Time is running out for realistic climate change commitments

Targets don’t cut emissions, actions do—and as the Climate Change Committee’s latest report shows, the UK isn’t doing nearly enough to reach net zero

June 25, 2021
The DfT has no plan to reduce the growth in aviation to help reach net zero. Photo: Richard Wayman / Alamy Stock Photo
The DfT has no plan to reduce the growth in aviation to help reach net zero. Photo: Richard Wayman / Alamy Stock Photo

Pete Postlethwaite’s character has a chilling line in the film The Age of Stupid: “Why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance?” 

The annual progress reports from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) are getting closer and closer to echoing that line.The latest one, published yesterday, doesn’t mince its words: time is running out for realistic climate commitments.

There is a gaping hole where climate leadership should be, and in the run-up to the UK-hosted UN climate summit other countries are taking note.Boris Johnson has done plenty oflecturing otherson what needs to be done if we are to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, but he’s done precious little at home. 

In the last two years, we’ve heard numerous declarations and new targets, which are all supposed to give us a better chance of reaching net zero emissions by 2050.But targets don’t cut emissions, actions do. There is a dearth of those. 

Even when strategies have been produced, they fall far short of what’s required.Take Johnson’s much-trumpeted 10-point plan for a “green industrial revolution.”This was the most significant climate plan (as opposed to target) that he’s come up with since becoming prime minister.It was supposed to lay out the policy path to net zero. 

Yet even if all the policies were implemented (and some of them were highly speculative), they would have taken us only halfway towards closing the gap on where, by law, our carbon emissions are supposed to be by 2032 and where they’re heading.

Looking further ahead, that shortfall is getting worse.What the report calls “credible policies for delivery” currently only go a fifth of the way to delivering the emissions reductions required by 2037. And that’s where policies exist—too often, we’re still waiting for them. 

Where programmes have been put in place, like the Green Homes Grant scheme to insulate homes and cut emissions from buildings, they aren’t given the support they need.The scheme was first starved of funds by the Treasury and then quietly dumped. 

As this report emphasises, climate action needs to be implemented across the economy with all government departments on board.Some give the worrying impression that they think they can leave it to someone else. This is why the Ministry of Housing has put forward a Planning Bill which doesn’t require future developments to comply with the net zero emissions target; the Department for Transport has no plan for reducing the growth in aviation; and Defra, which has made some progress on protecting peatland and planting trees, is not doing enough about emissions from agriculture and land use. The list goes on.Even among those departments which are prioritising climate change, none are moving at the necessary pace.

But it’s the Treasury that is rapidly moving to the fore as the key block to effective climate action. It can nurture or kill climate policies and, too often, it’s doing the latter.It has the power over the government’s purse strings and needs to use that power to good effect by ensuring all government spending is aligned with climate goals, starting with a key test: does it help achieve net zero emissions?

Aninfluential reportby Nicholas Stern and Joseph Stiglitz, published by Oxford University last year, made clear that investing in a genuinely green recovery from Covid would create more jobs, deliver higher short-term returns and lead to increased long-term cost savings compared to a traditional fiscal stimulus.That finding is echoed by the CCC, which has repeatedly said that the benefits of climate action far outweigh the costs, and that creating new jobs must be a priority for transitioning to net zero. 

New research from the TUC has also shown thatfast-tracking spending on projects such as broadband, green technology, transport and housing could deliver a 1.24m jobs boost by 2022.

This needs to be the Treasury’s playbook for the economy’s recovery from Covid, which should be set out clearly in this year’s Spending Review. But it has to go further and re-examine its whole approach to the economy, dropping its obsession with GDP growth as the main measure of progress. 

The pursuit of endless growth on a planet of finite resources is the road to disaster.It is destroying the natural environment on which we depend upon and is fuelling the climate emergency.We have to live within earth’s natural limits, with a focus on wellbeing and the health of people and planet. 

That should be the aim of all policymaking, with the full backing of the Treasury. 

With the road to recovery from coronavirus in sight, we have a crucial opportunity to stop fuelling the climate crisis. In doing so we could reap the rewards of good green jobs, healthier communities and restored nature. 

But as the CCC says, there is much to do—and time is rapidly running out.