Does the UK have the political will to lead the charge for a 1.5C world?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) long awaited report is another strong and, some say, final warning on the deep cuts in carbon emissions necessary to leave a habitable planet for the coming generations. While its messages are not all gloomy, it consistently emphasises the significantly higher negative impacts of a two degree rise in global temperature, urging policy makers to plan now for early action.
The UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) previously stated, in its 2016 response to the Paris Agreement that the UK should not set new emissions targets to contribute towards a global 1.5C goal, as the existing ones were considered robust enough. However, careful reading of this IPCC report might cause us to reverse that view. The prospect of sea-ice free arctic summers at least once a decade, an increase in extreme hot weather, heavy precipitation and negative impacts on crop yields, are all predicted to occur with relatively high confidence if global temperatures go beyond 1.5C.
The path to net zero
Thankfully, the climate minister Claire Perry recently committed the UK to considering a possible net zero target and will shortly ask the CCC to deliver a comprehensive report on what the IPCC’s latest findings mean for the UK’s long term climate targets. It is imperative that the CCC now strongly reconsiders the cost of UK inaction, or even delayed action, vis-à-vis the costs of mitigation. Any new reports will need to avoid the vague language of ‘well-below 2 degrees’ and seek to answer the question of what we should do domestically and internationally to help achieve a below 1.5C world.
The IPCC report foresees some form of carbon removal technology to be adopted at scale in all its scenarios, however it also warns about relying too heavily on untested and unproven technologies to suck carbon from the atmosphere, particularly when cheaper options already available have not been fully exploited.
For Britain, this means accelerating the phase out of petrol and diesel vehicles, making all buildings energy efficient, improving industrial resource efficiency and building more renewable energy capacity. It means setting new policy to plug the existing gaps in 4th and 5th carbon budget delivery and getting the UK firmly on the low cost decarbonising pathway the CCC has already recommended.
Climate change can’t go on a ‘to do’ list
Green MP Caroline Lucas commented on the IPCC report, stating that “limiting warming to 1.5C will require an industrial transition unprecedented in scale – but that it’s possible, if the political will is there – and that the wider opportunities and benefits are huge”. Unfortunately, the political will necessary, as Britain is absorbed in negotiating its exit from the EU, is in short supply. It was notable that the prime minister was silent on the IPCC’s report.
But putting climate change on a future ‘to do’ list would be folly of historic proportions and a significant missed opportunity for our future prosperity as a nation. Regardless of what happens with Brexit, it is vital that the UK, with its experience and leading position on climate change mitigation, upholds its international position in engaging other countries and leading the push for a global 1.5C mitigation pathway. Powering Past Coal, the International Solar Alliance and the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance are just a few examples where Britain has shown the way.
As we strike trade deals with the EU and the rest of the world, the IPCC’s report serves as a strong reminder that future trading arrangements must include robust climate policies and objectives. Responses from the US and Australian administrations, alongside other populist voices, have been worrying in their refusal to acknowledge the gravity of the challenge. We should prioritise deals with likeminded nations and give lower priority to those nations that reject the science. In this way we will facilitate the flow of low carbon technologies around the world, and help to accelerate the global low carbon transition needed to keep us safely below 1.5C.
For further insight into how the UK can maintain its climate leadership position post-Brexit, you can attend our event on 22 October: UK’s energy and climate diplomacy after Brexit: learning from Norway and Switzerland