How to save the planet

Solving climate change needn't wreck the economy. In fact, it's the smartest way to fix it
June 10, 2019

“I want you to act like the house is on fire,” 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has urged us. On the face of it, the UK parliament just has. On 1st May it declared “an environment and climate emergency.” Proposed by Labour, not contested by the Conservatives, passed without opposition. It felt like a big deal.

The last “state of emergency” is outside most people’s memory—it was declared in the early 1970s, in response to industrial strife. But unlike that emergency, no special powers have yet been put in place, nothing has changed on our streets, no legislation has been passed and the House of Commons has returned to its becalmed state, for now a sideshow to the Tory leadership contest. This muted response to an alarm that we ourselves have sounded symbolises the challenge we face.

All sensible people can agree that climate change is real, and that the consequences of not acting will be devastating. That’s why the historic Paris Accord of 2015 set a goal of keeping temperature rises “well below 2 degrees” while “pursuing efforts” to keep them below 1.5 degrees. But these goals are not yet matched by the pledges of individual countries which, even if implemented, would mean something like 3 degrees of warming by 2100.

The consequences of this would unimaginably and dramatically alter our world. The last time the Earth was three degrees hotter was in the Pliocene era, three million years ago, long before humans inhabited the planet. Sea levels were 10-20 metres higher and forests went to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. In these conditions, deadly heatwaves would stalk much of the world with many places facing drought and potentially killer floods. The world would potentially have to grapple with large-scale climate migration. Conflict over land and water would be hard to avoid. And given the potential of feedback loops that kick in at some unknown point, as polar caps melt and methane escapes from previously frozen land, it could be too late for humanity to pull the planet back from the brink.

"The last time the Earth was long before humans inhabited the planet"

Astonishingly, we now know that half of all global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have come in the last 30 years. In other words, we have done more damage in the few decades when we have known what we were doing, than we did in the centuries when we didn’t have a clue.

On the timetable of last year’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, there are now only 11 years left on the clock to take decisive action. We need a 45 per cent cut in global emissions—an indicator, by the way, that is still rising—to have a chance of meeting 1.5 degrees. This is why the legendary US climate activist Bill McKibben says, “winning slowly is the same as losing.”

It isn’t only school strikers and Extinction Rebellion protesters who get this: the expert Climate Change Committee, set up under the Climate Change Act that I steered through Parliament in 2008, recently proposed toughening the targets set out under the same legislation, so that we reach net greenhouse gas emissions of zero by 2050. This is essential if we are to have a chance of meeting the Paris goals.

But setting targets is one thing; hitting them quite another. And in Britain, there is a temptation to coast because our recent record looks good by international standards: renewables have grown to provide 33 per cent of our electricity and our power systems have just had their first coal-free fortnight since the industrial revolution. Indeed, total emissions have now fallen to the levels of the 1880s—and no, that isn’t a typo.

There are real achievements here—most particularly breaking the link between growth and emissions. But away from the power sector—in agriculture, buildings, transport—there has been less progress, sometimes none at all. And much of the pollution has been outsourced, as can be seen by comparing emissions from the goods we consume with those we produce (see below).

The hard part of transformation lies ahead. Switching from coal power stations to gas and renewable alternatives is one thing. Changing the way we insulate and heat tens of millions of homes, and taking 40m petrol and diesel vehicles off our roads is quite another. The requirement now is for dramatic changes to how we live, how we move, what we eat and how we use our land. We haven’t achieved anything like it in peacetime before—and there is no hope whatsoever of it being done through business as usual.

But here’s the prize. Facing up to the need to defend the planet can also provide the opportunity to do something Britain has long been crying out for—the chance to finally make a lopsided economy work for the country as a whole.

The lure of timidity

The great political challenge is that the climate issue defies the conventional demands of successful democratic politics—policies which produce clear and near-immediate results. While China has its own appalling pollution problems, Beijing—unburdened by any need to consult or persuade—is stealing a march on us by investing in the industries of tomorrow. It already has more wind capacity than the whole of the European Union; it is the world leader in renewable energy patents and, remarkably, runs 421,000 of the world’s 425,000 electric buses.

