Updated: Apr 1, 2021
This month, media outlets were ablaze with reports that the UK had reached the milestone of halving its emissions from 1990 levels, the typical climate benchmark. But, argues Will Singh, this disingenuous narrative belies both an inflated COVID impact, and the truth about the UK’s approach to accounting for its emissions.
Late last week, a day started like any other day in lockdown: with a healthy dose of bedbound doomscrolling. Strangely, the algorithm had not chosen doom at all, but something altogether more unsettling: hope. A spate of headlines declared that the UK is now ‘half-way’ to Net Zero emissions. Half-way - that feels pretty good. Sadly, there’s a bit more to it than that.
The first big problem those headlines have is that we are in the middle of a global pandemic which has caused an unprecedented fall in carbon emissions: very few are flying; most aren’t driving or even leaving the house; there are no bar fridges to power or bowling alleys to garishly illuminate. Global figures suggest something like a 7% CO2 fall for the year (the first global fall on record), with a much more substantial 13% decline here in the UK. That pandemic-blip has driven emissions to artificially low levels, dropping us temporarily below that magic 50% emissions reductions line. It does not mean we are going to stay there.
The optimistically-inclined might wonder if this could be more than a temporary dip, and the start of something much bigger. Unfortunately, it’s not looking good – global emissions are still on a rising trend and recovering faster than expected. China, which reopened its economy sooner than most last year, has already over-compensated with a rebound in its carbon emissions - they beat 2019 levels by the end of last year. So did the world’s other two great developing economies, Brazil and India. And in atmospheric terms, things look even worse: carbon and methane concentrations in the atmosphere again reached their highest recorded levels this year, with methane seeing its biggest increase in decades; meanwhile, 2020 was tied for the warmest year on record, according to NASA. This all suggests we are still on course for disastrous levels of warming. False-optimism statistics like ‘halfway to net zero’ conceal the shocking lack of urgent action.
False-optimism statistics like ‘halfway to net zero’ conceal the shocking lack of urgent action
This matters for two reasons. Firstly, and obviously, the climate emergency is a global problem. The worse the picture in the rest of the world gets, the faster the UK, too, will have to reduce its emissions. But more importantly, it gives us a glimpse of our own future. The Bank of England has forecast the economy to bounce back faster than expected; and faster economic activity means a faster spike in emissions. For all the rhetoric of ‘Build Back Better’ - overused by everyone on Earth for most of the past year - almost no progress has actually been made by the UK Government to deliver a ‘Green Recovery’. The key climate challenge during the time afforded by the pandemic was working now to ensure that, as economies and normal life resume, emissions do not also immediately spike back up to pre-pandemic levels.
But beyond a few schemes on a local level (many of which have not worked well), and a new ten point plan which mainly redistributes existing money, and experts agree is not enough for Net Zero', ‘Build Back Greener’ policies haven’t emerged in the UK. If anything, they’ve gone backwards. Rail fares, for example, have just been hiked above inflation. That news comes despite rail companies themselves agreeing just last year on the need to encourage public transport use through increased investment and lower passenger fares. Meanwhile, the only headline climate scheme from the Government in the last year has been the now-collapsed Green Homes Grant. Like so much recent policy (remember ‘Moonshot’ rapid Covid testing?), the Grant made big promises before transforming seamlessly into a privatisation disaster. The contract for management of the Grant was handed over to an American consultancy firm which has failed to deliver the programme as planned. Contractors have complained they’ve still not been paid for work undertaken months ago, and much of the scheduled work has never been started, let alone finished. After the recent Budget announcements, the scheme seems to have sunk without trace.
