Three Reasons Why Climate Action Shouldn’t Wait

Even offshore wind generation costs are starting to undercut fossil fuels. Photo by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash

The decades-long attempt to promote ‘climate denial’ seems, for the most part, to have come to an end, now relegated to the ‘Chinese hoax’ nonsense of Donald Trump and his supporters. Yet the case for fast climate action is now faced with new tactics — delay, misdirection, ‘whataboutisms’, and the promise of unproven techno-fixes.

A letter from the UK Member of Parliament (MP) for Shipley, Philip Davies, in response to a constituent offers an ideal opportunity to examine and refute some of the new “usual suspect” arguments of climate delayers. More specifically, it allows us to address the argument that “we’ve done a lot, more than most, so no need to do more”:

https://twitter.com/ExtinctionR/status/1452882519175598082

The letter contains a series of typical “climate delay” and misdirection arguments that are ethically blind, economically illiterate, and politically absurd.

Let’s look at them in order that they are presented:

1 — “The UK has cut its emissions by half over the past 30 years. We are now responsible for less than 1% of global emissions.”

Carbon accounting is tricky. The UK has indeed cut its emissions fairly impressively (if you don’t count consumption emissions), perhaps not by a half since 1990, but still fairly impressively. However, the claims of success miss a few key points about emission calculations. Firstly, the UK is responsible for 1.1% of global emissions, according to Parliament’s own library, not “less than 1%”. Any given year may differ, and it seems a small difference, but these small differences represent a lot of carbon.

Such quibbles miss the point though. Firstly, these measures for UK emissions do not include the UK’s emissions for airlines and shipping (both major sources of carbon pollution, especially for developed island nations like the UK), nor do they include the UK’s military emissions. With our large military, air-transport hubs, and our reliance on oceangoing trade, our footprint is probably higher than this 1.1% of the global annual total.

More importantly though, the argument also misses the importance of per capita emissions. Even if we accept that every individual in the world, rich or poor, should have the same share of the planet’s remaining annual carbon budget (a very unjust proposition in itself), then the UK is still emitting at above its population’s “fair” level. The UK is home to 0.87% of the world’s population. Even by this flimsy “per capita” logic, the UK should still cut to 0.87% of global emissions.

Note, these figures are just “energy related emissions”, and thus not the full picture.

And it is very weak logic. This is a cumulative crisis, not an annualised one. The UK has historically been a very large emitter of green house gases (GHGs). Most rich countries are the same. In fact, historically, “developed” countries achieved their wealth alongside huge amounts (per capita and in absolute terms) of historic GHG emissions. This process has to change for the current developing countries. That old economic system, we now realise, was inefficient and pushed many costs onto others (the future, or ‘elsewhere’), but it was based on emissions.

So, yes, the UK may produce just 1.1% of annual new emissions, but as any school student can tell you, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for generations. Historical emissions are very relevant when examining current duties and responsibilities. The UK is responsible for around 4.71% of total historical emissions, according to some calculations.

It is therefore unjust for wealthier nations to claim that they are entitled to an equal per capita share of the world’s remaining carbon budget. Imagine a lifeboat with a limited supply of drinking water. A few of the passengers find the water first and gorge on it, then when all the occupants realise the water is there, the passengers who found the water first claim that the remainder should be shared equally among everyone, including themselves. In the climate world, it is even worse than this metaphor, because the wealthier nations are clearly more capable of adjusting away from carbon than the poorer ones.

As we know, many countries are still developing (many of them also on the front lines of climate impacts caused by the world’s cumulative historical emissions) with much lower per capita and certainly much lower historic emission levels. India for example, with its gigantic population relative to the UK, is estimated to account for just 3.14% of total global historical emissions.

This leads us naturally to the next part of the argument:

2 — “Even if we were to reduce that number to 0% of the global total it would make no difference at all to global temperatures…other nations like China, India, and emerging economies in Africa are going to be increasing their carbon emissions each year by more than our entire total.”

It is nonsense to state that 1.1% of global emissions “doesn’t have an effect on the climate”. After all, 100% is just made up of a hundred 1% chunks. Every 1% is equally damaging. But logic aside, there is also a disturbing ethical failing in this argument.

Many of us remember being told, as children, that “just because so-and-so did something bad, doesn’t mean that you can do it too” or “Two wrongs don’t make a right”, etc. This is pretty basic moral stuff.

