Tuesday, May 7, 2019


The UK Parliament has responded to a recent raising of awareness on climate change by declaring a climate emergency.  This is unequivocally a positive sign for anyone concerned with our future wellbeing and species survival, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered, not least on how to select priorities for effective policies. Here are a few thoughts.

This is a global not a national crisis.

Anything the UK can achieve, given it is responsible for less than 2% of global emissions, will only be meaningful if it has a wider impact and is set within a context of international cooperation and agreement. Any policies seeking a global reach will also, inevitably and inextricably be bound up with trade. There is for example no gain from simply exporting UK emissions to other places. The UK can achieve little on its own, and it is hard to see how we on our own would have any significant influence on China, India, or the USA, particularly a USA under a President who regards climate science as a hoax.  

Unsurprisingly, those most hostile to effective action on emissions, like Trump and our own home-grown Brexit gang, are also those most hostile to the EU. EU policies on emissions are admittedly far from ideal, and need substantial strengthening and reform; but it would be far easier for the UK to influence these from within by remaining a member of the EU. For the most part, other EU states and their populations at least share the same broad objectives.

The EU emissions trading scheme is not perfect and needs substantial tightening, but if it can be made consistent with the right climate objectives and targets, then continued participation is in the UK’s economic interest and will assist our own decarbonisation.

We need the closest possible cooperation with our nearest neighbours in the EU. Resolving the chaos and confusion of our current position, and preferably remaining within the EU, must also rank as a first priority for effective action on climate. Participation in a reformed EU trading scheme will make our own measures less costly.

There is a big premium on early rather than delayed action.

Sometimes the case is made for postponing action while time is spent researching better solutions. But the reality is that early reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and especially CO2, confer a large benefit and have a big option value in postponing climate milestones. This trumps the risk that we might occasionally choose less than perfect solutions when new technologies may be available further down the road. The benefits of early action are generally under recognised.

Front end loading of any emissions reduction strategy helps postpone critical climate milestones. This factor alone justifies the emergency tag. We should  start with the low hanging fruit, the easy wins that can be achieved, not at zero cost or without any pain, but without major infrastructure spending or excessive disruption to current lifestyles


There are a few relatively low cost “wins” that do not depend on massive infrastructure investment, but relate more to behaviour, lifestyle choices and a few habits and customs. These may be partly attained through personal choices, but they are also susceptible to economic pressures and broader policies.  Two behavioural factors with major impact on GHG emissions are the very rapid growth in aviation and the consumption of meat in our diets. A third is the extent of speed and traffic congestion, two of the major factors that raise road transport emissions

Work towards international agreement on taxation of aviation fuel.

Environmental costs are largely priced into road transport fuels, at least in Europe, but not into aviation. There is a degree[1] of economic distortion here – absurdly, the fuel cost of a two people using their car to travel a thousand miles in Europe may be twice as much as two airfares, even though it gives rise to less than half the emissions. More importantly ultra-low airfares encourage very high carbon-intensive lifestyles, such as weekly commutes to distant weekend cottages, transatlantic stag weekends or Christmas shopping expeditions. This is a significant source of GHG driven by a tax anomaly. Some of these considerations also apply to the treatment of fuel for shipping.

With aviation as one of the fastest growing sources of GHG emissions, and the absence of an immediately available technology solution (electric aircraft), this must be an obvious priority if we are serious about the issue. As a measure it has an international impact, but of course depends on international agreement, although coverage of flights within Europe could be an important start.

Less meat eating.

Complete abandonment of meat in diets may not be a realistic goal, but even modest reductions could achieve significant reductions in GHG emissions associated with livestock rearing. Eating less meat in many Western economies has significant health benefits, and is a lifestyle trend that is already gaining ground. It is also consistent with a more sustainable approach to agriculture and land use, a reminder that CO2 is not the only problem of environmental degradation that we face.

Managing road traffic; reducing both speeds and congestion.

Speed and congestion, as every motorist with a trip meter will know, are both major sources of extra fuel consumption that are to a significant degree within our individual and collective control. Lower speeds lead to significant reductions in fuel consumption, and so do measures, like road pricing, designed to curb urban congestion. Once again these are measures that can bring health, safety and general environmental benefits.


Behavioural changes only take us so far.  Eating less meat, taking fewer flights and turning down the heating to 19oC will not get emissions anywhere near the ultimate target of zero. We are ultimately dependent on making changes that depend on large scale infrastructure investment, especially in relation to power and heat. So as well as making the relatively easy emissions savings we need to turn our attention to a wide range of actions required to prepare for substantial infrastructure development.

My priorities[2] on this include

  • Much more coherent direction of the power sector towards earlier achievement of very low emissions targets.
  • Re-establishing support for carbon capture and storage, and other low carbon options in generation.
  • Infrastructure that enables rapid transformation towards electric vehicles (EVs)
  • Much clearer policies for heat, and promotion of early trials of local heat networks, as well as other routes to low carbon such as electric heat pumps.

[1] Obviously travel time may be a bigger factor than cost for many people, but relative costs will also influence travel choices as between road, rail and air.
[2] Some of these broader policy questions are discusses elsewhere on this site, including the pages: Decarbonising Heat, Low Carbon Power, and A Climate Manifesto. (bar at top of this page)

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