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

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 yesterday despite BJ’s 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.

This article was first published on Lib Dem Voice.

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