What are governments ‘supposed’ to be doing to address the ecological crisis?
“There is no question we are losing biodiversity at a truly unsustainable rate that will affect human wellbeing both for current and future generations”Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
Humans rely on wildlife for food, shelter, medicines and pollination of crops (see section on why we should care about the loss of our wildlife), making biodiversity loss an emergency in its own right. But, in addition, degradation of the world’s ecosystems is also making a significant contribution to climate change. This is due to the release of greenhouse gases from ploughed soil, dried out peatlands, the burning of trees and the conversion of natural ecosystems to livestock farming and intensive agriculture – and to the subsequent reduction in their ability to capture carbon from the atmosphere. It is therefore vital that governments urgently address the ecological emergency as well as the climate crisis.
The most high profile attempt to slow species loss and damage to ecosystems is the Aichi Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity. In 2010 many countries united to draw up this 10 year plan.
The Aichi Targets were supposed to come to fruition in 2020 but most of the targets have not been achieved. There are some apparent successes, such as the rapid increase in land protected for biodiversity, but, even here, many of the new protected areas are poorly designed and are failing to protect species against harm from humans. The international community is now drawing up a new 10 year plan and there is much discussion about the details of these new targets and how to improve them. However, there is little talk about the lack of will on the part of governments to change their activities in ways that can achieve lasting change.
This attitude needs to change fast if we are to preserve a healthy natural world for future generations. After all, once a species goes extinct, it’s gone forever. If whole ecosystems collapse, it will not only be a tragic loss of some of the great wonders of the natural world, but will harm human societies for generations. As the latest IPBES report says: “Nature is essential for human existence and good quality of life. Most of nature’s contributions to people are not fully replaceable, and some are irreplaceable.”
What are governments ‘supposed’ to be doing to address the climate crisis?
“While adaptation is now urgent and there are many adaptation opportunities, climate science tells us that further warming and risk increase can only be stopped by achieving zero net greenhouse gas emissions.”McKinsey Global Institute Climate Risk and Response Report, 2020
The Paris Agreement
In 2016 the Paris Agreement was drawn up by negotiators from almost every country in the world as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Agreement commits governments “to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C.” A total of 189 countries have given their formal consent to the agreement, as well as the European Union. See section on the promises of the Paris Agreement.
Net zero by 2050
In 2018, a special report from the IPCC laid out the human costs of failing to limit heating to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The report showed that even though 1.5°C of heating is not without risk, the impacts of 2°C or more are much, much worse.
In order to have even a 50:50 chance of remaining below 1.5°C heating, the report stated that global carbon dioxide emissions must now “decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050”. This means that, by 2050, any further carbon emissions must be balanced with carbon removal.
The 2019 UN Emissions Gap Report stated that we need to start reducing emissions by 2020 at the absolute latest and that there then must be unprecedented, rapid reductions in global carbon emissions of around 8% per year from 2020 to 2030.
The longer we wait to start reducing emissions, the faster the cuts we will have to make, and / or the sooner we will have to get to net zero. In other words, every year counts.
It’s not just WHEN we get to net zero, it’s HOW
The thing is, aiming for net zero by 2050 (which we are not currently doing anyway, despite what has been promised – see section on how our governments are making the climate crisis worse, not better) is not going to be enough by itself. It is crucial that we also start reducing our emissions NOW. This is because the longer we delay on making the necessary drastic cuts in our emissions, the more we will be forced to rely on the additional use of negative emissions technologies to get us to net zero (by sucking in hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air). This is simply not realistic. For example, carbon dioxide would need to be absorbed from the air by growing bioenergy crops on an area the size of India (using already-stretched resources such as water and competing with land for growing food) and ‘carbon capture and storage’ techniques would need to be employed on an absolutely staggering scale to safely store this carbon underground.
At present, these futuristic negative emissions technologies barely exist, and we certainly do not know if it will be possible to deploy such technologies at the massive scale that is needed in time. Even the experts have divided opinions, and studies show that, in some cases, they might even lead to more carbon dioxide being emitted than being drawn in. Indeed, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council warned in a report in 2018: “Negative emission technologies may have a useful role to play but, on the basis of current information, not at the levels required to compensate for inadequate mitigation measures”.