To catch up and compete, those of us committed to making the green transformation democratically must urgently win over hearts and minds. Don’t assume it will be easy. The difficulties were driven home by elections on the other side of the world a couple of weeks after the UK parliament’s emergency declaration. Bill Shorten, leader of the Australian Labor Party, ran on a platform of acting on climate, but lost to Scott Morrison, who told school climate strikers to get back to class, once brought a lump of coal to parliament and argued that any action would destroy jobs. Australia—far more than Britain—already faces clear dangers from climate change: killer heat, floods and the destruction of its greatest wonder, the Great Barrier Reef. Yet voters rallied against the threat of action, not inaction.

In the UK, Brexit is too easy an excuse for our drift. Let’s not kid ourselves: even without it, climate change would not be anywhere near our top priority. No political leader (me included) has consistently voiced the scale of the challenge while at the helm. When difficult choices have been faced between economic gain and environmental protection, the latter loses out. The long-running saga of the third runway at Heathrow illustrates the point.

In 2009, I was convinced it was the wrong choice but lost a fraught argument inside government. Amid the wrangling, we were able to make the UK the first country in the world to set a target for aviation emissions, but on the practical question—with its dreadful symbolism—the economy trumped the environment, with the help of the argument that the UK couldn’t make a difference on its own: “if we don’t take the hub flights, Amsterdam will.”

The Conservatives were against Heathrow in opposition, but after five years in government they succumbed to the same thinking and pressure from business, and flipped.

Part of the problem is that on the face of it, the most important gains from taking the right decisions today will be enjoyed not by us, but by our great grandchildren. Putting food on the table, getting treated in hospital, worrying about your son or daughter’s prospects seem more immediate, and fixable concerns. When push comes to shove—and you’re forced to choose between ecology and the economy—it’s easy for the planet to feel like a luxury concern.

Then there is also the mismatch between national politics and an inherently global problem. Our potential next prime minister Boris Johnson dismisses Extinction Rebellion by joshing that they should be protesting in China. Set against this global problem, there has also been a tendency to talk about the solutions in overly individualistic terms. People are made to feel it is up to them and yet they wonder if their own contribution is so small that there is no point in changing, or whether they can afford to make the change. All this engenders apathy, and also misses the point that everything turns on big decisions by society as a whole.

It is choices by government that will determine whether we make a transition affecting the fabric of all our homes, and how long we can keep driving our current cars. In other words, system change is needed to facilitate individual change.

It’s not about creating “better people,” but making it possible for people to change. Half the cars bought last year in Norway were electric, as against just 2 per cent here. Why? Not because Norwegians are innately greener, but because they’ve put right the infrastructure and incentives in place.

Finding the right words is important, as Alice Bell explains in this month's issue of Prospect. However, we also need to shift the whole story: from a tale of sacrifice and blame to a vision of hope and common endeavour. We need to demonstrate that action won’t just benefit society later, it will benefit us all in the here and now. But how?

Shifting the story

The starting point is a recognition that it is not only the way we treat our environment, but also the way that we run our economy that has been unsustainable, as has been plain since the financial crisis. In the UK, average wages have been squeezed for longer than at any time since the Napoleonic war, and—as the Nobel laureate Angus Deaton’s major new inequalities review is highlighting—a nexus of social problems is pushing up “deaths of despair.” This inequality question and the accompanying cost of living crisis were big themes of my leadership of the Labour Party in the period up to 2015. It is striking now that these ideas, once controversial, are broadly accepted across the spectrum. They were echoed in Theresa May’s first words on the Downing Street steps about “burning injustices,” and the complaint of at least a chunk of the Conservative Party today is that she didn’t follow through on them.

