Are You Sitting Comfortably?


Can we really be running out of time if we’ve given ourselves until 2050 to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions? After all, the UK government has a solid net zero strategy in place and a legally binding target. Perhaps we should simply stick to the target we’ve set ourselves and we’ll get there in the end.

(As an aside, there’s the small matter of our destination, of ‘net zero’ versus zero. Net zero means any remaining emissions would be made up for with carbon removal projects like planting forests or by extracting greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere and storing them underground. However, planting trees does not immediately compensate for the immediate emissions, as the carbon they capture is over the life of the tree. And direct air capture technologies do not actually exist today at the scale we need, although most plans assume they will be invented and working fully before 2050.)

Encouragingly, halving emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels is the new normal across the global economy, with the urgency of this decade underlined by the impacts of climate change we are already feeling.

Every week seems to bring new information about tipping points, beyond which there is no recovery. Some are being reached much faster and with greater impact than expected. For example, rapidly melting permafrost in Siberia is already releasing trapped methane, which over a 20-year timeframe is 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. This is just one example of runaway climate change that we can’t run away from.

Although 2050 seems like a lifetime away, what we do this decade will be critical: you see, it not only matters that we get to net zero; it matters how we get there.

The illustration below makes this point abundantly clear. In both scenarios, we achieve our net zero target by 2050. However, in one we build a fairer, zero-carbon economy as rapidly as possible and in the other we postpone actions into the future.

If we follow the first pathway, we will have generated “A” emissions by the time we get to net zero, while following the other pathway we generate “A+B” emissions during the same period. Not the same outcome, right? Especially when you consider how long greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere and the lasting impact they will have on us.

The pathway we take is as important as the target we set. Every year counts.

The UK government has made big promises. Perhaps the most ambitious climate change target, announced last year, is to reduce our emissions by 78 percent by 2035. This translates to a reduction of over two-thirds by 2030. And yet, we’re on a very different pathway from the one we promised ourselves.

As recently as last week, activists have won a court judgement that the UK government’s plans to reach net zero lack sufficient detail and don’t comply with Britain’s own climate-change legislation. The judgement agreed that the UK’s published proposals for meeting mid-term targets were likely to be inadequate. Things aren’t much better if we look at our track record, with UK emissions increasing by 4 percent in 2021 compared with 2020.

Some might be forgiven for thinking that we should focus on the immediate cost-of-living crisis instead of the climate crisis and that higher emissions are the price we must pay in the short term to get ‘back on track’. Listen then to Lord Deben, the chair of the independent Climate Change Committee (CCC) – a committee that holds our government to account on its targets – and what he had to say recently in this year’s annual report on our progress. Net zero policies are one of the best ways to reduce the increased cost of living. According to the CCC, average household bills would be about £125 lower today if previous plans on green energy and energy efficiency had been followed through, with more benefits besides.

Both soaring summer temperatures and soaring cost of living should be adding impetus for us to take more immediate action to address the climate crisis, not less. ‘Building back better’ has always been about regenerating our economy and securing a safe climate, at the same time. It’s about pathways, not simply endpoints. We’re running out of time because we’re not on the right track and we are worse off for it.

Image: Sharon McCutcheon

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