By Tilly Alexander
In the wake of COP25, the Oxford Climate Society invited a panel of climate experts to examine the progress in climate action made in 2019, as well as outline opportunities and challenges for international and domestic climate policy in 2020. With Brexit now upon us and Glasgow set to host the next UN climate change summit (COP26) in November, 2020 is a crucial year for the UK in defining climate policy. The evening’s panellists included Professor Julia Steinberger, Professor Henry Shue and Dr Simon Evans.
Dr Simon Evans
Dr Simon Evans, deputy and policy editor of Carbon Brief, opened the discussion, outlining his ten-day experience of COP25. Dr Evans highlighted the “disconnect” between the “outside”: the positive media attention surrounding the event and the “inside”: the disappointing lack of resolutions achieved within it, noting how often “Rule 16” was invoked. (“Rule 16” dictates that if the parties cannot even agree to disagree, then the issue is put on the following year’s agenda, and the decision pushed forward another year.)
Evans noted the discrepancy among definitions of “ambitions”. He commented that what made the situation “particularly complicated” was that countries such as Australia, Brazil and India blocked discussions on similar issues but didn’t agree on all counts, making it “a very complicated Venn diagram”. Dr Evans ended by pointing out that examining the wording surrounding COP26 reveals that the obligations expected of countries are lesser than we have been led to believe. Evans also highlighted the significance of the upcoming US election in determining climate policy in 2020.
Professor Julia Steinberger
Second to speak was Professor Julia Steinberger, Professor of Social Ecology & Ecological Economics at the University of Leeds’s School of Earth & Environment. Steinberger began by commenting that the UK government’s failures in terms of climate policy has forced her to take up a new hobby in 2020: writing to newspapers complaining about UK ministers’ climate denial statements or/and lack of action. Professor Steinberger outed MPs such as foreign office minister Heather Wheeler who recently (and falsely) stated in Parliament that 75% of Australian bushfires were caused by arson. Steinberger also exposed that the UK government effectively spent more money subsidising short haul flights than electrifying trains in 2019. Although £106 million could be found to bail out British airline Flybe, highly-used rail links such as the Manchester to Leeds train line continue to run on diesel despite past commitments to electrification, owing to the project allegedly costing too much (read: less than bailing out Flybe!). Steinberger returned to the theme of “disconnect”, noting that while on some levels UK government officials are rhetorically credit-worthy (unlike certain US and Australian leaders who won’t acknowledge the reality of climate change), their actions fall short.
Though this phase is difficult to navigate, Steinberger cautioned the audience not to listen to what leaders say but instead to look at what they do, reiterating that it is essential to keep exposing the full picture, the whole time. Moreover, with climate activists like Extinction Rebellion being listed as terrorists, we are entering an “age of open confrontation”, where anyone who advocates for change around transport, food and resources is seen as a threat. For context, animal rights groups and cycling advocacy group Critical Mass have also been placed on the counter-terror list.
Steinberger ended by quoting Sam Knight’s ‘Manifesto for the Future’ and noting that going into 2020 we need to think about where we situate ourselves with respect to a government that might be saying the right things but doing the wrong things, and that is branding climate activists as extremists.
Professor Henry Shue, Professor Emeritus of Politics and International Relations at Merton College
Professor Henry Shue, rounded off the opening statements, bringing his work on climate justice and theories of responsibility to the forefront. Shue noted that despite the increasing success of alternative energy like solar and wind, fossil fuel emissions continue to rise. 2018 and 2019 have each witnessed the highest levels ever seen, and though nudging consumers towards alternative energy instead of fossil fuels may eventually work after some decades, it is not doing nearly enough now. (Although more people are buying electric cars nowadays, even more are buying gas-guzzling SUVs, meaning it doesn’t even cancel out.)
As such, Professor Shue argued the importance of radically rethinking our approach to climate change, recommending the need to confront the fossil fuel industry. Armed with a handout that named and shamed global banks who continue to invest in fossil fuels (spoiler: it’s a lot of them!), Shue pointed out that one way we can make a difference is to oppose banks that fund fossil fuels. As Stop the Money Pipeline (www.stopthemoneypipeline.com) evidences, the worst offender JPMorgan Chase has given nearly 200 billion dollars towards fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement. UK consumer favourite Barclays Bank also ranks worryingly highly in Shue’s worst offenders’ list, at number six. Shue recommends closing accounts with offending banks like Barclays and HSBC, and letting them know exactly why you have chosen to do so. Citing “social license”, Shue argues that it is more than reasonable to demand that banks act in the national and social interest. As he points out: we wouldn’t allow banks to fund revivals of the slave trade, so we don’t have to let them get away with loaning money to fossil fuel industries either!
An engaging round of discussions followed, with questions primarily targeting past and future roles of global players like the US and China, as well as what the UK needs to do next. Responding to a question about the international environment, Dr Evans noted that the UN’s Paris agreement has been subtly undermined in many ways by the US’s behaviour. Both the lack of the diplomatic pressure from the US and its trade war with China have been detrimental to collaborative international efforts.
What needs to change, though? While the US election remains the single biggest gamechanger, in the absence of the US, the EU and China need to step up, lead from the front and apply pressure on other countries. Following on from Evans, Shue pointed out that given the high probability that Trump will be re-elected, it would be irresponsible not to prepare for this eventuality. With COP26 coming to Glasgow this year, the UK has a terrific responsibility. Though the UK won’t be part of the EU anymore, we need to work with them to establish European-Chinese leadership and encourage more ambitious climate commitments. This could involve imposing carbon import duties on countries that are the least ambitious with their carbon commitments, as well as a pact between Europe and China. As Shue highlighted, though the UK’s 1% of global emissions are not negligible, attempting to bring down Chinese emissions (currently at 29%) will be more impactful.
Finally, the questions-and-answers homed in on the UK’s schemes, with Steinberger and Evans outlining expected failures and shortcomings with regards to achieving Net Zero. Transport, the single biggest source of UK emissions was brought into focus. Though a deadline for the last internal combustion engine to be sold has been set, it is still far in the future. What’s more, due to weak policy, the UK is set to fail its fourth and fifth carbon budgets (target limits on emissions). Citing TESLA’s recent expansion into China, Shue noted that there is no need for the UK to wait until 2040 to get rid of combustible engines. Both Evans and Shue argued for switching to electric cars, while Steinberger made the case for abolishing all cars in cities expect ambulances and special mobility vehicles. Though internal combustion engines are massively inefficient in cars because they need to be portable, in buses they work far more efficiently as they can be made larger. Currently though, the UK is heading in the wrong direction, with 30 million being spent on building on new roads. As Steinberger points out, roads induce demand, which is the opposite of what we need.
Overall, the panel was highly informative, making thoroughly transparent much of what we have been deliberately kept in the dark about. It is clear that though 2020 offers opportunities for positive change, it is vital to stay vigilant in terms of keeping tabs on and calling out the UK government’s action and inaction.
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