The recent move by the UK Prime Minister to dilute policies aimed at reducing emissions is controversial. He has justified it, in essence, by reference to the cost to consumers, the cost of living crisis, and the cost to the UK economy. But this is short-termism of an extreme kind. Any consideration of our medium term future indicates the possibility of truly massive future financial bills arising from delaying our course of action.
Sunac’s avowed commitment to a 2050 target is quite worthless. Even to take it at face value is to stretch credibility. Postponing the end of petrol and diesel car sales will hinder progress to meet what is already an ambitious and challenging target. This is the view of much of an industry already heavily invested in the transition, as well as many bodies such as the Grantham Institute .
Moreover the volte-face on the means, promoting the decarbonisation of transport, must cast doubt on the seriousness of any commitment to the ends, of avoiding climate catastrophe, or of maintaining the pretence at international leadership on the issue.
Kicking the can down the road can be continued as an action avoidance strategy almost indefinitely, at least until 2050 arrives, emphasising yet again one of the reasons why strategy should not be built around arbitrary emissions numbers for an arbitrary year. As argued repeatedly in this blog the true objective indicated by climate science is not a particular figure in a particular year but total cumulative emissions. This can be presented as a global carbon budget responsibility for which individual nations can negotiate or be allocated their own national responsibilities.
It is cumulative emissions that cause global warming. So let’s just imagine a rational world in which each country is required to keep its cumulative emissions, let us say from 1990, or even from now, within an agreed limit. Failure to meet that target would require removal of that excess CO2, or payment to someone else to perform that task through sequestration of CO2 from the atmosphere. There is a set of plausible but expensive technologies for this purpose, so we do have some idea of a plausible cost per tonne, and this could arguably be brought down to about £ 250 per tonne.
Under such a scenario of internationally agreed targets, not wholly implausible as the impact of climate change becomes increasingly an existential and dangerous threat, we can see what the true financial and economic cost to the UK of the Sunac volte face might be. The government has offered no estimates of the extra emissions resulting from its relaxation of policy, but others have made provisional estimates of hundreds of millions of tonnes additional emissions.
Current UK CO2 emissions from the transport sector are about 112 million tonnes annually. So, for example, postponing by one year a programme scheduled to deliver a constant 5% (of base year) reduction in emissions generates an extra 100 million tonnes over 20 year. A two year delay results in an extra 200 million tonnes and so on.
On the basis of our sequestration costs even one hundred million tonnes extra would imply a cost of £ 25 billion, a significant number to factor into any cost benefit analysis of the policy change. But the implications of the Sunac delay seem likely to be much larger than that.