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Stepping up on climate change

The UK has one of the strongest sets of climate change policy in the world.

The UK’s climate change policy is woefully inadequate to deal with the severity of the climate crisis.

These two statements are both true. Along with Sweden, Germany, and a handful of other countries, the UK has the best track record of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, and a very impressive system in the Climate Change Act to track emissions and develop new policies aimed at the long-term goal of reducing emissions by at least 80% by 2050.

But it’s now widely recognised that 80% by 2050 is too little too late and since the UK’s emissions are still much higher than the global average, they need to be entirely eliminated by 2050 and we must invest in emissions reductions elsewhere in the world, in order to achieve the global goal in a fair manner.

And the UK ihas definitely started wobbling in its commitments under the coalition and Tory governments. We are not currently on track to meet current targets.

Significant policies have been weakened, notably the price support for renewable energy. And the government has made key decisions that undermine the shift away from fossil fuels that we need, especially in increased subsidies for North Sea oil and gas, and the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow.

What we need is to go beyond the good individual policies we have and have a serious strategy to wean the UK economy off fossil fuels entirely:

  • Electricity supply

  • Complete decarbonisation of the electricity supply. We are on our way to phasing out coal but we need to extend this to natural gas.

  • Transport and travel

  • Radically increasing the share of travel that uses public transport, cycling and walking.

  • A plan for a rapid transition of remaining road vehicles onto electric and/or fuel cells. This entails a strategy for expanding charging sites as well as setting a clear end date for when internal combustion engines will no longer be for sale in the UK – a date which has to be in the 2020s.

  • Energy Efficiency

  • Electrifying much of transport also means significant increases in electricity production, all of which must come from renewable sources. This then means we need a massive investment in housing energy efficiency to liberate electricity for transport.

  • Transitioning heating and heat energy away from fossil fuels

  • A plan to transition domestic and commercial building heating away from natural gas, to renewable sources of methane (e.g. biogas).

  • Working with industries that use heat energy directly, as well as the cement industry, on technologies to transition them onto non or minimal CO2 emitting technologies.

These are the minimal transitions we need to get to zero carbon by 2050. There is one massive elephant in the room, namely emissions from air travel. Investment in rail improvements may reduce those somewhat at least for domestic air travel and to nearby parts of Europe (as Eurostar services continue to expand their range).

There are also very significant dilemmas. The biggest of these for most environmentalists is over nuclear power, but the various local controversies over wind turbines are also important.

But the key thing UK governments need to be doing to step up our action is by making the 2050 target 100% reductions not 80%, and then developing plans accordingly. They then need to focus on the various contradictions in their own projects, be they the Tories support for oil and gas, or Corbyn’s occasional pronouncements (not in Labour’s current manifesto, thankfully) in favour of re-opening coal mines, and eliminate them.

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