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5 June 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 12:16pm

Britain has a historic responsibility to tackle climate change – and time is running out

By Laurie Laybourn Langton

We have just over ten years to have a shooting chance at avoiding catastrophic climate breakdown. The scientific community has been unequivocal about this. Harmful greenhouse gas emissions – from vehicles, through power plants, to cows – must be nearly halved by 2030 to stop temperatures from rising by 1.5C since the 19th century, when industrial capitalism hit its stride. We’re already experiencing about 1C of warming. Time is running out.

To avoid 1.5C, global emissions must be reduced to as close to zero as possible, with any remaining emissions offset or drawn down (“net zero” in the jargon). It’s within this context that the UK government’s official climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), has reported on what net zero would mean for the UK.

The CCC’s answer is emphatic: the UK should end its contribution to global climate breakdown by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Importantly, the CCC concludes that doing so is both feasible and cost effective; we have the expertise and wherewithal to do this and the costs pale into insignificance when compared to the catastrophe toward which we speed.

Moreover, the benefits to society could be huge. Eliminating dirty vehicles would tackle the air pollution crisis, more sustainable diets are often healthier, better insulated homes means lower heating bills – the list goes on. The benefits of the post-carbon transition can usher in a social and economic transformation of the scale of the carbon transition, which opened up unthinkable opportunities to people around the world after WWII.

The CCC’s report will be used by campaigners to press the government, who will likely enshrine a 2050 net zero target in law. But this will do little to please campaigners, including Extinction Rebellion, who call for net zero by 2025.

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Many argue that a pre-2050 target is unnecessary, as it exceeds the terms of the Paris Agreement, or that it is practically impossible. However, the arguments for an earlier target are persuasive. Other countries are exploring or setting more ambitious targets, including Sweden, which has committed to reaching net zero by 2045. Setting an example matters and can support campaigners and politicians in other countries make the case for net zero.

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Furthermore, the UK has a unique historical responsibility to act swiftly; an exploitative and environmentally destructive model of industrial capitalism was developed on these islands and entrenched around the world through the British Empire. In turn, systems of power and inequality emerged that live to this day and mean that the most vulnerable and least responsible communities will be impacted the most. Climate justice is one of the strongest arguments for bringing forward the net zero target.

We also don’t know for certain if we have until 2050 to fully decarbonise. The scientific models assume the unprecedented deployment of technology to absorb carbon emissions, some of which is yet to be invented or could cause enormous ecological destruction. They also neglect “tipping points”, such as the rapid release of methane by melting permafrost. It may be prudent to speed up the transition; the safest measures are often the boldest.

Moreover, the environmental crisis is not isolated to climate breakdown. Our soil is depleting, rivers run dry, species are becoming extinct at a terrifying rate – we live in the age of environmental breakdown and the window of opportunity to avoid the famine, forced migration and conflict resulting from this state of affairs is rapidly closing.

This is our greatest challenge. Delivering net zero and overcoming wider environmental breakdown will require fundamental changes to our economy. Enormous government investment is needed, the power of destructive corporations must be curtailed, energy must become clean while demand is reduced, the political fixation on GDP growth over other measures of progress must end. All this needs to be done while improving social and economic justice, lest the hateful agenda of ethno-nationalism become more attractive as the world is buffeted by storms and people are forced from their homes.

Such an agenda is antithetical to the current government and the Conservative Party, which remains wedded to a neoliberal agenda that forbids structural change to the economy and has, in large parts, got us into this mess. What’s more, the Tory party is disproportionality obsessed with Brexit, some leading members remain climate deniers, and it supports the expansion of fossil fuels while failing to meet our existing climate targets. Without a paradigm shift in prevailing economic ideas, more fundamental even than those overseen by Attlee and Thatcher, our chances of overcoming environmental breakdown are slim.  

Laurie Laybourn-Langton is co-author of a forthcoming book about environmental breakdown, published by Verso. He tweets @Laurie_L_L.