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The government’s progress on climate change is so bad it’s almost a waste of time measuring it

In the last year, it has only implemented one of the 25 measures recommended to it by the Committee on Climate Change. Simply put, the Tory government is far better at contributing to worsening climate change than it is at taking measures to tackle it

James Dyke
Tuesday 09 July 2019 18:58 BST
2050 net zero: Government is falling short of target, says Committee on climate change CEO

Today should mark a milestone in the UK’s rapid decarbonisation. Because today is the release of the Committee for Climate Change’s annual progress report in which it details how the UK government has been performing over the past year. With the recent commitment to get the UK to net-zero carbon by 2050 the stakes could not be higher. Because any delay towards this new much more ambitious target could leave us unable to catch up in the future.

Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change shared his thoughts with me prior to the official release of the report. Chris has much to be proud of. The Committee represents the gold standard in advice on matters about climate change with its esteemed members producing outstanding reports, and was central to the UK government signing up to the 2050 commitment.

But I have to say it’s also at risk of completely wasting its time. Because with the current UK government at the helm, the combined 345 pages of it two reports published today could be summarised thus: we are screwed.

The headline finding is that the government has implemented only one of the 25 recommendations that the Committee made in its previous report. But this is also a government that actively promotes fracking, lashes out millions of pounds on subsidies to enable the continued pumping of oil and gas from the North Sea and has recently overseen an increase in VAT on some domestic solar installations from 5 per cent to 20 per cent. They are far better at contributing to worsening climate change than they are at taking measures to tackle it, so it should be no surprise that they haven’t taken the CCC’s advice on board.

Clearly part of the reason for the dysfunction is Brexit. I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I’ve had with people who simply tell me government can’t consider climate change because of Brexit paralysis. But this government gives every indication it continues to be entirely bound by the iron law of perpetual economic growth and refuses to consider wider policy measures to avoid climate breakdown.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the sudden interest in climate change as a consequence of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunburg has not yet fully permeated the workings of the UK government. Chancellor Hammond’s recent letter to prime minister May in which he highlighted the risks rapid decarbonisation would pose to economic growth is indicative of significant resistance across government to the measures that are required. But I’m becoming increasingly sceptical that this government will ever have the ability to respond effectively.

It seems unfair to single out the UK in this regard. At least it’s trying. The Brazilian government is enthusiastically supporting the hacking down of great swathes of the Amazon rain forest, while the Australian government gives tax breaks to help unearth millions of tons of coal.

Beyond the fact that I’m not a citizen of these countries is the observation that centuries ago the UK led the world into the industrial revolution and so started our love affair with fossil fuels. It’s ideally placed to take leadership in a new green revolution that would see the nation completely decarbonised well before 2050 and so demonstrate to everyone else just what is possible. It should see it as its historic duty.

The risk with these annual reports is that it feeds a false narrative that the UK is blazing a trail to sustainability. It allows us to proudly proclaim how much we have achieved. But dig deeper and you will find that most progress has come from reductions in the energy sector which has switched from coal to gas and wind.

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Emissions from buildings were up 3 per cent on last year, with aviation seeing a 3.5 per cent increase. And today’s report does nothing to address the embedded emissions of the products that come into the country that we enthusiastically continue to buy. The carbon emitted during the manufacturing of the laptops, phones, clothes and cars we import would increase our total emissions by 66 per cent.

The report also makes clear the importance of negative emissions technologies – highly speculative processes that we hope will suck out millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere – because it concludes there is no credible or feasible plan for reducing all sources of emissions.

An important reason for that is that aviation is set to increase such that by 2050 it will be responsible for 40 per cent of the UK’s entire carbon emissions. It is apparently neither credible nor feasible to suggest that the wealthiest of society should take fewer flights.

At a time when the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are losing billions of tons of ice, and heatwaves ravage entire regions of the planet, we must be radical. The earth system simply does not care for what some consider to be politically credible or feasible.

I hope that the Committee on Climate Change in its next report takes a leap of faith and shows just what could be possible. This would help coordinate action across society, which is the only way we are going to get to where we need to be. Working together to make a truly sustainable society is something we could all be rightly proud of.

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