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The race to Net Zero that can never be won


IT WAS in June 2019 that the UK became the first major economy to pass a law which required all greenhouse gas emissions to be brought to zero by 2050. This was nodded through Parliament without debate, and there was no price tag attached.

It was something to be celebrated, apparently. Chris Skidmore, then the Energy and Clean Growth Minister, said proudly: ‘Today we’re leading the world yet again . . . pioneering the way for other countries to follow in our footsteps.’ The ‘race’ had begun.

The UN proposed a different competition. Their Race to Zero ‘is a global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, investors for a healthy, resilient, zero carbon recovery that prevents future threats, creates decent jobs, and unlocks inclusive, sustainable growth’. The sentiment sounded admirable but, as always, there was this unmentionable problem of certain countries forging ahead with much-needed fossil-fuelled generating plants.

This meant the numerous campaigns by British businesses, cities, towns and villages were simply a waste of time. Any emission reductions were totally swamped by much larger rises elsewhere (see below).

In January this year that same Mr Skidmore published a 339-page report, Mission Zero. ‘There is no denying the fact,’ he said, ‘that, forty-two months on from the UK signing Net Zero into law, we are now in a Net Zero race. To stand still, delay or maintain the status quo is not an option . . . We should be proud of the lead the UK has taken in tackling climate change.’

London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, the ULEZ champion, was quick to go one better: ‘London is leading the race towards Net Zero,’ he said, ‘now national government must pick up the pace.’ 

Let’s have a look at reality. All data is taken from the EU’s EDGAR (Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research) GHG emissions of all world countries, 2023 report.

In 2022, China contributed 29.2 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, 36 times as much as the UK’s 0.8 per cent. Seven countries, China, US, India, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia and Japan, emitted a total of 59 per cent. In an ordered list of countries, highest emitters first, the UK comes 23rd.

More reality? Between 1990 and 2022 China’s GHG emissions went up by 284 per cent, India’s by 174 per cent and Indonesia’s by 190 per cent. The UK achieved a 45 per cent decrease over the same period, partly (mainly?) by exporting its manufacturing processes.

Emissions of both greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide from each country are measured in megatons (mton); one mton equals 1,000,000 tons. Between 1990 and 2022, the UK reduced its GHG emissions by 360 mtons (786 in 1990 down to 426 in 2022). In that same period, China increased its contribution by 11,611 mtons, from 4,073 to 15,684. The UK’s ‘race’ achievement was nullified by a 27 times larger Chinese increase, to give only one example.

Recently, PwC commented that a ‘2023 analysis suggests that global year-on-year decarbonisation must now hit a rate of 17.2 per cent to limit global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.’

This is, of course, extremely unlikely to happen for a very simple reason: civilisation runs on electricity. There are hundreds of millions of people without it. ‘This figure is still unacceptably high’, said a recent report, ‘and gains in access are moving much too slow to reach our goal of universal access by 2030.’

That ‘universal access’ has to come largely from coal. The world has lots of coal. China, India and many other Asian and African countries need to provide their huge populations with electrical power. Coal-fired power stations are the cheapest and quickest way. There are more doubts, therefore, about the ‘race’.

‘It is as plain as a pikestaff,’ said the Telegraph in March this year, ‘that net zero by 2050 is already an almost wholly unrealistic objective, but the pretence goes on, apparently oblivious to the scale of the challenge.’ 

At the African Climate Week conference in Nairobi at the beginning of this month, Kenya’s president William Samoei Ruto made a very important point: ‘Climate action is not a Global North issue or a Global South issue. It is our collective challenge, and it affects all of us. We need to come together to find common, global solutions.’  

There have never been any signs of collective action to meet the ‘collective challenge’. Then Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who oversaw the signing of the 2015 Paris accord, pointed out that ‘if the declaration, like any business plan . . . is not financed and executed, it is good for nothing.’ It is being neither financed nor executed.

All this has led to the UK Prime Minister emerging into the real world the other day and finally realising that ‘when our share of global emissions is less than 1 per cent, how can it be right that British citizens are now being told to sacrifice even more than others?’ ‘when our share of global emissions is less than 1 per cent, how can it be right that British citizens are now being told to sacrifice even more than others?’

Is the race over – for the moment?

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Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams
Ivor Williams is a freelance writer and has been a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society since 1984.

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