WESTMINSTER REFLECTIONS: Sir Bernard Jenkin MP places Brexit aside and addresses Extinction Rebellion’s demands
Sir Bernard Jenkin MP places Brexit aside and addresses Extinction Rebellion’s demands
For every day during one week in October, my staff and I couldn’t come into Parliament without having to brave protesters waving flags, camping out in tents on pavements and in the road and banging drums. Perhaps unusually, given the UK’s political climate, it was nothing to do with Brexit. Rather it was the demonstrations organised by Extinction Rebellion, the climate change activist group.
Extinction Rebellion’s stated purpose is to increase public awareness of the severity of climate change and to inject greater urgency into government, policymakers and MPs such as myself. I support these aims. The danger of global warming is the most serious and systemic challenge that all countries face. Regardless of whether you are a rich nation or a developing economy, none of us can afford to ignore the threat presented by climate change.
People should be concerned. Climate change has already blighted millions of people’s lives: increasing the range of dangerous insects, bleaching coral reefs and causing coastal erosion. This explains the depth of feeling that has motivated some of the more extravagant protests by Extinction Rebellion, including disrupting air travel, gluing themselves to roads and jumping on top of trains. Whether these actions – however noble – do more harm than good to the cause that these activists are trying to advance is a question that will only be answered in the future.
It is, however, worth looking closely at Extinction Rebellion’s aims, especially because they are an international group who have been in major cities around the world. Among their demands is that governments commit to reaching net-zero CO2 emissions by 2025, 25 years ahead of the government’s target of 2050.
For the UK to achieve net-zero by 2050 requires intense government action. We have to convert all forms of transport to electric cars, lorries or vans. We have to transform how we power our homes and offices. Entire business models will have to change. However, the government’s Climate Change Committee says we can do this by 2050, but not by the earlier date. Moreover, were this pattern repeated globally, the world would probably see a total temperature rise of under 1.5 degrees Celsius.
To criticise Extinction Rebellion is not to say that the overall aim of decarbonisation is unworthy or, indeed, unnecessary. Criticising the UK’s commitment – despite it being the first major economy in the world with a 2050 target – for being too unambitious is not without merit. But it isn’t fair either to refuse to recognise the enormous financial and economic cost that would come with decarbonising by 2025.
Electrifying all cars, for instance, will cost the UK government the more than £30 billion per year in lost road fuel duties. £30 billion is one and a half per cent of the UK’s GDP each and every year. To put this another way, it is one quarter of the entire budget of our healthcare system. It is one thing to make this change gradually, but completely different problems arise when you attempt to complete it in a matter of months.
What would be the effect on the lives of ordinary people if we forced them to spend thousands of pounds purchasing new vehicles? What would happen to the worst-off in society if we cut tens of billions of pounds in state spending in a single year? Hitting the 2050 target is doable, and can command popular consent. Make the target too ambitious and, not only will we fail, but we will damage the lives of millions in the process of that failure.
XR seems to see capitalism as the enemy of environmentalism. This is despite the fact that it is through the capitalist system that people have managed to reduce emissions and pollution. The more prosperous capitalist economies can decarbonise the future. The UK has reduced carbon emissions by 38 per cent since 1990. The last time the UK released as much carbon into the atmosphere as today was in 1890, or during the 1926 General Strike. No other major economy has reduced CO2 as quickly as we have.
Since 1971, coal and oil accounted for 88 per cent of the UK’s entire energy supply. For three months this year, it fell to 0.6 per cent. For the past three months, renewables have generated more electricity than fossil fuels for the first time in recorded history.
And, I hasten to add, the UK has managed all of these things without seeing capitalism as the enemy. In fact, the private sector accounts for 70 per cent of all funding for research and development in the UK. Figures from the World Bank show that, in developed countries, private funding accounts for well more than half of all agricultural research funding.
To put it simply: our existing model, appropriately regulated, is the only way to provide funding for environmentally friendly solutions to current climate challenges. This is because of the traditional failings of non-market led systems: bureaucrats are far worse at allocating resources than investors and consumers. That isn’t to say that proactive government and innovative regulation are not essential to any solution, but that evidence shows that state direction of resources is far more likely to fail.
Ultimately, fighting climate change is a task that the governments, and peoples of the world, must achieve. But the way to do it isn’t to terrify people into despair if they don’t meet impossible and fantastical ecological challenges. The job of political leaders is to confront people with realism but also with hope. It’s actually a positive process: convincing people that their own industry and ingenuity is more than up to the task of defending the environment upon which we all depend.