‘Build Back Greener’ policies haven’t emerged in the UK. If anything, they’ve gone backwards
A litany of pandemic-related bailouts of private companies have been handed out, but it’s the same old story. Billions of pounds of public money is thrown at corporations - most of whom have a woeful record on carbon emissions, human rights, workers’ rights or all of the above. Take British Airways, for example, who just accepted a £2 billion bailout, despite spending most of the last year trying to fire their own workers and rehire them on worse terms. It never had to be this way – that is, if the Government was serious about keeping emissions low. Campaigners called for ‘green strings’ to be attached to government bailouts, giving the Government a stake in companies and enabling the public to steer them towards zero-carbon decisions. Similar proposals were made by the French government in relation to ruling out bailouts to tax-avoiding companies. Instead, aviation companies have committed to squandering this opportunity, promising a return to 2019 flight numbers by 2023.
Not only have we not had any positive action, we’ve seen repeated confirmation that this government still does not even understand the scale of the problem. That’s surely the only explanation for recent attempts to approve new gas drilling permits and, jaw-droppingly, a new coal mine in Cumbria.
All this matters because it represents one vast missed opportunity. These missteps belie the vague assumption that the pandemic’s dip in emissions can become permanent, pushing long-term carbon emissions down and putting us on-track for net zero. In fact, we’re going to end up back where we started.
These missteps belie the vague assumption that the pandemic’s dip in emissions can become permanent, pushing long-term carbon emissions down and putting us on-track for net zero
Amid each of these disasters – themselves telling a story of privatisation, corruption and out-of-control corporate power – we should look again at the wider context. The joyful 50% reduction figure is a huge distortion of the truth, and not just because of the pandemic. There are even deeper problems to consider.
Because yes, it is true that progress has been made reducing emissions - about 40% relative to 1990 levels prior to the pandemic. But, even that figure is a scandalous distortion of the real picture. These emissions figures are based on energy-use within the UK’s borders. That is problematic because it excludes so much of our actual carbon footprint. In recent years, many climate scientists have preferred a more accurate model known as consumption accounting, which accounts for all the energy used outside the UK to make things we import. Since most of our consumption, like electronics, clothes and food, is imported, from countries with variably ambitious strategies for climate action, this is a pretty big deal. A 2016 report found that that 40% emission-reduction figure was actually more like 15%. As it turns out, most of the post-1990 decline was down to replacing coal with natural gas, and shifting our manufacturing of consumption goods to the Global South.
Most of the post-1990 decline was down to replacing coal with natural gas, and shifting our manufacturing of consumption goods to the Global South
It gets worse still. For the decade up to 2020, the rate of emissions decline was actually falling in the UK. In other words, some progress was made between 1990 and 2010, but we’ve been getting slower at dealing with the climate crisis every year since, not faster. The trend we are on is emphatically not a gradual road to ‘Net Zero’, but a meandering, convoluted track. We’ve lost sight of the road signs, the SatNav’s broken, and the posh bloke driving has just suggested turning around because trust him, he knows a short-cut.
So we start with a half cut from 1990 to Net Zero. It turns out, the 50% is more like 40%, the 40% is closer to 15%, and at that point we’ve stalled on improving any more. It should be obvious: current trends need a reversal, not continuation.
There is a place for positivity in climate campaigning - in fact, it’s a key part. But optimism does not come from denying facts - it comes from recognising the scale of the challenge and believing in our collective power to overcome it. To do that we need more than the status quo. We need new organising energy, through local-led projects like Transition Towns and Green New Deal campaigns; we need to embrace a Just Transition and integrate fossil fuel workers’ union demands into our movements.
There is a place for positivity in climate campaigning - in fact, it’s a key part. But optimism does not come from denying facts
We need to show people that a world free of carbon isn’t free of joy, or fun, or opportunity - that we’re not going to berate them to turn their heating down, but instead build millions of affordable, properly insulated homes which tackle fuel poverty and help save the planet. That’s the only way these challenges have ever been overcome: organising on the ground, building movements of normal people to take power away from the same old hands that got us into this mess, and creating something new. By contrast, ‘half-way’ is an attempt to play down what is required; to suggest we’re well on our way, on the right path towards an inevitable end goal of net zero, with the right people in charge. That approach isn’t good enough. So no, we are not half way to Net Zero. But it’s not too late to start.