressed what action the Government is taking to invest in renewable energy. Chris Huhne said they are taking a '4-pronged strategy' to ensure the UK does not remain reliant on fossil fuels: reductions in energy consumption through increasing efficiency savings, particularly in homes and buildings; reaching or overshooting the EU's target for the proportion of energy sources which are renewable (15% per country by 2020, for which the UK ranked poorly as 25th out of the 27 EU nations in 2009); expansion in the nuclear sector and, finally, more 'responsible' use of fossil fuels through carbon capture and storage. William Hague and Martin Davidson felt that becoming examples to other institutions and businesses by reducing their own consumption were important and it was claimed that the FCO had saved 18% in fuel, whilst the British Council saved £38,000, in one year through such measures. Dame Mxakato-Diseko explained that, since South Africa is a developing nation, it has been especially reliant on mining and fossil fuels; as such, radical measures had to be taken without compromising the population's wellbeing to improve its performance. She claimed South Africa has made 37% of energy savings from its efforts so far. Martin Davidson argued further that engaging young people through climate change ought to play a key role. Improving their advocacy skills and having them engage in critical debates would help to create the crucial, necessary commitment from individuals for action to be taken - a 'movement' - and prevent a situation of 'politicians talking to politicians'.

Another question came in two parts, the second from a South African webcast observer. Firstly, what would the UK be doing to ensure the negotiations in Durban will be a success and, secondly, what were the panellists' opinions on COP17 being widely regarded as unlikely to be a success? Chris Huhne responded by admitting that he had recently become much more optimistic about the conference's possible outcomes, but that it remained 'clear' an agreement would not be reached and this round of negotiations would merely act as a stepping-stone to one eventually being made. He felt that, given 2020 is the deadline for emission cuts to be achieved in order to avoid the precarious 2˚C rise in the world's average temperature, the UN nations were pushed for time. However, he said what is required from Durban is a commitment to reaching an overall legally binding deal which brings emission limits in line with one framework. This should continue the idea of 'common but differentiated responsibilities' to account for countries' different stages of development.  Furthermore, Parliament has a responsibility to push hard for an extension of the legally-binding Kyoto protocol, due to expire in a year's time. Dame Mxakato-Diseko praised the UK Government for its support of South Africa in its preparations for the Durban summit. For example, 80 ministers from UN countries had been drawn together in two meetings organised by the UK in the run up to Durban. However, she added there were big political issues to address: that the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol are not universal and do not cover all the emissions required to avoid a 2˚C global temperature rise. At the same time, owing to various barriers like financial concerns, it would be wrong to 'heap on demands' that were unmaintainable.

Other subjects were covered - such as the UK Government's recent decision to cut the solar feed-in tariff by 50%, plus the panellists' personal efforts against climate change - which generated some interesting debates and can be viewed on the FCO's website (

After the Question Time, we were given the chance to talk to Chris Huhne personally as part of our groups. This was more of a photo-op than chance to interrogate and the YCN used it to complete the 'handover' of our campaign, One Step, for which we had gathered several thousand pledges from young people to reduce their carbon footprints through simple, individualised actions (partly as an example to the Government, with COP17 in mind). He received this well and expressed that young people should be able to feel they have an influential voice and role.

Overall, I left the event with a feeling of cautious optimism. Whilst a lot of positivity was expressed by the panel in regards to opportunities to be had and achievements already made, I could not reconcile this very easily with the scale of the issues which remain to be tackled in order to avoid the least repercussions of climate change and effect a global transition to sustainability. On the other hand, if science and engineering may progress unimpeded and the opportunities they throw up are harnessed, with young people skilled and resourced to continue that progress, things could look up.


Yasmin Keddad

Engineering Intern


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