The UK committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is historic.
Written by David Newman
The announcement from the outgoing UK Prime Minister Theresa May on June 12th can be read in many ways. Politically it could be holding the future PM hostage to fortune, having to implement a policy he does not agree with whilst leaving her with a positive legacy people will remember. Practically the announcement was met with scepticism from Greenpeace who criticised that off-shoring reductions through offsets in (for example) tree planting in other countries leads to abuse of the system and weakness in monitoring. While the discredited climate sceptic from Denmark, Bjorn Lomborg, (you can read more about his discredited science here) highlights the costs rather than the benefits.
Well, let’s be clear. The announcement is historic. The UK becomes the first country to make this commitment and this is a big deal. The UK is not a small, poor, agricultural nation. It does not have thermal resources like Iceland, or fast flowing rivers like Costa Rica or sunshine 300 days a year like Morocco. It is a major industrial economy with a growing population, a cool, often wet climate and the effort to reduce emissions to net zero in just 30 years will cost a lot of money but will also require a Herculean effort both technologically and in implementation.
By making this commitment, the UK has set out its stall and challenged other industrialised nations to take the same stance. The UK will be able to use this as leverage in negotiations on trade, foreign aid, energy and transport policies wherever these arise and, yes, I am thinking of the UK as an external associate of the EU. I have read criticism (including in The Times newspaper) that the declaration is another Theresa May policy gaffe and one she should not have made as outgoing Prime minster. But, it puts the UK in a position of global leadership, and this will help UK industries export their technologies, their know-how and their experiences based upon those derived from UK policy.
There are many steps ahead along a tough and rocky pathway to net zero emissions; first, we have to get enough people on board and quickly to create momentum. We need to communicate to people across the nation how they can achieve this change, whether they are in the industry, local government or providing services. A massive and positive public education campaign is required giving the direction we need to take the reduction of energy use; greater resource efficiency; transformation of our energy and transport systems to renewable energy; agriculture and land use; and reforestation programmes. Education can be undertaken through companies and their staff as well as more public, government-run programmes. The message must be that these changes are good for our health and the health of our children.
Then we need to put into law the policies, step by step, that will compel industrial sectors to implement changes within their specific business, whether this is around transport, material use, or energy consumption. This will include; (for example) creating obligations around building standards (insulation and energy consumption); waste management (reduction, re-use and recycling); applying targets and incentives to move to renewable energy sources (wind, solar, biogas, thermal etc) accounting for these in terms of feed-in-tariffs and taxation; and making non-compliant behaviour painfully expensive through penalties and taxation.
A note here, this is nothing new. The business of Government is passing laws that force behaviour changes whether these are individual (the ban on smoking and or the use of seat belts) or collective (sewage and waste treatment and public health systems). The reason we have Governments is to enforce laws that are best for the greater good of the majority and there can be nothing more important than ensuring our survival against the onslaught of climate change. We have to reject those who think that this is an imposition in terms of personal liberty, freedom of choice, as the American right wing argue. Stopping climate change for the greater good.
Compulsion through legislation is necessary because voluntary actions and agreements will only benefit those who do not comply. First movers are in this case at a competitive disadvantage as the change will cost more than doing nothing.
In conclusion, the commitment undertaken by Prime Minister May implies a major shift in how companies will need to behave and perform. If the Government is serious, expect higher costs for fossil fuels, carbon taxation on materials, incentives to renewables, programmes financed for example in tree planting and household insulation, the extension of electric vehicles and the accompanying charging network, as well as (already announced) rules on how we manage our wastes.
We have to go beyond thinking of tackling climate change purely in terms of investment, ie. that we require a return on the funds invested in renewable energy plants. In the same way we have invested in healthcare without asking for a return on interest from the NHS, we need to think of climate change as the healthcare programme of the 21st century. Government investments from taxpayer’s money need not give capital returns but should give a return in terms of measurable mitigation and adaptation to climate change across the UK. Planting new trees costs money but gives no instant, measurable profit. Insulating buildings provides a return in lower energy costs, but it would take years to measure the financial return. My point being, the time has run out to look for a return on investment from our environment. Climate change is a matter of public interest. It requires public finance and those funds should come from charging the polluters who are causing the damage in the first place.
Twenty-five million homes need insulating by 2050 according to the Green Building Council, in order to reach climate change targets. An average cost for insulation is £15,000 a house. BP’s net profit in 2018 was about £10 billion. Do the maths. It would pay for 700,000 homes a year, enough to meet the whole 25 million targets by 2050.
It is an exciting moment to be working in the field of sustainability; finally, it seems that politics has caught up with the reality of climate change and public opinion has forced change. Those companies, like Ditto Sustainability, who are active in this sector over recent years, are positioned to provide the consultancy services companies will need to make the transformation.
Hold on to your hats, it is going to be an exciting ride!