If we rely on our ability to use such technologies in the future, we risk backing our children into a corner now that they can’t get out of. According to the Precautionary Principle, betting the safety of future generations on negative emission technologies that do not currently exist is a disastrous diversion from making the necessary cuts to emissions NOW. (See section on not worth the risk: why we need to apply the Precautionary Principle).
Even the scenario proposed by the UN Emissions Gap Report – that of reducing emissions by 2020 at the absolute latest followed by rapid reductions in global carbon emissions of around 8% per year from 2020 to 2030 – still relies on the use of some negative emissions technologies in the second half of the century. If instead we want to play it safer and not assume that these and other future technologies will be able to draw in and store carbon, we will need to start reducing emissions right now even faster than the UN suggested – more like by 15% every year.
And all of this is to give us just a 50:50 chance of staying below 1.5°C heating.
Why net zero by 2050 isn’t actually fast enough
Even if we start reducing emissions now and get to net zero by 2050, that only gives us a 50:50 chance of staying below 1.5°C heating. What if we want a two in three chance?
For a 66% chance of staying below 1.5°C heating, as of January 2018 we only had 420 gigatons of global carbon budget left to emit. As of July 2020, that figure is down to 310 gigatons – and shrinking fast. At today’s rates of emissions, we will have entirely exhausted that remaining carbon budget in less than eight years from now.
In fact, the IPCC recommends shrinking the global carbon budget even further, by an additional 100 gigatons, to account for the long-term risk of carbon feedback loops and tipping points (see sections on feedback loops and tipping points). This would give us far less time, meaning that at the current rate of emissions we would use up the budget for a 66% chance of staying below 1.5°C heating in more like five years.
The bottom line is that the better a shot we want at a safe climate for our children, the smaller the carbon budget we have left, and the faster the emission cuts that are required. And the more we drag our heels and delay in making the necessary cuts to emissions now, the steeper the cuts we will have to make in the future.
Why richer countries need to get to net zero MUCH sooner than 2050
It is important to be aware that the discussion so far has been talking about how fast average global emissions need to come down. But the thing is, we are not all equally responsible for climate change. The wealthiest 10% of the world’s population are responsible for over 50% of the current emissions, whereas the poorest 50% are only responsible for 10% of emissions. It therefore makes sense that most of the cuts in carbon emissions and resource consumption should be done by the richer sections of societies across the world. Indeed, if developed nations such as the UK, EU, US, China and India were all to aim for net zero by 2050, together they would use up so much of the remaining budget that the rest of the world would not be able to produce any carbon dioxide at all after around 2030. Instead, richer countries need to be aiming for net zero much sooner than this.
Plus, not only do richer countries have a disproportionately higher level of emissions today, but they also have the biggest historic responsibility. This is because carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere (see section on greenhouse gases), so what a country emitted in the past matters as much as what they are emitting today.
It’s also important to realise that many of the countries that have done the least to cause climate change will face the worst impacts. This brings us to the idea of ‘climate justice’ – whereby those most responsible for climate change support those most vulnerable to its impacts, so that those who are least responsible for the problems don’t end up having to pay to fix them. This is true both within countries and between countries. Indeed, many low-income countries that have done little to cause climate change are already suffering from some of its most devastating impacts. These countries need our support NOW, and will need our further support to adapt to what is coming.
These issues lead to the concept of climate equity, in which countries need to address climate change “in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions”. In other words, climate equity dictates that richer countries should decarbonise faster and help low income countries transition to a low carbon technology without first having to build new fossil fuel infrastructure. Plus, it is unrealistic to expect low- and middle-income countries to decarbonise if they don’t think the high-income countries are pulling their weight. This principle of climate equity is enshrined within the Paris Agreement, but it has too often been neglected.
Recent research by Professor Kevin Anderson has shown that if we properly take equity into account (to ensure a “fair” split of total global carbon emissions), and do not rely on negative emissions technologies, the absolute minimum that richer countries such as the UK or Sweden need to be doing to meet the Paris Agreement is to get to zero emissions by 2035-2040. This would require over 10% reductions per year, and, crucially, is an awful lot sooner than the recent 2050 target that the UK signed up to. And even that will only give us a measly 1 in 3 chance of staying below 1.5°C.
