OF COURSE THERE’S A CLIMATE EMERGENCY
There is – undoubtedly – a global “climate emergency”. 39 million acres of tropical forests were lost in 2017 alone, the ice shelves are melting at ten times their predicted rate and we are at risk of losing more than 30% of the species on earth by 2050. And that is before you count the direct cost to people.
So we cannot just recite the Government’s achievements; that for the first time last week none of our power stations burned coal; that our renewable capacity has quadrupled since 2010; and that we have reduced Co2 emissions faster than any other nation in the G20.
We cannot just dwell on what we’ve done in the past when we face such a cataclysm. We must be radical on the environment because it’s the right thing to do. I entered Parliament to protect and improve the world – and this is perhaps the greatest cause of our age.
This must be a citizen’s movement, as much as a government initiative, in which each individual takes dozens of steps to reduce their impact – and enjoy the benefits in the process (insulation is good for your bills, as well as the climate; cycling is good for your fitness, as well as your carbon emissions).
But we must not pretend that people in our Cumbrian communities are suddenly going to be able do without a car; nor should we forget that many of our houses depend on oil and wood-stoves. Let’s not allow London to get all the attention on air quality, when central Leeds also has a serious problem. Nor allow companies off the hook. Amazon could start by dealing with their packaging, and too few car manufacturers are following Jaguar Land Rover’s push to become a zero-waste business.
Let’s make it about nature as well as climate. We need to be proud of our love – our deep love – of our uplands, our hedgerows, and, indeed, our hedgehogs. We could capture far more carbon, and transform our lungs and landscape by incentivising farmers to plant more native trees, not in dense plantations, but along hedgerows, and throughout our lowlands. We could easily plant a hundred million more trees in the next five years alone.
As the Environment Minister who signed off the plastic bag tax, I saw how a single 5p charge has already saved 6.6 billion plastic bags. Our national recycling rates continue to be a disgrace – and could be transformed overnight if we standardised the dozens of inefficient collection systems that proliferate around our country. We could do far more at a national level to reduce our carbon emissions, by working with the grain of our own island – our shallow North Sea waters are, as Professor Dieter Helm points out, perfect for storing carbon in our old oil and gas fields or for building off-shore wind.
We should be generous, caring, and cross-party in our approach to climate change, and welcome Parliament’s support for my colleague’s Alex Chalk bill, committing to the UK going zero carbon by 2050.
But we must never fool ourselves into thinking that the way to solve global warming is by an act of unilateral economic disarmament, that damages our own economy, without changing the world. Climate change is global. We should plant a hundred million more trees at home, but still remember that the Amazon is 25 times bigger than the whole of Britain, and that, if we continue to cut it down, we are removing the lungs of the world. We could do much more to save our lapwings, but also much more with our aid budget to help save the lion or the Irrawaddy dolphin.
And then there’s China. China has until recently been building more coal-fired stations a year than our entire generating capacity. They now have 1000 GW of coal-fired stations (when our total capacity is about 70 GW), with hundreds more planned in China and overseas through their Belt and Road initiative.
Even if China reduced the proportion of its energy from coal, their total output will climb with their economic growth – and if it continues to grow at the current rate, the economies of India, China, and Africa will be eight times bigger than they are now by 2050. Our best way of Britain influencing the development of China and India – and saving our planet – is through developing new technology. £1bn more of our budget (and that could be partly from our international aid budget) spent on British research into the light spectrum technologies, or bringing the ingenuity we brought the Graphene to developing a new solar film could transform Chinese and Indian emissions.
But we should be very careful with our investments, however good our intentions. Britain should not have encouraged people to invest so heavily in diesel vehicles – believing it would help the environment. Nor should Germany have funnelled almost 150 billion Euros into solar and wind technologies – failing to capture the renewable market or to meet its emission targets, and ultimately being forced to build another 25 GW of coal-fired stations.
Saving our planet will require an eclectic range of policies – from embracing exciting new technologies, to deepening our love of nature and history – from changing our own lives, to influencing China. It will need moral courage and grinding common-sense. It will require a unique philosophy of action that is unashamedly modern and romantic, individualistic and international, idealistic, popular, and practical.