This timely article by Alan Thornett was first published on his Ecosocialist Discussion blog.
Tory carbon reduction record shredded
The Committee on Climate Change – the British government’s statutory climate change watchdog – issued a devastating report, on June 29th, on the Britain’s ‘progress’ on its carbon reduction targets entitled Progress in Reducing Emissions – 2020 Report to Parliament. The Committee’s mandate is to scrutinise the government of the day’s progress (or otherwise) on its carbon reduction targets and report to Parliament.
The new Report comes as Europe faces its biggest heatwave ever with temperatures in the South reaching 47°C, and with wildfires sweeping across Spain, Portugal, Greece and France. In France meteorologists have warned of a ‘heat apocalypse’ as people fled their homes to escape a large wildfires that has already caused hundreds of deaths. In Britain temperatures are forecast to hit 40°C degrees for the first time in its history. China, Australia, and the USA are also facing extreme conditions.
UN chief António Guterres told ministers from 40 countries meeting at the weekend to discuss the climate crisis: “Half of humanity is in the danger zone, from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires. No nation is immune. Yet we continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction”. He added: “We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.” He is absolutely right.
The Committee on Climate Change
The Committee on Climate Change comprises a panel of 16 scientists and is chaired (remarkably) by John Gummer – now Lord Deben – who was John Major’s Tory environment secretary from 1993 to 1997.
The Report is devastating. In launching it Gummer pointed to its key conclusion, that the British government is set to default on its legally binding (and already totally inadequate) carbon reduction target of net zero by 2050. The Report, he said, had identified major failures in terms of measures that could deliver this target. “The government has willed the ends, but not the means” and its present plans will not fulfill its commitments to net zero emissions.
He went on to insist – remarkably but importantly – that this failure would not only have a negative impact on global warming but also on the escalating cost of living crisis, since net zero carbon economies are crucial to tackling that as well. Average household bills would be about £125 lower today if previous plans on green energy and energy efficiency had been followed through. “If you want to deal with the cost of living crisis, this is exactly what you need to do,” he said.
He is absolutely right. It is a factor, however, that is largely lost in the debate on the cost of living crisis in Britain, across the political spectrum and including the left. Any solution to today’s economic issues, we have to insist, must be predicated on a rapid and complete transition to zero carbon emissions and renewable energy. Anything less is a highly dangerous diversion.
Insulating the housing stock
The single biggest failure the Report identifies – in terms of practical action on energy conservation – is the complete failure in terms of the insulation (or retrofitting) of buildings, including the housing stock. Britain’s homes are the least energy efficient in western Europe. There have been repeated commitments yet absolutely nothing done – despite the heroic efforts of the Insulate Britain campaigners who have raised the profile on this issue. This goes to the heart of the problem since without retrofitting homes and buildings against heat loss we have no chance of getting anywhere near zero carbon emissions.
The situation, however, is even worse, as has been highlighted since the Report was published. It turns out that not only has nothing been done to retrofit the existing housing stock but that the vast majority of new houses are still being built under out dated regulations and are environmentally obsolete at the point of completion. This is also the case when it comes to flooding, with new housing still being built on flood plains.
The Report hits out at proposals for a new coal mine in Cumbria which Gummer said is absolutely indefensible and another example of Britain saying one thing and doing another. He also cast doubt on the viability of fracking. While the committee cannot call for a ban on it, he said, potential investors must be made aware that the government’s climate plans require gas use to be phased out in the mid-2030s, unless accompanied by carbon capture and storage (which does not work of course).
The collapse of the Johnson regime
Now we have the collapse of the Johnson government and the scramble to replace him as Prime Minister.
It is impossible not to celebrate the collapse of the corrupt and putrefying Johnson government. Johnson is a dangerous Trumpian populist, totally devoid of principle, who is prepared to do absolutely anything for personal gain – and Brexit will be weakened as a result. He responded to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by leading a new dash for fossil energy, with domestic plans for a new surge of oil and gas exploitation in the North Sea, a new coal mine, a return to fracking and a new, and major, expansion of nuclear power – a programme which trashed the verbiage he spouted on carbon reduction at COP 26 in Glasgow.
None of the candidates seeking his job, however, would represent any kind of alternative to the left of Johnson, and certainly not on the environment. They are united on two key and connected issues. They all want to be seen as representing the hardest version of Brexit available which makes them all, to one degree or another, climate deniers. They all started the campaign by talking about rowing back on climate change and in some cases talking openly (and frighteningly) about scrapping the UK’s zero carbon targets altogether – in advance of COP 27 at the end of this year. Whatever they say under pressure and through gritted teeth their position on net zero carbon emissions is clear – they do not support it. Nor is this stance spontaneous. It is driven by the right-wing zealots of the Net-Zero Scrutiny Group. (Sunak has presented himself as to the left of the rest on taxation, on the other hand he is attempting to strengthen his Brexiteer credentials.)
This opposition to net zero carbon, from all the candidates, prompted a remarkable response from a group of businesses including Amazon, Coca-Cola, Unilever and Lloyds Bank, who have called on the Tory leadership contenders to protect the net zero target for the good of the economy. They defend carbon reduction targets saying that: “We have seen first-hand that investment in low carbon infrastructure and technologies delivers huge economic benefits. Supportive policy measures bring down the costs of clean technology, enabling businesses to capitalise on growing global markets”.
Alok Sharma, who was COP 26 president and remains so until the start of COP 27, also intervened to accuse them of being ‘lukewarm’ on net zero. In fact he said that he might resign if a new British PM reneged on net zero targets. In an interview with the Observer on July 17th he said a total commitment to the net zero agenda, from whoever is to lead the country, is essential to avoid “incredible damage” to Britain’s global standing, as well as irreversible harm to the UK and international economies. I want, he said, to see candidates very proactively set out their support for our net zero agenda for green growth. Without the levies, he said, more people would be vulnerable to high bills, and there would be less renewable power, which is bringing down energy costs. “We need to very clearly understand what is actually driving the price of energy. It isn’t green levies, it is the wholesale gas price.”
We have seen nothing yet, of course, in terms of global warming. As George Monbiot pointed out in his Guardian column on July 18th “The dangerous heat England is suffering at the moment is already becoming normal in southern Europe, and would be counted among the cooler days during hot periods in parts of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, where heat is becoming a regular threat to life. It cannot now be long, unless immediate and comprehensive measures are taken, before these days of rage become the norm even in our once-temperate climatic zone.”
We are now in a very dangerous situation. The climate movement came out of Glasgow stronger than it went in but if Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is followed by a shift to the right in the Tory leadership and the repudiation of zero emissions targets all this is put at risk. COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt in November could now be fatally damaged before it starts, with disastrous consequences for the future of the planet. Instead of building on the gains of Glasgow, we could find ourselves unable to even defend them in such a situation.
This defines the role of environmental activists for the rest of this year. A defeat for Ukraine would be a defeat for the planet. We have to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people in opposing Putin’s invasion and defending their right to self-determination, and at the same time step up the mobilisation for Sharm el-Sheikh to ensure that the gains of Glasgow are not only defended but that new national pledges are made that can turn the corner on climate change and break the addiction to fossil fuel.