York Press column – Action on climate change
July 12, 2019
No one following the news recently can have missed the growing prominence of climate change, with this spring’s controversial Extinction Rebellion protest and the youth climate strike movement the most eye-catching examples of rising public interest.
Last month, the government made the historic announcement that the UK would commit to reach ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050, the first major world economy to do so. This means total British emissions will equal or be less than the total we remove from the environment, and can be achieved both by reducing or ‘capturing’ new emissions, and off-setting any carbon released.
This commitment is a clear advance on previous plans for an 80% emissions reduction, and it is inspiring to think that our country, which led the world into the industrial age, is leading again, but this time towards a future of clean growth.
Although there can be no room for complacency, we thankfully start in a good place from which to deliver on this commitment. The UK is already decarbonising the fastest of all major economies, total emissions fell by a quarter during 2010-18, and renewables now generate 37% of all UK electricity. I have personally been closely engaged on environmental questions, both as a member of Parliament’s Environment Select Committee, and through lobbying on matters raised by constituents, like plastic waste, and at a local level protecting Askham Bog from development.
In taking forward this agenda, my party needs to show that the ‘Conservative’ in its name reflects a vigorous commitment to conserve our irreplaceable natural inheritance for future generations, something particularly vital in the beautiful surroundings of North Yorkshire.
Our city’s capacity to protect the environment was the main theme of my productive discussion with the large group of York residents who joined the mass lobby of Parliament on global warming last month. The fact so many residents were happy to make the long journey to Westminster shows the strength of local feeling for firm measures to drive towards ‘net zero’, which must be facilitated by the crucial Environment and Agriculture Bills being drawn up by the government.
The Environment Bill guarantees in UK law the environmental principles and regulatory protections that are currently maintained by European institutions as we leave the EU. To this end, the Bill also creates a basis in British law for the government’s own 25 Year Environment Plan, and its detailed measures to protect and enhance air, water, soil, landscapes and woodland.
Reaching ‘net zero’ depends on reducing emissions from transport, energy generation, and economic activity, and this is best achieved by developing new technologies and becoming more efficient, rather than by damaging the economy and going back to a pre-machine age.
UK agriculture will play its part in this under the new framework for farming outside the EU contained in the Agriculture Bill. Encouragingly, this is already framed to support the transition to ‘net zero’, proposing shifting public funding for agriculture to ‘public goods’ and support for innovation and productivity improvements. Carbon capture measures like preserving peatlands and tree planting are an obvious example of public goods, while investment in innovative technology and more efficient techniques are vital to maintain food production levels while doing so in a more sustainable way. It is notable that the National Farmers’ Union have actually set a more ambitious target of 2040 for net zero than the government, but on the basis of greater efficiency and carbon offsetting, rather than cutting production.
We cannot forget that the advisory Committee on Climate Change which recommended ‘net zero’ did so precisely because the power of innovation in reducing costs in recent years has now made this feasible. There are huge opportunities to develop clean technology for bioenergy, hydrogen, electric vehicles, and carbon capture. An enterprising city like York has a major contribution to make here, and researchers from York University are already involved in a new national Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations.
New technology is also essential for ‘net zero’ so we avoid simply outsourcing our emissions to poorer countries, by banning production here while continuing to import goods made abroad with polluting techniques. Innovation allows the actual production of goods to be made less polluting, vital for placing the world economy on a sustainable footing.