Unfortunately for all those who passionately support efforts by people like David Attenborough to force the world to confront climate change – regardless of where you stand on the issue on what is admittedly quite a wide platform – recent reports suggest we are now in the land of political signaling in environmental policy rather than earnest endeavor.
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UK makes major environmental policy shift (on paper, at least)
As The Spectator reported yesterday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng announced that the government would enshrine in law the target of cutting the UK’s carbon emissions by 78% by 2035.
That’s 15 years earlier than originally planned.
Why today make Britain a world leader in tackling climate change? Largely, because it is a nice commitment to be announcing in the run-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this year.
Ardent supporters of environmental issues, of course, welcome the news. However, it would require a lot of big lifestyle changes in terms of diet, transport and housing for the general public. Furthermore, left to government, it will cost both the state and individuals a lot of money.
Environmental policy in the US
Across the Atlantic, the Biden administration is in danger of going down the same road.
That’s not to say they are making unachievable targets. Ratherm, they are in danger of making them without being honest about the consequences.
The problem with governments is they like to show they are “doing things,” even when the actual progress is much less than the headline.
Worse, they hate telling us how much it is going to cost or how they are going to achieve those targets. If you are going to bring the electorate along with you, a dose of honesty would not go amiss.
Take a report by the Financial Times this week, which covered the particularly controversial subject of food.
Much of the agricultural sector’s emissions are generated by the farming of cattle for beef. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has recommended the UK’s meat and dairy consumption should fall about 35% by 2050.
As a vegetarian, I don’t have any problem with the objective. However, I’d like to know how the government plans to achieve that. Not aspirations: what is the actual plan?
Because applying harsh new food laws, penalties or applying carbon taxes to the food industry will result in resistance. Resistance leads to governments backtracking and, eventually, failure.
Industry vs. legislation
The subject is almost too important to be trusted to politicians and their short-term goals. However, unfortunately, legislation is part of the answer.
On the plus side, industry is way ahead of legislators. From miners to refiners to manufacturers, industry is not only pouring billions into research and new investments. It is also increasing consumer options to pull innovation through the supply chain rather than force change from above.
Aluminum and steel producers are rapidly developing low- or ultra-low-carbon products. They may not reach net-zero by the government’s arbitrary 2035 goal. However, the huge reduction they could achieve will make up a significant percentage of that needed to limit temperature rises as a result of CO2.
Car and appliance makers are actively developing marketable low-carbon brands that will drive innovation in their supply chains. That is not coming at zero cost. Some technologies will cost money, particularly the premium that comes from low production volumes (as with electric vehicles).
But competition is also driving innovation to control those costs. We have seen that with the collapse in solar and wind power production costs over the last 10 years.
Governments would do better supporting research and development, education and innovation than making grandiose statements.
As Google’s origins in blue-sky DARPA research suggests governments have a role in funding areas that industry is too cautious to support. They have a role in education and proof of concept support. The real change will be driven by the markets.
Encouragingly, in that respect, industry appears to be aggressively seeking opportunities to deliver.
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