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Wednesday 13 November 2019

This is Part 2 of Tortoise’s election primer. Part 1 is here.

Going carbon-free

The UK has pledged to hit “net zero” by 2050 – racing to be “the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to global warming by 2050”.

That undertaking in the last days of the May government has turned into an electoral gauntlet for anyone paying attention: Labour and the Greens say they will get to net zero by 2030, and the Lib Dems by 2045.

Making good on these pledges would not mean cutting all gross emissions, but it would mean cutting them a long way and then offsetting the balance – or burying it in carbon capture and storage schemes (CCS). And Britain has already made big strides in cutting emissions, even if it has a long way to go.

Getting there will require significant change. A core problem is that the UK’s progress so far has been achieved almost exclusively through its energy sector.

There are already big steps pencilled in: the UK has announced a ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 (with Scotland aiming for 2032). In addition, the Tories have announced a tree-planting target (11 million by 2022) because trees fix carbon from the atmosphere and tree-planting is trendy – think Mr Beast, the YouTube star who’s promised to spend $20 million planting 20 million, and Thomas Crowther, the British researcher behind a controversial paper published in Science this summer that suggested there is space on the planet to plant an extra trillion trees to remove between one third and two thirds of the carbon.

Labour has not yet jumped on the tree bandwagon. But it does have a “30 by 30” plan – 30 climate mitigation measures for its next decade in power. These include 7,000 new offshore wind turbines, a tripling of installed solar capacity and, crucially, 8 million heat pumps to decarbonise a job done at present almost entirely by gas.

But even that may be too little. Remember, emissions from international transport are excluded from most analyses. And some ways of looking at emissions are flawed because they don’t measure carbon released when making products imported from other countries. Britain is a huge importer of carbon.

Some measurements do look at the big picture. Last month a new analysis by the Office for National Statistics fed the carbon imprint of imports into overall UK figures for recent decades. That pushed back the year of peak UK emissions from 1972 (when emissions from within Britain started falling) to 2007, when they peaked even with imports taken into account. So there’s progress – just not enough.

Do voters care? A roomful of 16 year-olds doing National Citizen Service recently told a ThinkIn that climate policies would dictate their choice if they had the vote. Actual voters care too. A recent YouGov poll found that 56 per cent of all voters, including 47 per cent of Conservatives, support achieving net zero in 2030 as opposed to 2050. Extinction Rebellion has cut through, especially among 18-24 year-olds, but Brexit still dominates. This is not quite the climate election that activists claim it is.

It will be consequential for climate policies, however. Labour says the Conservatives’ 2050 net-zero goal has been set that far off so they can get away with doing nothing.

This much seems clear: hitting net zero and staying there will require more steep increases in wind and solar capacity. That will happen, not least because offshore wind is now highly competitive at roughly £40 per kilowatt-hour even without subsidies. But it won’t be enough. Britain will also have to “decarbonise” oil and gas – the industry’s euphemism for CCS. Which would be fine if the concept of commercially viable CCS had been proved anywhere in the world, and it hasn’t. That will require governments to put a much higher price on carbon than they have so far contemplated, either through taxes or carbon trading schemes.

If realistic carbon pricing schemes appear in any manifestos, at least they will be easy to spot.


One subtle feature of the UK’s London-centricism is the interest in trains over buses. Trains are, as the network is currently constructed and funded, a public service that exists largely to serve London. And the benefit of train subsidy mainly accrues to the better off.

There are significant questions about why we have failed to develop or sustain the rail network far enough beyond the big trunks. One reason is NIMBYism: people do not like train lines near their gardens. But another is the Treasury’s mental model of the world.

Whitehall likes high returns on any investment – so it is happy investing into London, where it knows new infrastructure will be used. And it does not like uncertainty – so it is loath to take risks, investing in the uncertain hope of helping to develop a city.

The consequence is that places with good transport get more investment.

It also means that it is easier to justify HS2, a high-speed line that would build capacity along an existing well-served line, than it is to justify transport investment to drive regeneration.

With the train system so fixated on the capital, the bus network is the bigger issue in most of the country – and a bigger problem.

In 1986, the bus system was deregulated outside London: accredited operators had to give notice of route changes, and that was it. In the ensuing decades, the bus networks have shrunk across England’s cities. In London, however, bus usage has grown and grown.

Getting serious about transport and regeneration means more talking about buses.

Illustrations by Waldemar Stepien

To read Part 3 of this primer – The 100-year Life – click here.

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