I’ve been wading through the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) report on the UK’s chances of getting to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This is a document written in terms emollient enough for even the current government not to be too offended. Its assessment of current progress towards an 80% reduction in CO2 by 2050 (the existing target) does not use inflammatory language, but is nevertheless a severe indictment of government action. For example (page 176):
Delivery must progress with far greater urgency. Many current plans are insufficiently ambitious; others are proceeding too slowly, even for the current 80% target:
‒ 2040 is too late for the phase-out of petrol and diesel cars and vans, and current plans for delivering this are too vague.
‒ Over ten years after the Climate Change Act was passed, there is still no serious plan for decarbonising UK heating systems and no large-scale trials have begun for either heat pumps or hydrogen.
‒ Carbon capture (usage) and storage (CCUS), which is crucial to the delivery of net-zero GHG emissions and strategically important to the UK economy, is yet to get started. While global progress has also been slow, there are now 43 large-scale projects operating or under development around the world, but none in the UK.
‒ Afforestation targets for 20,000 hectares/year across the UK nations (due to increase to 27,000 by 2025), are not being delivered, with less than 10,000 hectares planted on average over the last five years. The voluntary approach that has been pursued so far for agriculture is not delivering reductions in emissions.
Of course, if this were put directly to members of this dissembling apology of a government, all we would hear about is how ‘tackling climate change is an absolute priority’ – which, as ever in such cases leaves one wondering if the government has any priorities whatsoever. Yes, of course – I nearly forgot – Brexit means Brexit. If the Tories had paid as much attention to climate change as they have to Brexit we could probably achieve net zero emissions by 2040.
Thus the CCC report cleverly seeks to make the new 2050 target digestible, and when it was released it was largely met with a sigh of relief that life could go on pretty much as normal. That’s what ministers want to hear. The problem is, that’s what they’ve always heard, and because the message is delivered in a relatively kindly fashion, it has led to the backsliding as outlined in the extract above. There’s always another day, que sera, sera. The report however does make the important point that the UK has the capacity to lead the world in decarbonising, and thankfully suggests that we have what amounts to a moral obligation to do so, given our historic responsibility.
But despite all its graphs and charts, there is a kind of lacuna in the heart of the CCC report, i.e. an absence of precise timings for policy delivery – the most we see are limited to decades or half decades. Obviously, one couldn’t say that by e.g. March 31st 2027 all new vehicles will be electric, but the more flexibility the report allows politicians to take advantage of, the less it has credibility in my eyes. The CCC must be aware of this weakness, given the number of times it refers to the mismatch between government ambition and actual delivery. If we are currently failing to meet our present ambitions, will this report really improve matters? One can’t blame the CCC entirely for being somewhat speculative. It refers, almost in passing to new nuclear as helping us towards the 2050 goal. But new nuclear projects are notorious for being delayed. We can see this now with the government’s current plans for new nuclear in complete chaos, and looking uncertain to say the least.
The report seems to have an idea that so far as our behaviour s concerned, only relatively minor tweaks will be necessary. Eat a bit less red meat. Fly a bit less. On moving about, it says (page 188):
Shifting to more sustainable modes of transport could be a cost-effective alternative to private car ownership, depending on location. This could mean more walking and cycling (which would also provide health benefits by increasing the amount of physical activity people do) or low-carbon public transport (electric buses and trains) for longer journeys. (emphasis added)
Could be?? Is it the report’s contention that we should, regardless, retain the option of private car ownership? Shouldn’t it read should mean more walking and cycling, there should be more (and cheaper) public transport? I only found one other mention of rail in the report (page 200). Perhaps the report’s authors are all too aware of our current Transport Secretary’s incompetence, and have thrown their hands up in despair.
Anyway, I haven’t quite finished reading the report yet, and this afternoon I’m off to hear Rebecca Long-Bailey launch Labour’s Green Industrial Strategy, so I will seek to find out if she thinks this report is adequate. It can’t be considered so if we now believe we face a climate emergency. More on this later.
