Driving the green wedge
Rishi Sunak’s sudden U-turn is the result of desperation … and a leak, writes Eddie Ford. Meanwhile, yet another authoritative report shows that yet another climate record is in danger of being broken
Rishi Sunak’s celebration of the go-ahead given to the Rosebank North Sea oilfield by the laughably named ‘Transition Authority’ and the string of announcements watering down climate targets can only be described as a U-turn. Of course, none of it was prompted by grand planning. Rather, the result of blind panic. The BBC got hold of a leak which revealed some of the details of what was being prepared for the Tory Manchester conference as some sort of anti-woke relaunch in the run-up to next year’s general election.
Instead, the prime minister was forced to call an emergency cabinet meeting to sign off the plan and bring forward his announcements on petrol vehicles, boilers, and so on. It has to be said that Sunak really takes the biscuit when he says that his backtracking had nothing to do with politics! Apparently, it was about “the long-term interests of the country” and “putting country before the short-term political needs of the moment”. In truth, it is the exact opposite, of course - it is clearly about putting the short-term (desperate) needs of the Tory Party before that of the country, let alone the planet.
Still, if you are desperate, you have to do desperate things. Having just managed to hold on to Boris Johnson’s old seat in Uxbridge by a populist turn against Ulez and so-called ‘green issues’, and discarding a lot of the former prime minister’s policy aims, Sunak’s government has decided that only by going the whole hog will they stand any chance of preventing Sir Keir Starmer from choosing the No10 wallpaper. We do not know what the conversations were like in Downing Street, but they could have gone something like when David Cameron - ushering in the age of austerity - issued instructions to civil servants to get rid of the “green crap”.
What we have is still a commitment to net zero by 2050, but to do it slower. The most significant rollback announced by Sunak is a delay to the deadline for phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035, with those vehicles allowed to be sold second-hand after that date - a move that will presumably require a vote in parliament. There is a similar delay for boilers, now aiming for only an 80% phase-out of gas boilers by 2035, not 100% - and under the new policy, homeowners will only have to switch to electric heat pumps when they are actually replacing their boilers.
To much ridicule, the prime minister pledged some sort of government intervention to prevent poor old householders being confronted with seven different bins, including for different forms of recycling - something that was never a reality in the first place! This writer does not know what the system is like where Rishi Sunak lives, but in my area we definitely do not have anything like seven bins! Either way, what on earth is the government doing interfering with local councils if they happen to insist that residents should have a certain number of bins - surely that is a local decision, not one for central government.
Anyhow, what we are obviously dealing with is a shift to the right, when it comes to climate - part of the anti-Ulez backlash that is pandering to the likes of the Daily Mail, Sun, Telegraph, etc. What is interesting about the Sunak announcement was the response of big business - which at first might seem a bit surprising. Under normal circumstances, if you get an announcement of this nature, you will get writers and editors of leftwing publications penning articles about how Rishi Sunak is in the pockets of big business, and so on. But big business too has decried the shift from 2030 to 2035 - for perfectly understandable reasons, when you think about it. Carmakers, for instance, have spent hundreds of millions of pounds over the last few years investing in electric vehicle manufacturing to prepare for the 2030 deadline - hence their angry reaction to the news that it has been kicked five years down the line. In a statement, Lisa Brankin, chair of Ford UK, said: “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency” and “a relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three”. The same essentially goes for the banks, who too are not happy either.
One of Rishi Sunak’s excuses, which is doubtlessly true, is that Britain only accounts for 1% of CO2 emissions. Except, of course, we do have a situation where much of what Britain consumes is produced elsewhere - meaning that in terms of coal, petrol, steel, etc, and the products that come from them, the pollution happens elsewhere. Britain is not so virtuous after all, given the interconnected nature of the world. Again, Sunak is right in saying that Britain under these new proposals would just be coming in line with France, Germany, Italy and other countries in the Europe Union, who have never been anything but unambitious - given the urgency of the situation and what is needed.
