Net Zero Britain — Five Turning Points

UCL Public Policy
Feb 1 · 5 min read

The UK can be proud of its record as a leader in climate research and policy. Our climate scientists are among the best in the world and the cross-party 2008 Climate Change Act was both ground-breaking and effective. Over the last ten years UK production-based carbon emissions have reduced 40% whilst the economy has grown 60%.

But what now?

To achieve the targets set in the Paris Agreement in 2015 a huge acceleration of action will be necessary — in the UK and globally.

I want to draw attention to five developments I see as ‘Turning Points’ that will shape the path of future carbon emissions:

1. Intensified Signals

2018 was the ‘Year of Messages’. Hardly a week passed by without reports of lethal and damaging climatic events. From the enhanced devastation of Hurricanes Florence and Michael through the Californian mega-wildfires to deadly Asian heatwaves and floods, the planet has been signalling loud and clear: “the Heat Age is under way”.

The science was equally vocal. From the IPCC 1.5oC report through the US 4th National Climate Assessment, the UN Emissions Gap report and numerous others, the message was: “We are running out of time”. Achieving the COP21 limits on global warming is still just possible within the laws of nature. But it won’t happen without a synchronised transformation of politics, technology, economy and society at a scale and of a character unprecedented in human history. We are primed for action yet success is slipping away. From ‘managing the unavoidable’ and ‘avoiding the unmanageable’ we find ourselves ‘confronting the unthinkable’.

2. Unleashed Forces

We know the UK — and the world — faces a formidable challenge in reducing fossil fuel emissions. But there are encouraging trends to be seen in both energy and finance.

For the last decade the costs of solar energy, wind energy, and battery storage have dropped 15–25% annually. If similar rates persist to the year 2030, renewable energy costs will massively undercut those of fossil fuels. As a result, market forces are poised to drive an ever-accelerating transformation of the energy supply industry. The result will be major reductions in carbon emissions — and the weakening of the influence the fossil fuel companies and their collaborators on obstructing progress. The ‘Age of Fossil Fuels’ is over.

In the meantime, annual climate-related damages continue to grow. Beyond 2.0oC large parts of the world become uninsurable. We are currently at 1.0oC and rising. Even if human carbon emissions stopped tomorrow, it would take decades for the planet to reach energy equilibrium and for the human forces driving climate change to cease. The sea level rise we have activated may continue for centuries. The economic implications are profound.

A decade ago it was difficult to get financial institutions to pay attention to climate-related threats. This has changed dramatically. Fear of damages, stranded assets and investment bubbles is widespread. In response to pressure — from young people especially — ethical drivers are forcing divestment of fossil fuel assets. And the legal concept of ‘reasonable foreseeability’ has the potential to punish those who fail in their responsibilities to protect investors’ interests as disruptive change gathers pace.

3. Shifting Balance

Much remains to be understood about the climate system. ‘Discovery’ mode science is still crucial. Yet the knowledge and understanding generated is worthless if it is not shared in such a way that society can act on it. Scientific discovery and analysis needs to inform public and political knowledge and action if it is to help humanity to tackle climate change.

This requires a substantial rebalancing of effort within the climate science community towards co-production of decision making and policy formulation. It requires new skills and practices and a cultural shift including changes to academic rewards and esteem systems — and it needs to happen fast. In my experience, early career researchers are motivated and enthusiastic to respond. Examples of good practice are becoming more common, but they remain ad hoc. Commitment at the scale and pace necessary to address the climate emergency requires a new vision of the role of climate scientists in shaping the future.

4. Youth Arising

Greta Thunburg, the 16-year old Swedish school girl, has understood the climate challenge and is not afraid to speak her mind. Having shot to fame as a result of her ‘school strike for climate’, she followed up with a forthright speech to the delegates at COP24 in Katowice: “For 25 years countless people have stood in front of the United Nations Climate Conferences asking our nations’ leaders to stop emissions. But clearly this has not worked since emissions continue to rise. So I will not ask them anything. I will not beg the world’s leaders for change. I will tell them that change is coming whether they like it or not. We have to realise what the older generations have done to us — what a mess they have created — (and) we have to make our voices heard”. Greta’s example has been followed around the world. Participation in marches and school strikes has been estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The schoolchildren of the world form a powerful constituency. The future is theirs, after all!

5. Damaged Brand

Whatever the eventual outcome of Brexit, it has done untold damage to the UK’s overseas image. (An Italian colleague recently confided that he used to avoid discussing politics with me during the Berlusconi years because he was embarrassed — but not any more.) The UK has a damaged brand.

Rebuilding a brand is a hard task. It stands greater success if it builds on a firm foundation. The UK’s track record in climate science and action provides such an opportunity. If the ‘muscular and independent’ post-Brexit UK were to embrace climate change and sustainability as the framework within which all domestic and international policy decisions were made, it could set a powerful example for the world to admire and follow. It could also provide a means of uniting a fractured nation, as Orwell said the British ‘feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis’. Striving to build a clean, green and healthy future — if genuine — could inspire us all.

So what do these turning points mean? The good news is that the conditions for meaningful action on climate change are falling into place. However, it’s desperately late and the chances of meeting the Paris goals are diminishing daily. They will be breached if emissions don’t peak within the next couple of years and fall by 45% over the coming decade. The UK has an opportunity to adopt a historic mantle — to lead from the front. It has the capability to do so, but does it have the vision and the resolve? Your actions could make the difference.

Prof Chris Rapley CBE is Professor of Climate Science in the Department of Earth Sciences, University College London and Chair of the UCL Policy Commission on the Communication of Climate Science.

This article is based on a speech delivered on 5th Dec 2018 at the “Net Zero Britain” event organised by Policy Connect in House of Commons, Portcullis House. Other speakers included Baroness Brown of the UK Climate Change Committee, and the politicians Ed Miliband, Sir Ed Davey, Caroline Lucas, Sir Vince Cable, Lord Barker, and the SNP leader, Ian Blackford.

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