Waste land: a lorry dumps rubbish in a landfill in Brazil’s Pará state, where rampant deforestation is contributing to climate change
Waste land: a lorry dumps rubbish in a landfill in Brazil’s Pará state, where rampant deforestation is contributing to climate change © Bloomberg

The author is a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and author of Net Zero

One definition of madness is said to be persisting with Plan A in the face of all the evidence that it is not working, and avoiding even thinking about a Plan B. But, after 30 years and 26 COPs — Conferences of the Parties to the UN’s 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change — that pretty much sums up our approach to climate change.

Every year since 1990, we have added another two parts per million to the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — including in the lockdown years 2020 and 2021. The case for “one more heave” looks pretty slim.

Why no Plan B? Because it is altogether more challenging. It requires an engagement with the facts. It recognises that the transformation of an overwhelmingly carbon-based world (where 80 per cent of energy demand is still met by fossil fuels) to net zero by 2050 (in 28 years), and the complete decarbonisation of UK power by 2035 (in just 13 years), is going to cost a lot — as energy consumers are now finding out.

Someone has to pay. It is so much easier to attack businesses, tell emitters to clean up their act, and glue yourself to the doors of banks and oil companies, than to admit that none of them produces the stuff for fun — and it’s you and me who are their customers. In other words, it’s you and me who are the polluters. Write your own carbon diary, and hazard a guess at how much carbon is embedded in your breakfast, your clothes, your travel, your work and your downtime. Most of this carbon has to go.

In the meantime, both emissions and the destruction of the natural sequestration that nature gives us for free continue on much the same path as they have done since 1990 — as if the 26 COPs had never happened. The Amazon is now a net emitter of carbon. This path continues to be followed because the costs of the pollution are not in the prices you and I pay.

Mention a carbon tax, a carbon border tax to address all those carbon-intensive imports, and politicians run a mile. Think of extending carbon prices to agriculture, heating and transport, and the cost of food, power and travel going up, and politicians do the opposite: they lower the price of regional aviation, freeze fuel duty, bow to the farming lobbyists, and search for ways to lower energy prices. They (and we) want cheap energy, cheap food and cheap flights.

Hot air? Despite 26 COPs — last year’s in Glasgow is pictured — atmospheric CO2 has risen inexorably
Hot air? Despite 26 COPs — last year’s in Glasgow is pictured — atmospheric CO2 has risen inexorably © Jonne Roriz/Bloomberg

The really inconvenient truth is that because we, the polluters, do not pay, we are living beyond our environmental means. Cheap does not mean sustainable. We are cheating on ourselves since, increasingly, the pollution is affecting us now. And we are cheating on the next generation, too, because it is pretty certain that they will not inherit a set of natural capital assets as good as we did.

The sustainable economy is one where all these pollution costs are internalised. It means that consumption will be lower as the adjustments are made. Yet this does not mean that economic growth stops. Growth is driven by advances in ideas and technologies. There is a cornucopia of advances already under way: digitalisation, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, genetics and new materials. The sustainable economy will need all of these and more: it needs both new technologies and the polluters to pay.

Can we head off the damage? Won’t the generational selfishness that goes by the name of “cakeism” win the day? Won’t the rejection of “hair shirts” stigmatise environmentalists and encourage us to ignore the reality of what is really going on?

The current preoccupation with economic growth based on stimulating demand, Keynesian-style, with negative real interest rates and quantitative easing, and ever greater borrowing for the next generation to repay, suggests the omens are not good. This sort of economics is pretty obviously not environmentally sustainable.

Yet the obvious consequence is ignored: it will not be sustained. With 3C or more of warming, the loss of a big chunk more of biodiversity, and the rainforests gone, all those new ideas and technologies will not be enough to stave off the costs of the environmental downhill our unsustainable consumption is causing. Political leadership is about telling it as it is, not pretending it is all painless.

Adjusting back to a sustainable consumption path would be painful in the short term, but not in the longer term — and it will be a lot less painful than continuing with Plan A. 

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Rather than think of addressing pollution just as an irritating hair shirt, recognise that quite a lot of the stuff that you buy, egged on by the marketing media, does not actually make you happy. That is one of the lessons from the experience of the lockdowns.

Look at the levels of ill health, the obesity and the stress that our demand-driven economy has created and ask yourself whether we do in fact live in the best of all possible worlds, and whether we are actually better off for not paying for the pollution we are causing.

Imagine cleaner air, greener places right in the heart of cities, beaches and rivers that are clean enough to swim in, food that tastes good and is good for you, a world with more birds, insects and flowers.

It would be a greener and ultimately more prosperous land. And you would be able to look the children and grandchildren in the eye. Isn’t that worth paying for?

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