There’s a very good article which a friend shared recently which talks about how we are coming close to ‘peak Carbon’ – the point at which global carbon emissions start coming down. 49 countries have already passed this point (the UK cut its emissions 24% in the last decade) and others are due to follow soon. Of course, peak carbon is just the start – we need to get to net zero, or even to removing carbon from the atmosphere – but it’s an important start: as Churchill might have said, the end of the beginning.
The important thing to take away from this is that although efficiency measures and behavioural changes can have a modest impact, large-scale drops in carbon emissions only come about when a viable alternative product becomes available and deployable at broadly commercially comparable prices(1). This is true whether it comes to energy efficient lightbulbs or renewable energy. Furthermore, it’s true even in rich countries with a lot of people who profess to care a lot about climate change, like the UK, Canada or Germany: it is definitely true in developing countries who (very reasonably) are not going to cancel their own economic development while large numbers of people live in poverty.
New technologies typically follow a similar pattern. They start off in the lab; then someone figures out how to produce something that actually works, but it’s typically either a bit rubbish and/or very expensive. As mass take up occurs, economies of scale and competition make it cheaper and cheaper. This is the route that has occurred already with solar panels and wind turbines (both now regularly cheaper than gas) and we are on the verge of mass take up for electric cars (ten times as many were sold in 2018 than five years before; price and performance are improving dramatically but they’re still out of reach of many – think of 1990 in the personal computing revolution). Heating, hydrogen and – especially – electric planes are all further off, though all also very much within sight, with prototypes existing.
Therefore, the single biggest thing that we can do – particularly as a mid-sized, wealthy and technologically advanced country – is to drive these cost curves down faster and harder. This will reduce our own carbon emissions, but more importantly it will help increase take up of these products globally.
This is not a coded call for government to back off, or to only fund science. On the contrary, driving these technologies forward requires a lot of intervention. Building new enabling infrastructure networks (e.g. charge points), direct subsidy, tax breaks for green products and of course getting the planning and regulatory environment right are all crucial. The Government is doing a lot of this; it could probably be doing more. It is all stuff that very much can be done: we are typically talking about £billion+ interventions, but the UK’s contracts for difference scheme for offshore wind; German or Chinese investment in solar or Elon Musk’s creation of the ‘gigafactory’ for electric cars all show how these cost curves can be accelerated effectively. In this light, the Government’s recent announcement to bring forward the date of banning petrol and diesel cars by five years to 2035 is very significant. The Lib Dems want to go further, to 2030: that would be difficult, but it might be possible, and it’s the right sort of debate to be having because it’s focused on what would make a real difference.
What’s not important is worrying excessively about accepting a much lower standard of life like going vegan, or not using cars any more. I’m not talking about personal choices: at one level, every little helps, so if someone feels like they should go vegan, or drive less, that’s a personal choice, a bit like giving to charity. But we should recognise that even if everyone in the UK did so, it wouldn’t make much difference to the UK, let alone the global, trends for net zero and we shouldn’t squander precious political capital/public buy in on this, rather than e.g. getting people to pay a higher price for low carbon electricity or heating.
Where behaviour change is relevant, is where it’s ‘buy a different product’ (e.g. electric over petrol; more efficient light bulbs) rather than accepting a radically lower standard of life. If tax incentives are used here – either specifically targeted, such as air passenger duty, or a general carbon tax – let’s make sure, as I’ve written before, that we maintain maximum public support for the agenda by making it fiscally neutral by cutting another tax (VAT would be my pick: cutting it benefits everyone, but benefits the poor the most). Too often climate activists seem to forget their priority is saving the planet and use climate taxes as a stealth vehicle for imposing a lefty high tax agenda; if we can keep the thorny question of how much we should tax (politically contentious for centuries) separate from what we should tax (high carbon activities) maybe we’ll have more luck getting consensus on the latter.
What we absolutely shouldn’t do is things which actively slow those low carbon technologies being deployed. In this light, the extreme policies advocated by groups such as Extinction Rebellion are actively harmful, even on their own terms of stopping climate change. Even if they did manage to get control, overthrow capitalism, crash our economy and reduce our carbon emissions – and keep control to prevent a backlash – it wouldn’t help globally. As one of the largest car manufacturers in Europe, it is much much more useful for us to convert them to making fully commercially viable electric vehicles by 2030 (it’s predicted 70% of new cars will be electric by then) than to drive them out of business and see them relocate, producing petrol cars elsewhere.
So why do people so often default to focusing on the ‘reducing lifestyle’ elements? A number of reasons. Firstly, it’s one of the easiest to understand: we all know what ‘flying less’ means. It also is something we can do in everyday life, which makes it easier to get involved (though even here, I’d suggest switching to a renewable energy supplier will do more good than celebrating Veganuary). There are potentially a couple of deeper reasons though.
Firstly, the green movement has quite a long association with opposing consumerism and celebrating the simple life – and there are plenty of people across the political spectrum, myself included, who can identify with this. There is something appealing therefore about solutions which involve going back to nature in some way. Perhaps even more fundamentally though, it feels right. Due to our Christian heritage narratives of redemption through sacrifice are built into our culture at a very deep level: even people who’ve never heard a word of the Bible will feel the power of such narratives because of the way our literature, film, television and more are steeped in it. If we have helped to cause a problem, which in the case of climate change we have, it is only right, it seems, that we will only be delivered from this by making a heavy sacrifice – in this case giving up meat, flying, driving and consumer goods.
The trouble is, it won’t work. Of course, what people choose to do themselves is their own affair, and I’m not trying to criticise anyone who feels they personally want to drive less or eat less meat – as a major supermarket once said, every little helps. But decades of campaigning hasn’t secured a single major resiling from modern standards of life: on the contrary, throughout the developed and developing world use of consumer goods, flying, car ownership and similar have steadily risen or held flat. What it has delivered is efficiencies – e.g. people moving to more fuel efficient cars that perform the same function – or, sometimes, transferral to entirely different, less environmentally damaging products (renewable energy or non-ozone-damaging fridges). To emphasise again, this is not a call for inaction: such changes have typically required major government intervention and/or regulation and, if we are to achieve what is needed, much more will be needed. But it must be directed in the right way.
At the end of the day, this is about what works. If stopping climate change is one of the most important issues of the day – I know some of you would say the most important – do we want to bet the farm on major lifestyle reductions, something that’s never been achieved (outside of war/disaster) and, even if it were miraculously achieved in one progressive western country, certainly wouldn’t be world wide? Instead we should give up our bucolic fantasies and utopian dreams – seductive though they are – and focus our interventions on what will really bring down carbon emissions world wide: developing and deploying and scale commercially viable zero-carbon alternatives for generation, transport, heating and industry.
(1) It doesn’t have to be strictly commercially better. Once something gets within the same ballpark the government can usually drive take up by tax incentives and/or regulation.