Last week Theresa May announced that the Conservative Government will pass into law, one of the world’s most far-reaching targets on greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction. The target is that the UK will have net zero emissions by 2050. Where we produce GHGs, we will offset them, for example by tree planting. If the target is met, we will then be making no further contribution to global warming.
According to the report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), if all nations did the same, and their targets were met by 2050, Earth’s overall temperature rise as a result of human activity would be limited to a predicted ~1.5 degrees Celcius. At this level, the CCC considers we will have seen off the dire predictions associated with more severe climate change. The impending crisis will have been averted.
So what is not to like?
I won’t get into the argument over whether human activity is responsible for climate change. But it is necessary to point out that the UK only contributes 1-2% of global GHG emissions.
I’ll also agree that someone’s got to take a lead. We are a rich nation. The UK is developing a lead on GHG-reducing technologies and expertise. Given the direction we’re all heading in, surely that is a good UK industry / skills strategy? Perhaps we will develop stuff and expertise we can export to the rest of the world.
Some of the effort going into reducing emissions will make day to day life pleasanter. A progressive shift to electric cars and better public transport will clean up our city air.
But then things start to get trickier. The CCC estimates that the cost of hitting the 2050 target will be 1-2% of GDP per annum through to 2050. UK GDP is in the order of £2 trillion so that is a cost of £20 to £40 billion per year. For comparison, we spend £40 billion on schools per year. If you think of the sheer size of the education sector, the primary and secondary schools across the country, the thousands of children, the vast human activity day after day, year after year, you get a proper sense of the level of spending (or income forgone) required to meet the target. That amount of economic activity, that you witness daily in the education sector, will be spent year in year out, to meet the target. Or in other words, you could use the money to double education spending – or you could give the size of the education spend to the NHS, annually.
But it is not the cost that is the most alarming part. It is the scale of change and activity required. Here are parts of the CCC report:
- “This includes a 20% reduction in consumption of beef, lamb, and dairy …” Were we consulted?
- “Bio-degradable waste… should not be sent to landfill after 2025. This will require… mandatory separation.” Yet more bins.
- Our entire gas grid to be switched to hydrogen. No more cooking with gas as we know it folks!
- A fifth of UK agricultural land shifted from current use to tree planting, energy crops, and peatland restoration. Our landscape profoundly changed for ever.
- “Carbon capture and storage (CCS) in industry…. CCS is a necessity not an option.” This hasn’t even started in the UK – yet is a fundamental part of the strategy!
- Industries required to hit net zero. Won’t they just go offshore, taking emissions and jobs with them?
- “Reaching net-zero GHG emissions requires extensive changes across the economy, with complete switchovers of several parts of the UK capital stock to low-carbon technologies. Major infrastructure decisions need to be made in the near future and quickly implemented… These changes are unprecedented in their overall scale.”
Did Theresa May put that last part in her announcement? Isn’t it profoundly undemocratic for the Conservatives to sign us all up to this commitment without consulting us. Not just without consulting us, but I would say, actually withholding information. In other words, Theresa May should have announced, to use the words of the report “I have just committed you all to changes unprecedented in their overall scale”. Miss that bit?
So how should the Brexit Party respond?
Firstly, if the 2050 target requires changes on an unprecedented scale, people need to be properly informed and consulted. Secondly, while the CCC has estimated the cost at 1-2% of GDP, Philip Hammond and the Treasury have already suggested that it is much higher. We need a rigorous comparison between the two sets of costings.
Currently the UK has a GHG reduction target of 80% by 2050. Therefore the vast ratcheting up of required changes seems to be to achieve the extra 20%. Remember, that is 20% of 1-2% of global emissions. So we are planning to go through this colossal effort to achieve global emissions reduction of 0.2 – 0.4%. Heroes.
Hang on. Unprecedented changes in how we live to impact 0.2 – 0.4% of global emissions. It doesn’t make sense. The Brexit Party should therefore ask the CCC for some extra scenarios. What is the current estimated cost of sticking with the current 80% target by 2050? What is the additional cost, and required behaviour change, of ramping this to 85%? Then 90%? By doing this we will get a better understanding of what is driving the cost and the required changes, and we will be better able to come up with a sensible balance.
Finally, everyone seems to agree that the UK is ahead of the game on GHG reduction and technology. (Correct?) Meanwhile other countries are continuing to belch out GHGs. What if we spent a fraction of the money helping a heavy polluting country reduce its emissions? At a far lower cost to the UK, making a far greater reduction in emissions? Is this possible? The Brexit Party should commission a report on the options. Any experts reading this?