Yesterday was Earth Day – was it also the day we really began to tackle the climate emergency?

Earth Day is now in its 51st year. If Donald Trump had gained a second term, it would have probably gone unnoticed in the Capitol yesterday. But Joe Biden is now leading America and he used the occasion to host an international summit and announce deep cuts in carbon emissions. Pledges came in from leaders across the world.

Boris Johnson got his pennyworth in earlier announced that he will set in law “world’s most ambitious climate change target”, cutting emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 compared to 1990 levels in pursuit of zero carbon by 2050. Admirable stuff. More important than the headline figure is that the UK’s Carbon Budget will incorporate our share of international aviation and shipping emissions, which each contribute three to four per cent each to global warming.

Are we turning the corner at last in getting the political commitments we need to drive the business and societal changes needed to tackle climate change? Maybe.

When I started to sketch out this article a week or so ago, I was in a pessimistic frame of mind. There was lot of talk. A lot of local action. But the political will to tackle the climate emergency seemed to have faded amidst other priorities. The Greta Thunberg effect seemed to be fading but it hopped back into life yesterday when BJ called her a “bunny hugger”. That very phrase shows that our prime minister still regards green thinking as something external to his government, to be dealt with like the occasional crisis, rather than a core of political discourse setting the direction of our and the world’s future.

I had misread the mood music when I started to draft this article. With COP26 due to be hosted in Glasgow in November, politicians now are beginning to line up their pledges for carbon reductions, helped by Biden’s summit. Among them:

  • UK – 78 per cent by 2035 against 1990 levels; zero by 2050
  • US – 50% to 52% by 2030 against 2005; zero by 2050
  • Canada – 40% to 45% by 2030, against 2005 levels
  • China – will peak its emissions more quickly than other major economies
  • Japan – 46% by 2030, against 2013 levels.

Earlier in the week, the EU agreed a new law mandating carbon neutrality by 2050 and a reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030, against 1990 levels.

One of the consequences of the 2015 Paris Agreement is that countries can set their own baselines for reductions. Research group Rhodium has produced a useful comparison of the various commitments.

Johnson’s commitment is welcome but we need to go further and take ownership of the carbon emissions we currently export through outsourcing manufacturing to countries such as India and China.

Net zero has become the litmus test for gauging how serious a country is about tackling the uncertain and damaging consequences of global warming. How much this will rely on changing the way we live and consume resources and how much it may have to rely on technological fixes, such difficult technologies like carbon capture, is yet to be seen. A group of scientists yesterday warned that to “continue to participate in the fantasy of net zero” will lead to an over-reliance on technology to solve our relationship with our planet. Critical of their own stance and that of other scientists on climate change, they say:

“Instead of confront our doubts, we scientists decided to construct ever more elaborate fantasy worlds in which we would be safe.”

Those fantasy worlds could doom our efforts to minimise climate change to failure. Socially just cuts to greenhouse gas emissions must be the way forward, the scientists contend, not technology.

I have argued before on LDV that we can’t solve climate change without dealing with the threats to biodiversity and that got a passing mention by BJ yesterday despite his bunny hugging jibe. Too often, the need to grow food often seems to at the expense of biodiversity. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) meets in China in October. It is vital that COP15 generates a biodiversity enrichment agenda that can be picked up by its older sibling COP26 when it meets in November.

The focus on carbon reductions by world leaders is welcome, even if Boris Johnson’s commitment to the “bunny hugging” agenda looks more political than sincere. We seem to be moving forward. Commitments to significant reductions in carbon and significant boosts to biodiversity are essential. They can’t be delayed. They must be made this year, not next year or the year after.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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15 Comments

  • John Roffey 23rd Apr '21 - 8:56am

    Agreed – a great relief!

    Our children and grandchildren now, at least, have a chance of a full life – without having to prepare themselves for some pretty dreadful events.