If we want to also aim for a more ambitious target of a 2 in 3 chance of staying below 1.5°C heating, a recent report concluded that the UK and other high-income countries should be aiming for net zero emissions around 2025, in line with Extinction Rebellion’s Second Demand.
As Professor Kevin Anderson says; “Very sadly, I think XR [Extinction Rebellion] and indeed much of the language forthcoming from the Youth Climate Strikes, is more in line with the science and commitments enshrined in the Paris Agreement than the public statements made by many climate academics.”
How our governments are making the climate crisis worse, not better!
Not only are governments not doing everything in their power to bring global greenhouse gas emissions down in line with the Paris Agreement, they are supporting further increases in emissions.
Whilst it is true that some climate policies have indeed been implemented over the past few years and it is therefore hoped that the absolute worst-case scenarios are now less likely, according to the latest UN Emissions Gap Report the government policies in place right now are so woefully inadequate that they do not leave us in a much better position than if we had no policies in place at all. Global carbon emissions continue to shoot up and the situation is getting worse not better.
It’s important to note here that whilst there has been a recent drop in emissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the short term effects on climate will be minimal and unless concerted effort is taken to stop fossil fuel development in the recovery period it will only be a temporary dip in a long-term upward trend.
Emissions from shipping and aviation are on course to reach dangerous levels
A recent report from Climate Action Tracker (a collaboration between German-based Climate Analytics and the New Climate Institute that measures government action against the “safe” target set by the Paris Agreement), revealed that emissions from the international shipping and aviation sectors are on course to reach dangerous levels – as determined by the Paris Agreement. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, shipping and aviation accounted for around 5% of all emissions, yet by 2050 these sectors are forecast to contribute a whopping 40%.
The report found that whilst shipping emissions will drop by 18-35% in 2020 due to the pandemic, by 2030 the industry could return to pre-Covid levels, and that the shipping industry is already likely to exceed its own 2030 climate target and soar above its 2050 goal.
Bill Hare, CEO and Senior Scientist at Climate Analytics, told Reuters: “There is tremendous potential for the international shipping industry to decarbonise completely and reach zero emissions by 2050, yet there is very little sign of this sector is moving anywhere near fast enough.”
The report also warned that, in spite of the fact that emissions due to air travel have dropped by 45-60% due to the pandemic, aviation emissions are forecast to double or even triple over the whole 2015-2050 period.
Governments are still subsidising fossil fuels
“What we are doing [with fossil fuel subsidies] is using taxpayers’ money – which means our money – to boost hurricanes, to spread droughts, to melt glaciers, to bleach corals. In one word: to destroy the world.”António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), “fossil fuels account for 85% of all global subsidies,” and reducing these subsidies “would have lowered global carbon emissions by 28% and fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46%, and increased government revenue by 3.8% of GDP.”
Yet despite repeated pledges to end fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, governments from the seven largest advanced economies in the world continue to provide at least US$100 billion each year to support the production and consumption of oil, gas and coal. Globally, these energy sources get more than $370 billion a year in support, compared with $100 billion for renewable energy sources.
Indeed, rather than being phased out – as called for by international institutions such as the G20, the International Energy Agency, and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and The European Union – fossil fuel subsidies are actually increasing. A report from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that, in 2017, global fossil fuel subsidies were $5.2 trillion (that’s 6.5% of global GDP), up by half a trillion from 2015. (It’s important to note though that these particular subsidies include ‘externalities’ – such as climate damages, and health care costs.) An Overseas Development Institute study found that, from 2014 to 2017, global subsidies for coal-fired power increased almost three-fold, to $47.3 billion per year.
The largest subsidisers are China ($1.4 trillion in 2015), the United States ($649 billion) and Russia ($551 billion). European Union subsidies are estimated to total 55 billion euros annually. A report from the European Commission in 2019 found that the UK has the biggest fossil fuel subsidies of the whole of the European Union (see section on what the UK government is doing to make emissions worse).
Governments are approving NEW fossil fuel projects
“For policy makers who think of climate change as a long-term future issue this should be a wake-up call. Whether we succeed or fail in containing warming to 2°C is determined by what we do now, not in future decades.”Professor Cameron Hepburn of Oxford University
There is enough carbon embedded in already-operating oil, gas and coalfields to take us way beyond 2°C heating, let alone 1.5°C. Indeed, the total greenhouse gas emissions that we are already committed to if we use our existing fossil fuel infrastructure for as long as it was designed for is enough to exceed our carbon budgets. According to a recent study: “no new emitting electricity infrastructure can be built after 2017 for this [2°C] target to be met, unless other electricity infrastructure is retired early or retrofitted with carbon capture technologies”.
