The headlines today are that the prime minister has signed the country up to the one of the most ambitious decarbonisation plans in the industrialised world. And she did that despite the chancellor of the exchequer urging caution before making bold commitments, as such a plan of action would cost a trillion pounds.
But here’s the thing. No one involved in climate science or economics or policy thinks humanity will carefully marshal the remaining reserves of coal, oil, and gas such that we do not exceed dangerous levels of climate change.
Look carefully at today’s statement. It’s about “net zero” emissions. What this means is that we will still be emitting greenhouse gases by the middle of this century and so will be need to suck out millions of tons of carbon dioxide directly from the air with technologies that either do not exist at anything like the required scale, or only exist in the minds of some scientists and engineers.
You may assume we will need to go down the path of negative emissions because at the moment there are no alternatives to the kerosene that jet aircraft use to transport nearly 300 million passengers around the globe each year. And you'd be right, but look closer: aviation is not actually included in today’s announcement. That means, with a sleight of political hand, Britain can continue with the expansion of Heathrow and continue the march towards half a billion air passengers a year by 2050 while still being seen as a radical leader on climate change.
A little further down May's big promise comes another exemption, this time for shipping. That industry also has no feasible plan to move away from sulphur-ridden fuel anytime soon - despite its impacts on climate change, air quality and so human health.
The announcement also mentions the use of international carbon credits which would allow the UK to continue to burn fossil fuels in exchange for a developing nation keeping theirs in the ground. The success of such schemes is mixed at best.
Even taking all that into account, the UK government still thinks we will need negative emissions as we will not completely decarbonise sectors such as agriculture and industry.
I can imagine a press conference in which these questions are put the prime minister. She would respond by channelling Margaret Thatcher who when asked about delays over the recapture of South Georgia from Argentinian forces during the Falkland War replied with: “Just rejoice at the news and congratulate our forces and marines.”
Perhaps in a flush of demob happiness she assumes this is going to be an issue that Boris can pick up. What’s a trillion compared to the collapse of the UK economy as a response to prime minister Johnson pressing the red no deal button?
None of this has stopped the overall very positive responses to today’s news. After all, the 2050 target was proposed by the Committee on Climate Change, who as the official supplier of guidance to the UK government would have been forgiven for assuming that they would be ignored. It’s a very welcome surprise.
But at risk of raining on this parade, I need to tell you that today’s announcement will, in itself, not move humanity an inch away from the cliff edge of climate breakdown.
More than anything, what today’s statement actually makes clear is that while the UK government acknowledges the scale of the threats of climate change, what matters to it above all else is economic growth. The theory is that growth will solve all of humanity’s problems, including those caused by growth. If the facts such as the record breaking emissions of carbon dioxide and heatwaves don’t fit this theory, then change the facts. With theory being obsessively based on Gross Domestic Product. We will continue flying and shipping products all over the world because of their economic benefits – even if they are contributing to the destruction of our planet.
There’s the risk that raising these concerns becomes counterproductive. Because what we need now is motivation and action. Being that person at a party who points out that helium shouldn’t be wasted in balloons, or party poppers generate a lot of air pollution, or the birthday cake has palm oil in it and so is causing deforestation isn’t going to gather anyone to your cause.
But we need to know that this is just the start of a generations long battle to save civilisation from climate breakdown. We should have started reducing carbon emissions decades ago. But we didn’t. So now we are faced with a task that requires radical action. Today’s announcement is the first part of a wedge that we need to hammer in with increasing force.
Because if our children are to have any sort of future, we must sever the primacy of economic growth from policy. This will take sustained effort of will and collective purpose.
So rejoice today. Tomorrow, the clean up begins.
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