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When it comes to climate change, the public is way ahead of the government

While ministers have floundered, it is the people that have been demanding better.

By Caroline Lucas

When the evidence of an accelerating climate crisis is all around us, it is no surprise that concern about climate change is growing.   

This year there have been extreme temperatures in southern Europe and North America, deadly flooding in China and Europe and dangerous wildfires on every continent except Antarctica.   

In the weeks running up to COP26, parts of London have been occupied by Extinction Rebellion and the M25 motorway disrupted by Insulate Britain.  The Fridays for Future climate strikes by school children are back on our streets. 

Behind those taking action are the millions who feel worried, angry or deeply frustrated at the lack of any sense of urgency in the Government’s response.  People’s worries about climate change actually rose last year, even though we were in the middle of a global pandemic.

People also know what needs to be done and they have ideas about how it should be done. Yet they are ignored.  

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In 2020, the first-ever UK-wide citizens’ assembly on climate spent eight months learning more about climate science before coming up with recommendations about how government should respond.  They did not only suggest ideas about how we should transition to a net zero economy, like a change in diet to reduce meat and dairy consumption and a frequent flier levy, they placed a strong emphasis on fairness and the protection of nature. Most of all, they wanted strong and clear leadership from government. 

That desire for leadership was echoed in the findings of a project called Reset, commissioned by the all-party group on the Green New Deal which I co-chair, that considered how we might reset our economy in the wake of Covid.  We commissioned surveys, an opinion poll, held evidence sessions with experts and conducted in-depth interviews with members of the public, engaging with the views of more than 55,000 people overall. 

There was overwhelming agreement that we had a unique opportunity to re-think the way our society is run.  People wanted the Government to use the disruption of Covid to reset the economy in a way that makes life fairer and greener, making homes more energy-efficient, investing in greener energy, upgrading transport, improving land and giving people vital access to green space for their physical and mental health. 

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In other words, to focus on wellbeing, not a return to business-as-usual with the deep inequalities and environmental destruction that came with it.  We need to find a way to provide for everyone’s needs while respecting the Earth’s planetary limits.  It is not enough to tinker with the current system: the whole economy needs to be focused on reducing emissions, creating good, green jobs and improving people’s quality of life while providing them with a healthy environment.  

That is what a wellbeing economy is designed to do, with a focus on wellbeing and the health of people and the environment rather than the pursuit of endless GDP growth.

The public desire for fundamental change is there. But we have a Government whose response in terms of actual policy-making and investment consistently falls short. 

Yes, we have targets – there have been plenty of those.  There is net zero by 2050 and more ambitious interim targets of a 68 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and 78 percent by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. 

We now have the Net Zero Strategy and Heat and Buildings Strategy, both of which point us in the right direction but do nothing like enough to get us where we need to be.

On net zero, we are promised more tree planting, protection of peatland and more street charging for electric vehicles.  But there’s no commitment to end oil and gas exploration and by putting its faith in nuclear, the Government is backing a white elephant.  

The heat and buildings strategy is massively under-funded and will almost certainly under-deliver. It is also missing a key component – the need to insulate homes which are going to have heat pumps. Without this, homes will not be kept warm.  The Green Homes Grant scheme was botched then dumped, joining the list of other Tory failures to make the UK’s notoriously leaky homes more energy efficient.  

Meanwhile, so many actions the Government is taking lead in the wrong direction.  Its own advisers, the Climate Change Committee, have said that it continues to “blunder into high carbon choices”.  Sometimes it is not even blundering. The refusal to rule out the Cambo oilfield off Shetland flies in the face of the warning from the International Energy Agency that there must be no new oil and gas development if the world is to have a chance to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 – the UK’s legally-binding target.

Then there is the £27 billion roadbuilding programme, the continued expansion of airports and the dissembling over the funding for some of the actual policies that have been put forward: the 10-point plan for a “green industrial revolution” last year came with a £12bn funding tag – but it turned out only £4bn of that was new money. 

Compare that with what our European neighbours are investing in a future green economy: 40bn Euros in Germany, 30bn in France.   

We have to address the climate and nature crises while we have the chance because soon it will be too late.  That requires not just shiny new targets; it requires specific, coherent plans backed by the necessary investment to deliver them.  

Above all it requires climate leadership.  That is what people want.  But instead ministers drag their feet, in the hope that something will turn up.  That strategy did not work for Mr Micawber, and it will not prevent climate breakdown either.   

We face a climate emergency and it is time the Government started acting like it. 

This article originally appeared in our Spotlight policy report on energy and climate change. To read the full supplement click here.