Tory claims about their performance on carbon emissions need to be taken with a pinch of salt argues Steve Burgess.
Over the last few weeks it appears that Tory politicians are being instructed by Party HQ to go on the attack over climate breakdown. Cue the issuing of standard images and graphs showing UK carbon emissions going down more rapidly than in some other developed nations.
So what’s the story? Are the Tories secretly the saviours of the planet?
Let’s start with the positives. The climate emergency is far too important an issue to be reduced only to party politics. To the extent that the UK’s carbon profile has changed under the current government that is welcome. There are, of course, some Tories who are genuinely committed to progressive policies on climate and other environmental priorities. More power to their elbows, I believe, especially as the party, more than any others (given the demise of UKIP) also offers safe haven for the most absurd type of climate sceptic, right up to former chancellors. So it is important that climate progressives within the Conservatives win out.
But part of the issue is context. The sharing of standard Tory Party HQ messaging on carbon emissions has, most recently, been in response to the growing number of climate strikes by young people. “Look” the Tories seem to be saying “All you kids should be staying put in school; look at how well we are doing. Leave it with us. We know best”. As a strategy, it is haughty at best, patronising and cloth-eared at worst.
But it is more than context. It’s a misleading message in three ways.
The first issue is that the UK is not on track to meet its legal obligations. The most recent report by the Committee on Climate Change in 2018, chaired by former Conservative minister John Gummer, says, quite starkly, that the UK Government is not on target to meet its own legally-binding targets. Significant progress on energy generation and waste have not been matched by similar ambition on transport and agriculture. And, remember, those legally-binding targets do not even reflect the latest climate science and the stark warnings from the IPCC last autumn that we have only until 2030 to act decisively. So, to say that the UK is ahead of other nations, even at face value, is to acknowledge failure; just not failing as badly as others.
The second issue is that the kinds of achievements highlighted by the Committee report are long-term changes and are shared across nations within the UK. So, decarbonising the grid, for example, did not just start in 2010 – indeed some policies since 2010 have undermined energy production goals, for example, removing feed-in tariffs to support development of solar energy and, more recently support for fracking and, astonishingly, encouraging new oil and coal exploration. Within the UK, the contribution of Scotland to emissions reduction is significant with the latest data showing 11% reduction and an average of 5% per year since 2009, compared to 5% and 3.1% respectively for the UK as a whole. In others words, Scotland has been out in front on carbon reduction within the UK – although even Scotland too needs to do far more to prevent climate breakdown.
The third issue is that it depends on what is being measured. Measuring production of greenhouse gas emissions captures the sheer extent of de-industrialisation in the UK over the last 40 years (27 of which saw Tories in power, of course). Those polluting industries have not stopped polluting; they are just doing it in other places such as China. Looking at carbon emissions by consumption throws up a very different picture with the massive carbon overhead of imports to the UK from cheaply-manufactured goods much less flattering. So, to take one example, greenhouse gas emissions associated with imports from China are 242% higher than 20 years ago. As Professor Kevin Anderson of Manchester University puts it: “If you ignore rising emissions from aviation and shipping along with those related to the UK’s imports and exports, a chirpy yarn can be told.”
And the climate crisis should not be the place for Tory yarns. Last year Sir David Attenborough said: “Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”.
A challenge of this scale deserves more than misleading league tables and cheap graphics designed to poke fun at worried school pupils.
Dr Steve Burgess was previously an MRC Research fellow at the University of Edinburgh and has been a Green councillor since 2007.