Brexit chaos shouldn’t distract the government from the climate crisis

Ashdown forest fire Feb 19_Tom_Lee via Flickr_cropThe run-up to Brexit has felt like Hemingway’s description of going bankrupt: gradually, then suddenly. Months of slow, confused politics: Theresa May surviving the most important week of her career, until the next one; unmeaningful votes passing or failing and not having much effect either way; opposition that is never quite clear what it is opposing. All this has now led us to a point just over twenty days from Brexit and, despite, or perhaps because of, the recent moves, in the new Independent Group and Labour’s support for another public vote, Westminster remains in chaos.

At the same time, beyond the Westminster bubble, movements for transformational action on climate change are growing.  Grassroot campaigns like the school strikes are highlighting the urgency to act, while over thirty councils, spurred by protests from the likes of Extinction Rebellion, have declared a climate emergency and the need to get to a net zero carbon economy.

With all this commotion, it is easy to forget that the tedious responsibility of running the country day to day continues. At the start of the year, it was reported that the Treasury’s upcoming comprehensive spending review could see a cull of departments to save taxpayers money. In particular, it has been hinted that the Department for Transport (DfT), Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) could become a single ministry with responsibility for major infrastructure projects. Such an outcome begs the question, where would climate go?

To answer this, we need to look at where policy will be heading in future. To date, the vast majority of decarbonisation in the UK has happened in the power sector. Mostly down to the groundbreaking single policy of phasing out coal power. But now, with progressively more stringent climate targets to meet over the next few decades, there is no such obvious single policy lever to pull next.

Later this year, the Committee on Climate Change will give its official advice to the government on  long term emission targets, which should include a clear pathway for the UK to reach net zero emissions.

Acting now means less effort in the long run
To stand any chance of achieving this, action needs to start now. As it stands, the UK does not even have sufficient plans in place to meet its fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which cover the period 2023-2032.  If the government does nothing more until after this period, achieving net zero by 2050 (which is a less ambitious target than many are asking for) would require a 72 per cent increase in the rate of decarbonisation after 2032. Conversely, acting now would require only a 13 per cent increase in the target rate of decarbonisation to reach net zero by 2050.

Getting the government to take action now is the focus of our new project Cutting Carbon UK, supported by the Network for Social Change. We’ve identified four government interventions that could meet short term targets while putting us on the path to net zero. These are:

  • create a resource efficiency programme for industry;
  • make all new car and van sales electric by 2030;
  • introduce a major, national homes energy efficiency programme, bringing all homes up to at least EPC ‘C’ standard by 2035;
  • decarbonise land use through afforestation, habitat restoration and soil carbon sequestration.

Achievable policies that also save money
The most striking thing about these policies is that they are not radical. They are achievable policies that any sensible government should do. They will save money in the medium term and they would result in a decarbonisation rate that is not even as ambitious as many neighbouring countries.

The second most noticeable thing about these measures is that they are not within the remit of one government department. They sit across four different departments: BEIS, DfT, MHCLG and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Whilst BEIS has been pulling its weight, and Defra, under Michael Gove, has stepped up its focus on climate change mitigation, the housing ministry has so far done very little and transport has gone into reverse: in 2017, vehicle emissions rose for the first time in 17 years.

The Treasury is the enabler
Most importantly, alongside these departments, the Treasury is needed as the vital enabler. The spending review this year will do more than restructure departments, it will set the tone for government expenditure over the next three years. The chancellor’s plans must acknowledge the UK’s role in a decarbonising world, and the need to act urgently. We expect to see reference to more renewable energy, establishing nationwide electric vehicle infrastructure and new national plans for housing energy efficiency retrofits.

The answer to where climate should sit in government is easy: everywhere. The real question is whether the government can rise above the current chaos to take the immediate action necessary to avert a climate crisis.

[Image: Ashdown Forest wildfire February 2019, courtesy of Tom Lee via Flickr Creative Commons]

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