To put it a bit more explicitly: If you are doing harm to someone knowingly, you have a moral duty to stop as soon as possible (if you can, and we definitely can in this case), and probably a moral duty to offer compensation for the harm you have done, even if some of that time you weren't aware of what you were doing. The fact that others are also doing harm does not change this ethical requirement.

We know now, for certain, that carbon emissions do harm to future generations, current people facing climate impacts, and nature in general. Rich nations especially exercise immense power over these groups, who are disenfranchised (future people can’t vote or be heard), ignored (due to the lack of power & influence of poorer countries), or ignored because they are not human. As such we abuse this power and do harm.

Davies argues that we can keep doing that harm because others will still be doing it too. From a moral standpoint, the argument that “someone else will do it if we don’t do it” does not hold water. It’s either harmful behaviour, or it’s not.

Of course, there is also the issue that Davies is pointing at developing countries here for his “what about them?” argument. As already covered, these countries and regions’ per capita & per capita historical emissions are massively smaller than the UK’s. Their growing emissions are still a big and growing threat to the planet of course, and the key reason why richer nations committed, in 2009 as part of the Copenhagen agreement, to helping developing countries transition to sustainable economic paths and adapt to climate impacts. The relatively small amount promised was $100bn a year…it has still not been achieved.

(China in itself is particularly important case. China’s emissions have surged, so that now it has matched USA for total historical emissions, even if not in per capita terms. So far, Chinese promises on emissions reductions are too slow for the world…that is the trouble with being such a large country. The extra economic power and advantages that come with being a mega-economy bring with them extra responsibilities and duties. Progress on electric car uptake in China for example, means nothing if the grid still relies on dirty coal.)

Finally, there are not clear lines of atmospheric C02 over which things suddenly change. There are probably tipping points, beyond which the earth may suffer irreversible damage or enter irreversible warming spirals that shift the planet to a new and less hospitable equilibrium. Those aside, each fraction of a degree makes a difference. So every little bit of carbon does count. Especially if it is 1.1% of global emissions.

But what about the cost? What about poor people in rich nations?

3 — “Such action would also be utterly futile, virtue signalling, gesture politics that would bankrupt the country along with many families. The estimated cost of getting to netzero is estimated to be £1trillion for the UK…money that many of my constituents can’t afford…”

From a moral standpoint, how could it be futile to cease doing harm to others (and ourselves of course, and our children, but disproportionately others), including future generations everywhere? Such action would actually be virtuous, not just “virtue-signalling” — a term which suggests the signalling is more important than the virtuous act. Of course, “virtue-signalling” is standard right-wing “culture war” language, common from the political side facing an increasing public awareness that their “free-market” economic policies (their only main policies really) have not been delivering for decades.

In this case, it is utterly backwards. Given that Davies’ party is constantly (and usually wrongly) claiming to be “world-leading” and “world-beating” in various other areas (most recently, their actually dismal Covid-19 response), it might be nice to actually have some substance beneath the boasting. The UK is doing well on emissions reduction after all. On current trends (and it is worth remembering that it may get harder and harder the closer you get to “Zero”), the UK is set to reach net-zero in 2038:

Source Berkeley Earth

But Davies seems determined to argue that this trend should end. Why? It is not clear. But there seem to be increasing numbers of people in his party, and more widely on that political wing, in the UK and across the world, who are focusing on NetZero now that Brexit is ‘done’.

So then we come to the crux of so many delay arguments these days: the climate transition is too expensive because the burden would be too much for poorer members of our society.

The £1trillion number does sound a lot (at least if you are not used to international finance, GDP accounting, bond markets, or forex reserve numbers). But it is not the size of the number that Davies has wrong (although estimates do vary), it’s that he is only presenting a small piece of a much bigger picture.

Cost-benefit analysis (CBA) does try to take in all the costs of a decision, but normally also all the benefits. If the latter come out higher than the former, then the project presumably is worth doing. Of course you also have to think about the costs of not making the decision too. In the case of climate action, we know that the costs globally of not acting are high (by some measures, the costs of climate damage start to get pretty close to total global wealth by the end of this century under such scenarios), with untold potential for resulting political and social chaos dragging down systems even further.

In many such calculations, our difficulty in accounting for damage to nature, or costs passed on to future generations & distant people, has distorted the conclusions for too long anyway. Every time a company is allowed to damage the natural world (a public good) in pursuit of profits, they receive an implicit subsidy from the world.

