Green Christian Statement: (See Background briefing lower down)
Green Christian cannot in conscience agree with the deadlines for the UK to reach net zero carbon proposed either by the Climate Change Committee (2050) or the Climate Coalition (2045). With the Climate Coalition we demand legislation for net zero, but we believe the UK must take immediate action to help the nation reach net zero as early as 2025.
With every year we continue adding carbon to the atmosphere, more lives will be lost and the risk grows of catastrophic breakdown. Parliament declared an environment and climate emergency on 1 May 2019. The mandate exists for immediate, focused, co-ordinated and equitable action across society, on a scale last mobilised in World War II.
As the damaging tropical cyclones in Spring 2019 reminded us, in the UK we already have on our consciences the many lives and livelihoods now being lost through climate change in the poorest countries. The new insecurity they face is due to the privilege, power and indifference of industrialised societies, of which the UK is the oldest. However even our own society is threatened by runaway feedbacks if critical, and still uncertain, tipping points are breached, or if the more dangerous projections in which the IPCC has less than 90% confidence come to pass.
Scientists were warning governments of the greenhouse effect in the 1980s. Carbon dioxide concentrations are not only still rising, but at an accelerating rate. We have left it too late to avoid making sacrificial, disruptive choices. The Centre for Alternative Technology showed in 2013 that ‘Zero Carbon Britain’ is possible by 2030. Between 2025 and 2030 we will pass a moral threshold by which any later target must be judged. The disruption of aiming for net zero by 2025 will pale beside the violence to poorer nations and our own children which is implicit in delaying it to 2045, let alone 2050. We have no right to slough off this responsibility, and the vicious consequences of doing so, on those who have no voice and no power.
Therefore the government must immediately:
- give public information that further serious harm to the climate is inevitable, including to the world’s poorest and the future, but that risks of societal and ecological collapse can still be reduced through emergency action
- inform the public of further climate risks inherent in the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C target and risks for which the IPCC has less than 90% confidence, the danger of breaching tipping points, and the risk of a ‘hothouse earth’ on which human and much other life becomes unviable
- identify national pathways to achieve net-zero emissions in 2025 and 2030, implement efforts to achieve net-zero by 2025 in fulfilment of the declaration of environment and climate emergency, and press similarly industrialised nations to do the same
- assess the ecological, humanitarian and security risks, to the UK and nations overseas, of carbon emissions from the UK and similar nations continuing between 2025 and 2045 or 2050, and inform the public of those risks
- acknowledge that because of the historic carbon debt which arises from the UK’s long history of industrialisation, it is incumbent on us both to give international leadership, and to ensure that that carbon debt is repaid through overseas aid for adaptation and clean development
- engage citizens in consultation and deliberation on these actions and initiatives.
We ask church leaders to hold government to account for these demands.
The science-policy mismatch
Scientific advice on climate futures falls short of what policy makers and civil society need in several key areas:
- The UK owes historic carbon debt from its early and continued industrialisation, which makes it incumbent on us to demonstrate justice and leadership
- The IPCC’s headline advice for limiting warming to 1.5C, published in October 2018, assumes a 1 in 3 risk of failure, which is unacceptably high as a premise for policy making, and relies on speculation about the potential for technology to deliver carbon capture and storage
- The IPCC’s advice to policy makers takes account only of risks for which members have gathered enough evidence to give a 90% level of confidence
- The risks of positive feedbacks and breaching tipping points are not well enough understood to have been incorporated into advice for policy makers, and so have not been taken adequately into account
- A rapid transition is more likely to be achieved by pursuing alternatives to economic growth, but research on such alternatives is less likely to be considered ‘credible’ by research funders.
The unsustainable premise of growth
The Climate Change Committee (CCC)’s May 2019 report gives assurances that the annual cost to GDP of net zero by 2050 will be only 1-2%. The target relies on far-reaching, and in some respects speculative, technological change. It entrenches as ‘business as usual’ our current culture of consumption and growth – all this despite the fact that we know current levels of consumption are unsustainable, and the natural systems on which our lives depend are teetering at multiple tipping points.
