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UK’s Biggest Climate Change Challenge: Confronting the Gap Between Government Rhetoric and Reality

Thomas Perrett explores the ways in which the UK may be an embarrassing presence when it hosts next month’s COP26 climate change conference

Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe/PA Images

UK’s Biggest Climate Change ChallengeConfronting the Gap Between Government Rhetoric and Reality

Thomas Perrett explores the ways in which the UK may be an embarrassing presence when it hosts next month’s COP26 climate change conference

The COP26 UN Conference on Climate Change, taking place in Glasgow next month, will be a crucial milestone in the global effort to counteract climate change. 

This year alone, instances of extreme weather events have increased considerably. Historic levels of climate change-induced rainfall produced floods which killed more than 120 people and left more than 1,000 more missing in Germany and north-western Europe. Record-breaking heat waves across North America in June and July were “made 150 times more likely” by climate change according to science journal Nature. 

In response, a report by the International Energy Agency, calling for a “complete transformation of the global energy system” concluded that decarbonising the global economy will require trebling renewable energy investment of $4 trillion by 2050, with rapid electrification of transport systems and retrofitting in homes. 

So far, the UK Government has introduced a series of elaborate pledges to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – including cutting carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels. But, despite its pragmatism in setting targets, the Government has proved ineffectual in meeting them, with a recent report from environmentalist think tank The Green Alliance finding that current plans will deliver under 25% of the emissions cuts required to meet the UK’s 2030 climate ambitions.

Catarina Brandmayr, the organisation’s head of climate policy, said: “Unless the net-zero strategy and CSR (corporate social responsibility) meet the scale of the challenge and opportunity, the UK will be headed into Glasgow with little to show by way of progress on cutting its emissions in this crucial decade.”

UK’s Reliance on Fossil Fuels Far from Over

The provision of new, renewable infrastructure projects will achieve little unless they are accompanied by the phasing-out of existing fossil fuel schemes, alongside broader shifts in the way in which the economy is organised. 

The Government has so far failed to adequately decommission fossil fuel infrastructure and has in some instances extended its use. Greenpeace, for instance, recently sued the Government for granting oil giant BP a permit to continue drilling for 30 million barrels of oil at the Vorlich oil field near Aberdeen. The Government’s lawyers have argued that the emissions resulting from drilling North Sea oil are “not relevant” to the legality of granting the permit to BP and that the emissions would be “impossible to measure”. 

The decision to grant the permit, despite incurring environmental damage, was criticised by Greenpeace’s head of oil and gas transition, Mel Evans, who said: “The biggest harm that comes from oil drilling is the emissions that come from burning the oil extracted – and that damage is recognised by energy agencies, banks and even oil companies around the world, so it is ridiculous for the UK Government to argue differently.”

Moreover, Boris Johnson’s administration is still yet to take substantive action against the aviation industry. On the construction of a third runway at Heathrow Airport, for instance, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that it was “not appropriate” to review its decision authorising it on the basis of climate change or carbon policy.

The decision was criticised by Greenpeace’s chief scientist, Dr Doug Parr, who said that “new runways join new roads, new oil fields and new coal mines on the list of high carbon infrastructure whose impact we can safely ignore. But, the truth is, the only way a massive increase in carbon emissions can be irrelevant to a pledge to eliminate carbon emissions is if that pledge was dishonest.”

Despite warnings from the Climate Change Committee, that any expansion of aviation would be incompatible with its net-zero by 2050 target, the Government has continued to expect emissions to decline despite rising levels of demand. This is demonstrably improbable – having focused exclusively on CO2, the Government’s research has significantly under-estimated the volume of emissions caused by aviation. According to research published by Manchester Metropolitan University, approximately two-thirds of the industry’s heating impact is caused by non-CO2 emissions.

Furthermore, in its attempts to reach ‘jet-zero’, the Government has suggested implementing electric planes using heavy batteries, which even the aviation industry has conceded will likely make flights of more than 800km unviable. Given that flights of more than 1,500km account for more than 80% of aviation emissions, it is highly unlikely that only decarbonising shorter flights will have a significant impact.

