WESTMINSTER REFLECTIONS: Sir Bernard Jenkin MP on building a greener future
London is recovering from the so-called Extinction Rebellion protests, where carefully calibrated civil disobedience brought parts of London to a standstill. They were peaceful and well organised, but not fearful of arrest.
Thousands of people know climate change is happening and are unhappy about the political elite’s response. The past four years were the hottest four years on record, and the hottest nine years ever recorded all took place this century. Only last month an unseasonably warm bank holiday weekend was the hottest ever.
Some say protesters all too readily seize on individual events to prophesy doom, but there is now an overwhelming accumulation of evidence and a scientific consensus that highlight the risks of climate inaction. Look at successive reports of the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yes, there is plenty still to contest, but the protesters are right: we cannot afford to wait for certainty. We know what gases cause global warming. Carbon emissions, mass-produced by industrialised economies, have raised the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from a historical average of ~280 parts per millions (ppm) to a record of 410ppm since the start of the industrial revolution. The consequences are potentially vast.
They will affect people in the UKand around the world. Rising sea levels threaten parts of Essex and our coastal communities, and some whole nations. Desertification is on the increase. The whole of North Africa will run out of ground water by the middle of this century. Warming will expand habitats for insects, such as mosquitos, carrying infectious diseases. Habitat and biodiversity destruction will lead to more mass migration, as people seek escape from increasingly inhospitable areas, in search of water and food security, as well as jobs and prosperity.
This has coincided with the fastest period for thousands of years. While the UK has done an admirable job of combatting climate change – reducing its carbon footprint by approximately 40 per cent since 1990 – more must be done. As the young climate activist Greta Thunberg pointed out when she visited Parliament after Easter, much of this reduction has been brought about by simply relocating the country in which UK carbon is emitted. While it may flatter the UK’s statistics if particularly carbon-intensive goods are no longer made here, making them on the other side of a border doesn’t change the global picture.
This isn’t to say that serious progress hasn’t been made. The UK has hugely reduced its reliance on coal – producing nearly one tenth as much energy with the fuel now as it did in 1990.
In May this year, the UK was able to supply its entire energy needs without using any coal-generated power for more than five days – the longest period without coal since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. The country’s current target is to remove coal entirely by 2025.
In the past 30 years, the amount of renewable energy: solar, wind and tidal, has skyrocketed. Businesses have also played their part: about one third of the reduction has come from carbon savings there.
Moreover, there is an opportunity here for the UK to place itself as a world leader in the research and development needed. The UK already has one of the most developed research infrastructures in the world, centred on the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and the London university hub. Further investment in this field could mean that when industries around the world need people with the skills and expertise to decarbonise, the UK is their first port of call.
But more needs to be done, and it needs to be done at an international scale. The United Statesand Chinaare the two biggest contributors in the world, and Indiahas had the fastest rate of international growth of any major economy. There are serious arguments to be made about the payoffs between rapid industrial development and decarbonisation, but the key point is that we need both. Without economic growth, the world will shrink from the investment that decarbonisation needs.
That isn’t to diminish the moral responsibility that the UK has to lead the way in fighting climate change. While we may not be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the UK is, per capita, responsible for the largest amount of carbon currently sitting in the Earth’s atmosphere. This shouldn’t be a surprise – as the home of the wave of 1800s industrialisation and the world’s major power until last century, the UK has done more than most to contribute to the situation the planet now finds itself in.
But this means that there is also scope for the UK to do more on the international stage than simply point to its own record. British political leaders will not only recover credibility with climate campaigners if we lead the way, but also show how pioneering research can be carried out without sacrificing economic prosperity. Then we can demonstrate how developed countries can build themselves a greener future.