  • nigel hunter 23rd Apr '21 - 11:33am

    We must produce as much food as possible AND MAKE as much as possible in the UK.Getting things from China is time consuming with carbon capture and everything else that goes with it. My mate buys things from their .Goes wrong etc further delays in getting replacement or losing money. By producing in the UK AND being able to repair or replace articles here we cut transport costs etc.We will always need goods from abroad but reducing our dependency on that will reduce our carbon emissions and when it comes to it staying in the EU would be a carbon emission advantage

  • nigel hunter 23rd Apr '21 - 12:01pm

    Bunny Hugger! Whilst Greta mentions it I would have thought a mature Politician? (child in an adults body maybe) of Johnsons stature had some better words to describe the event.Yes, 2019 under Trump ‘green’ was bad, now a U-turn (who would have thought it!).It is all about him and media attention. It remains to be seen if his aims are just talk or not.

  • “Boris Johnson got his pennyworth in earlier announced that he will set in law “world’s most ambitious climate change target”, cutting emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 compared to 1990 levels in pursuit of zero carbon by 2050. “

    I’m pleased that someone (probably not Boris himself) seems to understand that the economic slack we are currently ‘enjoying’ due to the combined effects of Brexit and CoViD19 is a golden opportunity to effect a step-change – a worthwhile “Brexit dividend”.

    With these levels of reductions, you don’t achieve them by simple stepwise efficiency savings, instead you need transformational and disruptive thinking; as lockdown has shown us with the substantial reductions in emissions and air pollution, we can and need to be bold.

  • ………………….Boris Johnson got his pennyworth in earlier announced that he will set in law “world’s most ambitious climate change target”…………

    Yet another UK ‘worldbeater’.. Most of the ‘advances’ since 1990 have been due to the closure of coal fired power stations; but you can only close them once. The current rhetoric is long on promises and targets but short on detail and cost..
    In the Guardian’s 2019 climate scorecards the prime minister scored zero out of 100, due in part to his opposition to wind subsidies, emissions-based taxes on vehicles and investment in carbon capture and storage.,

    As Dickens noted “Brag is a good dog but Holdfast is better” (from my GCE paper)

  • The Johnson person is much busier at the moment trying to insinuate (through senior sources in 10, Downing Street) that it was the Lord Cummings of Barnard Castle who was responsible for leaking his old chum’s text messages that he doesn’t want us to know about.

    No wonder so many Scots are fed up with Westminster Government.

  • Jenny Barnes 23rd Apr '21 - 4:07pm

    Look at what they do, not what they say. Mr Johnson may be a good promiser, but not so much on delivery.
    Froze fuel duty for 15 years or so ( and in the coalition years)
    eliminate APD on domestic flights (France has banned domestic flights where the train alternative is under 2 hours – was going to be 4)
    scrapped the green homes plan
    major road building
    no serious commitment to active travel
    reduction in subsidy to electric vehicles
    no proper electric charging infrastructure…it’s not “range” anxiety it’s refuelling anxiety.
    No discouragement to the 3 tonne giant car trend.- even if it’s electric you’re using a lot of energy to move 3 tonnes when a cycle + person is under 100kilos.
    cancel heathrow 3rd runway

    I remember an LD conference in Brighton some years ago when the vast majority of the delegates put their hands up to commit to reducing their CO2 emissions by 10% over the following year. I didn’t, because I already don’t fly, have insulated my house etc etc. I wonder how many actually achieved it?

  • Barry Lofty 23rd Apr '21 - 4:15pm

    You had better believe it, if Boris Johnson says he is going to do it who could possibly doubt him??? I Will send him an email to confirm his sincerity.

