Is it possible that what’s happening to our climate might take our minds off Brexit for a few weeks, as we ponder how to cast our votes in what has been described as a generationally important general election? This general election should be the climate change election. The same should have been said for perhaps the last five general elections, but at every turn of the opinion polls the environment has not been a priority for most politicians or voters. In the mainstream, the environment has been an add-on, a touchy-feely greenwash.
This is not to say good things haven’t happened, even during the blighted period of austerity. The massive growth in the UK offshore wind industry should not be sneezed at. But successes have been matched by failures, such as the Green Deal which was meant to revolutionise domestic home energy efficiency. After that programme collapsed – several years ago – nothing has been attempted to replace it.
If this could be the climate change election, what should we expect? What should we demand? Competing carbon emission budgets, net zero emission dates, green new deals, multi-point plans, the demands of Extinction Rebellion, fiery speeches from Greta Thunberg – where’s the clarity, where’s the essential coherence that should be driving policy commitments at this crucial juncture? Parliament has determined we are in an emergency. But since that symbolic vote, the government has done nothing. It’s not even sought to understand what the word ‘emergency’ means. It could have immediately asked the Climate Change Committee to upgrade its suggestions as to how to tackle the ‘emergency.’ It didn’t.
Given our electoral system, in this election the only party which could change this agenda is Labour, and the evidence so far is that there is unprecedented enthusiasm in the party for a ‘new green deal.’ But to be meaningful in tackling climate change, and to set an example, this deal has to be coherent. Coherence in this context means ensuring that UK climate change policy adequately addresses our global responsibilities, past, present and future. If we act alone, and bear the costs alone, we can expect to hear the Farage siren cry that to help our people tackle floods, we should cut overseas aid. Ironically, a Labour government could be punished for taking on board onerous climate change responsibilities without properly setting them in the global context. In other words, it could be punished for not answering the question why should we do it if no one else is?
Labour’s 30-point plan for a net zero emissions from energy by 2030 is commendable. It is ambitious and if it is carried through will make serious inroads into overall UK carbon emissions. It would be great to think it could be achieved without pain, but there will be widespread cries of anguish as people are asked to give up automatic expectations of simply getting more of what they once had, not least since satisfactory replacements at reasonable cost (e.g. electric cars) probably won’t be delivered quite as quickly as hoped. But that’s only the easy part.
What the empirical evidence now shows is that global temperatures are increasing faster than their correlation with human carbon emissions suggests ought to be the case. In other words, feedback mechanisms, such as artic sea ice melt and methane emissions are taking their toll. Add to that the diminishing rate at which oceans and other carbon sinks are able to absorb carbon, there needs to be a realistic reassessment of the simplistic ‘cutting human carbon emissions solves it all’ agenda.
The section underpinning Labour’s 30-point plan for 2030 only partially addresses this question. The thinking is reminiscent of the political debate which took place over ten years ago, prior to the laudable introduction of the 2008 Climate Change Act. Then the issue was seen as a simple equation between reducing human carbon emissions over a chosen timescale to achieve a chosen result. Now, with serious climate feedback mechanisms at work, the issue has rightly been defined as an emergency, and an increasingly unpredictable one at that. Lengthy timescales for effective carbon emission reductions have to be reduced drastically. In this respect, Labour’s 30 recommendations leading to net zero carbon emissions by 2030 is very welcome. But it still doesn’t go far enough. The 30 recommendations only cover emissions from UK energy use in buildings and transport. There is much else besides.
Professor Kevin Anderson, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research wrote ‘Almost 50% of global carbon emissions arise from the activities of around 10% of the global population, increasing to 70% of emissions from just 20% of citizens. Impose a limit on the per-capita carbon footprint of the top 10% of global emitters, equivalent to that of an average European citizen, and global emissions could be reduced by one third in a matter of a year or two.’ Richer people (and in global terms that means a great majority of UK residents) use more energy and consume more goods. As yet the consumption of goods in the context of climate change remains an almost taboo subject. With the exceptions of plastic reduction and energy efficiency labelling on some goods, there has been a reluctance to question much that impinges on our consumer culture. Indeed, to question this culture begs questions about our whole economic model, so that’s where the conversation stops for those in power, and for many of those seeking power.
As UK carbon emissions from energy production have declined over the last 30 years, embedded emissions from imports have risen dramatically. Embedded carbon emissions in all the goods we buy from abroad add up to a huge hidden climate change deficit. China is building more coal fired power plants to make the goods that we, amongst the 20% global rich want to consume. To tackle that problem, we need policies which are just as radical as Labour’s 30-point plan for energy. ‘Ambition,’ as the party’s ‘The Green Transformation’ document says should be ‘based on science.’ It goes on ‘That is why the scale and scope of Labour’s environmental policies will be defined, not by political compromise, but by what is necessary to keep temperatures within safe levels.’
Regardless of the science, there will be political compromise. What is necessary in absolute terms won’t garner many votes. But we should see a commitment equivalent to the ’30 steps by 2030’ approach – this time addressing the three r’s – reduce, re-use, re-cycle. Without this component, China will not be stopping building new coal fired power stations anytime soon. So even if we do get to net zero carbon emissions in the UK by 2030, it won’t solve the global problem – and we would hardly be in a position to blame China for that.
The problem here is that too many politicians feel they can mollify their electorates with claims that they are working towards meeting the strictures of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Paris does not unfortunately address the problem, although it was nice that just about every country signed up to it. Maybe that’s why they did. As things stand, the agreement is likely to lead to temperature rises well above 1.5 degrees centigrade. Each country can go about its own carbon reductions in the way it chooses, which is a humongous invitation to freeloaders. It comes as no surprise that fossil fuel subsidies have risen every year since 2015.
It seems unlikely, considering our present circumstances that Paris Agreement signatories would be willing to sign up to a more disciplined approach. This throws the spotlight back onto Labour’s plans: why go to all that trouble and potential pain (if we took on board the three r’s as well) when other countries will almost certainly take advantage (think Trump, Bolsanaro)? If we are to go down the road to net zero by 2030, we have to use the political capital gained wisely. We need to show that our approach is not only science based but in a measurable way delivers the third principle in ‘The Green Transformation.’ It says ‘Interventions will advance our Labour values - justice, equality, solidarity, and democracy – both at home and abroad.’
This should mean our sacrifices will not be wasted on the shaky foundations of the Paris Agreement, but will lead eventually to a distribution of responsibility based on science and equity. If the science says we have to achieve global zero carbon emissions by whatever year, then it is an inescapable fact that global per capita emissions will have to converge on zero by that date. This well-established principle of contracting and converging emissions should be an explicit international goal of the next Labour government. Our reward for taking action reflecting the emergency has to be more than a warm glow of leadership. It must be the basis of a new international, uncompromising and binding agreement. It is the complete answer to all who would ask ‘Why should we bother when no-one else is?’