What this means is that, if we are to meet the Paris Agreement, not only must we not build any new fossil fuel infrastructure, but also some of our existing infrastructure will need to be retired early – a financial risk that has not been properly priced by investors. Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England, has warned “the exposure of U.K. investors, including insurance companies, to these shifts is potentially huge.”
In recent years, the use of coal has been going down globally, but total carbon dioxide emissions have continued to rise due to increased burning of oil and gas instead. Compared to coal, oil and gas do indeed release about 50% less carbon dioxide per unit of energy when they burn, but if energy usage goes up we can still see an overall increase in emissions. In addition, there is the problem of methane leakage from the oil and gas industry, which somewhat offsets the benefit of switching over to using them. Methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas (see section on greenhouse gases) and, for some very badly managed fracking sites, this can actually be worse for the environment than burning coal.
Despite all this, according to an NGO Global Witness report in April 2019, over the next decade the global oil and gas industry are planning on spending a further $4.9 trillion on exploration and extraction. Indeed, a September 2019 report revealed that global oil and gas companies have approved about $500 billion investment in major projects that undermine the climate targets of the Paris Agreement – around one tenth of the $5 trillion being spent over next decade. The study found that “no major oil company is investing to support its goals of keeping global warming “well below” 2°C and to “pursue efforts” to limit it to a maximum of 1.5°C.”
Some fossil fuel companies say they plan to offset their emissions by preserving, replanting or growing new forests. Whilst it’s true that we now need to urgently see massive reforestation and peat restoration programmes (as they are the only large-scale carbon capture processes currently available to us), these need to be done in parallel with massive cuts in fossil fuel carbon emissions, not as an offset for business as usual. According to the IPCC, even if we were to plant a whopping one billion hectares (10 million square km) of new forest – that’s an area of forest the size of the United States of America comprising more than one trillion trees – we’d still need to be reducing emissions to net zero by 2050 if we want even a 50:50 chance of keeping global heating below 1.5°C. Plus, some of the proposed tree-planting schemes risk damage to other ecosystems – for example, planting non-native trees in plantations on the Brazilian Cerrado rather than mixed native woodlands. As Professor Simon Lewis put it: “The use of forests as an offset is largely a marketing tool for companies to try to continue with business as usual.”
Banks are financing the fossil fuel industry
Bank financing of fossil fuels has actually INCREASED every year since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016. Since then, the world’s 35 leading investment banks have invested a colossal $2.7 trillion (£2.2 trillion) in the fossil fuel industry. The US bank JP Morgan Chase has been the largest financier of fossil fuels since the Agreement, providing over £220bn of financial services to extract oil, gas and coal. UK-based Barclays and HSBC have invested a whopping £158 billion in fossil fuel industries since the Paris Agreement, making them the worst offenders in Europe. In 2018 alone, $654 billion was spent funding fossil fuels, with the three worst UK banks investing $110 billion between them (see section on what the UK government is doing to make emissions worse).
The way that governments invest money in emerging from the coronavirus crisis is crucial
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has calculated that governments are planning to spend $9tn (£7.2tn) globally in the next few months on rescuing their economies from the coronavirus crisis. According to Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, the stimulus packages created this year will determine the shape of the global economy for the next three years, and within that time emissions must start to fall sharply and permanently, or climate targets will be out of reach. We are at a crossroads and governments have to act now.
Is the UK government doing enough?
“The concern is whether we will spend another decade doing worthy things but not enough… and we will blow through the 1.5°C mark very quickly. As a consequence, the climate will stabilise at the much higher level.”Mark Carney, former Governor of The Bank of England
Climate scientists and activists in the UK often get asked: “But I’ve heard that carbon emissions are already falling here in the UK, doesn’t that mean that the UK government is already doing enough?”
In a word, no.
UK emissions are falling – but only in some sectors
Firstly, it should be clarified that the UK has indeed seen a reduction in emissions over the past decade (30% over 11 years) but that’s been almost entirely due to reductions in the power sector, plus some small reductions in the industry and waste sectors.
