Who needs to act to save the planet from catastrophic climate change and halt species extinction?

By Jonathan Gore

If runaway climate change is not to trigger the irreversible melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets and drive hundreds of millions of people from their homes, the global temperature rise must be confined to 2C above pre-industrial levels. This requires a 60% cut in global climate emissions by 2030, which means a 90% cut in the rich world.

The wealthiest 10% of the world’s population are responsible for over 50% of the current emissions whereas the poorest 50% are only responsible for 10% of emissions.

Plus, not only do richer countries have a disproportionately higher level of emissions today, but they also have the biggest historic responsibility.

Many of the countries that have done the least to cause climate change will face the worst impacts.

Taking into account historical emissions, the UK’s emissions are six times greater than the world average.

This brings us to the concept of ‘climate justice’ where those most responsible for climate change support those most vulnerable to its impacts.

‘Climate equity’ dictates that richer countries should decarbonise faster and help low income countries transition to a low carbon technology without first having to build new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Consumption emissions mean that we must account not only for our domestic emissions but also those emissions caused by manufacture and transport of our imports.  A carbon tax is seen as a tool that will account for the true cost of imports and domestic products.

A 2016 IMF working paper (not necessarily representing the views of the IMF) included the costs of environmental externalities in their definition of subsidies and concluded that global fossil fuel subsidies were $5.3 trillion in 2015, which represented 6.5% of global GDP. The authors estimated that the elimination of “subsidies would have reduced global carbon emissions in 2013 by 21%.”

Labour’s green new deal proposed projects in several domains for achieving net zero carbon by 2030.

The housing programme estimates that around 1,500 deaths can be avoided through delivering a UK- wide home retrofit, saving on average £417 per year for low income households. This would save 10.28% of the UK’s 2018 CO2 emissions, which is more than our agriculture is responsible for and equivalent to 70% of all UK annual car emissions. Fuel poverty affects 3.5 million (13%) of UK households.

The transport project talks about decarbonisation but also of very high quality, very cheap and plentiful public transport alongside reduction of personal car use. See here for further details.

CO2 emissions in the EU show transport as causing 20% of all emissions, cars causing 60% of these. Life cycle emissions for cars include the manufacture, disposal, fuel production and CO2 production over their lifetime. Petrol and diesel are similar at 220g/Km, with electric cars running on 100% renewable electricity 75g/Km. But with current electricity generation a mix of renewable and fossil fuel, electric cars’ life cycle emissions are 170g/Km.  So the real value of electric cars will only come when 100% of electricity is generated from renewables.

The need for current electricity generation and the additional generation that will be needed to decarbonise the economy must come from renewables. With growth in the industry, wind and solar have become the cheapest forms of energy generation in the UK.

As economist Mariana Mazzucatto argues, markets are not ‘free’ and there are countless examples which prove that government has tremendous power to actively shape investment, production and innovation.  A strong industrial strategy with a clear, ambitious target will thus be crucial to ensuring the finance, technological capacity, and labour power that exists in the UK is directed toward rapid decarbonisation and climate justice.

Yet the government has cut subsidies to the industry, causing a greater than 50% reduction in investment and a loss of 30% of the workforce between 2015 and 2017.

Currently there is 10Gw of offshore wind generating capacity. Boris Johnson has recently announced a plan for 40Gw of generating capacity. The government has committed £160 million to upgrade ports and infrastructure, though the additional cost of the aspiration of 40Gw of offshore generation is more like £45bn. This will equal current electricity generation. However, if we are to reduce CO2 emissions significantly by 2030, we will need to replace fossil fuel with low carbon electricity and so will need to generate significantly more than 40Gw. It remains unclear whether this qualifies as a ‘strong industrial strategy’.

We can insulate our homes, swap the gas boiler for a heat pump, put panels on the roof, if you are not already in fuel poverty. Turn down the temperature on the central heating’s thermostat, fly and drive less, or slower, or not at all, go vegan, cycle and walk, consume less –  as we all should. Yet this will never be enough without action from governments globally particularly in developed nations.

Lack of belief in our ability to achieve often prevents us trying.  Frome’s council has a commitment to make the town carbon neutral by 2030. Their website shows how.

What of the natural world and species extinction?

A 2020 UN report concludes that the international community did not fully achieve any of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets agreed in Japan in 2010. However, partial targets were met, for example, 44% of vital biodiverse areas are now under protection, an increase from 29% in 2000.

Overfishing is an issue.  Governments globally subsidise fishing to the tune of $22bn. Unsustainable fishing has increased from 14% of stocks in 1974 to 33% in 2015. World leaders at the World Trade Organisation signed up to sustainability goals, among them limiting government subsidies, but have failed to do so by 2020 as they agreed.

A recent Economist editorial says that illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing accounts for 20-50% of the world catch and robs mostly poor coastal states of $20bn a year.  Tens of thousands of migrant workers, many in debt bondage, work the world’s fishing fleets.  Electronic monitoring as well as cameras, already in operation, should be mandatory in all fleets for entry to country-controlled fishing grounds. It concludes that ending subsidies and forced labour would make half of current high seas fishing unprofitable. There is also concern that fishing by dredging and trawling may contribute to global heating by releasing carbon from the seabed.

But there are glimmers of hope.

When living systems – like forests, peat bogs, saltmarshes and the seabed – are allowed to recover, they draw down carbon from the atmosphere, reducing the chances of climate catastrophe. Their restoration will also minimise extinction and ecological collapse, and create a richer world of wonders for us to enjoy.

 The national guidance for managing roadside verges for wildflowers calls for just two cuts a year – instead of four or more – and only after flowers have set seed, to restore floral diversity and save councils money. It would also provide grassland habitat the size of London, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh combined. They also have become ‘wildlife corridors’. The cost savings could be used on the living wage and staff welfare.

Front gardens are often paved over, risking subsidence, increased risk of flooding and loss of potential habitat.

There are things individuals can do. If you have a window sill, plant a window box. If you are lucky enough to have a garden, planting encourages butterflies and bees.   Choose drought-resistant plants. Make your own compost. Half of compost sold in the UK contains peat. Ending the use of peat and restoring peat bogs will increase natural carbon capture. Reusing garden ‘refuse’ will reduce the council’s refuse collection carbon footprint. And how about getting to know your neighbours in the cause of a hedgehog highway

Grave though the situation is, this video will make you smile.

The government has published its ten point plan for a green industrial revolution and hopes to ‘build back better’. We can insist on:

  • Ending fuel poverty for 3.5 million households by proactively ensuring that social housing landlords retrofit insulation and heat pumps. At the same time rapidly phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.
  • Reversing worsening health inequalities in the most deprived communities by accepting 90% emission reduction plans and by making sure that green new jobs that arise are located in those communities where they are most needed.
  • A carbon tax so that we pay the true price of our imports and internally produced consumption.
  • Acceptance of Climate Justice and assistance for low income countries in low carbon development.
  • Active promotion of natural carbon capture as, while deserving of research, technological carbon capture is as yet unproven.
  • End international fishing subsidies and illegal fishing and enforce good labour practices in the industry.
  • Follow the advice of the House of Commons Committee on Climate Change.

Jonathan Gore is a member of Islington North CLP. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Great Escape 3, a Highbury East branch magazine.

Image:  Extinction Rebellion, ‘swarming roadblocks’ (with banner ‘Rebel for life’). Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zongo/31078299267/. Author: DAVID HOLT, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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