ZERO in 2050
We're on our way to zero in 2050 but maybe via 1984. Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 21 June.
Is there more to life than GDP and growth? And how should we talk about all these sustainability issues? And 1984? Have you read it? This year is the 70th anniversary of its publication. It's the story of a totalitarian surveillance society. That certainly didn't happen in 1984, but you can make up your own mind about what's happening now.
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Extinction Rebellion announced plans to blockade Heathrow Airport on 18th June in protest at the proposed third runway, but admitted the day before that it would not do so, nor would it disrupt the airport in July. Extinction Rebellion supporters have been prepared to be arrested at previous demonstrations, but maybe it was the threat of penalties including life imprisonment that led them to back down. Or perhaps it was a publicity stunt and they intended to back down all along.
As Theresa May leaves office she has announced that the UK will reduce its GHG emissions by 2050 as I said, not by 80% but by a full 100%. Zero net emissions by 2050. Is this a response to Extinction Rebellion’s Easter demands for the government to tell the truth, admit that there’s a climate crisis and announce plans to deal with it? Or perhaps Mrs May intended to do this all along.
What has she actually done? Last month Parliament debated the issue and came to a conclusion - without a vote - that there was indeed a climate crisis. This is now a matter of record, but the debate has no executive consequences and did not bind the government or instruct it do to anything at all. Mrs May says we will end the UK contribution to climate change by 2050 and claims that the legislation puts the UK on the path to become the first major economy to set net zero emissions target in law. What she has done is to amend the 2008 Climate Change Act to say that the UK’s net emissions will be reduced by 100% of 1990 levels, instead of the previous 80%, taking into account technological advances since the Act was first passed. Interestingly, the explanatory note to the amendment states “A full impact assessment has not been produced for this instrument.”
Youth Steering Group
At the same time the prime minister announced the creation of the Youth Steering Group. The Group, set up by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and led by the British Youth Council, will advise Government on priorities for environmental action and give a view on progress to date against existing commitments on climate, waste and recycling, and biodiversity loss. They will start their review in July.
The main advice on how to achieve the 2050 target comes from the recent report of the Committee on Climate Change. As reported last month, the Committee set out the following steps:
- Quadrupling the supply of low-carbon electricity by 2050,
- Improving the efficiency of the whole of the UK’s building stock and introducing low-carbon heating
- Introducing electric vehicles, which should be the only option from 2035 or earlier, (the present target for the UK government is 2040, although many other countries have chosen earlier dates.)
- Developing carbon capture and storage technology and low-carbon hydrogen. The committee says these are a necessity not an option, but such development has not so far been successful on a commercial scale,
- Stopping biodegradable waste going to landfill,
- Phasing-out potent fluorinated gases, (presumably used in refrigerators and air conditioning)
- Increasing tree planting
- Introducing measures to reduce emissions on farms.
The committee also said that these policies must be urgently strengthened and must deliver tangible emissions reductions – current policy is not enough even for existing targets.
This comes at a time when BP’s latest Statistical Review of World Energy reveals that carbon emissions from the global energy industry rose last year at the fastest rate in almost a decade after extreme weather and surprise swings in global temperatures stoked extra demand for fossil fuels.
Investors on the March
Also this week, 88 investors with nearly US$10 trillion assets are targeting companies that are not transparent enough about their environmental impact, and pushing them to disclose this information through CDP, the non-profit global environmental disclosure platform.
The investors are targeting 707 companies with US$15.3 trillion market capitalisation across 46 counties for not reporting their climate change, water security and deforestation data.
This includes Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, Amazon, Volvo, Alibaba, Qantas Airways as well as palm oil company Genting Plantations Bhd.
These companies have been selected because of their high environmental impact and lack of transparency on these issues to date.
546 companies are being targeted to disclose on climate change, 166 on water security and 115 on deforestation.
Counting the Cost
But according to The Independent, Chancellor Philip Hammond has been accused of trying to block Mrs May’s landmark bid to wipe out UK contributions to global warming by 2050, by claiming the bill will be more than £1 trillion.
Campaigners and opposition politicians protested that the chancellor’s warning – revealed in a leaked letter – ignored the massive cost of failing to act on runaway climate change. Nevertheless, as of this week Hammond was still reported as contemplating resignation, in protest at the cost of this and other projects which the prime minister has announced. He was strongly critical of measures which he believed would tie the hands of the next prime minister.
Financing the Debate
Open Democracy reports that two of the candidates hoping to be the next prime minister, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, have both received campaign contributions from Tory donor and climate change denier Terence Mordaunt. Mordaunt is a director of the Global Warming Policy Forum, the advocacy arm of the climate sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation. The group has been accused of “giving a platform to fringe climate science deniers” and getting “credibility within the political world through its high-profile Westminster connections.” Boris Johnson has himself described concerns about climate change as a “primitive fear” that is “without foundation”, although he has since said that Extinction Rebellion were “right to sound the alarm about all manner of man-made pollution, including CO2”. But he suggested they should criticise China rather than the UK.
