Imagine you were a journalist covering last year’s report by the WHO that warned about the shocking consequences of a coronavirus hitting humanity, but you knew nobody would pay any attention? This is how I felt at last week’s press conference launching the annual report of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to the UK parliament.
Buried in the report was the advice that the government needed to start preparing for a 4C temperature rise. This is a terrifying change from the previous advice to prepare for a 2C rise.
Why terrifying? As Professor Kevin Anderson, a leading climate scientist at the University of Manchester, said: “There is a widespread view that a 4C future is incompatible with an organised global community, is likely to be beyond adaptation and be devastating to the majority of ecosystems.” In other words, a world where food crops would collapse, billions could starve, governments collapse and coastal cities flood, making hundreds of millions homeless.
The committee did not set out how any government could prepare for such a catastrophe; it just warned that it needed to. What it did do, however, was report on the actions taken – or not taken – to date as part of the UK government’s contribution to holding the rise in temperatures under 2C, the absolute limit beyond which it would be insanity to pass.
On the positive side, reductions in UK domestic emissions since 2008 are the best among member countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Domestic emissions, which are the carbon emissions emitted in the UK itself, are down 28 per cent. However, domestic emissions exclude UK international aviation and shipping emissions, or those from the goods we import. The jargon for UK emissions that includes these figures is “consumption emissions”, and these are 18 per cent down since 2008.
In total, 54 per cent of UK consumption emissions are emitted inside UK borders, while a surprising 46 per cent are emitted in the countries that we import food and goods from. The large amount of emissions from new oil, gas and coalfields that UK banks and the government fund in other countries around the world are not included in either statistic – and it is estimated that 15 per cent of global fossil fuel financing comes from the UK. Yet these huge UK emissions were entirely missing from the committee’s report.
The committee attributed the positive decline in domestic emissions to the rapid phasing out of coal and the switch to renewables for electricity. However, the report was blunt on the failure of Boris Johnson‘s government to implement almost any of its recommendations made last year on how to get to zero carbon. Of the 31 recommendations, only two were implemented in full. And let us be honest: the zero carbon 2050 target set by the government, with the CCC advising on how to achieve it, is far too late if humanity is to avoid a 4C rise in temperatures.
We are in the invidious position of having a report that is far too reticent in the actions it recommends to protect Britain, and says that the vast majority of even these actions are being ignored by the government. On the climate threat, we are exactly where we were last winter in relation to the impending pandemic: woefully unprepared and with a government refusing to implement the advice being given to protect us.
The committee’s report has many major gaps. There is no mention of the role that the Bank of England should play in halting the billions pouring from UK banks into fossil fuel corporations in loans, or any advice on how the Bank’s £300bn quantitative easing programme could green the economy. The carbon emissions reported for road vehicles excluded the large embedded carbon used in manufacturing them. There are an estimated 2.3 million new cars bought in the UK each year. If the average embedded carbon emissions were 5 tonnes per vehicle, this would add another 11.5 million tonnes to the annual 113 million tonnes of emissions for surface transport.
The report also failed to urge the government to reach the UN target of 20 per cent of the transport budget for cycling, which the new government in Ireland has just adopted, and made no mention of how e-bikes could eliminate the need for car ownership for millions of commuters. It carried no comparative carbon or cost-benefit analysis for the different forms of zero-carbon heating, whether hydrogen, infrared, electric boilers or heat pumps. It relied heavily on the introduction of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to trap industrial and biomass emissions, but admitted that they do not know if it can be done economically.
The focus on carbon capture is hardly surprising given the influence of carbon-based industries. They are promoting this economically unproven technology, as it would theoretically allow them to continue burning biomass and fossil fuels. It is unconscionable that the committee should be betting the UK’s future on an unproven technology, when so many proven methods already exist.
What also jumps out from the report is that just like the prime minister failing to attend almost all of the Cobra emergency committee meetings as the Covid-19 emergency began in the UK, the committee reports that Johnson has only convened one meeting of the cabinet committee on climate change – a group that experts agree needs to meet monthly if the government is to succeed in hitting zero-carbon targets.
When I reported back to one of my friends on the substance of the report and press conference, his visceral response was, “We are f*****”. I am inclined to agree – which is why mass peaceful direct actions by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and the student climate strikers are a duty, not a luxury.
That is, if we want a government that actually acts on the experts’ warnings, rather than ignoring them as Johnson did so disastrously over Covid-19.
Donnachadh McCarthy is an environmental auditor, campaigner and is the author of ‘The Prostitute State – How Britain’s Democracy was Hijacked’