The story of Margaret Thatcher interrupting a long-running political discussion by slamming a copy of Friedrich Hayek The Constitution of Liberty on the table and declaring “this is what we believe” has entered political folklore, not least because it perfectly encapsulates both the inflexible nature of the Iron Lady and the ideological, economic and political convulsions that will grip the UK throughout the 1980s and beyond.
It makes you wonder if what’s missing from the UK government’s deeply flawed and grossly inadequate pursuit of its climate targets and upgrade agenda, is anyone up for taking the 600-page tome of yesterday from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), lay it on a table with a satisfying thump, and declare “this is what we believe”.
It would be easy at this point to simply list the litany of political failures and lack of political leadership documented by the CCC’s progress report with the almost satirical title. The lack of action on home energy efficiency that has now been evident for so long that it has become a cliché for campaigners to point it out. The continued failure to deliver large-scale industrial decarbonization projects that everyone has known about for over a decade will be necessary. Lack of any coherent strategy to address emissions from land use and agriculture. The renewables-unfriendly planning system, grid bottlenecks, and the glacial-paced nuclear pipeline. Growing fears, charging infrastructure and public and active transport networks are struggling to keep pace with exploding demand. The political cowardice contained in not politely asking the public if they could acknowledge that there is a real war and consider, perhaps, turning the thermostat down a notch and eating just a little less of meat.
These continued failures and scandals are only partially offset by the UK’s genuine success in offshore wind, the phasing out of coal power and the deployment of electric vehicles, as well as belated plans to combat against industrial emissions.
It would be just as easy to lament the tragedy of the present moment. The sight of a Prime Minister urging us to overcome our “hydrocarbon phobia” even as those same hydrocarbons are pushing the biosphere into unprecedented and dangerous territory. The madness of the G7 talking about climate action even as it signals support for new gas projects and refuses to divert land used for energy crops to help tackle the worsening global food crisis. The difficulty of arguing against new national energy projects at a time when energy security has suddenly become a real and present threat and there is a moral imperative to end Russian fossil fuel imports. The sad reality is that hopes to engineer a rapid reduction in global emissions this decade could prove to be one of many casualties of the Kremlin’s horrific assault.
But there is a more optimistic way to read the latest CCC report, and it is not even necessary to rely on the government’s increasingly tired line that at least the UK has the best record of decarbonization of all major economies.
The CCC’s analysis and the myriad of reports and studies that reflect its central findings point to a remarkably broad and robust consensus on how to accelerate the transition to net-zero emissions and the enormous benefits that would accrue from decarbonization. This consensus among political and economic leaders, as well as the public, is now so well established that it is rarely commented on, but it remains extremely important.
The net zero transition is extremely complex and contains almost infinite variables and choices, but it is always possible to overcomplicate it.
We know what is needed. A major building renovation program to achieve huge energy savings and accelerate the deployment of electric heating systems. A rapid build-up of wind and solar capacity, supported by smarter grids and energy storage systems, and a mix of nuclear, hydrogen, and possibly carbon capture and storage. Increased public transport capacity, improved active transport networks, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and continued R&D investment in low-carbon aviation and maritime technologies. An adoption of regenerative agricultural practices and moderately more planet-friendly diets that free up land for natural carbon sinks. And the development of genuine low-carbon industrial hubs based on cutting-edge carbon and hydrogen capture technologies.
The political detail of implementing these reforms may require complex changes to labyrinthine planning regulations, fiscal rules, clean energy contracts, agricultural subsidies, building codes, carbon pricing mechanisms, border tariffs and network regimes. But all of this is very much achievable, and as yesterday’s report makes clear, soaring oil and gas prices mean that an accelerated net-zero transition would lead to a 0.5% increase in GDP even before that you consider the more difficult to quantify benefits that would flow in the form of improved health outcomes, reduced climate impacts and improved industrial competitiveness.
Environmentalists have a frustrating tendency to view the response to the climate crisis through the prism of murky and alienating seminar room debates on degrowth versus sustainable development, steady-state economies and circular material flows, the role of government and the private sector, and whether environmentalism is inherently anti-human or the ultimate humanitarian project. Such debates are exciting, but they are too often hijacked by the tyranny of small differences. Regardless of the economic or philosophical model you impose on it, the net zero transition and attempt to stabilize the climate require much the same practical steps: a mix of public and private sector actions to deliver energy systems, near-zero emissions transportation and industrial, truly sustainable food production, and mechanisms to reduce remaining excess emissions.
The main thing preventing it from happening at the required pace and scale is short-term, outdated economic thinking and a lack of political courage. Almost everyone is now in agreement on the destination, they just lack the focus, discipline and bravery to properly embark on the journey, preferring instead the political comfort blanket of triangulation and populist posturing.
Of course, pretending that all that is needed is “political will” is kind of a cop. If it were easy to generate such a will, it would have already been done. Transforming the political economy can be even more difficult than transforming the real economy. Hence the increasingly palpable frustration and intemperate language of the CCC.
But one way to help break the current political and political deadlock is to keep repeating that this transition can be made, and is happening.
No country is yet close to achieving every part of the net-zero transition, no matter how often the UK government insists it is the world leader. But there’s a fascinating thought experiment to be had in imagining what an economy would look like right now if it took the best part of different countries’ net zero strategies.
An economy that boasted of the UK’s offshore wind industry and planned zero-carbon industrial hubs, French nuclear power plants, Danish heat pumps, Norway’s electric vehicle adoption rates, technology manufacturing China’s clean and epic renewable energy projects, India’s solar boom, Germany’s passive buildings, Holland’s cycle networks, South Africa’s Just Transition Partnership, energy efficiency levels in the Japan, Costa Rica’s forest protection, EU’s carbon market, Australia’s rooftop solar industry, Iceland’s direct air capture plant and the ecosystem of Silicon Valley innovation, would already be well on its way to net zero.
Such an economy would be more productive, more competitive and less exposed to fossil fuel price volatility than its peers. He would play a prominent role in the 21st century, shape the future of human civilization and push back against the march of the petro-state authoritarians. It would also be happier and healthier. Done well, the public support would be overwhelming.
This is the future that climate hawks want to see. It’s crazy that they have to fight for it.
This article first appeared as part of BusinessGreen’s overnight information email, which is available to all BusinessGreen members.