The Guardian did actually publish my last letter a week or two ago, so perhaps I'm pushing my luck with this one:
I would add scrapping Trident to Owen Jones' list of proposals to demonstrate Labour's resurgent credentials. This should be clearly linked to a pledge to re-invest much of the money saved in our conventional forces, which are at their lowest ebb for decades. That in turn would reflect the need for capacity building for the climate change crises we will inevitably face, which is to refer to emergency relief in the UK and abroad. Jeremy Corbyn would do well to show his support for the military by actually being seen with them now and then. That would indeed be a resurgent and shall we say, a patriotic gesture.
I’ve been away for a couple of days savouring the delights of Tectonics (see under Perambulations, Tectonics). This has become an annual exercise taking me to Glasgow, a city which has clearly developed a beguiling cultural scene. It seems to me that Scotland has somehow developed a self-confidence and cultural identity which England lacks. A smaller population and highland topography undoubtedly play a part in this rich blossoming, but I wonder if that’s the whole story. It can’t be. There has to be something else going on beyond a bit of faux heritage (bagpipes and kilts) – there is undoubtedly a post enlightenment spirit in the air, a celebration of independent thought. I’ve not experienced it in England, a nation which it has to be said, never really believed it possible that anything less than a conservative political worldview was possible. Let’s not forget at this moment that Thatcher thought Blair was her greatest creation. How was England involved in the Enlightenment, apart perhaps from the idea that the Industrial Revolution was an enlightenment phenomenon? But this was the enlightenment summed up by Adam Smith, not Hume. The English enlightenment was all about the product of the hand (invisible or not) not the mind. The great thing about Scotland is that ideas still seem to have a vibrant salience, whereas in dear old England politics is stale, demeaned and let’s face it, insulting. If I had energy and youth on my side I would be off to live in Scotland tomorrow. Not least for the smaller population and the topography.
Talking of topography, on the way home I walked along Hadrian's Wall for a while, just north of which I spotted the intriguing structure pictured below. What, I wonder, is it?
I must thank the 205 people of the Seamer Ward in Scarborough who voted Labour in the local elections just held. This tally was just sufficient to help me beat the candidate who came last, who happened to be a Tory. I spent today down at the Grand Hall of Scarborough’s Spa where the count was held, and it has to be said the Tories were a bit shellshocked by their results, which saw them lose several seats. But we also had here a class of victorious independents who are mainly Conservative, but play a pretence of independence and benefit from the protest vote. Their tally improved dramatically. So my prediction is that my local council will be a Conservative/Independent run authority. Local people won’t notice the difference of course, austerity will continue as normal. And given the media’s focus on Labour nationally losing a few score or more seats to the Tories’ loss of 1,200 seats, all eyes will be on the ‘Corbyn problem’ as if that were the only game in town. I suspect that now may be a good time for Labour to withdraw from its Brexit talks with this wholly discredited government and restate its position more loudly. It means taking a risk and opposing Brexit. Period.
Theresa May’s decision to sack Gavin Williamson is, in her terms, the end of the matter. He says he has been unfairly treated. Regardless of whether you think the guy is an arsehole, there does seem to me to be an important issue at stake. If he did do what May thinks he did, then he should be charged with a criminal offence and put on trial. By all accounts he has suggested this remedy himself. So why would May want to very publicly crucify him but then resile from engaging in the norms of our justice system? Innocent until proven guilty? But she wouldn’t want a criminal trial, would she, where in all probability she would embarrassingly be called as a witness. Far better in the current context (not least with elections taking place) to appear decisive and tough, and to deliver a verdict which smacks more of politics than it does of open justice. You’ve got to hand it to her, she can be ruthless when it comes to self-preservation. Unsurprisingly, I think Williamson is an arsehole, but nevertheless he should be due his day in court. Right now I suspect various grey suited people will be telling him to keep a low profile and take his punishment like a man. And that is very likely to be the end of the matter.
+ I had the telly on to watch today’s climate change debate. I noticed that as MPs were leaving the Commons chamber after PMQs they turned briefly at the bar of the House (a white strip in the carpet near the main exit) to bow (more of a slight nod) to the Speaker. An old tradition marking respect for the chair. But Andrea Leadsom just marched out. Clearly the Leader of the House is no respecter of tradition. She’s just a stuck-up snob with the manners of an oik.
