Nigel Doggett on the stark findings stirring limited government action
Responses to the climate crisis are unfolding at an unprecedented rate. The school strikes and protests by Extinction Rebellion were followed by the UK Parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency and Theresa May’s decision to upgrade the UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions target to ‘net-zero’ by 2050.
Both resurgent climate actions and government reactions result from authoritative research and policy reports at various levels. The 2018 UN Environment Emissions Gap Report considered global carbon emissions in the light of the ceiling of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It concluded that total current national commitments would lead to temperature rises of 3°C by 2100 and that to get back on track requires the emissions gap between commitments and requirements to be closed before 2030.
As temperatures rise with accumulated GHGs in the atmosphere, the earlier action is taken, the far greater the impact. This year, reports have appeared presenting alarming evidence for loss of biological species and Arctic/Antarctic ice as well as linking the increasing instability of our climate to GHGs.
Two key questions arise on the net-zero commitment: is this sufficient, and how do they propose to get there? This government has retreated on many fronts from previous ambitions under Labour and even the coalition, so Britain is falling behind milestones under the Climate Change Act. The government is following the lead of its advisory Committee on Climate Change (CCC), whose most hard-hitting report to date called for far greater urgency and the ‘net-zero’ target, well beyond the previous legal reduction requirement of 80%.
In view of the UN emissions gap report and backsliding from obstructionist governments, further tightening will be required worldwide, and green campaigners have called for an earlier deadline, but the CCC considers that 2050 is the earliest achievable date.
The CCC report itemises the most challenging sectors for decarbonisation, which nevertheless must be tackled to reach close to zero: industry, buildings, heavy goods vehicles, aviation, shipping and agriculture. Aviation has rightly been targeted as the only sector whose emissions are projected to rise – to become the highest emitting sector! But emissions per passenger mile are comparable with petrol cars – it’s the number of miles travelled that magnify its impact. Alongside shipping, its international nature has hitherto allowed it to evade full accountability. The transport nettle must be grasped, not just to decarbonise by switching to electric or ultimately hydrogen power but to prioritise public transport throughout the country by planning policies to ensure new developments include both public transport services as well as local amenities and zero-carbon buildings. Amazingly, the CCC totally omits public transport or town planning policy.
Though it rejects relying on carbon offsetting (paying for often controversial projects abroad), it treats this as a contingency. Its optimistic statement that “only those genuinely offering additional emissions reduction or removal should be allowed, and these must be part of schemes that also support sustainable development”, is risky when global commitments lag far behind requirements, and all countries need to exert maximum efforts.
Any residual emissions will have to be counteracted by removal or ‘carbon capture’. The least controversial option, reforestation, is relatively slow and requires land to be planted and managed into the future. Other forms of ‘carbon capture and storage’ (CCS) have featured in both UN and UK policies to balance the calculations, but with only pilot projects, and none in the UK since the government stopped funding, concrete (no pun intended) results are lacking. These are far from a panacea, as they would incur costs in efficiency terms and require comprehensive infrastructure, only suitable for power stations and heavy industry, as well as a safe form of – and locations for – storage. The bio-energy plus carbon capture (BECCS) concept, generating power from agricultural products, would be practical only if waste were used, to safeguard food supplies. Agriculture already faces growing demand, soil degradation and climate impacts alongside calls for reversion to forestry or wilderness and less intensive, more ecological practices.
This brings us back to achieving maximum emissions reductions. A key reason why the oil industry has dominated the world economy and is so resistant to alternatives is its convenience as a fuel and the density of its energy content. It is proposed that the particular weight challenges of air travel, heavy haulage and shipping be met using electric or hydrogen power, but it is hard to believe that this will be practical by 2030 as the CCC envisages.
The CCC report accepts the need for a ‘just transition’ that is fair to both workers and consumers, and the role of civil society, but lacks detail on these areas, falling back on actions individuals can take. Fine words are insufficient if they expect behaviour change to occur without national and local leadership.
In terms of practical politics, the Green New Deal increasingly looks like an idea whose time has come, both in the US and here. Economically it amounts to a Keynesian stimulus focussed on climate jobs – those which directly contribute to carbon reduction – such as home insulation, renewable power generation and cleaner transport. Connecting the environmental, employment and economic issues is politically attractive and fits well with the democratic socialist narrative, but therefore faces suspicion on the free market right. We must remember that any economic growth must be contained within a package of absolute reductions in emissions – a possibility that is increasingly being challenged. However much technological change alleviates its impact by ‘reducing carbon intensity’ (achieving more for less emissions), exponential economic growth (that is, by cumulative annual percentages) must eventually collide with inherent planetary limits, of which the climate crisis is only one facet: other looming threats include pollution, loss of biodiversity, and dwindling resources.
The elephant in the room is ‘consumption emissions’ associated with imported goods, notably from China, that are excluded from UK totals. The CCC mentions ‘measures like resource efficiency that cut emissions from production overseas’ but fails to admit our liability. We must challenge any politician spouting green rhetoric to confront the fundamental challenges this presents to our lifestyle and society. Varieties of denial don’t stop with Trump and Farage: we are all inclined to look the other way rather than act on inconvenient truths.
Though the net-zero target looks increasingly technically viable given recent leaps in renewable energy and storage, the political and social conditions still lag behind. Evidence for the necessary strategic planning in government, with honourable exceptions in Scotland and a few local councils, is meagre. Accordingly, opposition parties and activists must challenge the government to demonstrate it will really act to reduce emissions in the sectors outlined above without recourse to neoliberal magical thinking such as reliance on ‘the market’.
“Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled”. These words from the late US physicist Richard Feynman ring true as ever.