Climate emergency placard

The government likes to brandish its “legally binding” 2050 net-zero carbon emissions goal like a protective sword. See we’re “world-leading”, they cry, even while the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) points out the nation is not on track to deliver even this inadequate goal, the official “10-point plan” for delivery bears every sign of being sketched out on the back of an envelope, and the much-vaunted Green Homes Grant scheme has collapsed into chaos.

Saying we’ll do something by 2050, is effectively saying we’ll do almost nothing, as many critics have pointed out. That’s at least five governments away on our current track, probably many more prime ministers hence. The target should be 2030.

That’s on the basis of scientific need, and on the fact that carbon cut now is far more valuable than that later, in slowing our speed towards the crucial 1.5 degree target agreed at the Paris climate talks. But also because given the rapid political cycle in the UK, the inability to deliver longterm planning and thinking the only way to guarantee action is to force it now.

But, some cry, we can’t see the exact way forward to that 2030 zero goal. And no we can’t. We never have been able to.

Howard Macmillan may or may not have ever said “events, dear boy, events” when asked what knocks governments off course, but you don’t need to be an historian or an accountant to know that no party’s election manifesto in history – focused on the national economy, as they have inevitably been – has ever at the end of its term reflected how the economy turned out.

As Greens, we want to see carbon accounting given the same importance, accounted for in the similar way, as pounds and pence – the CCC given the same importance as the Office for Budget Responsibility has been this week, but we have to acknowledge that we can’t map out a perfect route to it (although we can do a lot better than the government’s efforts).

Attempts to do so inevitably leads down into a technological trap. They assume business as usual, with added green technology. They calculate the impact of replacing the emissions of fossil fuel vehicles with cleanly renewably powered, they green the electricity grid and insulate homes.

But such plans don’t, can’t, account for Macmillan’s events – which are certainly going to become more common in this age of shocks, as Covid-19 has only driven home – and they don’t account for social and behavioural change. Or the pressure of emergency.

One of the things we’re used to as Greens is being patronisingly patted on the head and told our intentions are good, but we expect change to come too fast. Well that’s been blown out of the water by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The UK, the world, changed enormously in the space of a few months, how we work, how we socialise, how we travel (or don’t). That was because of a medical emergency.

Emergency action will certainly be required to make the UK net-zero by 2030, but what that might look like in the circumstances of 2025, or 2028, are impossible to predict. What would you have predicted for the reality of the UK in 2021 in 2012, or 2016?

And lots of the potential measures are not easily amenable to carbon accounting. What would a four-day working week as standard with no loss of pay do to commuting emissions? Maybe you can make a stab at counting that.

But what would a universal basic income do to people’s choices, behaviour, and carbon emissions? There is no basis for a carbon model of that.

What would a massive programme of land reform, that would allow production of vegetables and fruit on new small scale market gardens around every town, city and village do? Or widespread enthusiasm – driven perhaps as much by a desire for food security as carbon concerns – to “dig for Britain” in the green spaces of our cities, something that in Sheffield it has been shown could supply a huge percentage of the vegetables and fruit needed.

Or the adoption on a landscape scale of agroforestry on the Wakelyns model? And an end to factory farming of animals driven by fear of antimicrobial resistance, with a subsequent massive fall in meat consumption?

I don’t know. No one can, but the impossibility of drawing up an exact map is no argument for abandoning the 2030 target for the UK to be net zero.

And as I’m always telling the government in the House, they need to benchmark themselves against others to claim to be world-leading. So they’ve got Sweden – 2045, Austria – 2040, Iceland – 2040 and Finland – 2035 to look to. Boris Johnson better gets his skates on, and we all need to be pushing as hard as we can to deliver that message.

PS. We hope you enjoyed this article. Bright Green has got big plans for the future to publish many more articles like this. You can help make that happen. Please donate to Bright Green now.

PPS. Bright Green has an exciting series of events coming up. Join us for debates, interviews and much more.

Image credit: John Englart – Creative Commons