But what nobody has successfully done, including me, is to join the dots between this economic failure and the climate crisis. This was—and is—an enormous missed opportunity. We can build the public support for the deep and decades-long economic transformation that the planet needs, only if we at the same time rewrite Britain’s unravelling social contract. It can no longer be a case of “we need to tackle climate change, and of course, all the other issues”: this is the issue, around which all other issues must revolve, and through which all our other social problems—particularly inequality—must be solved.

There is precedent in our history. Just as the collective endeavour of defending a nation in the Second World War provided the occasion for previous generations to forge a fairer and more prosperous society, so too the collective endeavour of defending and repairing our planet can provide our chance to do the same. For a time after 1945, the spirit was: “we’ve won the war, now let’s win the peace.” The link between the two halves of that was more than rhetorical. The necessities of wartime had required that the unthinkable be thought in myriad ways. The country’s sense of the possible was expanded and demobilisation freed up resources, which were set to work building a new welfare state.

Across the Atlantic a dozen years earlier, Franklin Roosevelt was installed as president with a mission to—in his own words—“wage a war against the emergency [of the Depression]” just as though “we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” The figurative enemy was a ruined economy—the Dust Bowl, soup kitchens, boarded up banks—much as a ruined ecology moves into view as the enemy today. Roosevelt launched his New Deal with an imaginative flair. The basic aim was simply putting people to work, but they were employed with real vision. For example, through the Civilian Conservation Corps youngsters were set to plant trees, build shelters and stock lakes with fish, activities which made many of the great American national parks what they are today. Beyond the economic effects, the New Deal taught Americans how to hope again, although it is now rightly criticised as very much favouring white Americans and even reinforcing segregation.

A Green New Deal

The phrase “Green New Deal” is a shorthand for the approach we need: tackling climate change through a great civil mobilisation of people into purposeful work. It was coined in Britain, under the auspices of the New Economic Foundation a decade ago, although the time didn’t prove right. In fighting the Great Recession, the Labour government only dipped its toes in green water, for example with a programme of insulation. With many jobs on the line, more of the stimulus was focussed on cutting VAT, a proven way to get Britons spending at speed. But looking back, it’s hard not to regret that we weren’t more imaginative. Some of our actions then—such as the car scrappage scheme—now rank as missed opportunities. Yes, the new cars being subsidised were lower in emissions than the old bangers they replaced, but how much better placed might the UK car industry be today if all the resources had gone into getting ahead of curve on battery-powered cars and infrastructure?

Now, however, the Green New Deal is back, thanks in part to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old phenomenon who rebelled against the Democratic establishment to get nominated for her seat, and who is barely six months into her first Congressional term. After the failed “cap and trade” legislation and technocratic arguments of the Obama years, which were never enough to inspire idealists, nor—more pragmatically—to see off the forces of ruin, Ocasio-Cortez has seized on the need for a more visionary way ahead.

It is time to bring the Green New Deal home. I am co-chairing a new IPPR commission with Green MP Caroline Lucas, former Conservative MP Laura Sandys and people from science, business, the youth movement and trade unions to develop a detailed plan. Our report will be out next year, but we already have a sense of the principles.

The vision is to create meaningful work for people across our country, especially in areas that have for too long been locked out of prosperity. It is to have an industrial strategy that puts Britain at the forefront of the green transformation. And it is to use that transformation not merely to avert disaster, but also to help people enjoy better lives.

As with a campaign of war, our figurative fight to save the planet must be planned across a number of fronts. There will be mobile divisions, a land war, but let’s start with the home front: changing the way we insulate and heat buildings, including 27m homes across Britain. Almost one fifth of UK emissions come from the way we heat our homes—decarbonising each of them is a task that must be completed within 30 years. The Climate Change Committee estimates this gargantuan task will cost £15bn each year. It starts with insulation but must also involve switching off every gas boiler and shifting to renewable heat pumps and converting the gas network to hydrogen.

