The language of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on global warming last week was unusual for its uncompromising candour. As its authors made vividly clear, the world can no longer seek solace in the expectation that it can continue the unrestricted burning of gas, coal and oil without triggering devastation. Widespread flooding, severe droughts, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, coral reef destruction, heatwaves and forest fires will surely intensify unless we change our ways, the report’s authors emphasised.
The message is clear. Humanity must break its fossil fuel dependence in short order and every nation will have to play a part in bringing a speedy halt to that addiction, though the burden facing the United Kingdom is a particularly severe one. For a start, we have been burning fossil fuel, mainly coal, on a large scale for longer than any other nation. The Industrial Revolution was born in Britain, after all. Thus, we have a special duty to be in the vanguard of nations doing the most to counter the unpleasant impacts that greenhouse gases are already having on our world.
More specifically, the UK is set to chair the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November. This, effectively, is the world’s last chance to agree measures that could limit global warming to a 1.5C rise above pre-industrial levels and so head off the worst consequences of our looming crisis. The UK therefore faces particularly intense pressure to ensure this summit is a success and needs to send out a clear message that it possesses the credentials to achieve that goal.
To do this, Britain must make it clear that it has plans to put its own house in order with a programme of measures that demonstrate it can curb its carbon emissions speedily and effectively. Many nations will be coming to Glasgow to look for inspiration and the UK’s credibility as summit host rests on it having a clear strategy that shows that in the near future Britain will not be putting more carbon into the atmosphere than it removes, so achieving the goal of net-zero emissions.
Unfortunately, there are few signs that such a master plan is anywhere near readiness. Boris Johnson may have become a recent convert to green causes, having derided the science of climate change many times in the past. Nevertheless, his administration remains guilty of continuing to support measures that are irreconcilable with a strategy of achieving net zero in the near future. This list of incompatibilities includes the government’s recent scrapping of the green homes grant insulation scheme; freezing fuel duty while doing little to help electric car owners; authorising billions to be spent on new road schemes; delaying the phasing out of gas boilers in homes; and encouraging airport expansion. All are likely to lead to increases in carbon dioxide emissions rather than helping us to reduce them.
Certainly, Cop26 delegates from developing nations will see little inspiration in such an inventory. For good measure, the recent deep cuts that have been made to our overseas aid have badly harmed the UK’s reputation internationally. Our prospects of influencing the world at Cop26 at this moment look bleak, though there have been some encouraging moves, with Johnson revealing that he is set to announce a new £400m scheme to encourage homeowners to buy low-carbon alternatives to gas boilers. Nevertheless, the claim that Britain is nearing a coherent climate policy is unconvincing. It is estimated we need to invest about 1% of our GDP to build the infrastructure that will achieve net-zero emissions. At present, we are committing a tiny fraction of that. Britain clearly has a great deal to do before Cop26 but has a worryingly small window of opportunity to act. An injection of urgency into our climate preparations is now badly overdue.