Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg have reinvigorated the climate movement and revealed the utter paucity of their critics' arguments - but what happens now?
What's the plan?
It is the question that ricochets around every corner of the debate sparked by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and its protests. It is the question asked of the government, the police, and the Mayor's Office as they mull the conundrum of how to handle resolutely peaceful, but hugely disruptive protesters intent on the biggest act of mass civil disobedience in modern British history. It is the riposte to those in the political and commentariat class who patronisingly acknowledge the protestors' 'worthy' aims, before condescendingly insisting they should be telling a more positive story or embracing a reheated Thatcherist credo of innovation and carbon pricing or towing their pink boat to China or whatever. And it is the legitimate challenge for XR and its supporters, as it considers how to best utilise the public awareness and political space it has created and perhaps starts to recognise that the demand for a net zero emission economy by 2025 is at the counter-productive/all but impossible end of the ambition spectrum.
One of the many useful services Extinction Rebellion has performed is to establish a heuristic to determine whether or not a politician, business leader, or media commentator takes climate action seriously through their reaction to the protests. The angry and just plain nasty response from the usual climate sceptic noises off was to be expected, but what has been far more disappointing has been the faux concern and limited engagement from those the US climate hawk David Roberts refers to as the 'Very Serious People' - the high profile and hugely influential commentators who insist they take climate change seriously, but it is best tackled through modest policy tweaks that amount to little more than business-as-usual.
Such tepid hot takes have been out in force this week. We've had repeated assurances market-led innovation will save us, without the slightest acknowledgement the UK and the world has been collectively pursuing such an approach for over a decade, during which time global emissions have just kept climbing.
We've had government pleas to praise the UK's decarbonisation record, with barely a nod to the fact the UK is now on track to miss its emissions target, has axed key emission reduction policies, and has what Greta Thunberg described this week as a "creative" approach to carbon accounting.
We've had whataboutery with China, without even a glancing reference to why China's emissions are so high (hint: they make everyone's stuff), how the country has become the world's biggest clean tech market, nor what another country's emissions has to do with the UK's domestic decarbonisation aspirations.
We've had sage advice for XR activists to tell a more positive story about the benefits of sustainable living so as not to scare and demotivate the public, without any awareness of the level of disruptive change deep decarbonisation will likely require, nor engagement with the fact positive green messaging has been used repeatedly throughout the past decade and, again, emissions have kept climbing. Don't worry everyone, the climate crisis can be solved if environmentalists were just a bit more chipper when stopping traffic.
We've even had fearmongering that the protests will usher in an era where climate deniers are locked up for thought crimes, without any serious explanation as to how the biggest authoritarian threat to our society currently is not the people proposing the proroguing of parliament, but the people outside with the bongos.
A touch of humility
You would think anyone who accepts the science on climate change and understands the civilisation-threatening scale of the risks spelled out in the most recent IPCC report would look at people willing to get arrested in their desperation to drive bolder action against those risks and recognise the least they deserve is an honest and engaged response, perhaps even characterised by a touch of humility and a guilty acceptance decarbonisation efforts to date are yet to make so much as the slightest dent in global emissions trajectories. But apparently not. Glib Tweets about China are obviously easier.
The response to the critical 'what's the plan' question seems to be 'more of the same, with a touch more ambition perhaps, but let's not scare the horses; look, we're doing our best here, we've got the message, no we haven't got any better ideas, can you please put the superglue down and let us get back to business-as-usual'. It is disappointing, a dereliction of duty, and in no way commensurate to the scale of the climate crisis, to put it mildly.
Energy and Clean Growth Minister Claire Perry mounted a robust defence of the government's approach yesterday, arguing that the promoting of the UK's successful decarbonisation track record should not be read as complacency, but a strategy to demonstrate to the wider public and other countries that deep emissions cuts could be achieved in a way that does not undermine economic gains.