++ Anyway, the debate itself was a case of déjà vu – it could almost have been a debate from 15 years ago. Then of course everyone was saying we were in the last chance saloon. Now it’s an emergency. So it was pleasing that Labour initiated the debate, and I thought Corbyn gave a good (but not excellent) speech. The trouble is, this subject generates a lot of vision but is rarely rooted in any kind of metric designed to discipline our behaviour. So at the moment the talk of the town is zero carbon emissions by 2050. This has an eerie ring to it – which goes by the name of NIMTO – Not In My Term of Office. That allows for a lot of flexibility. In response to the debate, Michael Gove illustrated the complacency which belies the emergency talk – everything is going swimmingly well, although we could do (a bit) better. But how would you measure the ‘success’ so far? Massaging the figures is the answer. This involves offshoring the carbon emissions our consumption generates and ignoring our historical emissions record. The SNP’s frontbencher did say that the solution would be painful for people but then couldn’t or wouldn’t say how. That’s the nub of it. It seems all the solutions actually rely on the market providing technological fixes which are thought to be painless, in other words electors must not feel any impact.
Some of the contributors to the debate probably did understand what’s required, but I sense there’s a kind of baby boomer mentality about, which is to say we know historically what adversity is (our parents might have told us about it) but we don’t believe today’s electorate would put up with it. Not least because the fascist media are so quick to make the point that green this and green that will cost you the earth when everything should be as cheap as possible. So there was an abundance of rhetoric, with mention of some good local schemes, and some primary schools that are doing something or other (always good to mention something from your constituency that can feature in the week’s press release) and, so far as today’s debate went, a sprinkling of environmental concerns which have nothing to do with climate change, e.g. a moan about the MoD not clearing up some radioactive waste on a Scottish beach).
Here’s six things that might have been said:
First, understand our responsibility. There is a global metric to calculate what that is, it’s called Contraction and Convergence. Adopt it and accept the consequences. It is the discipline required.
Second, translate that into sectoral targets, e.g. transport, domestic heating, industrial processes, etc. Divvy out the responsibilities.
Third, recognise that whatever word is employed, carbon rationing will be essential. The impact of this can be made equitable through a mechanism such as domestic tradable quotas. Poorer people who use less carbon will be better off. The rich will have to pay.
Fourth, stop all carbon intensive developments, such as extra runways, HS2, etc. and plan around the more efficient use of existing facilities and routes. We don’t need to accelerate around the country at ever faster speeds, we need to learn how to improve productivity.
Fifth, recognise that legislation on its own will not solve the problem – it is a necessary partner to investment, and it’s time the government invested heavily in e.g. renewable energy sources, insulation, demand reduction, etc. Taxes should be raised and hypothecated, so for example aviation fuel should be taxed and the proceeds devoted entirely to improving public transport and reducing its cost to passengers.
Sixth, some public services – power, transport, etc. need to be in public ownership and given a carbon reduction remit. In terms of power generation and distribution the need is to move away from a few large power stations to a honeycomb of smaller, evenly distributed sources. The important point here is that the big power generators have a disproportionate influence on policy. They need to be broken up in favour of more locally based initiatives. Public ownership in this sense should pass the benefits and profits of power generation onto local consumers, who would also be the local owners.
I might add that even though I have been a lifelong opponent of nuclear power, I would consider favourably the prospect of extending the lives of our existing nuclear power stations. In the greater scheme of things, the extra costs and risks would be marginal. But we should say no to new nuclear. It is just too expensive, and takes too long to build in any case, if it is thought it could make any meaningful contribution to zero carbon before 2050. We’d also save a lot of money by scrapping the Trident replacement. Such savings could be spent on improving our armed forces’ capabilities in tackling the various climate change crises coming our way. We can’t nuke climate change (but you never know, remember the ‘nuclear winter?).
Today’s debate ended with Labour’s motion passing, as it were, nem con. Sadly that means, as the Speaker adroitly pronounced (in so many words) that nothing will happen as a result. I hope that it might be possible to draw one good thing from it though, which is that one of our mainstream parties might get radical on the subject. One can live in hope.