'Climate change is coming home'... so, what next?

By Richard Black, ECIU Director @_richardblack

Published:11 September 2019

So: like football, it's coming home to the country wot invented it.

Urging a United Nations climate treaty... UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1989. Image: UN Photo / Yutaka Nagata
Urging a United Nations climate treaty... UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1989. Image: UN Photo / Yutaka Nagata

Well... perhaps not quite. Both football and the United Nations climate treaty have distinctly international heritages – but it is true that the UK played a critical role in both.

Anniversary geeks will know that it is 30 years ago that Margaret Thatcher stood at the podium in the United Nations General Assembly building in New York and told her assembled peers:

'While the conventional, political dangers – the threat of global annihilation, the fact of regional war – appear to be receding, we have all recently become aware of another insidious danger.

'It is the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to earth itself.'

Unusually for any UN leader's speech, Mrs Thatcher only spoke that year about the environment. She concluded by urging the assembled nations '...to have a convention on global climate change ready' within three years. Which duly came about, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

With that 1989 speech, the UK became the first major economy to call for a UN climate convention. If you want to pursue the analogy, Britain led the process of codifying the international politics of climate change just as it first codified the rules of football.

Yet there have been 24 of the annual summits since then – and the UK has hosted not a one.

So - yeah, ok. When I put it like that – perhaps it's not too much of a stretch to say that climate change is coming home.

Game of three halves

There are three ways in which the summit can be a game-changer both in Britain and globally.

I'll begin with the global bit.

The Paris summit in 2015 was the first occasion on which all nations pledged to constrain their greenhouse gas emissions. For the richer ones, that meant pledging to cut emissions – for the poorer ones, slowing the rate of rise with a view to making cuts later.

The Paris Agreement is due to come into effect in 2020 – when its pledges are due to begin turning into action. And there's lots to do, before and at the 2020 summit, to make sure that happens successfully.

Evolution of global and UK per capita emissions over time. Image: Committee on Climate Change
Evolution of global and UK per capita emissions over time. Image: Committee on Climate Change

Governments vowed in the Agreement to 'make efforts' to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We now know that this means halving the level of global emissions by 2030 and bringing them to net zero around 2050.

However... global emissions are still rising – and if that remains the case for the next five years, we can probably kiss goodbye to any hope of governments fulfilling their declared ambition.

Governments are due to provide three main things in the year leading up to the summit:

  • more ambitious targets and plans for near-term emission cuts, to 2030 (nationally-determined contributions or NDCs)
  • strategies, targets and plans out to 2050 (long-term strategies or LTSs)
  • delivery of $100bn per year from developed nations to developing ones – as promised in 2009 – which will, among other things, enable poorer societies to 'clean' their economies on the timescale needed.

For any climate summit host nation, diplomacy begins at least a year before the main event. And so it's vital from the outset – ie, right now – that British ministers and diplomats keep their eyes focussed laser-like on the main prize.

There will be – indeed, there already are – siren voices calling on ministers to make the summit about one aspect of climate change in particular – spreading the vision of ending coal use, planting trees around the world, protecting the Amazon, tackling subsidies for fossil fuels.

While all of these are valuable, they can't be the main game in town. Tougher NDCs, net zero commitments in long-term strategies, and the iconic $100bn per year wrapped up with a bow on: that package of outcomes, and that package only, will deliver what science says is needed, what the Paris Agreement calls for, and indeed what governments have collectively pledged to do.

If ministers keep this focus, there is a chance that the UK can deliver a summit that will render less likely the prospect of a future dominated by dangerous climate change.

Angelic host

One of the reasons the UK bid to host this summit is because it feels good about the nation's record on climate change and clean energy, delivered since 1992 by governments of different hues.

The crowning prize, it feels, is the net zero target set in law earlier this year – which it can use as a very decent lever to persuade other nations also to put net zero goals in their 2050 plans.

Net Zero House. Image: Frans Drewniak
Net Zero House. Image: Frans Drewniak

So far so good. But... as the official advisors and scrutineers the Committee on Climate Change keep telling ministers, the UK is not on target to hit the next interim targets for emission reductions, with headline years 2025 and 2030, never mind net zero in 2050.

In terms of detailed policies to speed emission cutting in various sectors of the economy, the Committee's last progress report, in July, was scathing.

'Last June, we advised that 25 headline policy actions were needed for the year ahead,' they wrote.

'Twelve months later, only one has been delivered by Government in full.'

And we're still seeing a sequence of measures coming through that while perhaps small individually collectively put the nation further off track. For example, Treasury's plan to hike VAT on solar panels from 5% to 20% is hardly going to speed take-up of renewable energy – and it's still due to happen at the end of this month, net zero notwithstanding. There are many similar examples.

If Government believes its own words, then it needs to turn this situation around, and quickly. The longer the nation goes without credible policies to cut emissions in areas such as home insulation, industry and agriculture, the harder and more expensive it will be to meet the net zero target – which ministers say is in the national interest.

And as the Committee's Chair Lord Deben made clear in the summer, the UK also needs a credible set of policies in place by the UN summit in order to be a credible ambassador for global net zero. Other governments have to see it walking the walk as well as reading from the rhetoric card.

If Government remains keen to court the green vote, there's no wiggle room here; and hosting the summit could concentrate the minds of ministers and civil servants in departments such as Housing, Transport and Treasury who until now have been tempted to see cutting emissions as somebody else's problem.

Green Heart. Image: Craftivist Collection
Image: Craftivist Collection

Festival of Green Britain

The climate summit is a big deal not only because it's important for climate change, but because it's simply a big deal.

Assuming ministers decide to invite Heads of State and Government – which presumably they will – and presuming that most of them come, it could bring more world leaders to these shores than any event in UK history.

Obviously green groups up and down the country will want to have a slice of the action. Presumably, similarly, churches, universities, businesses and organisations that take an interest in climate change from the Women's Institute to medical charities.

What this all adds up to is a unique opportunity to boot up a national conversation on climate change. A conversation that every green group, many scientists and a number of politicians have wanted to start for years, but which has never really started.

An awareness-raising exercise for climate change, just as the London Olympics of 2012 did for athletics, swimming, badminton, taekwondo and every other represented sport.

But also like the Olympics and every other big sporting set piece... it will pass off happiest if the home side is winning.

Which brings us back to the first two areas I discussed here – delivering a successful summit, as France managed in 2015 and Denmark did not in 2009 – and establishing a credible position as a walking-the-walk climate leader well before the Presidential jets start touching down at Glasgow Airport.


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