A flurry of stories this weekend suggest policymakers are starting to think about what a net zero economy will require, but are businesses ready for the controversial decisions that await?
What should a climate emergency entail? Ever since Extinction Rebellion's simple edict to 'tell the truth' and Greta Thunberg's calls to treat a crisis like a crisis elbowed their way into the political mainstream, the race has been on to define what a 'climate emergency' involves beyond the obvious declaration of the words.
Labour gave it a shot last month with its motion, passed by the House of Commons, calling on the government to declare a climate emergency, adopt a net zero emission target for before 2050, introduce new short term targets for clean tech deployment, and come forward with a new plan to deliver a circular and zero waste economy. The Irish government last week followed suit passing an amendment to its climate action plan that requires it to table new proposals to accelerate its rate of decarbonisation. Meanwhile, green think tanks are rushing to come forward with proposals for a climate emergency model that could lock in the governance measures and policies required to turn a well-meaning political statement into tangible progress on the ground.
Consequently, the precise detail of how a climate emergency and an accompanying legally binding net zero emission target translates into day-to-day policy decisions remains very much up for grabs. However, this weekend provided some intriguing pointers to some of the complex decisions that could quickly flow from the formal prioritisation of climate action.
Most notably, the long-running battle over Heathrow expansion took another twist late last week, as environmental campaign group Plan B revealed that the government has acknowledged its request for a review of the decision to approve a third runway at Heathrow will require "careful consideration" of the climate emergency declaration and the Committee on Climate Change's (CCC's) recommendations on setting a new net zero emission target for the UK.
Plan B recently wrote to the Department for Transport (DfT) calling on the government to review its airports national policy statement (ANPS) and its support for Heathrow expansion, in light of the climate emergency declaration and other recent developments. The CCC's vision for a net zero emission economy by 2050 does allow for aviation expansion, but only in conjunction with rapid advances in green aviation technologies and the emergence of a large scale negative emissions sector.
In her response to Plan B's letter, seen by both the BBC and the Guardian, Caroline Low, director of Heathrow expansion and aviation and maritime analysis at DfT, confirmed the department would consider Plan B's request and acknowledged it could be informed by the government's imminent decision on whether to adopt a net zero emission target.
"As well as giving careful consideration to the net zero report and the declaration of environment and climate emergency, mentioned in the request, it may be necessary to consider the CCC's recommended policy approach for aviation … and any relevant decisions taken by the government in the coming months as a result," she wrote.
The government is currently considering whether to amend the Climate Change Act to adopt a legally binding net zero emission target in line with the CCC's guidance, although senior ministers have hinted strongly that they are minded to do so. Business Secretary Greg Clark said recently it was the government's ambition to ensure the UK is the first major economy to adopt a net zero target, implying a goal could be delivered before the summer.
DfT's formal response to the request to review Heathrow expansion is not expected until after the CCC completes a separate analysis of the UK's aviation plans and their compatibility with the proposed net zero emission goal later this year. Moreover, a spokesperson for the DfT was quick to reiterate current support for Heathrow expansion, noting that "the expansion of Heathrow received overwhelming support from MPs because it would provide a massive economic boost to businesses and communities the length and breadth of Britain, all at no cost to the taxpayer and within our environmental obligations".
"We take our commitment to the environment very seriously and we will give careful consideration to the net zero report," they added. "No decision has been taken to review the ANPS, however we are legally obliged to consider requests like this one."
However, Plan B's Tim Crosland welcomed the decision to accept the request for a review and the willingness to ensure any decision is informed by the climate emergency declaration, hailing it as a potentially important evidence of how policy decisions could be shaped by the renewed commitment to deep decarbonisation.
"Parliament approved Heathrow expansion on the basis of very different circumstances to those which now prevail," he told the Guardian. "It's just common sense the position calls for reconsideration. You can't declare an emergency and then act like nothing's changed."
There was further evidence over the weekend of how the climate emergency narrative is shaping thinking across the political spectrum, with senior figures from both Labour and the Conservatives floating new policy moves.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell gave an interview to the Guardian in which he sketched out plans to strengthen climate reporting rules that could result in the worst polluters being delisted from the London Stock Exchange.
