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On the climate crisis, to delay is to deny

Getting to net zero is not an aspiration – it’s a necessity.

By Lord Deben (John Gummer)

The deniers have largely shut up. Instead, many have become delayers – querying not the science, but the pace and urgency of the changes that science demands. Of course, that means that they aren’t really convinced – you can’t counsel delay once you grasp the frightening reality that human beings are on course to change our climate to such an extent that life, as it has been lived at any time in the past, must change fundamentally. To delay is therefore to deny. Getting to global net zero is not an aspiration but a necessity.

The government of Theresa May asked the key questions. What do we have to do to meet our Paris commitments? Can we do it? And how much will it cost? We can do it – conservatively, net zero by 2050 will cost us less than 1 per cent of our GDP; at current, high fossil fuel prices it would save the economy 0.5 per cent of GDP or more. Boris Johnson’s government made that the base of its chairmanship of Cop26 and it is now the commitment of the core group of major economies, with China and India bringing up the rear with the later dates of 2060 and 2070, respectively. The world’s direction of travel is therefore clear, but its speed is woefully slow and the gap between promise and performance challengingly wide. Only by unwavering concentration on delivery can we reach our goal – that necessary goal of net zero.

Yet, the siren voices of the denying delayers counsel caution. The cost-of-living crisis means we should pause. The high price of gas demands that we frack. Russian imperialism gives us more urgent priorities. All these arguments derive, not from a calm assessment of the realities, but from the knee-jerk reaction of those who have never accepted the real and present threat of global heating. In fact, they should be demanding the very action we need to combat climate change. The cost of energy is the central driver of the cost-of-living crisis. We should therefore be seeking to reduce that cost by increasing our use of the cheapest means of generation: wind and solar. That happens also to meet the energy security priority that the Ukrainian invasion has made ever more urgent. It’s our wind and our solar.

Suggesting that the same argument applies to our gas may be a security argument but it won’t lower the price. The gas price is international and what comes out of the North Sea will be sold at the price paid by the rest of Europe – not some lower figure fixed by the UK. Nevertheless, it is proper for government to consider whether Russia’s actions mean we should prefer national energy security over the signal it gives to a world that needs no new sources of oil and gas. But in that case, we must at least insist that UK gas is produced in the most sustainable way and the failure of the likes of Shell, BP and Harbour Energy to meet the minimum standards the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) has recommended is simply unacceptable.

So too, fracking can only be allowed if it meets the environmental requirements that the CCC laid down in answer to the government’s request for advice. Otherwise, it would further exacerbate climate change without reducing the price of gas or delivering it in time to assuage present energy security concerns. Neither fracking nor further production from the North Sea will do anything for the cost-of-living crisis. That demands a real dash for renewables and a proper programme for energy efficiency – both of which are essential elements in reaching net zero.

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[See also: Will Rishi Sunak U-turn on Cop27?]

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The refusal to produce an effective programme to reduce the amount of energy people need to heat their homes is the biggest gap in the delivery programme for net zero, but it is also the biggest gap in the present policy to meet the cost-of-living crisis. Local authorities have been very successful in using the money they were given to help the poorest, but they need more and they must also be centrally involved in an effective scheme to help the better off with the capital investment necessary to make their homes more efficient. A government scheme, part of which channels finance from the private sector to this purpose, is vital. Nothing would more directly and more permanently help with the current crisis than this. When direct support for bills has finished, energy-efficiency measures continue to reduce bills and ensure warm homes.

It is that realisation that has led so many to investigate what they can do to cut their energy use. Large numbers of people want to do the right thing both for the climate and for their pocket. They need help in picking the right solutions, avoiding the cowboys, and covering the cost. There is a crying need for an effective information system, giving locally applicable advice that harnesses this goodwill and enables us all to turn intention into action.

These measures to put our own house in order should be a first priority. Our leadership in the world depends upon others seeing that we are delivering on our commitments. But it also depends on their belief that we will provide our part of the cost for poorer nations to meet their obligations. This is a global issue and ours is but a part of the global response. That’s why our cut in overseas aid was so wrong and damaging. Against that background we now have to convince others that we will keep our word in terms of climate finance and capacity building. That will be our key contribution to a successful Cop27. Both this and the previous government were right to keep Alok Sharma and a full team till the end of the UK Cop presidency. Prime Minister Liz Truss must now give him the means to make a difference in Cairo.

In the past two years there has been a growing global realisation of the urgency of the action demanded by climate change. It has changed the attitude of the giants of finance, of investors, and of industry. They need and demand the transparency of statutory reporting and effective regulation. Governments that make much of being business-friendly need to realise that they have to provide an environment that encourages the best and speeds the laggards. On that we must insist – and on that this government will be judged.

This article originally appeared in a Spotlight supplement on energy and climate change. Click here for the full edition.

This article is a part of a series exploring what we need from Cop27. See more in the series here.

[See also: Climate finance: Who pays to close the inequality gap?]