This is the future climate hawks want to see

James Murray
clock • 7 min read
This is the future climate hawks want to see

The latest CCC report may paint a bleak picture but it also again highlights how a cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous economy can be built

The story about Margaret Thatcher interrupting a long-winded policy discussion by slamming a copy of Friedrich Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty on the table and declaring "this is what we believe" has entered political folklore, not least because it so perfectly encapsulated both the Iron Lady's unbending nature and the ideological, economic, and political convulsions that would grip the UK throughout the 1980s and beyond.

It makes you wonder if what is missing from the UK government's deeply flawed and badly underpowered pursuit of both its climate goals and levelling up agenda, is someone willing to take yesterday's 600 page tome from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), drop it on a table with a satisfying thud, and declare "this is what we believe".

It would be easy at this point to simply list the litany of policy failures and the paucity of political leadership documented by the CCC's almost satirically titled progress report. The lack of action on domestic energy efficiency that has now been evident for so long it has become a point of cliché for campaigners to point it out. The continued failure to deliver large scale industrial decarbonisation projects that everyone has known for over a decade will be needed. The absence of any coherent strategy for tackling emissions from land use and agriculture. The renewables-hostile planning system, grid bottlenecks, and glacially-paced nuclear pipeline. The growing fears charging infrastructure and public and active transport networks are struggling to keep pace with soaring demand. The political cowardice contained in the failure to politely ask the public if they might recognise that there's an actual war on and consider, maybe, turning the thermostat down a notch and eating a tiny bit less meat.

These rolling failures and scandals are only partially offset by the UK's genuine success on offshore wind, coal power phase out, and electric vehicle deployment, and the belated plans to tackle industrial emissions.

It would be equally easy to lament the tragedy of the current moment. The sight of a Prime Minister urging us to get over our "phobia towards hydrocarbons" even as those self-same hydrocarbons push the biosphere into unprecedented and dangerous territory. The insanity of the G7 talking up climate action even as it signals its support for new gas projects and refuses to divert land used for energy crops to help tackle a worsening global food crisis. The difficulty of arguing against new domestic energy projects at a time when energy security has suddenly become a real and present threat and there is a moral imperative to end imports of Russian fossil fuels. The sad reality is that hopes of engineering a rapid reduction in global emissions this decade could prove to be one of the many victims of the Kremlin's horrific aggression.

But there is a more optimistic way to read the CCC's latest report, and it doesn't even have to rely on the government's increasingly tired line that at least the UK has the best decarbonisation track record of any major economy.

The CCC's analysis and the myriad reports and studies that mirror its central conclusions point to a remarkably broad and robust consensus on how to deliver an accelerated transition to net zero emissions and the huge benefits that would flow from decarbonisation. This consensus among political and business leaders, as well as the public, is now so well established that it is rarely commented upon, but it remains hugely important.

The net zero transition is mind-bendingly complex and contains near infinite variables and choices, but it is still possible to over complicate it.

We know what is needed. A major building retrofit programme to deliver enormous energy cost savings and turbocharge the roll out of electric heating systems. A rapid build out of wind and solar power capacity, backed by smarter grids and energy storage systems, and a mix of nuclear, hydrogen, and possibly carbon capture and storage power plants. More public transport capacity, improved active travel networks, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and continued R&D investment in low carbon aviation and shipping technologies. An embrace of regenerative agricultural practices and moderately more planet-friendly diets that free up some land for natural carbon sinks. And the development of genuinely low carbon industrial hubs based on cutting edge carbon capture and hydrogen technologies.

The policy detail of how to deliver such reforms may require complex changes to labyrinthine planning regulations, fiscal rules, clean power contracts, farming subsidies, building codes, carbon pricing mechanisms, border tariffs, and grid regimes. But it is all eminently achievable, and as yesterday's report makes clear, the soaring cost of oil and gas means an accelerated net zero transition would deliver a 0.5 per cent boost to GDP even before you consider the harder to quantify benefits that would come in the form of improved health outcomes, reduced climate impacts, and enhanced industrial competitiveness.

Environmentalists have a frustrating tendency to see the response to the climate crisis through the prism of arcane and alienating seminar room debates over degrowth versus sustainable development, steady state economies and circular material flows, the role of government and the private sector, and whether environmentalism is inherently anti-human or the ultimate humanitarian project. Such debates are fascinating, but they are too often hijacked by the tyranny of small differences. Whichever economic or philosophical model you impose upon it, the net zero transition and the attempt to stabilise the climate requires much the same practical steps: a mix of public and private sector action to deliver near-zero emission energy, transport, and industrial systems, genuinely sustainable food production, and mechanisms for drawing down any remaining excess emissions.

The main thing stopping it happening at the pace and scale required is short termist, outdated, economic thinking, and a lack of political nerve. Pretty much everyone now agrees on the destination, they just lack the focus, discipline, and bravery to properly embark on the journey, preferring instead the political comfort blanket of triangulation and populist posturing.

Of course, arguing all that is needed is 'political will' is something of a cop out. If it were easy to generate such will, it would have been done already. Transforming the political economy can prove even harder than transforming the actual economy. Hence, the CCC's increasingly palpable frustration and intemperate language.

But one way to help break the current political and policy log jam is to keep reiterating that this transition can be done, and is being done.

No country is even close to getting every part of the net zero transition right yet, no matter how often the UK government insists it is world leading. But there is a fascinating thought experiment to be had imagining what an economy would look like right now if it took the best part of different countries' net zero strategies.

An economy that boasted the UK's offshore wind industry and planned zero carbon industrial hubs, France's nuclear plants, Denmark's heat pumps, Norway's EV adoption rates, China's clean tech manufacturing and epic renewables projects, India's solar boom, Germany's passivhaus buildings, the Netherland's cycling networks, South Africa's Just Transition Partnership, Japan's levels of energy efficiency, Costa Rica's forest protection, the EU's carbon market, Australia's rooftop solar industry, Iceland's direct air capture plant, and Silicon Valley's innovation ecosystem, would be well on its way to net zero already.

Such an economy would be more productive, more competitive, and less exposed to volatile fossil fuel prices than its peers. It would play a leading role in the 21st century, shape the future of human civilisation, and push back against the march of petrostate authoritarians. It would be happier and healthier too. Done right, the public support would be overwhelming.

This is the future climate hawks want to see. It is mad they have to fight for it. 

This article first appeared as part of BusinessGreen's Overnight Briefing email, which is available to all BusinessGreen Members.

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