Political Will, or Political Won’t?
Since I last posted, the national governments of Canada and France have joined the UK and Ireland in declaring climate emergencies and 18 EU countries now support the adoption by the bloc of a net-zero goal for 2050 as climate looks set to become the key policy focus for its 2020 budget. Further political movement at Westminster has seen the outgoing Prime Minister commit to extending the ambition of the Climate Change Act from 80% to 100% decarbonisation by 2050 and a bid to co-host with Italy next year’s COP26 climate talks. Within the UK, as well as the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales both also having accepted the net zero recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change, on a regional level the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) has asked local authorities and Ministers from central Government to include a net zero carbon target for 2040 in the upcoming Humber industrial strategy, which is due to be published later this year.
The UK’s infrastructure has gone some way in support of the necessary changes; for the first five months of 2019 the proportion of electricity generation for the national grid supplied by renewables exceeded that from fossil fuel. The difference was modest at 48% to 47%, but it is the first time it has happened since the industrial revolution. There was more media coverage of the number of continuous days without any coal being burned in the UK, but that seems like a less impressive statistic than such a comprehensive overhaul of national power generation. Lord Deben, Chair of the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, summed up the current position rather nicely: “Existing ambitions must be delivered in full, challenges that have so far been out of scope must now be confronted. The UK must make firm plans for housing and domestic heat; for industrial emissions; carbon capture and storage; road transport; agriculture; aviation and shipping. There is a manageable cost to tackling these challenges, and the lesson of the last decade is that costs fall when there is a concerted effort to act”. And not just the UK, of course.
More pertinently from the perspective of the agri-food system, he has also said “It means doing something about the appalling condition of our soil. The fertility of our soil must be recovered because we need it not only for farming, but even more in order to sequestrate the carbon that itself is part of the soil fertility cycle”. It’s not just about soils per se; a new study has found that average yields of the top 10 arable crops (together accounting for 83% of plant calories in global human diets) has already reduced by 1% as a consequence of higher temperatures. As the terms of reference for the Dimbleby review, which will form the basis of a new National Food Strategy, have now been published, we can expect more on this over the coming months. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to Henry Dimbleby on a couple of occasions and he seems to have done his groundwork well.
So much for the good news from the world of politics. Full adoption by the UN of the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) landmark report continues to be blocked by the commercial interests of a few countries which have economies that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and there are still nations within the EU resisting the 2050 net zero ambition. Governments, including some of those which have declared climate emergencies, continue to subsidise fossil fuel, and the fossil fuel industry continues to invest in new exploration and in emerging markets whilst making climate-friendly statements in developed economies. On top of all that, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer’s ‘warning’ that achieving net zero by 2050 could cost £1 trillion might lead you to wonder if anything has really changed despite the rhetoric.
And what about all of us, the electorate and consumers whose hopes and fears supposedly drive the actions of business and politicians? There is evidence that if we are treated as ‘citizens’, we put greater emphasis on our responsibilities than if we are treated as ‘consumers’ where rights feature more strongly. 2050 is a long way off, partly hence the recent focus by civil society and other groups on 2030 and there being only 11 years left for meaningful action. How prepared are the world’s 7.5 billion citizens to make the necessary sacrifices, especially those who have been left behind by the inequalities of economics and history and may feel condemned to be eternal losers? We don’t hear much about the views of the peoples of Africa and Asia in what relatively little reporting there is about the climate emergency.
On the subject of reporting, the Guardian has issued new editorial guidelines and now uses terminology which emphasises the urgency of the situation; ‘global warming’, for instance, has been replaced by ‘global heating’. Other news channels are also covering the topic – CNN recently ran a piece on extreme temperatures in Europe – but it remains low on the list of overall media content. Only time will tell if a recent discussion by broadcasters on the need to normalise the climate emergency in everyday programming, on Radio 4’s Front Row arts and culture strand, leads to any changes. Even without top billing in news coverage, however, it is clear that citizens are forming views and may even be reflecting them in the decisions they make as consumers.
A recent poll conducted by IPSOS for Innovation Forum found that just over half of UK respondents believe that responsibility for the sustainability of products lies with the company that puts them on the market. Another survey, by the Climate Coalition and Greener UK, found that 69% of respondents would urge Ministers to take “urgent political action” on the climate crisis. Two-thirds of respondents also said that the new Environment Bill should be passed “urgently” and that all targets should be legally binding. And in another survey, this one by Barclays, found that 45% of respondents had switched at least one product or service they use to an alternative from a business with a better track record and seven in ten said that their employer or prospective employer’s green credentials were a key consideration when choosing jobs.
Some businesses are already stepping up to fill some of the current policy lag. Business in the Community has convened a task force of large companies which are working on finding ways that business can achieve net zero. In another example, earlier this week I joined a workshop at one of the UK’s large grocery retailers which concluded that SDG13 (Climate Action) and SDG12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) are the two most important engagement areas for them. In the public sector, sustainable energy charity Ashden, has launched a climate emergency toolkit for local authorities with the aim of helping them (and national governments) realise climate action plans.
And so back to politicians. To borrow from one of the country’s most famous Westminster orators, this is not the end; it is not even the beginning of the end. Whether it turns out even to be the end of the beginning remains to be seen and, even if it is, it is still not clear whether it will be enough. Political commentary suggests that there may be a Westminster general election sooner rather than later, but the focus of most parties is likely to be on other matters. That shouldn’t stop us citizens from making our views known to Westminster, the devolved administrations and our other elected representatives. Another statistic from the Climate Coalition and Greener UK survey was that 71% of respondents believed that part of the responsibility for urgent political action on the climate crisis also lies with their own MP. A citizens’ assembly on the climate emergency will take place this autumn to explore the fastest and fairest ways to end the UK’s carbon emission. The setting-up of committees can be a way go kick the can down the road; let’s hope not this time.