Even in the power sector, the reduction in emissions is not entirely down to switching to renewable energy sources. In fact, the main reason that emissions have been falling is because over the past few decades we have been switching over from burning coal to burning mostly gas. In the last decade, even gas usage has dropped by 20% and coal burning has gone down by almost 80%, as renewables have started to play a larger part in the UK’s energy mix. Whilst this is good news, it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. We are now reaching the limits of the emissions cuts that can be delivered through reductions in the power sector. If we are going to reduce emissions at the rate we need to, other sectors now need to play their part too.
Yet progress there has been painfully slow. Outside of the power sector, land transport emissions have stayed the same for the past 10 years and buildings emissions have only fallen by a tiny amount, just 14% over 12 years. This is not likely to get any better, as houses are still being built that are supplied by fossil fuels and will need retrofitting to run without them: a whopping one million such homes have been built in the last 12 years.
The bottom line is that emissions don’t just urgently need to fall across all sectors – including land transport, buildings aviation, shipping, and agriculture and land use – but they need to fall by far more than they are currently doing.
UK figures don’t account for aviation, shipping or embedded emissions
The other issue is that the UK’s official carbon accounting figures only refer to our territorial emissions – those generated here in the UK.
Firstly, they do not include carbon emissions due to shipping or aviation, which each have a huge impact on global warming. Indeed, internationally these sectors are on track to take us to dangerous levels of warming, despite short-term reductions due to the coronavirus pandemic. See section on emissions from shipping and aviation.
Secondly, the UK’s official carbon accounting figures don’t take into account emissions contained within the goods we import, caused by their manufacture overseas and their transport to the UK – so-called embedded emissions from trade. These emissions have an enormous impact on global emissions. For example, 50% of our food is imported, and 70-80% of our fruit and vegetables. Some reports even suggest that, if we include the imported ingredients in products that are processed in the UK, up to 80% of all our food relies on foreign imports. Not to mention fast fashion and electrical goods. Not only do these imported goods produce huge amounts of fossil fuel emissions when they are being made or harvested, they also produce even more emissions when they are transported to the UK, often by air.
A staggering 90% of UK emissions associated with the consumption of manufactured products are embedded within them, so only 10% goes into our official carbon accounting figures. 8% of the UK embedded emissions for manufactured products come from China.
In October 2019 the Office for National Statistics reported the UK had become the biggest net importer of carbon dioxide emissions per capita in the G7 group of wealthy nations – outstripping the US and Japan – as a result of buying goods manufactured abroad. According to a World Wildlife Fund report, nearly half of the UK’s carbon footprint comes from emissions released overseas.
UK emissions are not falling nearly fast enough
Overall, the UK has seen a 30% reduction in territorial emissions over the past 11 years, which works out at just over 3% each year. If we include imported emissions, UK emissions have reduced by 18% over 9 years, which is just over 2% per year.
However, if we want to get to global net zero by 2050 (which would still only give us a 50:50 chance of staying below 1.5°C heating), we now need to see an 8% reduction in global emissions every year. And even that figure still relies on the use of negative emissions technologies that barely exist, so we should really be reducing global emissions far faster than this (see section how we get to net zero emissions by 2050). Plus in the UK and other wealthy nations, we need to be reducing emissions even faster (see section on why richer countries need to get to net zero MUCH FASTER than 2050).
The UK government is missing its own targets
The UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is an independent, statutory body whose role is to advise the government on climate change and to report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change. In May 2019 the CCC had given recommendations to the UK government that in order to reach the Paris Agreement and global net zero carbon by 2050, the UK must get to net zero total greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A few months later, in July 2019, the CCC released a damning report that warned that, in spite of Parliament declaring a climate emergency, the government was failing to cut emissions fast enough. It found that, over the previous year, the government had delivered just 1 of 25 critical policies needed to get emissions reductions back on track and that only 7 out of 24 indicators showing underlying progress were on track.
At the time, the CCC chairman Lord Deben, told the BBC: “The whole thing is really run by the government like a Dad’s Army. We can’t go on with this ramshackle system.” The Committee, as well as other departments such as the Ministry of Defence, warned that action must be taken across all branches and levels of government. The government was accused of utter hypocrisy in Parliament declaring a “climate emergency” in 2019 but the UK government still failing to meet its own targets for reducing emissions and instead investing in MORE fossil fuel infrastructure in other countries (see section on how the UK government is making things worse, not better).