It is a compelling argument, but it would be on much firmer foundations if the government was on track to meet binding emissions targets and if the Prime Minister and rest of Cabinet invested proper political capital in advancing the clean growth argument. Instead May ignores climate change in her conference speeches, betrays complete complacency in her PMQs responses, lets Cabinet Ministers basically ignore their decarbonisation responsibilities, signs off on new high carbon infrastructure, and, if rumours are to be believed, is allowing a Spending Review to advance with next to nothing new for the environment.
However, none of this is to give XR a free pass. You can welcome XR's ambition and catalysing impact, as the CBI has done this week, and still critique their tactics and precise demands. Against the goals set by the organisers the protests have been a huge success to date, driving climate change into the national conversation in a completely unprecedented manner, forcing all those Very Serious People to actually discuss a topic they profess to take seriously before ignoring it for 51 weeks of the year. The polling results are hugely encouraging, with fully 60 per cent approving of the group's aims even if a slim majority disapprove of the disruptive tactics. As XR confirms it is to bring the latest wave of protests to an end it is now reporting it has secured 30,000 new supporters in the past nine days.
But like any new movement XR's impact remains fragile. Much of its success has been drawn from the moral authority that comes from well-intentioned, unerringly polite, peaceful protest and the carefully cultivated impression that it is not like the cookie-cutter left-leaning protests of the past. It has been encouraging to see the few missteps that risked turning the campaign into a more familiar howl of anti-capitalist outrage - the threat to 'shut down' Heathrow, the prospect of mass disruption to the Tube, the smashing of windows at Shell HQ - have not escalated. It has chosen to close the current wave of action at precisely the right time and in a constructive manner. 'We are not Occupy', the group declares. But the risk remains that even one misjudged action could badly undermine the surprisingly high level of public support the protests have enjoyed to date.
The group's three core demands - the declaration of a climate emergency, a 2025 net zero emission target, and citizens' assembly to determine how to meet the new goal - are also not without their risks. The declaration of a 'climate emergency' feels apposite at a time when temperatures are soaring and even financial giants such as Legal & General are warning of looming catastrophe. We are already signed up to the Paris Agreement and what, after all, is that if not a global recognition that we are facing an epoch-shaping crisis. There is nothing to be lost and a huge amount to be gained from the government telling the truth and declaring this emergency an emergency.
However, a People's Assembly could either prove an effective means of breaking the political logjam and creating space for sufficiently bold decarbonisation policies or a mechanism for demonstrating quite how difficult it is to sell transformational emissions cutting programmes to the public.
There is encouraging evidence from around the world that deliberative democracy tends to deliver sensible, rational, and effective policy development. Climate policy with its huge reach and real world impact feels like an appropriate topic for such deliberation. But the risk remains that it simply highlights the same conflicting pressures that have hamstrung politicians' efforts to date. At the same time were a People's Assembly to come forward with a sufficiently robust net zero emission plan it would face inevitable questions over its democratic legitimacy from its many critics. It will be fascinating to see how the upcoming experiments in this area, such as Oxford City Council's newly announced Citizens Assembly, will pan out.
Net Zero by 2025
And then there is the vision of achieving net zero emissions in the UK by 2025. Such a goal is, how shall we put this, bullish? Optimistic? Absurd? Counterproductive?
Can a major industrialised economy become net zero emissions within six years? Well, nothing is impossible; but also, no. The only way to have a shot at such rapid decarbonisation would be genuine state of emergency, wartime measures: energy and fuel rationing; mass insulation, EV deployment, and tree-planting programmes; cars banned and seized; boilers torn out of homes at the rate of thousands a day; an unprecedented increase in debt or quantitative easing to pay for it all; wind turbines and solar panels literally everywhere; heavy industry shuttered as you await carbon capture technologies to emerge. Even after all that, you wouldn't make the deadline.
It is a common campaign tactic to demand the stretch target and then declare victory when a slightly less demanding version is agreed. But a target of such sweeping ambition does risk alienating the public and politicians with the sheer scale of the disruption it entails. Is there anyone, really, who believes the public is sufficiently signed up to climate action to give their democratic consent to a programme of such rapid transformation?
