Climate action has been at the top of the global policy agenda for years, and in 2019 people across the world joined protests and school strikes, campaigned and voted for ambitious change. As we head towards next year’s delayed COP 26 climate negotiations in Glasgow, it is an opportunity to take stock of where the UK is on its journey to net zero. It is also a time to reflect on how lessons we have learned from Covid-19 can inform action on the climate crisis.
In December, the New Statesman’s policy supplement Spotlight brought together experts and policymakers to discuss the challenges, solutions and path ahead on the climate. This virtual roundtable event, chaired by former New Statesman deputy editor Jon Bernstein, was sponsored and supported by our partners the University of Manchester, the University of Portsmouth, Amazon, Sellafield, Shell, Lloyds Banking Group and Cambridge Consultants.
There was consensus among the participants that while the ambition of the government on climate change is positive, the real challenge lies in delivering change.
Sarah Olney MP, Liberal Democrat spokesperson on climate change, said the current government must change the way it prioritises, organises and brings together its work on climate. At the moment, it is scattered across departments with little coordination.
The priority should be to “loosen the grip of the fossil fuel industry” on our financial services, she said. “Carbon needs to be a reason not to do something” at the investor level, and eventually for consumers. People need to start demanding change so MPs can demand it on their behalf, Olney added.
Hilary Benn, Labour MP for Leeds Central, pointed out that Covid-19 has shown what governments can do when they need to and that this can happen on the climate. But it has also shown the scale of the challenge, as shutting down sections of the economy didn’t get us to net zero.
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The UK needs to take each of the key elements of the response to climate change, using public investment for public good, policies, regulation and finance, Benn said. He added that there needs to be a relentless focus on what needs to be done to decarbonise. There are huge economic opportunities in meeting those needs. There is a tension, he warned, between the “desire for greater self-control” and turning inward, and the need for international cooperation on climate change.
Anna McMorrin, Labour MP for Cardiff North, highlighted that the government is still financing fossil fuels through overseas aid programmes such as a proposed pipeline in Mozambique. “That does not sound like climate action to me,” she said. McMorrin added that systemic, fundamental change is needed across all areas of government, including a minister dedicated to the COP 26 negotiations and seeing through game-changing policies. Regional and local governments also need to be empowered to take action on the climate, with “a top-down and bottom-up approach”, she said.
Steve Fletcher, professor of ocean policy and economy at the University of Portsmouth, agrees with this focus on local action. In his work with the Climate Action Board in Portsmouth, they found that most people want to do something about climate change but are unclear how. There is a need to get people “actionable information”, he said.
Baroness Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the House of Lords, takes issue with the idea that there is political consensus on climate action. She said that while Conservatives understand nature and talk about climate, they “don’t really grasp the whole picture”, which is why they back new roads. “I don’t know how to get through to them,” she said. The government can make climate action easier for people, Jones added, but they choose not to do it because of how the economy currently runs.
Caterina Brandmayr, head of climate policy at the Green Alliance, said the Covid-19 crisis has been a “wake-up call”. Decisions made now will have an impact for decades to come, so it is an opportunity to ensure a change to a more nature-rich economy. But to do that, she added, there needs to be clear policy and investment in low-carbon jobs and infrastructure. Government also must ensure it does not lock in high-carbon activities in the future such as investment in new roads.
Brandmayr added that Covid-19 lockdowns highlight access to nature, walking and cycling, their potential and the inequalities around them. Those inequalities must be addressed as part of any action on climate change.
Nathan Wrench, head of sustainability innovation at Cambridge Consultants, feels that it should be celebrated that government is talking officially about net zero. He believes there is nothing to stop us achieving that – it is a question of politics and implementation. He is sceptical about focusing on “behavioural change”, as this often means shifting responsibility onto individuals. Instead, we need policies to force fossil fuels out of the economy rather than trying to figure out how to nudge individual behaviour. “If the politicians can make carbon costly, the engineers will find a way a get it out of the supply chain. Tax carbon, and we will do the rest,” he said.
Professor Carly McLachlan, director of the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester, said we are still too focused on technological optimism, rather than on what can and should be done now. Climate should be central to all decisions, she said, adding that energy does not have to be cheap if we are ensuring decent incomes and tackling inequality.
James Wild, group head of sustainability at Lloyds Banking Group, pointed out the “huge amount of capital required over the next ten years” to reduce emissions in the UK and said Lloyds Banking Group recognises its role in that. The company has a target to reduce the emissions it finances by more than 50 per cent in the next decade. Lloyds is developing financing propositions to enable investment in climate action, but he said that the policies need to be there to enable that financing.
Beyond that, he added, it is important to engage people and make them part of the solution. “Tangible bottom-up policy is really important,” Wild said. Do people know what opportunities they have? Do they trust the solutions, and are they prepared to invest in them? Wild wants to see a fully integrated plan for investment in the UK before COP 26.
Farhana Yamin, a climate lawyer and author, said it is vital to bring people along in supporting a Just Transition. Social equality and climate justice are the ways to focus beyond a managerial approach to climate change, she added. That needs to apply internationally. “To hear people go on and on about optimism when these countries are facing absolute devastation is a form of climate reality denialism,” she said. Yamin added that the financial sector in the UK has a huge carbon footprint and is still investing a large amount in toxic industries.
The participants largely agreed that there are reasons to believe climate action is possible. The challenge is that the scale of change needs to meet the ambition of governments and engage the range of people and institutions locally, nationally and internationally to make that happen.
As McLachlan reflected, many people around the world are having similar conversations. “We have to be a coalition that drives for more rapid change even if we have disagreements about the exact steps,” she said.