  • Martin Farley is convenor of the Green Party’s tax and fiscal policy. The representation to the 2020 comprehensive spending review has some interesting proposals https://medium.com/@martin_farley/private-to-public-buyback-and-retrofit-housing-proposal-6efe1254c3d5. “Allowing public and community bodies to buyback and retrofit private rental homes will save renters and taxpayers £40bn per year, while reducing CO2 emissions and driving economic recovery in every part of the UK.”
    This is the kind of ambitious program that LibDems could collaborate with the Green Party and other progressive parties in advocating.
    “This BuyBack and Retrofit proposal will transform the housing sector for the better, improve household and government finances, reduce our Carbon emissions (thus helping us meet our international obligations), re-invigorate our post-COVID economy, improve the health of millions of people, create more stable and engaged communities, fund a massive skills and training programme, drive multi-sector innovation and help level-up the nations, regions and communities across the UK.
    It is the project we need to fuel our economic recovery in a way that benefits everyone and builds a stronger economy, society and environment.
    A combination of central government, local authorities, private investors, small businesses, charities & community housing bodies and skilled manual workers can come together to boost our economy in a way that delivers on our Climate Change commitments. But it can only happen with the leadership of government to help raise the necessary finance and engage all the key stakeholders. This is a clear opportunity that will provide a substantial win for us all.”

  • The climate change promises are fantasy because they are not technically achievable. But, hey, the politicians will committ billions in subsidies underwritten by the taxpayer so of course they are possible. Dream on.

  • Antony Watts 24th Apr '21 - 10:45am

    Targets are great. Top leaders relish them, they are headline stuff.

    But in reality they mean little except a point on a futuristic graph with, hopefully, a trend line bearing down on it.

    What is real is actions. And we see little of any of these in our press or on our TV. We need to change this and have a logical menu structure that lists the main areas – Industry, transport, buildings, agriculture, and other. And see and hear government updates every two months on actions and results for these.

    Let’s get serious here. We have all the data we need about Covid, but none we need about Climate Emergency.

  • The pandemic shut down most of the road, air and sea transport, much of industry, and large swathes of human activity all around our planet for the best part of a year. The scale of the shut down was far beyond anything envisaged by the most ambitious climate campaigner.

    Yet, the global atmospheric concentration carried on showing a steady increase with not the slightest blip in the data.

    People here who are demanding urgent action should really explain this result. Why should the rest of us make huge sacrifices when this unplanned experiment confirms beyond any doubt that huge cost will achieve zero?

  • @Peter – I note on another topic you tried to impress us with your 12+ years of learning, if you had been studying the science you would understand why one year would have little impact on the global situation…

  • Until they pledge to stop punishing the productive economy, and start collecting the value of exclusion and abuse of land and other natural resources, then no, it’ll all amount to little more than a hill of beans.

    If we spend billions making land inefficient homes in desirable areas fit for another fifty years, we will still have to house people for those years further and further away from the centres of economic, social and cultural activity they need access to, increasing emissions in the process, duplicating infrastructure, and doing nothing for urban areas that have transport bottlenecks because they were never designed with cars in mind (whether green cars or black).

    We will be paying with some peoples’ labour – those who have nothing but their labour – to make the assets of others more valuable and the price the landless have to pay to compete with them on an even footing even more eye-wateringly extractive.

    We will not solve climate change without valuing, and charging for, the use and abuse of the planet. At home and abroad. And we will certainly entrench poverty even moreso.

  • Antony Watts 28th Apr '21 - 9:08am

    It’s ever so easy to gain perceived credence by announcing “targets”. Hell I could issue one: “Every car in UK electric by 2035”. Good, job done. Let industry and the “market” get on with it.

    But this just hides government incompetence. The “market” will never solve the climate emergency. Legal regulation would. So government must get down to the nitty gritty and regulate those areas where we have a serious problem. And government must publicly invest its own money (our money) in key areas.

    For example, cars moving to electric. This requires three things: batteries, BEVs and delivering easy to use charging. The market has little interest in batteries without government money, manufacturers are keen on BEVs as a new, fast turn over sales pitch. But with poor products or limited travel range. Charging is a scandal, all government money so far has simply resulted in 50+ cowboys building charge points scattered around – including deluded local authorities – not a consistent network.

    So let’s do it right, have fossil fuel companies spend investment on batteries. Car makers on long range cars and electricity supply companies build a network on electricity sales points, or chargers.

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