In practice, given that growth is showing signs of stagnation worldwide, the CCC has arguably called time on growth-based economics anyway. But its failure to question the underlying growth paradigm is a failure to submit to the wholesale ‘ecological conversion’ which both science and ethics tell us is necessary. Policy research and development is needed for an economy which promotes wellbeing rather than GDP, and regenerates the earth’s resources for future generations. Until the UK government seeks this new model of prosperity, it’s up to others, like Green Christian’s Joy in Enough project and the New Zealand government’s ‘wellbeing budget’, to fill the gap.
The UK’s carbon debt default
A target date of 2050, and even 2045, represents an abuse of historic power and privilege by the UK against poorer nations, and by the current generation of adults against those who follow. As the nation with the longest history of industrialisation, we owe a massive historic carbon debt to poorer countries. The CCC target represents a national default on this debt, effectively denying poorer nations an opportunity to catch up. In our economically privileged position, and with our temperate climate, for a few years the UK will be relatively safe from the kind of damage which our historic emissions are inflicting on nations more exposed to climate breakdown.
Challenges to the CCC’s net-zero deadline
The Coalition’s net zero target of 2045, based on a 2018 study commissioned by WWF, can be read simply as a five-year contingency to ensure that if targets are missed (as they are currently in the UK) there is still some chance of fulfilling the CCC’s bidding. The Coalition argues that the government should bring the target forward from 2045 ‘if the science demands swifter action’, as though there is currently time to spare. This is an emergency, as Parliament has made clear: the mandate exists for rapid, focused, co-ordinated and equitable action across society now. The Coalition appears to have overlooked this development.
Back in 2013 the Centre for Alternative Technology showed how Britain could reach zero carbon as early as 2030. Indeed many of the local authorities which have recently declared a climate emergency have adopted a 2030 target. In June 2019 the Finnish government set a target of 2035.
Meanwhile, as the Climate Coalition acknowledge, Extinction Rebellion are calling for net zero by 2025. They are concerned that the IPCC’s 1.5C report fails to take full account of many discoveries and observations, and the prospect of breaching tipping points, not to mention the power asymmetries which are preventing action.
For those being visited by increasingly extreme weather, and the uncounted thousands of climate refugees who have already left home, the deadline for safety has passed. Further warming is already locked in, guaranteeing a world of growing conflict and insecurity. Action could have been taken in the 1980s, and it is the failure of rich nations to do so since then which is putting the most vulnerable at risk. For some of them, anything we do now will be too little, too late.
The 2025 moral threshold
For the rest of us, every action now matters. Every choice we make, from the personal to the global, will determine just how rough a future humanity will face. This ethical burden lies heaviest on those who have benefited from industrialisation – and no nation has benefited for longer than the UK.
The generally positive public response to the actions of Extinction Rebellion shows how quickly attitudes can shift in favour of sacrificial climate action. A week after the Easter 2019 protests ended, it was a well-timed Opposition motion in the House of Commons that ensured that the government acknowledged the climate and ecological emergency. To move from words to action, and limit the damage to come, the government must seize on the potential for partnership with its own people. A Citizen’s Assembly, proposed by Extinction Rebellion, would be one way to gain a mandate for the disruptive choices which we must now make.
Green Christian encourages you to ensure your MP understands the moral gravity of the choice they must make for the net-zero deadline. Anyone who dismisses the 2025 target as ‘unfeasible’ should be asked to account for and justify the violence implicit in inadequate action today by rich countries like the UK towards the poorest and youngest, who will be the most vulnerable to climate, ecological and societal breakdown. The government must assess the impact on vulnerable populations now and in future from any further emissions worldwide after 2025; and must engage citizens in consultation and deliberation on the findings, and on options for bringing the date forward from the CCC’s recommended deadline of 2050 in light of informed public opinion and emerging scientific risk assessments.