01 May 2019

Jeremy Corbyn has called for the Government to declare a climate emergency but, argues Jill Rutter, a willingness to take long-term tough decisions on carbon emissions is far more important than short-term gestures.

The consequences of climate change, such as floods and droughts, may call for the sort of drastic action that normally goes along with a “state of emergency”. But the sort of actions required to deal with climate change itself are very different. A state of emergency that continued for years – or indeed decades – might be a dramatic initial gesture. On its own, however, it is no guarantee of success.

The Extinction Rebellion campaigners have put climate change back on the political agenda

Back in 1989, Margaret Thatcher became the first politician to call real attention to the risks of climate change. The UK then coasted towards its Kyoto Protocol – the 1992 UN agreement on greenhouse emission reductions – commitments after switching, in the so-called “dash-for-gas”, from traditional coal to gas-fired power plants. And the Labour Government ensured that the UK became the first country to put targets for emissions reduction into legislation with the enactment of the Climate Change Act in 2008. The machinery has survived despite pressure from George Osborne and David Cameron’s scepticism about the “green crap” that he had previously championed, but the double whammy of austerity and Brexit had pushed climate change back down the priority list.

So the first big achievement of Extinction Rebellion demonstrators has been to get mainstream politicians talking about climate change again.

Sounding determined about climate change is the easy part

Political competition can shift the dial: it was David Cameron’s initial embrace of climate change as part of his detoxification of the Conservatives which led to Labour’s Climate Change Act. And while politicians may be willing to raise the level of ambition in existing climate change legislation – for example, to set a goal of eliminating net carbon emissions by 2050 (or even earlier) – the latest assessment from the Climate Change Committee, the independent body established under the Climate Change Act to assess UK progress towards its climate targets, suggests the UK is not yet on target to meet its 80% goal for 2050.

The trouble with climate change is that demanding action is easy – as is legislating to demand goals. The big question for both main parties is whether the heightened rhetoric will be accompanied by the action necessary to deliver those targets.

A cautious politician might look nervously over the Channel

At exactly the same time as Extinction Rebellion was bringing parts of central London to a halt, President Macron was unveiling his reaction to the protests that France has been suffering since the early autumn. One of the initial triggers for the protests by the “gilets jaunes” was Macron’s determination to make good his commitment to the Paris climate change agreement and raise the level of fuel duty. There were other causes too (like the decision to bin the wealth tax), but the proximate cause of the protests was the feeling that metropolitan France in general – and Paris in particular –  was oblivious to the needs of the “left behind” in France: people who are dependent on their cars. Macron has long since dropped his fuel tax increases.

But before UK politicians get too smug, the UK has not raised fuel duty since 2011. That means it has been cut in real terms by 15%, costing the Exchequer around £6bn a year. Every year, Chancellors use this to show that they care about ordinary motorists – even when petrol prices are tumbling. They also know that their chances of getting Parliament to pass a fuel tax increase are vanishingly low.

There are similar issues with other energy costs – or upfront measures that, for example, raise the costs of housing even if they lower the long-term costs. Some of these could be addressed in a spending review – if, and when, that happens – but all the slack in revenue spending is already earmarked for the NHS. That may just leave some scope for redirecting capital spending, unless the whole burden is to fall on individual citizens and businesses.

The essential problem remains. Cutting climate emissions means making people take different and – usually in the short-run at least – more costly choices, and all for benefits that will not be felt for almost a generation.

Climate priority is more important than climate emergency

Tackling climate change is not about short-term crisis measures. The smoothest path to a no-carbon future requires a strategy which systematically transitions the UK away from carbon dependence – through a combination of energy system change and investment in energy efficiency, in a well-defined time frame. And UK action alone is not enough: climate change requires collective international action to make any dent in the trajectory of emissions.

It may just be possible that, with his talk of an emergency, Jeremy Corbyn has helped to kick-start a political debate which will embolden politicians to take tougher measures. But politicians need to appeal well beyond the few who took to the streets over Easter and instead to the many who say they are worried about climate change – but have lots of other concerns with their day-to-day lives too.