New Technology Not a Panacea 

The effects of technological change alone will be negligible if it is not met with a corresponding change in how production is conceived and oriented. Many government policies, for instance, fail to grasp the extent to which ‘renewable’ technologies are produced with inputs from fossil fuels, are extracted from the Global South, and satiate the demands of emerging markets which drive up emissions.

In August, Chris Jackson stepped down as the chair of the UK’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association in protest against the Government’s plans to replace fossil gas with ‘blue hydrogen’ – a form of energy dependent on fossil fuel extraction. Jackson described blue hydrogen as an “expensive distraction” and told industry magazine H2 View that “I believe passionately I would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on the fact blue hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonisation goals”. According to research by Cornell University, the emissions resulting from blue hydrogen usage are “20% greater than burning natural gas or coal for heat and some 60% greater than burning diesel oil for heat”, attributable in part to the release of “fugitive methane” which remains unburned in the production process.

These examples suggest that technocratic ‘fixes’ in which politicians understand climate change as a problem to be solved by the application of new technology, as opposed to a wider reappraisal of the problems of growth and consumption, are limited in their scope. The introduction of ‘The Anthropocene’ – the current geological epoch characterised by significant anthropogenic exploitation of the environment – has given rise to movements which have identified the need for a collaborative, cohabitative relationship with nature. A recent report in Nature, for instance, outlined the necessity for new, radical mitigation pathways to curb the effects of climate breakdown. It found that “degrowth scenarios minimise many key risks for feasibility and sustainability compared to technology-driven pathways”. 

Grassroots attempts are already being made to formulate local environmental initiatives which emphasise mutual cooperation rather than profit, utilising decentralised, low carbon technology. A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank documented the Ambition for Lawrence Weston programme in Bristol – a community-led organisation aiming to provide insulation to households without fuel, which is currently working to finance a planning application for a 4.5 megawatt, community-owned wind turbine. Once installed, it is expected to power nearly 4,000 homes.

Contributions from the Developing World

The failure of richer countries to phase-out fossil fuel usage and to reorganise their economies to meet the challenges posed by climate change is projected to have a significant impact on many poorer nations. 

According to the World Economic Forum, the number of people in coastal areas at risk from rising sea levels during the past 30 years has risen from 160 million to 190 million. 90% of these people are from the Global South. 

More than 100 developing nations have outlined a ‘fair share accounting’ plan, which details which nations should take on the most stringent emissions cuts, based on historic levels of pollution. This plan calls for at least 50% of climate finance to be used to help poorer countries to fight climate change, and compels richer nations to meet the annual $100 billion sum of money which had initially been promised to the developing world at the failed Copenhagen summit on climate change in 2009.

Deputy Prime Minister of Somalia, Mahdi M Gulaid, has argued that “highly vulnerable countries like Somalia are already suffering disproportionally from the impacts of climate change” and that “COP 26 must be a key moment of delivery and there can be no more excuses for unfulfilled promises, particularly climate finance”.

Despite this, the Government has repeatedly impeded efforts by countries in the Global South to counteract climate change, by developing fossil fuel projects overseas. Last year, the UK was one of seven countries which committed to financing a $20 billion gas pipeline in Mozambique – a decision which, according to the Shadow Climate Change Secretary, risked “locking low- and middle-income countries into high-carbon dependency for decades to come”. The Government has also contributed £700 million towards the construction and operation of an oil refinery based in Oman. 

It has continuously demonstrated that, despite its triumphalist rhetoric and ambitious theoretical commitments to decarbonising the economy by the middle of the century, it remains wedded to the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, both domestically and internationally.

Having failed to place a moratorium on the development of new, energy-intensive projects within the aviation and transport sectors, the Government has attempted to replace its reliance on fossil fuels with technologies which themselves rely on energy sources which would compromise its decarbonisation commitments.

Ecological breakdown cannot be alleviated through technological change and infrastructural development accompanied with endless growth and little change in how the economy is organised. Only by putting an end to new fossil fuel projects and marginalising the influence of the oil and gas industry, along with restructuring the economy along ecological lines and placing localism at the heart of politics, can the climate crisis be meaningfully addressed.

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