On Thursday 28 February, I attended a Commons’ debate on progress toward net zero carbon emissions. Incredibly, this was the first time in over two years that MPs had been given the chance to debate climate change at any length.
As with any Thursday afternoon Backbench Business debate, it was not particularly well attended – most non-London MPs having left Westminster to travel back to work in their constituencies. Nevertheless, the debate was still oversubscribed.
That the demand to make contributions exceeded the amount of time available was an indication of the importance of this issue to many parliamentarians but also a clear sign that there have not been sufficient opportunities to debate climate change over recent years. The Government, who control the parliamentary order paper, need to do more. Backbench Business debates should not be the only chance MPs have to discuss the most pressing issue of our time.
That averting catastrophic climate change requires more attention from Parliament is obvious. Last summer, a heat wave affected the entire Northern Hemisphere, killing dozens of people across several countries. Pacific hurricanes forced three million people in China to flee. Some of the most destructive wildfires in the history of the U.S. State of California turned more than a million acres of land to ash. And only last week, the tropical cyclone Idai destroyed the Mozambique city of Beira, leaving more than 900 people dead and hundreds more missing.
We are living today in a world that has warmed by just 1.5°C since the late 1800s, when global records began. And we are currently adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than at any point in human history.
As a landmark report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October made clear, when it comes to the time we have left to prevent catastrophic climate change, we’re in the eleventh hour.
The report – which drew on vast amounts of scientific literature from across all three of the IPCC’s “working groups” – made clear that limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels will require transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent”.
It’s important to make clear that the report was not all doom and gloom. It recognised the positive impact of rapid technological advances over recent years. It highlighted that the plummeting costs of wind and solar power and batteries – as well as having additional knock-on benefits in other areas such as air quality – are a game-changer when it comes to the global fight against climate change and hold out the promise of a decisive shift away from fossil fuels. And it acknowledged the fact that there is now a broad international consensus (albeit one that the Trump administration is doing is best to undermine) as to the need to limit increases in the global average temperature as set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
However, the rest of the report made for sobering reading. It made clear that limiting warming to beneath 1.5°C will be extremely difficult and draws attention to the significant difference in the magnitude of climate damage at 2°C of warming as opposed to 1.5°C (never mind the 3-4°C that the world is on course for by 2100 even if the “nationally determined contributions” signed up to at Paris are adhered to). The IPCC’s report is confident in stating that the 2030 emissions reduction effort pledged in the Paris Agreement “would not limit global warming to 1.5°C, even if supplemented by very challenging increases in the scale and ambition of emissions reductions after 2030.” It finds that 1°C of warming is already locked in, and if the world doesn’t start doing a lot more and quickly, then the window for meeting 1.5°C will close too. As Sir David Attenborough put it: “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”
The alarmism and catastrophic thinking that the report provoked are, in my view, both warranted and valuable. We confront a crisis that requires nothing less than an aggressive global response. In other words, we should be alarmed. Indeed, it is the only logical response to a world on course for warming of 1.5°C by 2040, 2°C within decades after that and perhaps 4°C by 2100. Such alarmism also helps guard against complacency by focusing minds on what is our likely future, not just what could happen if we don’t act. We now know that the pain of a 2°C rise is no longer at the extreme range of possibilities but is instead a probability given the likeliest outcomes for the end of this century fall between 2°C and 4°C of warming. Complacency remains a far bigger danger to our existence than alarmism. In the face of this existential threat, it may be that fear is a necessary spur to action.
So what can we do? The IPCC’s report made clear that limiting increases to 1.5°C is possible, and it points to the fact that the world now has a much clearer understanding of how the ambitious and rapid transition in the world’s economy required to keep warming to below that level could be achieved. But it requires what the IPCC terms “transformative systemic change”. That means that net global CO2 emissions would need to fall to zero not long after 2040, and other sources of climate change — emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, for example — would also need to fall from 2030. In practical terms, emissions from industry would need to fall by 75-90% by 2050, relative to 2010. This would need a combination of electrification, hydrogen, sustainable bio-based feedstocks and product substitution. In short, the world economic system must be fundamentally overhauled.
The problem is that while it is technically possible, it’s politically difficult to say the least – and not only because the effects of climate change are spatially and temporally dispersed and tackling it involves challenging distributional dilemmas (for those interested in the ethics of climate change James Garvey’s ‘The Ethics of Climate Change: Right and Wrong in a Warming World’ is a good place to start).
Earlier this year, the Government asked the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s statutory advisers on the issue, to consider ways the UK could become “net zero-carbon” by 2050. Ministers have since issued vague signals that suggest they may be laying the groundwork for a major change to the UK’s long-term climate policy of cutting emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.
If so, they need to get on with it and set a target to ensure the UK becomes a net zero emission economy by 2050, just as Jeremy Corbyn made clear that the next Labour Government would do at our annual conference in Liverpool last year. The Climate Change Act passed by the last Labour Government has stood the test of time but the world is rapidly changing around us. The IPCC’s report cannot and must not be ignored.
Only collective action can meet the scale of the challenge. We don’t ask taxpayers who contribute to our welfare state to also demonstrate their commitment to it through philanthropy, why should we do differently when it comes to climate change?
We can all do our bit as individuals in managing our carbon footprints but the onus remains on government to enact laws and policies that would reduce all of our emissions. By taking to the streets over recent weeks, young people have made clear what they want their government to do. Let us make sure it acts.