Ultimate Price of the Truth
A worrying report from the Guardian reveals that journalists investigating environmental crimes are considered to be as much at risk as they would be in a war zone. An increasing number of journalists are being murdered, with many more threatened and intimidated. Some people will go to extreme lengths to hold on to what everyone should share. Others find that the law will do their work for them.
Leave it to the Lawyers
In another article Open Democracy claims that legal action will prevent any prime minister from achieving Theresa May’s targets. The Conservative Party continues to support Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), mechanisms in trade agreements which are used by investors to sue government for changes in policy which harms their profits. The UK has ISDS agreements with 106 countries around the world, and is likely to sign more such agreements after Brexit. ISDS has been used by dozens of multinational companies, many of them headquartered in Britain, to challenge environmental legislation.
In 2009, Swedish energy firm Vattenfall sued Germany for introducing policies designed to curb water pollution and carbon emissions - both of which, unsurprisingly, affected the profitability of their coal power station. The case resulted in a settlement where the local authority repealed the environmental legislation despite the fact that this led to Germany being found in breach of the EU habitats directive.
More recently, in 2012, US energy firm Lone Pine sued Canada over a ban on fracking in Quebec, under Canada’s free trade agreement with the US (NAFTA, since replaced by USMCA). The case went ahead despite local opposition to fracking, and evidence of the risks of fracking to the environment and human health. Although the outcome of the case is still pending, the precedent is likely to discourage other local and national authorities from regulating fracking. And it will make it very difficult for the UK to achieve its 2050 target.
Too many people seem to follow the Chancellor and to prize short-term convenience or economic growth over long-term risk. For example, Madrid’s new rightwing council has just suspended low-emissions zones. There are delays reported to introducing such zones in Birmingham and Leeds and there’s a petition calling for the new ULEZ in London to be scrapped, despite the capital’s appalling air quality.
Meanwhile, XR says 2050 is far too late and we need to aim for 100% reduction by 2025. Norway and Finland are committed to 100% reductions by 2030 and 2035 respectively, so the UK is not quite the leader that Mrs May would like to suggest.
Philip Hammond is concerned that going for a low carbon future will damage the economy, but should GDP and economic growth be our targets? They don’t think so in New Zealand where the Treasury has just published its first wellbeing budget.
Introducing the document, Prime Minister JACINDA ARDERN says,
“… while economic growth is important – and something we will continue to pursue – it alone does not guarantee improvements to our living standards.
“Nor does it measure the quality of economic activity or take into account who benefits and who is left out or left behind.
“Growth alone does not lead to a great country. So it’s time to focus on those things that do.
“Our five Wellbeing Budget priorities show how we have broadened our definition of success for our country to one that incorporates not just the health of our finances, but also of our natural resources, people and communities.”
Those priorities include:
- supporting mental wellbeing for all New Zealanders.
- reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing
- lifting Māori and Pacific incomes,
- supporting a thriving nation in the digital age
• creating opportunities to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy.
She’s quite right that GDP does not take into account the quality of economic activity. Floods, fires and droughts can all cause immense damage to an economy with enormous costs to repair and put things right. All those costs are added to GDP, and increased GDP in such circumstances is certainly no indication of a better quality of life. As we do things differently to protect ourselves from the climate crisis we should look much more at wellbeing than cold hard cash.
Mind your Language
Is it what you say or how you say it? (And let’s not get into the Milgram controversy here again.) [actually that should be the Mehrabian controversy]
A leaked document on the EU’s priorities has been criticised as offering little more than “a collection of buzzwords” to tackle the climate crisis and accelerating the destruction of the natural world.
“European leaders are feeling the pressure to talk big on climate, but their strategic agenda is more of a collection of buzzwords than an emergency response to humanity’s greatest threat,” Greenpeace’s EU director, Jorgo Riss, said. “This list of contradictory proposals suggests European leaders will prioritise economic growth in much the same way as before, driving social inequalities and fuelling the climate and ecological crisis even further.”
There is no doubt that the words we use are important.
In common with other newspapers and magazines, The Guardian has a style guide and has just announced some revisions. For example:
- Use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead of climate change
- Use global heating instead of global warming
- Use wildlife instead of biodiversity
- Use fish populations instead of fish stocks
- Use climate science denier or climate denier instead of climate sceptic
Readers took issue with some suggestions: “Wildlife” is insufficient to describe “biodiversity” - “Carbon emissions” should be “carbon dioxide emissions” - Consider “climate instability” instead of “climate heating” and talk not of heating, but of overheating.
The point of these changes was to stress the urgency of the issues. The author of the style guide responded that these were indeed guidelines and if the previous terms appeared to be more relevant to the context there was no reason why they should not still be used.