But as well as a big bill and some obviously fraught politics, there is opportunity here. If ever there was meaningful, important work to do, here it is. This project will truly require a “carbon army” of hundreds of thousands of workers—these are proper, skilled jobs that would be created in every town, city and county in the country. And once we have cleaned up our homes, there will be crucial technical work to do in greening our offices and factories too. If we do that, and manage to do so ahead of other nations, then we will have an army of experienced people who can sell their valuable service to the world.

There are new jobs to be found in transport, too: the mobile divisions in this war. Even this government accepts that a time will come when new petrol and diesel cars cannot be sold—the only question is when. Economics favours faster not slower action. Thanks to rapid advances in battery technology, the lifetime costs of electric cars will fall to match that of conventional cars by the mid-2020s, and become lower after that. So it makes environmental and economic sense for the target of 2040 for the end of new petrol and diesel vehicles to be brought forward by at least a decade—11 years is plenty of time.

A whole new infrastructure of charge points will need to be built—at pace. It will require resources, but—again—will create more skilled jobs in engineering and design. If we get it right, it will be a major boost for a car industry that badly needs it—and could lead to British car sales rising abroad once again. If we can steal a march in such sectors, which the whole planet will eventually have to buy into, then the UK might even break its dependence on volatile finance and fossil fuel industries.

We also need to encourage people to get out of their cars and on to their feet, bikes or improved public transport. But empty demands for people to abandon the cars they currently rely on will achieve nothing. Again, we need system change to facilitate different individual choices, as we make walking and cycling a more fundamental part of how we live, and greatly improve public health along the way.

Just as with Roosevelt’s original, all of this will mean that the Green New Deal must be about quality of life as well as jobs. Air pollution, which is quietly killing thousands every year, is a case in point. Just think of the difference we could make there if our towns and cities were reimagined around walking, cycling and clean public transport in place of polluting private cars.  

The same potential exists when it comes to land. The best and most effective way to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere comes from trees. Reforesting, reclaiming peat lands and rewilding parts of our land must be pursued through a co-ordinated national effort. The Climate Change Committee estimates we need around 30,000 hectares of trees planted per year, vastly more than currently being achieved.

Adjusting the way we use land for climate—with less farming of animals, and more forestry—will feed back into discussions about meat consumption. Public Health England’s dietary guidelines suggest we should dramatically reduce our consumption of beef, lamb and dairy products. The government has been cautious about suggesting people cut their meat intake—and those of us who infamously eat bacon sandwiches aren’t the best people to give dietary advice. But this is an issue we need to confront. The argument is not about sacrifice, it is about people’s wellbeing. We are not asking people to change their food -consumption for the sake of future generations but also for themselves—so they will get to meet future generations. That is a less daunting political ask.

Footing the bill—fairly

How we pay for this transition is fundamental. We can’t wish away the economic pressures on people, but must instead make them central to climate challenge. A Green New Deal can build a coalition across classes, and avoid the sort of problems President Macron ran into when he tried to impose a fuel tax without a commitment to fairness.

There are varied ideas about how to finance the transformation we need—among them higher taxes on the better off, pollution levies and even ear-marking some of the funds created by Quantitative Easing. We will look at them all. But already one thing is plain: we can’t pay for this in the old way, by loading it onto energy bills that weigh most heavily on the poor. Likewise, we need to find a way to make airline taxes more progressive so that they hit wealthy frequent fliers harder than those going on hard-earned once-a-year foreign holidays.

The question of paying for it fairly is critical—but fraught. Citizens’ assemblies, which have been a huge success on very different but equally controversial questions in Ireland, could be invaluable in making sure ordinary voices are heard and taken seriously.

A socially just transition is also not an optional extra, but indispensable. The concern about the hundreds of thousands of jobs that directly and indirectly rely on fossil fuel industries is understandable, especially given the UK’s dismal record in neglecting the communities hammered by pit closures. We won’t succeed unless we can find other, equally remunerated work, for those who are displaced. This must be possible, since the skills of those who have worked in oil and gas are absolutely transferrable to renewables, but it won’t happen without a scale of policy intervention and support we have not seen in the past.

