On Friday afternoon I was honoured — and terrified — to be invited on Newsnight to discuss the Government’s 10 point plan for a “Green Industrial Revolution”. It was a parable of our times, with the climate segment relegated to the end of the show, cut short because the Brexit debate had dragged on (!). It immediately brought to mind this brilliant cartoon that’s been doing the rounds recently:
The brief was to discuss whether the Government’s 10 point plan goes far enough. So here goes…
First, let’s take the positives. We all know that since the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015 there’s been plenty of talk, but woefully little action. Indeed, buried on page 34 of the report the Government admits that we’re on track for “a devastating rise of around around 3°C of warming by 2100”. This 10 point plan therefore has to be applauded as one the most concrete pieces of action thus far, and it most certainly places the UK in a leadership role globally. It’s also to be commended for putting some serious investment into greening the energy that powers our lives — £12 billion of Government investment, with the expectation that this will unlock >3x the commitment from the private sector too. Wind power, hydrogen, zero emission vehicles, tree planting and carbon capture all have a vital role to play in the battle against the climate crisis. And the requirement in Point 10 (Green Finance & Innovation), for mandatory reporting of climate-related financial information by 2025 will be a powerful catalyst to trigger the movement of enormous swathes of capital, which is so desperately needed. I was also pleased to see that the forewords by both the Prime Minister and Alok Sharma firmly presented solving the climate crisis as an opportunity — for more jobs and a greener, cleaner life — rather than a sacrifice.
BUT, and this is a big BUT… the 10 point plan completely fails to address the enormous elephant in the room. Which is that unless we address the root cause of the climate crisis — household consumption — then we don’t stand a chance in hell of reaching our targets.
Why is household consumption such a big problem? First, because a whopping 60% of all GHGs are directly related to household consumption (ref). And in a resource constrained world, this endlessly increasing consumption is by definition unsustainable — as demonstrated by Earth Overshoot Day, which is the day in the year in which humanity has used all the resources that the earth can replenish in a year. This year Earth Overshoot Day was the 22nd August.
By not addressing the problem of consumption, the 10 point plan also omitted any mention of our food system, which in the UK accounts for almost 20% of our GHGs (ref). Globally, according to Project Drawdown, the #1 most important thing humanity can do to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis is to reduce food waste, which comes above the much-lauded solar power and electric cars. Therefore any credible climate plan simply has to address how we produce, manufacture, consume and dispose of our food.
With no mention of consumption the plan also fails to address the fashion industry, which by many accounts is the 2nd most polluting in the world. Each year the fashion industry manufactures 80–100 billion garments (ref), and 80% of those will end up in landfill or incinerated (ref). This is largely driven by our consumption, with research showing that the average person is buying 60% more clothes today than 20 years ago, but keeping them for half as long (ref).
So why does the 10 point plan not address the consumption bogeyman? I believe it’s because to do so would require truly bold and visionary leadership. Vision and leadership to completely reinvent our economic system, which at the moment worships at the altar of GDP, no matter its limitations, and no matter the cost. It would also require vision and leadership to persuade us at home to change our behaviours, something that Governments of all persuasions have been loathe to do. The weakness of our political class in the face of powerful corporate lobbyists, and their failure to reach across the aisle to make the climate a bi-partisan issue will in retrospect be the greatest single failing of the last 50 years. This is simply not good enough, and we urgently need more from our elected representatives.
The other major flaw in the Government’s 10 point plan, is that we’re measuring ourselves against the wrong target. Whilst the report proudly proclaims that the UK has reduced our GHGs by 43% over the last 30 years, this is disingenuous at best, and downright misleading at worst. The Government’s measurement of GHGs includes only the GHGs generated as a result of our domestic activity and doesn’t include the carbon emissions associated with the manufacture and shipping of all the items we buy from overseas! At present those excluded emissions represent almost half (46%) of the UK’s true carbon footprint (ref). So it turns out that over the last 30 years we haven’t so much been reducing our carbon footprint, as outsourcing it!
To conclude, whilst the Government is to be congratulated for taking such an ambitious approach to greening our power, they need to urgently address the fact that consumption as usual will not do. The sooner they grasp that nettle, the better for all of us.