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Can We Make Things Less Terrible?

This decade will go down in history as the one where the environmental crisis was or was not averted. Our failure to mitigate it in the 1990s, 2000s or 2010s means we now reside in borrowed time... and there is little chance that any future efforts to curb environmental breakdown will be viewed as a success.

With the geopolitical situation and our national government curbing (or reversing) progress, we now have the uninspiring task of making things slightly less terrible than they are set to be.

In a UK context, we now have the challenge of decarbonising at a rate of 7% annually to keep in line with our Paris Agreement commitments, and the world’s most important climate conference to date, COP 26, is shaping up to be a shambolic failure.

The COP26 President has been fired, those that have been asked to take up the position have turned it down, and should Trump be reelected, the world’s largest economy will pull out of the Paris Agreement.

Across the world, populist climate change deniers have power in some of the most environmentally fragile countries.

Efforts that look initially convincing wither under scrutiny. Last month, the European Commission unveiled its ‘Green Deal’, a €1 trillion plan to make the European Union carbon neutral. While a headline grabbing sum of money, on closer inspection the Green Deal only generates €7.5 billion in new budget commitments, delivered over seven years. The rest of the €1 trillion comes from private sector capital ‘unleashed’ (why always unleashing?) at later dates, and redirected money from other EC budgets.

While it may be tempting to lament the UK’s post-Brexit inability to access these funds, the funding pot is not big enough to achieve the EU’s own energy and climate targets or close to a complete solution to the environmental crisis. Indeed, according to the EC’s old targets more than double the funds are needed.

However, despair is not an option, and the national and international policy landscape is fast moving and impressionable. Less than a year ago, the Conservative government legislated for a net zero emissions by 2050 target. Just a decade ago, environmentalists were pushing for a net zero by 2080 target to be adopted. It’s a testament to the strength of the rapidly growing environmental movement that the 2050 date is so quickly becoming accepted as insufficient. On a global scale, the unachievable can quickly turn achievable - the Paris Agreement was seen as an implausible outcome to COP21 a year, even six months before it was signed.

There are alternatives to the EC’s Green Deal which are quickly gaining traction. In Europe, a large coalition of academics, policy makers, activists and scientists are now championing a Green New Deal for Europe, convened by DiEM25. It calls for 5% of GDP to be invested in green development, technology and mitigation and adaptation strategy. In the UK, calls have been made by civil society organisations backed by millions to spend 5% of our GDP on tackling the climate crisis. Poll after polls shows tackling the world’s most pressing issue ranks as a major priority for the vast majority of Brits.

While averting the environmental crisis may no longer be an option, there is cause for hope that we can make it an awful lot better than its set to be. We should no longer be looking at the environmental challenge as having a win/lose outcome; but rather as a spectrum of futures which we have an extraordinary ability to affect.

  • Antonia Jennings is an economist and trustee at Rethinking Economics

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