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UK Climate Assembly findings: this crisis needs leadership

24 September, 2020

John Barrett

Reading time: 4 minutes

Are we still failing to understand what is meant by a “climate crisis”? John Barrett takes a look at the difficult decisions required by government to achieve the 2050 net zero target.

The UK’s Climate Assembly launched its findings on 10 September. 108 people were chosen to give their recommendations on how the UK will reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to net zero by 2050, the current legally-binding target.

They were taken through a sound and robust deliberative consensus building process, hearing from experts, of which I was one, on the possible options to deliver this goal. It is a valuable democratic process that provides essential data on the willingness of people to accept change to the way they travel, heat their homes, what they buy and the way they work.

The conclusions of the 566-page report are clear. People want leadership. They want the Government to act, to make difficult decisions and to transparently explain the logic behind their decisions relying on sound science. They want the transition to be fair and they believe education is essential. There was recognition of the need for change in every sector of the economy. To ensure that the process is democratic, Parliament now need to seriously consider the findings that were commissioned by six Parliamentary Select Committees.

The conclusions of the 566-page report are clear. People want leadership. They want the Government to act, to make difficult decisions and to transparently explain the logic behind their decisions relying on sound science.

There are clearly a lot of good ideas and encouraging signs in the report. However, I was left with the feeling after attending the launch, reading the report and hearing the responses from the Select Committee representatives, that we are still failing to understand what is meant by a “climate crisis”. While reducing UK GHG emissions to net zero by 2050 sounds commendable, it does not align with an equitable UK allocation of the remaining global carbon budget to avoid the dangerous implications of global heating. A recent paper by Kevin Anderson from Manchester University eloquently describes the scale of change needed in the UK, suggesting minimum reductions of 10% a year, far greater than the UK has committed to or achieved in the past.

While all the Select Committee representatives welcome the report, comments such as “climate change is a long term challenge”, “we must defend freedom of choice”, “there is a need to drive innovation in new technologies” all give me serious concerns that there is any recognition in Government that we currently face a “climate crisis”.

By definition, a crisis needs a rapid response, not just a long term plan. It needs a response that is consistent with the scale of the change that will almost definitely impinge on the freedom of individuals to choose high carbon activities to the same extent. With a 65% reduction in emissions required by 2030, we need to rely on the technologies that we have now, not just plan for future innovation. We know that current technologies cannot deliver this scale of change so a reduction in energy demand is essential. The similarities with a meaningful response to COVID are clear. Immediate action is needed, we have to curtail freedom for the greater good and we can’t simply say that the solution in the form of a vaccine will emerge in the future so we don’t need to do anything now.

As well as questioning the ability of politicians to understand the scale of change needed, we also need to question whether, as the experts, we are explaining the severity of the crisis adequately. Did we explain to the participants and the wider public that net zero by 2050 is not enough, that we have tough choices to make? Did we adequately explain that if we allow aviation to grow by between 25 to 50% by 2050 (one of the recommendations made by the assembly participants) that other sectors will need to do more, that other freedoms might need to curtailed and that will place more and more pressure on unproven technologies to remove carbon from our atmosphere?

Our ability to recognise and respond to a crisis is impossible on an individual basis. It has to be the role of Government to tackle vested interests, explain the scale and need for change and to lead.

Banner photo credit: Mangopear Creative on Unsplash

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