Yet, one year down the road, the latest report from the CCC, published in July 2020, revealed another staggering failure of the government to listen to its own advisors and to meet its own targets. The new CCC report showed that, of the 21 key indicators to show progress towards meeting carbon budgets and the 2050 target, only 4 were on track. Not only that, but of the 31 milestones for actions recommended by the CCC last year in order to get to net zero by 2050, only 2 had been fully achieved and there had been partial progress on 15, with the other 14 showing no progress.
The report also stated that the carbon budgets that the UK had put in place are not consistent with getting to net zero by 2050, and that we need to see much steeper reductions in emissions. Indeed, we’ve been off track to meet the fourth and fifth carbon budgets (2023-2032) for four years now, which were only going to take us towards an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 anyway, not even net zero.
What’s also worrying is that a recent survey carried out by the Electrical Contractors’ Association revealed that, despite their climate pledges, many English councils do not even know how much energy they use and therefore how much carbon they produce. ECA energy adviser Luke Osborne said the findings were “highly concerning” and that without immediate changes, “it is inconceivable that councils are going to become carbon neutral in less than 30 years.”
According to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, another government advisory body, the UK is also set to miss 14 out of 19 of its biodiversity targets for 2020.
Not only is the government failing to cut emissions fast enough, but it is also failing to put in place measures needed to adapt to rising temperatures – to prepare our homes, businesses and natural environment for a hotter world. In the 2019 CCC report, of 33 key sectors assessed by the Committee, not a single one showed good progress when it came to managing climate change risk. A year later, the 2020 report warned that, yet again, not a single sector had demonstrated resilience for a 2°C hotter world, a temperature we are projected to be hitting around 2050 (see section on how hot it is likely to get and when). Terrifyingly, the report also stated that a governmental priority should now be preparing us for the possibility of a 4°C hotter world, a situation that, in 2008, the CCC had advised the government was the threshold of “extreme danger”, to be avoided at all costs.
The 2020 report also warned that even though we have seen a temporary drop in emissions due to COVID-19, we mustn’t use this as an excuse to ramp up emissions again. Indeed, it is the total accumulated emissions over time that matters, not how much in any one year, and if we make this period just a blip and emissions recover it will have made almost no difference in the long run. We need to cut our emissions by far more than this every year. The report stated that the next few months “have huge significance”, and that if we prioritise the economy without thinking about climate change we could be locking ourselves into even higher emissions in the long term.
The UK needs to be getting to net zero by 2025, not 2050
Even if we were on track to meet the UK government’s commitment to get to net zero emissions by 2050 (a target that only accounts for emissions generated on our own territory, sweeping under the carpet all emissions from imported goods, and that, even if it was met globally, would still only give the world a 50:50 chance of staying below 1.5°C heating), which we’re clearly not, it’s important to realise this would still give the UK a much larger share of the global carbon budget than other countries.
Not only does the UK emit more than twice as much per person than the global average (vastly more if we take into account shipping, aviation and imports), Britain ranks fifth highest globally in terms of its historical emissions. In addition, as a wealthy nation, we have the capability to be able to turn our economy around and decarbonise more rapidly than most other countries. So, in order to give global carbon net zero 2050 a good chance of actually being achieved, many climate scientists now agree that the UK should really be getting to net zero much sooner than 2050, a concept known as “carbon equity”. See section on why richer countries need to get to net zero MUCH FASTER than 2050.
Indeed, a recent report concluded that if we assume a “fair” split of total global carbon emissions, acknowledging the higher emissions and greater historical responsibility of the UK, avoiding reliance on negative emissions technologies and aiming for a more ambitious target of a 2 in 3 chance of staying below 1.5°C of heating, the UK needs to get net zero emissions by around 2025 to stay within our allocated budget – in line with Extinction Rebellion’s Second Demand.
The UK government is making things worse, not better!