The absence of war

How we can muster the political leadership to make it happen at home, and then make it count right around the world? Domestically, we should be grateful for agreement on the basic facts. The Conservative Party, at least in its leadership, has avoided Trumpian denial and a climate culture war. To give some credit to David Cameron, and it is in short supply, we should acknowledge that he helped make sure that the Climate Change Act was passed with all-party support.

But sometimes a consensus can get too cosy. Ahead of the 2015 general election, an alliance of green groups asked all party leaders to sign a pledge to work for a strong Paris deal, and to end the use of coal. We all signed and toasted success. But that success hid a deeper failure on the part of everyone. Climate change was written out of the election script. There was not one question about it in the three television leaders’ debates.

We shouldn’t presume that a consensus on the science will automatically translate into unanimity over what is to be done. We can agree that children need an education, but each party has its own ideas on how it is best done, and the contest between them is healthy. If the climate needs a similar contest of plans, we shouldn’t shrink from that. Sometimes, as with the establishment of the NHS, it takes a vigorous argument to entrench a consensus. And with powerful vested interests at stake, we must expect resistance, not victory by stealth.

When we get there, we also need to acknowledge that a Green New Deal in Britain, or any single country, can’t solve a global problem alone. What it can do, however, is point the way. That might sound fanciful, but the recent past shows it can be done. In 2008, when we passed that Climate Change Act, we pioneered the idea that a country could impose mandatory constraints on emissions in law. Since then, many countries have followed in one form or another.

Today, we can use the power of example again. At international talks next year, countries are due to update their Paris commitments, a vital moment if we are to have a chance of stopping climate breakdown. The British government wants to host the talks—what better way to show our commitment than by proving what’s possible ourselves? Legislating for net zero emissions, and setting out a comprehensive plan to build a better society and stronger economy through the climate mission is the way to do that.

Some who accept the threat is real will nonetheless shrug that the climate fight is hopeless, and urge a policy simply of adaptation—preparing for the worst. We should not accept such defeatism. There is a vision of a better world implicit in this fight. History demonstrates that if we can only inspire people, we can achieve extraordinary things at unprecedented speed, against the odds. So what are we waiting for?

Hiding our emissions

There is a reason why Britain’s carbon emissions are so low: we’ve outsourced them. Steel made here in the UK counts towards our emissions. But steel made in China, shipped to the UK, used by a UK manufacturer and then sold to a UK consumer counts towards China’s emissions—and not ours. We get to use carbon-intensive materials with none of the guilt, and without having to consider more drastic changes to our lifestyle.

The emphasis on carbon emissions within a country’s territory rather than its carbon consumption is backed by the UN. It prevents double-counting of global emissions and is far easier to account for. But is it an accurate recording of the emissions for which a country is responsible? Not according to Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford. “If you really want to reduce global warming… it doesn’t matter where emissions take place, and therefore the only way to judge it is with carbon consumption.”

The effect of shuffling the problem across national borders is also to distort the global blame game. Advanced economies that long ago shifted from manufacturing to services will be flattered, while the industrialising nations will look worse. This is provocative to emerging economies whose co-operation is crucial to fixing climate.

There is also a risk, claims Helm, that Britain achieves “net zero,” “but makes global warming worse.” In other words, we could end up like Denmark. The Nordic nation did everything right. It adopted one of the most ambitious carbon emission reduction targets in the world at Kyoto in 1997, then went further in 2011 setting a goal of phasing out the use of all fossil fuels by 2050. But according to a 2015 study in Ecological Economics the decarbonisation of the Danish economy led to a substantial increase in the carbon intensity of its imports, wiping out any benefits.

Counting carbon consumption rather than emissions is difficult but, as Helm puts it, a “roughly right answer is better than one that is precisely wrong.”

by Steve Bloomfield