Reiterating Labour's commitment to use "every lever of government we possibly can" to drive climate action, he revealed the opposition was "now going to discuss how we can insert tackling climate change as one of the criteria for listing on the London stock market". Asked if that mean delisting firms without adequate climate change plans, he replied: "yes".
"It's not about threatening or penalising, it's saying here's the steps we need to take to save the planet, it's as simple as that," he added, insisting there was growing evidence that many leading investors would welcome such changes as they seek to take advantage of the opportunities presented by a net zero transition.
The latest developments - which came as new International Development Secretary Rory Stewart again warned of the prospects of a "climate cataclysm" and Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced wide-ranging plans to review the impact of dirty air on citizens' health - provide further evidence of how a climate emergency could both drive greener policy choices and spark significant opposition from parts of the business community.
Just a short clip from my session this afternoon with 10 and 11 year olds in just one small rural primary school in Cumbria - unprepared and unscripted- just underlines how informed and passionate all our citizens are becoming about the climate cataclysm. @DfidUk pic.twitter.com/VwdTH6psIs— Rory Stewart (@RoryStewartUK) May 10, 2019
The CCC's calls for a new net zero target were broadly welcomed by leading business groups, while the CBI last month praised the Extinction Rebellion protests for asking "absolutely the right questions". However, the bulk of the business community has also provided vocal support for Heathrow expansion, while talk of delisting firms that fail to comply with stringent new climate disclosure rules is bound to send shivers down the spine of those City types already on edge at the prospect of a Corbyn government.
The translation of climate emergency rhetoric into firm policy choices is bound to test the commitment of many businesses to deep and rapid decarbonisation. However, the tension between business-as-usual and a state of full-blown climate emergency could open up opportunities. If business groups are unlikely to U-turn on their support for a third runway at Heathrow, calls for a bolder green aviation R&D strategy and a clearer roadmap for making the sector compatible with a net zero target are set to grow in volume. At the very least it looks like the government will eventually have to come forward with a more credible aviation strategy than rushing to approve new runways wherever they are proposed.
Similarly, McDonnell is right to say growing numbers of investors want to see more stringent climate disclosure rules for listed firms to help them make better informed decisions about where to allocate capital. Delisting may be the nuclear option, but regulators have already hinted more detailed mandatory reporting may be required if firms fail to embrace existing guidelines from the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures.
Inevitably, these encouraging trends are still at risk from a backlash. In his remarkably ill-tempered appearance on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage used one of the few policy-related questions he chose to answer to reiterate his opposition to UK climate action.
Challenged on whether he still believed that worrying about global warming was "the stupidest thing in human history", Farage said that "if we decide in this country to tax ourselves to the hilt, to put hundreds of thousands of people out of work in manufacturing industries, given that we produce less the two per cent of global CO2, that isn't terribly intelligent". UK carbon emissions have fallen nearly 40 per cent since 1990 even as the economy has grown. The CCC's modelling has suggested a net zero emission economy can be delivered at a cost to the economy of just one to two per cent of GDP in 2050, although it also noted that its calculations do not incorporate the co-benefits that can result from decarbonisation such as reduced climate risks and improved air quality and health.
With the Brexit Party topping polls ahead of next week's European Parliament election, the UK's small band of climate sceptics are awaiting their biggest electoral victory in years, while across Europe's green economy fears are growing that populist candidates could undermine Brussels on-going efforts to deliver more ambitious long term climate targets.
And yet public pressure for more ambitious policies befitting of a climate emergency is also intensifying. Following on from its best ever performance in local elections the Green Party is currently enjoying some of its strongest polling in history, with one YouGov poll today putting the Party in fourth place ahead of the Conservatives for the first time. Meanwhile, a BMG Research poll for The Independent this weekend revealed a handy majority support the proposals for a net zero emission target with 59 per cent of voters saying they would support a legal target, against only eight per cent opposing it, and 34 per cent who said they had no view.
The debate over precisely what a climate emergency entails is set to continue, but however it pans out the government and its successors are facing a series of tricky decisions and business leaders need to be aware of how the equations that have previously allowed for carbon intensive policies and investment decisions are shifting. In his comments this weekend on the decision over Heathrow expansion Plan B's Crosland could have been speaking about any number of policy choices: "The government can either take the necessary action to avoid climate breakdown or it can stick to 'business as usual'… But it can't have it both ways."
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