But in this case, the narrow case of just the UK alone deciding to act, is Davies correct? Well, you can probably guess by now…he is wildly off target.

Davies’ assertion that the climate transition to net-zero is 100% cost assumes that all the policies and investments that the government (controlled by his party, mind) would fail. The argument assumes there would be no savings from wasting less energy, there would be no ‘net-jobs’ generated by the creation of whole new sectors of the economy to replace our reliance on (mostly imported) oil and gas, there would be no productivity gains, no bursts of innovation, no health benefits from decreased urban pollution, and no newly spurred competition. Facts already suggest he is completely wrong. So do the most informed projections. Global governments (including our own) continue to effectively subsidise ‘the past’ — damaging fossil fuel extraction and use, they should be subsidising green alternatives.

Of course, Davies is also assuming that there will be no global agreement on carbon pricing or other climate accord that would make the cost of carrying on with any emissions increasingly expensive. There’s little hope for such an agreement at COP26, but the green transition investments he is criticising have lifespans and time frames of decades, not just a few years. Already, we have imminent roll-outs of climate related risk reporting (including both physical risk…eg when your production facility floods, and transition risks…eg when your equipment becomes stranded due to policy changes). These standards are approved by the UK Chancellor from Davis’s own political party.

For more detail, and a clear assessment of the economics of transition, see the recent work by one of the UK’s top climate economists, Dimitri Zenghelis at both EconomicsObservatory and at The Conversation.

It turns out there is a lot of upside to the transition. Not every plan or project will work of course, but the idea that it will all be cost (i.e. 100% fail), is just bizarre. It is much more likely to be mostly benefit. As Zenghelis points out:

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate estimates that ‘at least half and possibly as much as 90%’ of the global emissions reductions required to meet a 2° target could generate net benefits to the economy.

So either Davies doesn’t seem to understand the “other side” of the equation from the £1trillion of costs, or he’s assuming that Britain, British companies, and the British government is incapable of competing, thriving, and innovating its way through the climate transition, and that all the money will be just cost, with no related benefits. This is an astounding lack of faith in the UK’s society, UK businesses, and the UK government’s competence…from a member of the UK government’s own party. The alternative of course, is that he is simply uninformed, or being deliberately disingenous…it would be nice to know.

What about the last point? His appeal to social justice? That poorer members of our society surely can’t afford to shoulder the burden of these transition investments? This argument is becoming increasingly common amongst the “anti-transition” crowd. At first glance, if we accept his partial reporting of the equation, this seems reasonable. But a more thoughtful glance reveals it to be silly.

Even if there were net costs required for this transition, or just “up front” costs, then forcing the poorer members of society to bear the short-term burden of the economic transition would be an unnecessary, arguable immoral, and extremely stupid, policy choice. But it would be a policy choice nonetheless.

If you raise a fuel tax to encourage the transition, why wouldn’t you use the revenues to subsidise poorer households who can’t shoulder the burden? If we require that all new homes come with heat pumps rather than gas boilers, why wouldn't you subsidise any additional (while the technology is new and possibly more expensive) cost of this for affordable housing?

Poorer people nearly always have smaller carbon footprints, and they nearly always have lower historical footprints. This holds true not just for poorer people abroad, but also for poorer people in developed countries. So not only would it be politically stupid not to take actions to make sure such groups don’t have to disproportionately shoulder any burden of a transition, it would be profoundly unjust too.

Davies presumably can only envision regressive measures that would put a disproportionate and unfair share of the burden on the shoulders of poorer citizens. But to presume that there are no solutions to this is to show a remarkable lack of imagination, or a deliberate unwillingness to consider how things could work. As a reason not to continue decarbonising the economy, it is non-sensical.

While Davies’ letter addresses the UK’s situation, these arguments, and those similar to them, are becoming increasingly common across the world. The lobbies and groups that seek to protect the old economy have switched from outright denial to delay, doomism, misdirection, and other disinformation. The arguments are as ungrounded as the previous denial turned out to be. They should be challenged wherever they are found.

Writer, analyst. Previously involved in finance, economics, geopolitics. Tech & Education entrepreneur. 13 years in China

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Paul Harding

Paul Harding

Writer, analyst. Previously involved in finance, economics, geopolitics. Tech & Education entrepreneur. 13 years in China

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