We must turn for a moment to the rightwing press, who these proposals are aimed at. Rejoicing, there is the headline from the Daily Mail - “Finally! Common sense on net zero”. The paper continues: “Is this the moment that Rishi turns the tide?” (the standing of the government could not get much lower, compared to that of the opposition). Naturally, The Sun claims credit for the U-turn along the lines of the “It’s The Sun wot won it” front-page headline that greeted the unexpected Tory general election victory in 1992. The Sun has been running a ‘Give Us a Break’ campaign, described as “brilliant” by the prime minister in a mutual back-scratching exercise. What the paper means is that, instead of backing strikes by doctors, civil servants, railway workers, etc, what is needed is the right to pollute the air, bringing premature deaths to younger and older people. Not to be left out, The Daily Telegraph denounces “the furious blob” that will “try to destroy Rishi Sunak for his net-zero heresy”.
Meanwhile, according the latest report by the World Meteorological Organisation, it looks like yet another temperature record is about to be broken. They are saying that if we take projections for 2023, with a few months left to go, it is 55% likely that this year will be the hottest year on record (other organisations have similar forecasts, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). What this means is that 2023 could be the hottest year since the industrial revolution began - meaning, in global terms, that by 2023 we will reach an increase (vis-à-vis pre-industrial levels) of 1.5ºC. If you remember the 2015 Paris agreements, the target was to keep the rise in temperature below that figure.
It needs to be understood that this did not refer to one year, but rather what we could call ‘the norm’. So this year it is quite possible that we will reach 1.5ºC, but that does not necessarily mean that it is the new norm. Nevertheless, if we do not reach it this year, the WMO is saying that there is a 66% chance that this threshold will be reached before 2027. What the WMO also makes clear is that it has factored in both El Niño (the moving of oceanic currents, which has a warming effect) and the low dust that has come in over the Atlantic from the Sahara - which would normally have a shielding effect, because in the air there is a lot of dust and particles that deflect solar radiation. But, given the particularly low level of Saharan dust, the Atlantic has heated up more than would otherwise be the case.
True, Rishi Sunak says the government is still committed to the 2050 target. However, the problem is like the proverbial oil tanker - it takes a long time to turn round. Basically, we are now in a situation that, if we were going to meet the 2050 target, we would have to more or less cease all production that creates CO2. Yet, instead of any sort of reduction, we actually have a temperature increase. Precisely the problem with the approach of the British government is that if you slow down the rate of increase, start to even it out and eventually go down - that still adds to the momentum of your oil tanker. In other words, the oceans get warmer and the polar ice caps continue to melt. That is a momentum that could last for hundreds of years, so you should not expect, for example, the restoration of the Arctic or the Antarctic ice sheets within that time frame. That means water melts into the oceans, which heat up and add to the temperature of the air - leading to an increased danger of the flooding of cities, and more and more extreme weather events. There is also the danger of a sudden qualitative shift in the climate pattern.
So, while it may be true that Britain is not a major player when it comes to global warming, it neatly shows you the problem with capitalism. It is not only characterised by rival firms all trying to make a profit, but also rival countries not wanting to take the lead on this question - always trying to shift the burden onto others. But the answer is not what many comrades on the left will say - more strikes and demonstrations.
And, of course, there will be those who say that the way forward is to pressurise the incoming Labour government. But Starmer’s party has been busily watering down its already completely inadequate climate pledges, instantly accepting the go-ahead given to the Rosebank North Sea oilfield and rowing back on its 2021 promise to invest £28 billion a year until 2030 on green industries if it wins the next election. Now it is saying that Labour would ramp up investment over time, reaching £28 billion a year after 2027, because they do not want to be “reckless” with spending - increased “financial stability has to come first”. What Starmer and co really mean is that protecting capitalism comes first - something that Labour has always done.
As we all agree, that is not the answer - what is needed is a different system. A system that is not predicated on production for the sake of production, but production for the sake of need.