Theresa May has made a move to grasp a meaningful legacy from the jaws of Brexit by seeking a legally binding commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, making Britain the first major economy to do so.
She has chosen the right cause. The climate crisis is upon us, and every day brings new stories from every corner of the world.
Entire villages in India are being abandoned, leaving only the sick and the elderly, as the country bakes in 50°C heat. Southern Africa is still reeling from cyclones Idai and Kenneth, that shook the lives of 2 million people. Farmers in the US look out at vast acreages of flooded fields, unable to plant for the season to come.
May is right that the UK must lead. Britain has benefited from hundreds of years of high-carbon exploitation, and that has rocket-fuelled our economy, giving many of us comfortable lives, and making some astonishingly wealthy.
Nations in the global south have not reaped the benefits of such emissions-intense development, and yet are now suffering the impacts of the climate crisis first and worst.
Reaching zero carbon is vital, but we must not hide from the fact that the goal should be far closer to 2030 than 2050.
Theresa May is right too, to dismiss Philip Hammond’s tired, partisan and above all inaccurate claim that achieving this would harm the economy. There are jobs and money to be found in renewable energy that will far outweigh those in petro-chemicals.
And let’s not forget the benefits of clean air; of solar or wind-driven energy independence; of a clean, efficient public transport system; of greening our country and expanding the wild places that ultimately sustain us all.
These would all deliver benefits far beyond the crude, short-term monetary equations applied by the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. And critically, while these benefits may accrue to the citizens of the UK first, they will also benefit all on our planet in the long-term.
Over 10 million people are employed in the renewable energy sector today, and that will only grow if the government puts in place realistic policies to achieve these targets.
Being at the forefront of renewable technology would also put the UK in an enviable position globally, as other countries turn to British expertise as they strive to meet their own climate targets.
Britain has benefitted from a carbon-heavy industrial revolution, but it wasn’t the only reason the country became a major economy. Colonialism enabled the UK to profit from resources that were never ours to take. Now once again we seek to export our problems.
May’s new development includes the option of using ‘international carbon credits’. In other words, the UK can pay for other countries to make carbon cuts on our behalf – we can continue to benefit from our addiction to carbon, while others pay the real cost.
Carbon credits are not an answer to the climate crisis. The UK government’s own advisors, tell us they are ineffective when it comes to mitigation, and the same investment to balance carbon budgets within the UK would yield better, fairer results.
The UK’s official Committee on Climate Change has made it abundantly clear it is “essential” that the commitment is achieved without use of international carbon credits.
The UK can and should lead the world, ramping up its efforts, proving to the world how determination and political will can deliver a new economy that benefits both people and planet.
Playing a leading part in preventing the climate crisis and the suffering of hundreds of millions of people will make us the architects of a sustainable world of which we can be truly proud – to pass on to our children and theirs.
Steve Trent is executive director at the Environmental Justice Foundation.
Image: EU2017EE, Flickr.