The era of climate denialism is over. The impacts, which scientists have been predicting for so long – floods, wildfires, pandemics and mass displacement of people – are now all too real, and can no longer be denied plausibly.
It has been nearly two years since the UK parliament declared a climate and environmental emergency.
But if we know “our house is on fire”, then how does the government justify pouring petrol on the flames by failing to intervene in the opening of a new coal mine; continuing to use taxpayer money to support fossil fuel projects overseas; and backing ill-conceived, carbon-intensive infrastructure projects, such as a third runway for Heathrow Airport, a £27.5bn investment in the road network and HS2?
There are two similarly-used lines of argument, usually from those with vested interests. Claim one is that the UK is a “climate leader”, already doing more than its fair share – and what is needed now, is for others (such as India and China) to step up. Claim two is that climate action comes at the expense of the economy and job creation – and in the midst of the pandemic, it is the latter which should take precedence.
Neither claim holds water, yet both have eroded the public and political will to drive emergency action. So, when we see the question, “Why is the UK opening a new coal mine in 2021?”, we see an answer: “The UK is a climate leader – and the coal mine will deliver 500 new jobs.”
There’s one problem – the claim that the UK is a “climate leader” is disingenuous. Here’s why: it is usually supported by a graphic, showing British carbon dioxide emissions on a steep downward gradient since the 1990s, alongside reference to the UK’s “world-leading” net zero target for 2050 (a target which in reality is neither adequate nor being met).
It is relatively easy for a historically high-emitting country such as the UK to reduce its emissions from a high starting point, just as it is relatively easy to show a decline in Covid-19 infection rates from a high peak, and relatively hard to do so if the infection rate is already low. But the decline in production emissions does not make the UK a “climate leader”.
In absolute terms, UK carbon emissions remain high (on a per capita basis, they are around three times higher than emissions from Brazil or India). Whatsmore, the data that is used to imply rapid progress excludes UK aviation emissions; excludes the carbon embedded in the goods we import and consume; and ignores the UK’s historic emissions, which are proportionately five times higher than the UK’s contribution to global population.
More importantly, the focus on the UK’s own emissions distracts attention from its role as a leading financier of the carbon economy internationally: the City of London supports a massive 15 per cent of global carbon emissions.
Imagine how things look from the perspective of the majority of the world, whose low consumption lifestyles have contributed so little to the crisis, but who find themselves on the frontline of fossil fuel-induced flood, drought, famine and disease. The British government crowing about “climate leadership”, while it continues to profiteer from the carbon economy, is not a recipe for diplomatic success at Cop26.
True leadership begins with an honest confrontation over the UK’s substantial contribution to the crisis. Only when we face this, can we hope to pioneer a different trajectory. We must begin with the insight from the recent Dasgupta report, commissioned by the treasury, which says we should abandon GDP growth as our overarching economic objective.
What’s important to remember here is that climate action and jobs are not in opposition. And, as the row over the Cumbria coal mine has recently highlighted, economic recovery and job creation provide the back-up argument to justify investments, which are driving the loss of the conditions which make our planet habitable.
In reality, there is no such dilemma. The International Energy Agency and Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise have published reports which conclude that renewable energy infrastructure projects deliver far more jobs than economic stimulus for business-as-usual.
Nowhere is the false dichotomy of “prosperity versus the environment” more evident than in Cumbria, where so many families are the victims of devastating flooding, attributable to the fossil fuel-induced climate crisis, leading to the collapse in the value of their homes. Precarious jobs in industries which increase the vulnerability of people in the region have nothing to do with levelling up.
In this critical year for us all, the year of Cop26, nothing is more vital than our media avoiding Orwellian double-speak and levelling with the British public to make it known that the UK’s contribution to the climate and ecological emergency is substantial; that it has a consequent responsibility to take emergency action; and that acting on the science – without delay – is the only way to safeguard jobs, the economy and our collective survival.
Tim Crosland is director at Plan B
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