Moreover, XR feels like a force that will be with us for years to come. What happens in two years' time when 2025 is four years away? What happens when the target is inevitably missed?
The IPCC advised that to keep temperature increases below 1.5C the world needed to reach net zero status by the 2050s with industrialised nations becoming net zero by the 2040s. I find it hard to see what XR would lose from arguing the UK has to assume a leadership role in light of its historic emissions and aim for net zero by 2035 - a goal to deliver full decarbonisation before a child born today has left full time education. It would still be the most ambitious target of its kind in the world, it would still require an unprecedented economic, social, and technological transformation, and it would still be in line with the science. But you could also just about sketch out a credible plan for meeting the goal that managed the disruption on communities and households and better highlighted the huge economic and lifestyle benefits that should come with deep decarbonisation.
There is a compelling response to this critique, which was best summarised over the weekend by Professor Julia Steinberger of the University of Leeds:
THIS 👇is why I have massive sympathy for the zero emissions by 2025 demand of Extinction Rebellion. It's a political and social statement, rather than a scientific one. You say it's not feasible to get to 0⃣ by then? FINE. Then show us just how fast you can do it. https://t.co/Gbbw7ErxwS— Prof Steinberger 🌍🌱🌹 ClimateAction FightFascism (@JKSteinberger) April 20, 2019
In other words, what's the plan? If the commentariat response is to arrogantly downplay the climate crisis, the government response is to praise its record to date and acknowledge more action is needed, while offering scant indication as to what that action may entail, and XR's response is a well-intentioned demand for the virtually impossible, then what does a credible and deliverable plan look like?
A comprehensive answer would stretch to thousands of pages and be the subject of intense debate at every level, but one of the most frustrating things about the UK's current failure to push itself into line with its legally-binding emissions targets is that many of the measures required for the next phase of decarbonisation are well-established, largely cost effective, and remarkably popular. A brave and competent government could deliver them within months if it treated the "enormous crisis" of climate change as seriously as it professes.
The first step should be the declaration of a 'climate emergency' or similar. This week Perry responded to the latest call for the government to endorse such a statement by insisting she did not know what such a declaration would mean, arguing instead that actions would speak louder than words. She is right, a climate emergency is a matter of semantics, so campaigners need to get specific.
The government should declare a climate emergency that requires quarterly COBRA-style meetings of the Prime Minister and key Cabinet Ministers to track progress towards net zero emissions. It may sound like an imposition on Ministers' time to meet so frequently, but if the formal net zero goal ends up being around 2045 then every quarter that passes is one per cent of the available time. Progress needs to be driven and as any corporate engaged in a change programme will tell you constant tracking of progress is essential.
COBRA climate meetings would then be the centrepiece for wider governance reforms. All Whitehall departments would be required to report quarterly on their decarbonisation progress. The government would commit to bi-annual cross party talks and similarly frequent summits with the devolved assemblies and regional mayors to further drive and track progress. Labour's plan to rewrite the Treasury Green Book to prioritise climate action would be adopted wholesale. This is what a climate emergency means.
Net Zero Now
The second step is to establish the target. Earlier this year, Labour's shadow energy and climate minister Alan Whitehead used the first Commons debate on climate action in two years to call on the government to pre-empt the CCC's upcoming report on whether to set a net zero goal by starting to plan now for what a net zero emission strategy should look like. Given it would be unconscionable to accept the Paris Agreement and then not accept the need for a net zero target, why wasn't the government getting ahead of the game and working on the necessary plans now? It is a good question and even with just a week to go before the CCC reports the government should confirm work is already underway. Every day counts.
When the CCC does come forward with its recommendations, the Very Serious People will be out in force once again to lambast the costs and question the feasibility of a net zero goal. A government that was confident in its abilities and fully committed to climate action would forcefully reject these arguments. Not only is there copious economic modelling to show that deep decarbonisation offers huge net benefits to the economy, those arguing against the net zero transition will often be precisely the same people who in the next breath will argue the economic risks associated with Brexit are worth it when you consider the putative long term gains. Their hypocrisy really should negate their critique.
