What really makes a difference in tackling climate change

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.

2 thoughts on “What really makes a difference in tackling climate change

  1. There is a version of this comment that includes reference links that may make it’s way to you via Wakefield!
    “the UK cut its emissions 24% in the last decade”
    This, sadly, is based on two miserable things, rather than being something positive. (1) The heavy decline of the UK manufacturing industry, and (2) the government’s “creative accounting” when it comes to CO2. Basically, when our manufacturing industries die, we import more from abroad (we are in fact the highest “CO2 importer” of the G7 developed countries according to official figures). But CO2 released in the manufacture of imports doesn’t count in these figures, making them quite meaningless. Outsourcing manufacturing to places like China has given us less ability to improve it in ways that will tackle the emergencies. The writer of this piece is evidently an intelligent person and probably knows all this, and the fact that they nevertheless open with this figure that is well known to be very misleading causes me to mistrust them as a source, sadly.
    “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…”
    This bit shows a lack of awareness or desire to deceive about what it is that XR is demanding. In fact XR has only three demands and they don’t include any specific policies about how to solve the crises, apart from a demand for a much more rapid transition to net-zero than the Government plans. The key XR demand is for a Citizens’ Assembly, which is a more direct form of democracy in which decisions are made by a jury-like group of randomly chosen citizens who are given a lot of expert advice and time to deliberate. XR is very much not an anti-capitalist organisation, and the claim that it is, despite supporting evidence, again sadly makes me distrust the author’s reliability.
    Having said that, I’m in full agreement (and so is XR as a whole) with the general thrust of this article’s main argument: only Government action can really make the kind of differences necessary. However, if I wasn’t already in agreement with that, this article would have had little chance to persuade me, given the strong clues to the author’s unreliability.
    The problem with engagement with environmental issues that comes from the right of centre, as I guess this article probably does, is that the political right in this country had a monstrous history of green-wash (pretending to solve the problems). That makes many knowledgeable people very skeptical of arguments coming from the right. A good example is Boris Johnson recently sounding like a born-again Greta Thunberg disciple, sharing a stage with David Attenborough and grand-standing about how he plans to phase out fossil fuel cars, when his own party already heavily cut subsidies to electric cars and his own Government plans to cut them again. In Norway, where electric cars are subsidised, they have nearly half of the market share.
    The left and the right will have to work hard together to overcome the distrust we have for one-another in order to work together towards the top-down solutions many of us on both sides understand are necessary. But as long as Governments pretend they are solving the crisis but in fact are just moving us closer to it, movements like XR will need to continue to hold the Government to account, and demonstrate that we simply won’t accept their current policies of death.

    1. Unfortunately a number of these assertions are factually inaccurate and outright untruthful.

      In addressing them, I will be principally be relying on the 2019 report of the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) (which, incidentally, was highly critical of government progress) and the original 2019 ONS report cited in the Guardian article linked by Kenward. Both the CCC are independent organisations which produce figures independently of government.

      The comment asserts that the claim that carbon emissions have decreased by 24% over the last decade – i.e. since 2010 – is due to two things: the decline of our manufacturing industry (and therefore importing CO2 from abroad) and the government fiddling the statistics. The latter is addressed by the use of independent and reliable data sources as set out above.

      The first claim is entirely false. Although historically carbon reductions domestically were less good than it appeared at face value due to an increase in ‘imported’ carbon emissions from abroad, these imports peaked in 2007, three years before the period referred to in my original statement (Figures 9 and 10 in the ONS report) and are lower today than they were then. The report clearly shows total emissions (domestic + imported) decreasing substantially since 2010. Indeed, between 2010 and 2015 (the latest year for which figures are available in the study) imported emissions were essentially flat, increasing marginally from 252MTCO2 to 258MTCO2 – by comparison, over the same period, domestic period domestic CO2 emissions decreased from 492MTCO2 to 402MTCO2. The CCC report shows how this continues to fall over the remainder of the decade.

      As the CCC and ONS report shows, the decrease since 2010 has been driven primarily by the generation sector, in particular the almost complete phase out of coal and the increase in renewables generation from under 10% of electricity in 2010 to over 30% today. Other sectors have not shown major decreases, as major efficiency gains have been balanced by increases in absolute output for little change in CO2 production overall. The lack of decline in other sectors is a large part of the CCC criticism.

      It is therefore correct to say that carbon emissions in the UK have been cut by approximately 24% over the last decade, given the independent figures confirming this and the peaking of CO2 imports in 2007. It is of course very reasonably to argue that we should be doing more: such arguments have been advanced by those on the right and the left and I personally would agree that they should – but such arguments are not aided, and are indeed undermined, by the misuse of statistics and the use of incorrect claims.

      Extinction Rebellion
      Whether or not one considers the group’s views ‘extreme’ are fundamentally a matter of opinion, so one cannot say either the commenter above or myself are incorrect. For those who wish an alternative viewpoint to that set out above, one can read the report below, written by a former Head of the Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism Command, which argues that the group meets several of the typical tests for an extremist organisation, including an explicit rejection of parliamentary democracy and an endorsement or condoning of illegal behaviour, including violence. Fundamentally though, what we call it is secondary to the more factual question of ‘have CO2 emissions decreased’, so I am content to differ on this point and will let others make up their own mind.

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