Hold your tongue!
Contrast this with news from United States.
CNN reports that according to the Washington Post, policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were told by others in the Trump administration that the use of seven specific words and phrases would be prohibited. On the list are the words "vulnerable," "diversity," "entitlement," "transgender," "foetus," "evidence-based," and "science-based." The decision has not only been deemed as reckless and dangerous, but an offence to the scientific community.
It reminds me of 1984, the novel by George Orwell published 70 years ago. You should read it. I read it at school long before 1984 and waited to see whether it would actually come true. It's the story of a totalitarian surveillance society and no, that didn't happen in 1984 but some aspects of the story seem scarily familiar, particularly what’s going on in China. In the novel the government also changes the way that people communicate by insisting on the use of a modified and simplified language called Newspeak. Newspeak was to be be spoken in staccato rhythm, using short-syllable words that are easy to pronounce, which generates speech that is physically automatic and intellectually unconscious, thereby diminishing the possibility of critical thought occurring to the speaker. There are no irregular verbs, so in Newspeak he runned, not he ran. There are no opposites, just ungood, unwarm, unyoung and so on. Eliminating words with shades of meaning debases communication. What could the Trump administration be thinking of?
And in Other News..
Scottish Power is reinforcing its green credentials by installing battery storage. The company will connect an industrial-scale battery, the size of half a football pitch, to the Whitelee onshore windfarm early next year to capture more power from its 215 turbines. They claim that the 50MWh unit marks a big step towards continuous renewable power for UK.
While Scottish Power is optimising its renewables and Norway is dropping fossil fuel investments from its sovereign wealth fund, coal is still in demand - increasing demand - for generating electricity. Witness the new coal mine operated by an Indian company in Queensland, Australia. The British government has also give approval for the opening of a deep coal mine near Whitehaven in Cumbria. That coal may not be for electricity, rather for metallurgical use, but once burnt for whatever purpose, coal leaves emissions.
I was talking to audiences earlier this month about extreme weather and how a month’s rain in an afternoon was becoming increasingly common. Last week parts of Lincolnshire received two months’ rain in two days and hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes. As I write this the Met Office has issued a yellow warning of further rain, hail and thunderstorms in the area. Climate change? It’s just weather, isn’t it Mr Trump?
They’ve got some in France, too. France declared a state of natural disaster after rain and hail storms lashed a swathe of the south-east on Saturday 15th June, devastating crops.
The flash storms, which brought hailstones as big as pingpong balls to some areas, killed two people in France and Switzerland, and injured at least 10 others.
The worst-hit area, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alps region, is at the heart of France’s food production and known as the “orchard of France”. The storms lasted for as little as 10 minutes, but still wiped out 80% - 100% of crops.
We need to stop this. The problem is that the climate crisis is like stopping an oil tanker. You can put an awful lot of energy into slowing it down, but you have to wait - and wait - before you actually see any effect. Meanwhile people are urging us to keep going because we haven’t hit anything yet. True, but when we do, the collision will be catastrophic.
And on that note…
And on that happy and uplifting note I leave you for another week. I'm Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report. Thank you for listening and thank you for your support. I'm always keen to get your feedback either online or is sent to me directly via email@example.com
More to come
I've got a number of topics lined up for future episodes, at least in my mind. Next week’s episode will again be about plastic pollution - there’s so much more to report. I'll also look at direct air capture of carbon dioxide, about synthetic meat and about global heating, heat waves and ice melt. (And you can guess how the voice recognition software spelt that.)
The topic for the following episode will be rare earths. I touched on them briefly last time: but I now know much more on their use, on their extraction and their recycling. I'll include an interview with Dr Alice Courvoisier on the subject. The week after that I hope to be able to look at the catastrophists; people who believe in near-term human extinction and social breakdown. Why do they believe in this? What do they believe we should do?
People have asked me whether there is any hope and whether we are wasting time bothering about the future. My response is that if I didn’t believe in a future or at least in my ability to do something however small about it, I wouldn’t bother getting up in the morning.
I do. And so should you.
Let the future be what we make it, not what happens by default.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’ll be back next week.
I hope you will.
Environment reporters facing harassment and murder, study finds
Carbon emissions from energy industry rise at fastest rate since 2011
Climate Change deniers support Tory leadership contenders
New prime minister will be unable to fulfil May’s promises
Climate change: Should the UK's 2050 target be sooner?
Major global firms accused of concealing their environmental impact
Madrid’s new rightwing council suspends low-emissions zone
Scottish Power to build vast battery to improve wind energy supply
Is time to end our fixation with GDP and growth?
Minding our language
EU climate goals 'just a collection of buzzwords', say critics
The urgency of climate crisis needed robust new language to describe it
Newspeak - see Wikipedia
France to declare natural disaster after storms rip through crops
Hopes for climate progress falter with coal still king across Asia