The UK government is subsidising fossil fuels
The UK government spends a huge amount of money in fossil fuel subsidies – measures put in place to keep fossil fuel prices for consumers below market levels, or for producers above market levels, or to reduce such costs for consumers and producers. According to a report from the European Commission in 2019, the UK has the biggest fossil fuel subsidies of the whole of the EU – whereas subsidies and incentives have been reduced for renewable energy technologies. The report found that the UK spends £10.5 billion a year supporting fossil fuel companies in the UK, significantly more than the £7.3 billion a year it spends supporting renewable energy. It should be noted that the government argues that this ‘financial support’ is not technically a ‘subsidy’.
In October 2019, official government records (released through a freedom of information request) revealed that the UK government plans to spend £1 billion supporting a fracking company in Argentina – money that the government had previously committed to spending on green energy.
Another government report published in June 2019 found that over the past five years, the UK has spent £2.5 billion on fossil fuel projects – the vast majority being in low- and middle-income countries. Analysis by the investigative environmental journalism outlet DeSmog UK found that in 2018 alone, Britain increased its support for fossil fuel projects overseas to almost £2 billion – an eleven fold increase over the previous year – whilst support for renewable energy fell to £700,000.
In October 2019, the UK government was accused of “utter hypocrisy” by environmental campaign group Global Witness after it rejected calls from MPs to stop spending billions on overseas fossil fuel projects while claiming to be a leader in the fight against global heating. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee warned the UK government that it is sabotaging its climate credentials by paying out “unacceptably high” oil and gas subsidies in developing nations.
The UK government is approving NEW fossil fuel projects
Not only are UK emissions not being cut nearly fast enough, but the government has also recently approved exploitation of new oil fields in The North Sea, and the opening of four new gas-fired turbines at Drax power station – in spite of a ruling from its Planning Inspectorate that they should be blocked due to their impact on climate change.
The opening of the Woodhouse Colliery has also been approved, a new coal mine in Cumbria that will produce up to 8.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year for 50 years. That’s more than double the current emissions from the whole of Cumbria, which are currently 3.79 million tonnes per year. And then there’s HS2, a project that has been described as one of the largest deforestation programmes since the First World War, set to destroy a total of 108 ancient carbon-storing woodlands and damage or destroy almost 700 precious wildlife sites. Of major concern is also the fact that the railway is set to emit huge quantities of carbon emissions which would take us further away from our supposed commitment to reduce emissions. Indeed, the initial environmental assessment for the project was published in 2013, before the government signed up to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
UK banks are investing in fossil fuels
In addition, a whopping 15% of global carbon emissions result from investments made through the City of London – one of the world’s largest financial centres for fossil fuel corporations. Nine of the world’s top fossil fuel investors of the last three years have global or national headquarters in the City of London. UK-based Barclays and HSBC are the worst offenders in Europe, having invested a staggering £158 billion in fossil fuel industries since the Paris Agreement in 2016.
UK banks, coal and oil corporations are expected to be contributing around 15% of the further $4.9 trillion thatthe global oil and gas industry are planning on spending over the next decade on exploration and extraction in new fields.
But the UK only emits 1.5% of the world’s carbon, shouldn’t we be focusing our efforts elsewhere?
Another thing climate scientists and activists are often asked is: “Why are you bothering targeting the UK government when the UK only produces 1.5% of the world’s carbon emissions?”
Well firstly, 1.5% of global carbon emissions still works out at around twice as much emissions per UK person as the global average (because the UK only has approximately 0.8% of the global population). But, perhaps more importantly, there’s also an awful lot that our official 1.5% doesn’t include. For example, as discussed earlier, the UK’s official carbon accounting figures do not include carbon emissions due to shipping or aviation, which each have a huge impact on global warming. Plus, this 1.5% only represents our territorial emissions – those generated here in the UK. It’s vital that we realise that the impact the UK is having on global emissions is not primarily due to these emissions, but to the huge quantity of embedded emissions that are produced in the manufacture and transport of the food and materials we import from overseas (see section on embedded emissions).
Whichever way you look at it, the UK’s emissions, subsidies and investments are making a huge contribution to global carbon dioxide levels and are not falling anywhere close to fast enough in order for the world to reach net zero by 2050.
Ultimately, every 1% of carbon emissions matters. In fact, every fraction of a percentage matters. Arguments that try to make the case that the emissions from a particular sector or country don’t matter because they are such a small part of the total, are an example of ‘whataboutism’ – excuses given to avoid or delay the need to reduce emissions.
No more excuses. We have to act now.