“So, Mr President, perhaps we might now discuss the issue of climate change?”
If ever there were a moment to utilise Britain’s soft power, surely this was it? We had just given the president of the United States the full pomp and ceremony of the Grenadier Guards, a state dinner with Her Majesty the Queen — even an 82-gun salute, for goodness’ sake. Surely now was the moment to press the case for the US remaining in and adhering to the Paris Accord? Or, at the very least, to ask for its endorsement of our bid to host the next major UN Climate Conference (COP26) here in the UK next year?
In fact, it was not Theresa May, but HRH Prince Charles who had the courage to broach the subject with the president, who afterwards confessed that he admired the prince’s concern but pointedly referred to their conversation on “weather change”, rather than climate change. Perhaps it was little wonder that our government seemed to leave climate emergency off the agenda when you consider that, amidst all the pageantry, they had just slipped out the news that they were fiddling the figures around carbon budgets. The UK is using the emissions reductions achieved as a result of the recession, rather than through real policy change, to enable it to meet its target for future carbon budgets.
No wonder, then, that my colleague, Rebecca Long-Bailey, used Trump’s visit to raise the climate emergency when standing in for the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister’s Questions. The hapless David Lidington tried to bluster but was … well, hapless. The government’s own independent climate advisers have repeatedly warned against the transfer of unearned reductions.
The reasons are simple. Our current climate targets are too loose. When the Labour government wrote the Climate Change Act, we set what we thought was a hugely ambitious aim of cutting our emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. But now the science tells us that’s simply not enough. As the government are now finally pledging to do, we must cut our emissions by 100 per cent, making them “net zero” — in other words, ending the UK’s contribution to global warming entirely.
At the very point in history when the world’s climate scientists have agreed that we need to display even greater ambition, because even existing targets won’t be met by our current policies, the government has decided not to ramp up its efforts but to make those inadequate targets easier to achieve through an accounting trick. In fact, doing this will have the effect of allowing our emissions to actually increase over time — at the very moment that they should be falling as sharply as possible.
In crystal-clear and sobering language in a letter from the Committee on Climate Change this February, the government was clearly put on notice that the surplus in question was “not due to policy”, but largely due to the “lasting effects of the recession”.
In that same letter, the government’s advisers warned against carrying forward excess emissions savings from previous years to help meet future carbon budgets. They said doing so “undermines the integrity” of the Climate Change Act, that it would “not be consistent with the aims of the Paris Agreement”. That was the CCC’s “unequivocal advice”. This government has chosen to ignore it.
The climate change minister, Claire Perry, promised MPs in 2017 that it was her intention that the government would not have to use these “flexibilities” to meet our climate targets. Two years later, and despite thousands of schoolchildren taking to the streets to protest against the inadequate response to the climate emergency, this government is going back on its own word.
It also makes a complete mockery of today’s decision to set a target of reaching net-zero emissions. The UK is already off track in terms of meeting its existing carbon budgets, let alone more stringent ones. Giving themselves the permission to dump more polluting CO2 into the atmosphere slows the transition to a zero-carbon economy and will force even steeper cuts later down the line.
That will make it harder and more expensive for businesses to reach the net-zero end goal. We know the government are concerned about this. Last week it emerged that the Chancellor had privately written to the Prime Minister to express his view that net-zero would cost the government £1trn. But this claim has been widely debunked by economists. It misleadingly asserts that all these costs would fall entirely on government at the expense of investment in our public services; it doesn’t acknowledge the basic fact that the cost of climate action will be spread out over the next three decades; and, worst of all, it fails to understand the significant economic benefits and job opportunities that a Green Industrial Revolution would bring. The truth is that, in weakening our climate targets, this government risks making climate action costlier, not cheaper.
As for the timing? Well, it couldn’t be worse. The decision on whether the UK wins the bid to host COP26 is due later this month; but this latest news will hardly give the UN confidence that our government are fit to host such an all-important summit.
Theresa May has little by way of legacy. Perhaps it would have been different if she hadn’t surrounded herself with climate science deniers. Fifteen cabinet ministers serving under her during her three years in office have been implicated in climate science denial either through worryingly close ties to climate deniers or, worse, denial themselves. But here was a chance to secure genuine leadership on climate action and host the UN climate conference in the UK.
Instead, May will be remembered for the expansion of Heathrow Airport and deregulating the fracking industry, making it easier to drill a well than build a conservatory. And now, in her final days at No 10, she may well have sabotaged any hope that her successor could punch above their weight when it comes to meeting our legal obligations to stop the climate crisis. It is an act that future generations should neither forgive, nor forget.