Extinction or business as usual? Hmm – that’s a difficult choice.

Bill McGuire’s Climate Bombshells

Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and author of Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Volcanic Eruptions. He was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters.

Well, it is if you are the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. Dead and buried PM, Theresa May seems keen to sign up to the government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommendation, which advocates a zero-carbon UK by 2050 – so as to leave something of a legacy other than a cocked-up Brexit. Her chancellor, however, has other ideas. In a speech a couple of weeks ago, he warned that achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century would cost ‘well in excess’ of £1 trillion; a vast sum of money that would take funding away from essentials such as schools, hospitals and the police and make our economy uncompetitive. Extraordinarily, the point he seemed to be making was that we couldn’t afford to cut emissions to zero. What an astonishing point of view – even for a Tory minister. Does he not understand that there is no choice here? It is something we can’t afford not to do. Without transitioning as fast as we can to become carbon-free, there won’t be any schools or hospitals, or an economy or society to speak of – for that matter.

His figures are a nonsense too. According to the CCC, the cost of a net zero 2050 target would be nothing like £1 trillion. In fact, the cost would fall within existing spending plans. There is no arguing with the fact that such a change will cost money, but – in addition to slashing emissions – it will be beneficial in all sorts of other ways. A wholesale switch to electric cars powered by renewable electricity, and a refocus on clean public transport, cycling and walking, would clean up our air and massively reduce the health impacts associated with atmospheric pollution and sedentary lifestyles. A mass programme to insulate new buildings and retrofit existing ones, would help older and vulnerable people stay warm and cut their energy bills. Such initiatives would be part of a Green New Deal aimed at transforming economy and society. Rather than making the UK economy uncompetitive, such a deal would drive the economy forward through investing in the low-carbon technologies and skills of the future. The result would be an economy that is sustainable and which improves society rather than destroys it. A Green New Deal is so beneficial, in fact, that there is simply no excuse for not launching it now – today. If we start now, then there is no reason why we can’t achieve net-zero emissions well before 2050, and the latest news on carbon levels in the atmosphere show why we need to do this.

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere last month reached a whisker below 415 parts per million(ppm); a rise of 3.5ppm on the previous May. At this rate, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will break through the 450ppm barrier in May 2029 – a little less than a decade hence. Why is this important? Because keeping carbon dioxides levels below this figure provides our only chance of keeping the global average temperature rise (since pre-industrial times)below 2°C, above which all-pervasive catastrophic climate change will prevail. And even then, it is possible – perhaps even likely – that feedback effects will still result in the 2°C guardrail being smashed.

These new data throw a spanner in the works of the idea that we can still keep the global average temperature rise below 1.5°C. They also mean that net zero emissions by 2050 – in the UK and, in fact, right across the planet – is simply not sufficient to prevent devastating climate breakdown. We need massive emissions cuts far sooner, which is why Extinction Rebellion is still calling for net zero emissions in 2025. We can do it – we can’t afford not to.

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