It’s easy to feel despair reading the stark warnings in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: the window in which warming can be limited to 1.5C is rapidly closing. The forest fires and flooding on our TV screens, and closer to home, are a wake-up call to the realities of a rapidly warming climate.
The IPCC, the UN body responsible for climate science, described the report as a “code red for humanity”, but 30 years of warnings have not brought about action on a meaningful scale.
It is crucial that government considers the impacts of climate policies, but fatalistic despair will only deepen the problem. The language of averting catastrophe positions the climate crisis as a single calamitous moment, whereas in reality there are a thousand smaller battles to fight – and each small win will contribute to protecting people from the worst effects of climate breakdown. As Naomi Klein puts it, “every fraction of a degree warming that we hold off is a victory”.
The IPCC report makes clear that the science behind the climate crisis is incontrovertible, and research shows that the UK public agrees. Across cities, towns and rural communities, a majority want to see the government take further action.
The most pressing battle, then, is no longer with the deniers but with climate delayers, who claim to recognise the problem, while seeking to prevent anything from being done about it. They argue that measures to address the climate and nature crises – such as phasing out gas boilers – are too expensive, and that the costs would fall on those on low-to-middle incomes. Consequently, reviews and decisions are delayed while headlines are written of a green agenda “plunged into chaos”.
It is critical that government considers the impacts of climate policies – an approach that makes the lives of families who are already struggling won’t wash and is bound to fail. But the climate delayers’ argument does not stack up. Early investment to address the climate and nature crises can create jobs and prevent needless economic damage down the line. Recent modelling by the Office for Budget Responsibility suggests that debt as a proportion of GDP will be far higher if we delay action compared to investing sooner. Government leadership to support the growth of markets for green technologies now can bring down their costs in future.
If Johnson’s government opts for a path that relies on our existing economic model and asks individuals to shoulder risks and costs rather than share them, those on low incomes will probably lose out. The good news is that policies can be designed not just to protect the lives of those on low and middle incomes, but actually make them better.
That agenda should include grants and loans to support people on low incomes to insulate their homes and install green heating systems, so that they can save on heating bills. It should include investing the additional £30bn needed to build the net-zero economy of the future, creating good jobs around the country, and providing bridges to those jobs with a right to retrain. It should include ensuring that everyone has access to nature, using the planning system to transform neighbourhoods into green, social spaces.
Above all, if we are to seize the opportunities of the transition, all people and communities across the UK must benefit, with the greatest return accruing to those who need it most. We can and must choose a path that leads to a fairer future, rather than one which deepens injustice.
The Institute for Public Policy Research’s cross-party environmental justice commission, which published its final report last month, sets out how this can be achieved, based on thousands of combined hours of deliberation by citizens around the country. These discussions offer hope for a popular agenda that would win support for climate and nature policies and improve the country for the better. The delayers are right to raise concerns of who benefits and who loses from the green transition, but wrong to put banana skins under the process. We have the answers we need, now, to secure a fair transition – and it’s time the government chose the right path.
Prior to the pandemic, the environment was more salient as an electoral issue than it has been for 30 years. Voters will be watching the government’s response to the scientists’ “code red” this autumn as the government sets out its spending plans and the UK hosts the Cop26 in Glasgow. To host a successful international conference and show real global leadership, the government will have to back its demands of other countries with a strong green agenda at home. Dither and delay is not an option. Practical policies for a rapid transition to netzero that make the UK a fairer country are a necessity.