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'Catastrophe is in sight'

3 July 2024

Ben Wilson - testimonial

SCIAF Director of Public Engagement, Ben Wilson, writes in the Herald about whether politicians are taking the wrong path on net zero.

In 2019, in the months leading up to that General Election, the “climate emergency” was at the forefront of millions of people’s minds. Greta Thunberg’s-inspired youth climate strikes had swept across the world, disturbing classrooms weekly and marking the largest protests in Scotland since the Iraq war. Channel 4 dedicated an entire party leader live debate on the issue, replacing the absent Boris Johnston and Nigel Farage with melting ice sculptures to mark their failure to engage. At COP25 in Madrid, that December, half a million people were estimated to have taken to the streets - the largest ever at one of the annual UN climate conferences. 

Four and a half years on, the discourse is very different, and it’s troubling, short-sighted, and wrong. 

The Scottish Government’s announcement in April that it intends to change the law to get out of its climate target set an embarrassing context for the pre-election period, and this has been followed by a campaign debate more concerned with propping up the status quo than selling the public a vision of a better, greener, country that is in everyone’s interests. 

The Prime Minister has been regrettably attacking the costs required to achieve net-zero by 2050, forgetting to add that these investments will also save money in the long-term and be a massive boon for the UK’s fledgling economy. Keir Starmer is severely weakened on his green credentials too, having undermined his own reassurances to business by backtracking on his much-repeated £28bn commitment to green investment. He is now embroiled in a race-to-the-bottom debate with the SNP over windfall taxes, with the SNP claiming that Labour’s proposed increase from 75% to 78% for the excess profits on the oil and gas industry would be bad news for working people. 

The problem with all of this is that it is backwards-looking, hopeless, and simply out of tune with scientific reality.  

Achieving net-zero by 2050 is the bare minimum that the UK Government should be aiming towards and falls short of what many assessments regard as this country’s “fair share” of global efforts, based on our historical emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN’s leading assessment of the finest global climate science, is crystal clear that we need to rapidly shift away from fossil fuels, and that full extraction from current and planned fossil fuel infrastructure globally will emit almost double our safe targets for carbon in the next three decades. In other words, it's not enough to slow down, we need to stop quickly, and get into reverse gear.  

However, this is not something to be afraid of, but should ultimately be seen as an opportunity. Rishi Sunak might be right that it will cost up to £1.3tr to achieve net-zero over the next 25 years, but it will save us £1tr, not including the multiple economic benefits of getting in on the transition early, building a more efficient economy with less air pollution and more active travel. Investing in tackling climate change is good for everyone.  

The big challenge in today’s political culture is that the smart thing to do, in the long-term, is not what’s seen to win you votes: “It’s politics not policies that win elections”, as a Politico friend once told me. This means that chasing short term votes is prioritised over a properly well-considered, multi-year economic strategy that can truly give people and businesses the certainty they need to embrace our transition to a better, greener economy.  

It is only with consistency, proper planning and predictable investment at scale that we can protect workers in the North-East to ensure that communities there can both endure, and thrive in, a post-carbon country. Crucially, this plan must be people-centred, laser focused on just outcomes for communities, knowing that a cavalier free-market approach will only lead to more extraction of profits from Scotland to the mega rich, away from toiling workers.   

In the countries where SCIAF works, the concept of a just transition seems a million miles away. Malawi and Zambia are both in a state of national emergency right now and millions struggle to feed themselves and their families following a devasting El Nino weather effect, exacerbated by climate change. Some estimates suggest that by 2050, on current trajections, there will be 1.2bn climate refugees globally. Costs of climate impacts on developing countries are estimated to already amount to $400bn per year.  

The world is staring in the face of a climate catastrophe, and in some of the countries SCIAF works in, people are already seeing glimpses of what that catastrophe will look like. Investing in tackling climate change is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.   

Of course, like any major area like this, a healthy amount of political debate is required over the pace and approach towards the transition. But what mainstream political parties must also realise and challenge is the huge impact of short-term, vested interests which are deliberately skewing this debate to further their own financial aims. These are not in the common good. Only through common-good politics which push back against those who are self-serving and individualistic can we build a world where everyone can survive and thrive.