They want to gamble the UK's economic health and geopolitical standing in order to secure a slither more sovereignty from Brussels. Advocates of a net zero target want to take a much more modest and managed gamble on the future shape of a modern, decarbonised, competitive economies in order to ensure the future viability of civilisation. It should be no contest. An ambitious net zero target, probably for the mid-2040s, complete with beefed up interim targets for the coming two decades, should be adopted as quickly as possible.
And then there is the specifics. There is a whole smorgasbord of well-established policies that a government truly committed to climate action could take, the vast majority of which would be popular and highly effective. They would all face political opposition and require some additional funding, but all the polling suggests the opposition is less prevalent than the media makes out and the funding requirements are modest in the context of the UK's accounts.
For example, and in no particular order, a credible net zero plan could and should include making energy efficiency a national infrastructure priority; further increasing investment in EV infrastructure; strengthening product energy efficiency standards; properly funding a post-Brexit Green Watchdog; delivering on CAP reform promises to incentivise improved land management and rewilding; allowing the cheapest onshore renewables to compete for government contracts; introducing a frequent fliers levy for aviation and using the proceeds to fund green aviation R&D; beefing up net zero industry and CCS plans; prioritising comprehensive green heat, smart grid, and, yes, even small modular reactor pilot projects; extending producer responsibility schemes into more industries; making natural history and science a compulsory GCSE subject; issuing green sovereign bonds; making TCFD-compliant reporting compulsory; launching a Royal Commission on stranded assets and the carbon bubble; introducing green ISAs; stepping up negative emissions R&D; retaining fracking tremor rules that the industry agreed to (which is akin to banning further development); developing new climate resilience planning rules and infrastructure funding; ordering a national security review focused on escalating physical and geopolitical climate-related threats; reviewing the future of fuel duty and the North Sea in a decarbonising world; introducing ultra-low emission zones outside of London alongside a targeted diesel scrappage scheme; funding a national electric bus programme; reviving rail electrification programmes; removing barriers to energy storage and green hydrogen development; revitalising UK climate diplomacy efforts and export support; ending financial support for overseas high carbon projects; forming a Just Transition Commission. The list goes on and on.
Would such a programme get us to net zero emissions? Of course not. So much more is required. But none of the above policies are particularly outlandish or overtly costly, many of them would drive economic growth and improve lives, and opposition would often be limited to the usual suspects. The increase in green spending could be covered through either the shift in priorities climate change necessitates or increased borrowing on the grounds future generations will benefit massively from the resulting infrastructure.
Such a programme could command huge corporate support, investor backing, and massive public engagement, at the same time as ensuring medium term carbon targets are met and the R&D necessary for the final and most challenging phase of deep decarbonisation is delivered. It might not amount to 'overthrowing capitalism' as some XR activists demand, nor does it represent the full spectrum state-led investment of a Green New Deal. But it would deliver emissions cuts, drive essential investment, improve lives, and at the same time deliver the rapid reform of capitalism that is essential if a net zero emission economy is to be built within the span of one career. It would also help build public support for bolder climate action in case the escalating crisis does require a more interventionist approach in the future.
The challenge now for those dismissing XR is are they willing to use their considerable political influence to back a bold net zero emission plan as a matter of urgency, or are they happier pretending to care about the greatest challenge of the age while sitting on the sidelines and sniping at those who are understandably fearful for their futures. The challenge for XR as it packs up shop with a promise of future actions to come, is how best to maintain the hugely impressive game-changing momentum that has been generated in the space of just a week and a half? Is the vision to overthrow capitalism in all its forms, or to do whatever it takes to peacefully create the political space and expanded public constituency for rapid decarbonisation policies that can work at scale?
The challenge for green businesses and mainstream NGOs is how best to utilise the space XR has created and secure tangible progress that engineers the decarbonisation step change that is so desperately needed?
In short, what's the plan, everyone?
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing, available for free to BusinessGreen subscribers.