In Paris in 2015, the world pledged to keep global temperatures to well below two degrees, or to 1.5c if possible. But when it came to concrete plans, their actions added up to a trajectory to well above three degrees. To fill the gap between goal and action, they promised to ratchet their emissions down in five years’ time, to match their actions to their aspirations.
The Glasgow climate summit next year is the point when that ratchet will happen. Unfortunately, the signs do not look good: despite extraordinary cost reductions in clean technology, an unholy alliance of Trump, Bolsanaro, Putin, and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, amongst others, will not pledge net zero emissions goals. Their action alone is enough to prevent the pledges made at Glasgow from adding up to 1.5c warming. This is despite the clear moral, economic and scientific evidence that, globally, net zero by 2050 is right.
In short, there is a political problem, rooted in the power of a small subset of global leaders to prevent progress. The solution is to outflank them.
We need a net zero club
The UNFCCC process is only for nation states. But nation states aren’t the only actors that matter. Far from it. So far, the nation states committed formally to net zero are limited: the UK, France, Costa Rica, Bhutan, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Iceland and Uruguay are signed up. Getting around the big blockers means creating a net zero club that embraces so-called non-state actors.
The biggest one is the EU. If it sets a carbon neutral goal next year, fully a third of global GDP will be committed to net zero. This matters because economic transitions don’t wait until the whole of the market moves; instead, tipping points occur early. Take the US coal industry, which saw a ten per cent loss of market share translate into a spiral of bankruptcies and a rapid decline into irrelevance.
Critical to the net zero club are places like Scotland, New York and California. Scottish climate leadership paved the way for the UK’s net zero commitment. California and New York alone make up 21 per cent of US GDP and, if they can work with the 23 other states that are committed to the Paris Agreement to set net zero goals, this will represent over 60 per cent of US GDP. Their action will render Donald Trump’s climate intransigence irrelevant.
Companies and cities are moving ahead of countries on net zero
This is before you begin to account for corporate commitments. Amazon, which, if it were a country, would be the 40th largest economy in the world, has committed to net zero emissions by 2040. Volkswagen, which would be the 22nd largest economy, has bet the company on electric vehicles and committed itself to net zero emissions by 2050. Investors like the Climate Action 100+ group are already using their $35 trillion asset ownership to push more companies to join the net zero club.
Last year, Green Alliance looked at what role cities could play. Because cities are economically powerful but physically small, what they buy matters more than what happens inside their borders. We found that the consumption emissions of the C40 network of global cities makes them the 4th largest influencer of global emissions, just after the EU28 and ahead of India. In September, C40 said it would implement a Green New Deal. In effect, the 4th largest global emitter joined the net zero club: Sydney will decarbonise despite Australian politics; Tokyo will decarbonise despite Japan’s coal problem; and Rio de Janeiro will do the same.
The club will fail on pledges alone
Of course, it’s one thing to pledge and another to act. This is where the UK’s role lies. As the first major economy to set a net zero law, Britain needs to translate its target setting into early action, before the Glasgow summit next year. As the host of the summit, the minimum requirement for UK credibility is getting on track to net zero, not simply crowing about its legal commitment. The UK needs to lead real economy change if it is to play its part in supporting the nascent net zero club I’ve described above. It needs to act now, both because early carbon reductions limit global heating more than late ones, and because action creates hope.
The UK needs to get on track to net zero now
The question of how can the UK get on track has an answer. Green Alliance’s Cutting Carbon Now programme has developed a plan which fills the yawning gap between the UK’s net zero law and its inadequate policies.
The plan has just five policy actions. They all pay for themselves, and all are deliverable by the next government in the first half of next year, whether by policy commitment, budget spending or new regulation. Critically, we know they add up because we quantified their impact against shadow carbon budgets which are consistent with the UK’s new net zero law: we did the maths, and the policies would put the UK on a trajectory to net zero by around 2045.
Each policy is summarised in the link above, but each has a detailed sectoral analysis underpinning it, which shows how the carbon reductions can be achieved. The policies are designed to be implemented, and fast.
They aren’t however, the only thing the UK should do. If government uses our plan to get on track to net zero, it will give itself the breathing space to plan to address challenging issues like heat, aviation and food. It will also give the UK political credibility to lead internationally by showing other net zero club members how the UK has continued its rapid decarbonisation; how its new ‘public money for public goods’ payments can transform farming to save nature and sequester carbon; and how to end fossil fuel financing.
Getting the UK on track to net zero, and persuading others to join the net zero club and to act fast, is the best way to ensure success in Glasgow. The plan for the year to COP26 needs to be an action plan, not another set of pledges.