I remember the days when months would go by without anything much happening about climate change at all. Thinkers and doers called for stuff, politicians occasionally did a few things, but you could go on holiday for a month and come back and things were pretty much as they were. Not any more.
The last few weeks have seen what genuinely feels like a radical step change in the public consciousness around climate change – and in reactions from politicians. The Extinction Rebellion protests brought large parts of London and other cities to a standstill, dominating front pages for days. The Youth Climate Strikers, spearheaded by the formidable Greta Thunberg, have created a moral bedrock for accelerated government action. David Attenborough’s new documentary reached millions. Even the Governor of the Bank of England waded in – in no small part thanks to our work here at NEF – telling the global financial system to pull its collective finger out on climate change. And yesterday (1 May 2019) MPs passed a motion to declare an ‘environment and climate change emergency’.
Climate action is no longer underground. It’s mainstream. Two-thirds of Britons agree that we’re in serious trouble.
Image credits: Jackie Lay
With perfect timing the government’s official policy advisors, the Committee on Climate Change this morning announced that the graveness of the science means that the UK should increase its ambition by aiming for ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050. The government is set to agree to that. If you were being cynical, you might suggest that one of its reasons for doing so is that ‘net’ bit – a huge get-out-of-jail-free card that in principle allows emissions to carry on as long as equivalent emissions cuts are being made somewhere else. The world doesn’t have the space – metaphorically in terms of emissions, or actually in terms of land – for everyone to pay everyone else to cut emissions on the scale required. It’s also important to note that 2050 is still 31 years away; the kind of timescale many political terms in the future which politicians tend to be relaxed about. We may not have that long to make that sort of cut.
But for now, credit where it’s due. The most important question is how we’ll deliver the necessary unprecedented peacetime mobilisation of resources. We need to throw everything at it. There’s an increasing consensus that it won’t happen simply by sending the right signals to private markets. Even the Economist is now getting the message.
The state can’t underpin and fund the green investment we need while we’re still in a programme of austerity. We need to junk that mindset and change the outdated rules on debt and borrowing. They belong to another era, not one attempting to grapple with an epoch-defining set of environmental crises.
It’s also vital to turn the surge in public support for climate action into a mandate at the ballot box. While the Gilet Jaunes aren’t a single-issue movement, one of their central concerns is the imposition of a carbon tax on people unable to pay, while wealth taxes are getting cut. There’s no way to net zero without some kind of disruption to how we eat, travel, live and work. Policies to get us there need to be fair and seen to be fair (for an example, see a paper on plastic taxes I recently wrote).
Image credits: Dan Draper
Social justice must be at the heart of every single plan to deliver on net zero, for two reasons. Firstly it’s a matter of fairness: climate change is caused by the rich and visited upon the poor. Secondly, if people think something is unfair – be that workers in high carbon industry facing job losses, or people who rely on their diesel car for work facing fuel bill hikes – they’ll understandably resist that change. People need to feel that they can vote for policies that will tackle the climate crisis while making their lives better — or at the very least not making them worse. That’s why NEF’s proposal for a Frequent Flyer Levy – where those that fly disproportionately frequently would pay disproportionately more tax – is the kind of thing we need to see.
All of that leads back to a resurgent idea – the Green New Deal. You can read NEF’s recent pamphlet here, which sets out the tenets of a modern incarnation of the economy-wide social and environmental justice plan we jointly convened back in 2007. The only kind of response that gets us anywhere near ‘net zero’ is one driven proudly by governments, with fairness at its heart, where climate action is seamlessly meshed with a new post-Brexit economic settlement for the parts of the country that need it the most.
This article was originally published on May 2nd 2019 by New Economics Foundation on their blog neweconomics.org
Featured image via Shutterstock