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To reach Net Zero, we need our leaders to champion lifestyle changes

4 min read

It is deeply uncomfortable for political leaders to have to tell their constituents that they need to change lifestyles. But without that leadership, we will fail to reach our zero-carbon emissions target, writes Lord Browne. 

Despite it being a pressing existential threat, when it comes to climate change, leaders so far have preferred a series of long-term grand targets and few, if any, of the grand policies needed to achieve them.

On Tuesday, Boris Johnson revealed why. The Prime Minister, like many other leaders, believe that technological advances will do the job for them. He is a self-confessed techno-optimist.

Later today, the debate on climate-change in the Lords, on a Labour motion about the technological and lifestyle changes needed to meet the 2050 zero-carbon emissions target, will challenge this orthodoxy.

The authors of Absolute Zero, a recent report by UK FIRES (a consortium of academic experts), have done us all a great service by authoritatively and painstakingly exposing the degree to which we are being misled by a techno-optimistic approach to the climate-change challenge.

It is clear from his speech yesterday that Mr. Johnson, who may not ‘get climate change’, certainly knows the scale and nature of the challenge and can accurately catalogue our failures to date. However, he thinks we are making good progress – “since 1990 - cutting CO2 by 42 per cent … through sheer determination and technological optimism”.

It is only 42% if you ignore emissions from aviation, shipping and those associated with imports and exports. If these numbers are included, the true figure is more like 15%. The most significant contributors to this are a cleaner electricity mix based on gas and renewables, instead of coal; and the falling demand for energy across homes, industry and businesses. It is difficult to see how techno-optimism has played any significant role at all.

While our leaders talk about future technology, none of which has yet been delivered, cars are now heavier, internal temperatures are rising, and we are purchasing more stuff and flying more than ever. In each case, we must encourage the opposite behaviour.

Clearly, not every Minister agrees. The comments made by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, in response to questions about the government proposal to bail out Flybe, pushed back directly on the need for us to fly less. Asked if he should be giving a different message he replied: “No”, going on to say that we should continue to do so but “use technology to reduce carbon emissions…electric planes are a potential in the not too distant future”.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister made the same claim. Apparently, he has been assured that we are “…within a couple of years of having viable electric passenger aircraft.” Technically, he may be proved right. At the Paris Air Show last year, a manufacturer unveiled an electric powered plane that he promised would be flying in a couple of years’ time. Even if it performs to the manufacturers optimum promise, it will only carry nine people for a maximum range of 650 miles.

Welcome as this is, there is no sign that this can be scaled up into a deployable technology that meets the scale of the aviation emissions challenge. 80% of such emissions are from long-haul passenger flights. A distance no electric aircraft could yet achieve and none will unless there is a paradigm shift in energy storage, which is not on the visible horizon. The techno-optimists have placed their faith in massive large-scale engineering solutions. There is no convincing evidence that we can rely on their development in time.

The contrary evidence is convincing. Absolute Zero quotes research from Imperial College showing that no significant energy technology has ever reached 20% of its eventual scale within 30 years of its first significant deployment.

We simply can’t wait that long.

While we should develop all of the technology we possibly can, in the short run, faced with a self-imposed legal target of zero-carbon emissions by 2050, we need to constrain energy demand dramatically. It is deeply uncomfortable for political leaders to have to tell their constituents that they need to change lifestyles. But without that leadership and the incremental development of existing reliable technologies to address this issue with what we know works, we will fail.

I see no indication of Boris Johnson engaging with that imperative.


Lord Browne of Ladyton is a Labour member of the House of Lords. 

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