Britain has promised net zero – but it’s on track to achieve absolutely nothing

(The Guardian, 26 May 2021) Despite producing ambitious targets, governments have failed to tackle the big environmental issues over the past 15 years.

Every week governments make headline announcements about saving the planet, and every week their small print unsaves it. The latest puff by the G7 is a classic of this genre. Apparently, all seven governments have committed “to conserve or protect at least 30% of the world’s land and at least 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030”. But what does it mean? The UK, which says it secured the new agreement, claims already to have “conserved or protected” 26% of its land and 38% of its seas. In reality, it has simply drawn lines on the map, designating our sheepwrecked hills and trawler-trashed seas “protected”, when they’re nothing of the kind. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a press release.

All governments do this, but Boris Johnson’s has perfected the art. It operates on the principle of commitment inflation: as the action winds down, the pledges ramp up. Never mind that it won’t meet the targets set by the fourth and fifth carbon budgets: it now has a thrilling new target for the sixth one. Never mind that it can’t meet its old commitment of an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Instead, it has promised us “net zero” by the same date. Yes, we need more ambition, yes, the government is following official advice, but ever higher targets appear to be a substitute for action.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a book called Heat. I tried to work out how far we would have to cut greenhouse gases to fulfil our international obligations fairly, and how we could do it without destroying the prosperity and peace on which success depends. The best estimates at the time suggested that if the UK were justly to discharge its responsibility for preventing climate breakdown, we would need to cut our emissions by 90% by 2030.

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The Guardian, 26 May 2021: Britain has promised net zero – but it’s on track to achieve absolutely nothing