Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
The pinnacle of every environmentalist’s calendar is upon us! With only four days to go until COP26, ministers are falling over themselves to talk up the conference.
Their adoption of the language of crisis is stark: Alok Sharma has said that “If we don’t act now, the end destination is climate catastrophe”; the Prime Minister has warned that we must act “before it is too late”; while Downing Street has even hosted a ‘Kids Climate Press Conference’ to help win the “fight against climate change”.
Outside of government, the refrain that we’re not going far enough continues. Activist Greta Thunberg is rallying the troops to join the climate strike in Glasgow. National treasure David Attenborough has delivered his annual warning to save the planet from extinction. And then there’s the interventions from our favourite luvvies, like Ab Fab’s Joanna Lumley, who has suggested with all seriousness that we “go back to some kind of system of rationing”.
The problem with all this, of course, is reality. A month ago, Johnson hailed COP26 as a “turning point for humanity”. Now, the chances of COP26 success are “touch and go”, as he told children that he’s “very worried” the conference may not secure the agreements needed to avert climate change.
The harsh truth is that our entire net zero strategy relies on other countries following suit. Acting alone, or even with similar-minded nations, will make little to no dent in global emissions. This is not controversial. Indeed, it was acknowledged at the time of the formation of the Climate Change Committee, the independent body that is responsible for advising government on climate policy, that the success of the UK’s decarbonisation strategy depends on high-emitting countries adopting similar carbon targets to our own – otherwise, our efforts to prevent climate change would prove utterly futile.
It’s true that more and more people are demanding for something to be done to avert the rise in global temperatures. A new poll undertaken by the UN Development Programme and the University of Oxford, found that 65 per cent of the nearly 700,000 adults surveyed across G20 countries believe climate change is a ‘global emergency’. Whether this translates to advocacy for specific or costly policies that hit people in the pocket is, of course, harder to gage.
But, while the public calls on the UK government to do more, global carbon emissions are only on their way up. According to the World Meteorological Organization, even though the pandemic saw a 5.6 per cent overall decline in emissions of carbon, the build-up of warming gases in the atmosphere rose to record levels; it is predicted that this will drive up temperatures in excess of the goals of the Paris Agreement of two per cent. The UN has also issued a warning that greenhouse gas emissions are on course to be 16 per cent higher by 2030 than they are now.
Many high-emitting nations are either avoiding COP altogether or stalling when it comes to committing to carbon targets. China has said that fossil fuels will form less than 20 per cent of its energy mix by 2060, and that it will peak coal emissions by 2025. Hard to believe, considering it continues to invest in new coal mines and, last year, built more than three times as much new coal power as the rest of the world combined.
Crucially, it has also made clear that climate policy will not come at the expense of its other priorities, including energy security and other economic interests. Then, there’s Putin, who has now committed to reaching net zero by 2060, but will not show his face at the climate summit. And at the same time, leaked documents show that countries including Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia, and India are reportedly lobbying the UN against moving away from fossil fuels.
This is not to say that the UK and others should give up on going green. The possibilities of green technology are hugely exciting, and the benefits to our economy of pioneering new eco-friendly innovations are very real. However, it would be deluded to believe that the likes of China and India will come to the world’s rescue and slash their carbon emissions in line with our own – at least not anytime soon.
As a new paper from the Institute of Economic Affairs lays bare, the UK’s Climate Change Committee has failed to address the reality that it is highly unlikely that the UK’s leadership and influence will be enough to bring about the reductions in global emissions, and limit temperature rises, to the levels considered necessary to avert damaging climate change.
Therefore, if the world is indeed heading towards climate catastrophe, the UK desperately needs a rethink. First, we should ask why is the CCC and government prioritising mitigating climate change over climate adaptation? Why are we putting our energy security at risk, by subsidising green technologies that may or may not stand the test of time? And, crucially, why is the CCC and government not asking if the costs borne by British taxpayers, consumers and businesses have yielded proportionate benefits?
Over the next two weeks, we’ll see world leaders flexing their muscles, extolling the importance of cutting emissions to avert climate change. However, as it becomes ever more obvious that a global consensus is a pipedream, it’s clear we urgently need a review of our climate policy priorities – and an injection of realism.