Climate ambition is not enough without climate action

Boris Johnson’s commitment to a more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement is welcome and necessary — now we must see action align with rhetoric.

Against the bleak backdrop of a global pandemic, this year has been punctuated by glimmers of hope for the fight against climate breakdown. The recent announcement that the UK will cut its domestic emissions by at least 68% by 2030 is certainly cause for hope.

The UK is one of the first major economies to ratchet up its nearer-term 2030 target to better match the aims of the Paris Agreement and its own net-zero goal for 2050. As next year’s host of COP26, this act sets an ambitious precedent for the make-or-break climate talks in Glasgow, building a platform for other countries to adopt similarly aspiring targets.

Given that the next 10 years are crucial in determining the fate of the planet, this move is undeniably positive. But we are already behind time.

Already, unprecedented wildfires, storms and heatwaves have caused immense suffering and destruction around the world, and this will only get worse. This year alone, climate breakdown has been linked to a record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season and uncontrollable fires that ravaged Brazil’s most biodiverse wetlands. Our carbon capturing allies — healthy ecosystems — are being degraded at a staggering rate, accelerated by rising temperatures. Both the Amazon and the Arctic are potentially teetering on the edge of their tipping points: when this happens, the damage will be irreversible within our lifetimes.

Despite the urgency of the problem, too many of the UK’s current policies have seriously undermined, or been directly in conflict with, its climate targets. Delay tactics, policy reversals and progress being almost exclusively in electricity generation saw climate action largely grind to a halt over the last five years. A chronic business-as-usual approach continues to hinder real change.

Transport

A £3.9 million funding boost for tree planting over the next five years has not only been criticised as over-reliant on plantation forests that are 40 times less effective at absorbing carbon than natural forests, it also pales in comparison to the £27 billion being shovelled into road building between 2020 and 2025. This is in spite of the fact that around a fifth of the country’s emissions come from road transport, and this figure shows no sign of declining.

To meet the ambitious new NDC target, immediate steps to decarbonise the transport sector are needed. Investment in walking, cycling and other low- or zero-carbon transport should be prioritised, yet government spending on road building alone is set to dwarf the combined funding for these sustainable alternatives.

Housing

Progress in decarbonising buildings has also been frustratingly slow. Accounting for around 19% of total emissions, this sector is long overdue a major overhaul if the UK is to meet its targets.

The recent announcement of a £11.5 billion government investment to build almost 200,000 new homes has not been thought through with climate in mind: many of these developments will likely be underway before the 2025 Future Homes Standard kicks in, meaning most will not meet future energy efficiency regulations.

Recognised by the prime minister as a ‘costly’ operation, the list for homes requiring massive retrofitting to meet climate targets has already grown by a million since the UK signed the Climate Change Act in 2008. Totalling 28 million overall, building more homes without new regulations in place will only add to this already enormous challenge.

Given the scale of the issue, the allocation of just £3 billion for energy efficiency upgrades in homes, schools and hospitals seems strikingly low. £3 billion is £6 billion less than what was promised by the government in their 2019 election manifesto, and tens of billions of pounds less than what experts say is needed.

Delaying action any longer will either result in the UK missing its celebrated new NDC target, or will cost the government, and taxpayer, vast sums of money in a last-minute scramble to catch up.

Fossil fuels

Replacing dirty fossil fuels with clean, green energy is the cornerstone of government action to tackle the climate emergency.

Limiting global heating to 1.5°C or less gives the best possible chance of avoiding runaway climate breakdown, and requires a rapid global transition away from coal, oil and gas. While the UK has made impressive strides in weaning itself off of coal, de facto subsidies in the shape of significant VAT cuts continue to prop up the oil and gas industries.

Despite government claims to the contrary, the UK subsidises fossil fuels more than any country in the EU; spending almost a third more on fossil fuels than it does on renewables.

The UK’s fossil fuel habit is not just undermining domestic targets. UKEF, the government’s export credit agency, has poured over £3.5 billion into fossil fuel projects abroad since signing up to the Paris Agreement. This year, Friends of the Earth took legal action against the British government for its US$1 billion investment in a major gas project in Mozambique; citing their actions as being incompatible with the Paris Agreement.

Locking developing countries in to polluting, high carbon energy systems when renewables are cheaper and safer is straightforward environmental injustice. While reports circulated that the prime minister was considering ending UKEF funding for all fossil fuel projects, there was no mention of doing so in the Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution published in November (*see editor’s note for update).

COP26: an opportunity for climate leadership

Notwithstanding the circumstances, the delay of COP until next year will have come as a relief to many in government. As hosts of the international event, they faced potential humiliation in light of the glaring gaps and inconsistencies in domestic climate policy.

With just under 12 months until the pivotal talks, the UK has been granted a lifeline. To be a true leader on climate action, the government must show greater willingness to act. What’s needed is clear: a comprehensive policy package that lives up to ambition and an end to investments in environmentally damaging projects at home and abroad.

COP26 is a crucial opportunity. With positive climate news coming from China and the USA, there is a real chance of negotiating an agreement that ensures climate and environmental justice for all. If approached in the right way, the UK could play a major role in shaping the future for the better.

Covid-19 has taken its toll on the global economy this year. But if hindsight has taught us anything, it’s that the financial, social and moral costs of preventing a crisis are so much less than treating it.

This blog was originally published on the Environmental Justice Foundation website in December 2020.

*Editor’s note: On the 12th December 2020, Boris Johnson announced that the UK will end government funding for fossil fuel projects abroad ‘as soon as possible’.

Researcher, communicator and pessimistic optimist on all things environment and human rights related