If the government doesn’t get its act together soon, then Cop26, the UN climate change conference due to be held in Glasgow in November next year, could become a national humiliation for the UK and an environmental catastrophe for the rest of humanity.
One likes to imagine that the UK government is taking the climate emergency seriously, but that illusion has been shattered by the appointment of the former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott as a UK trade adviser. Abbott has described global heating as “absolute crap”. One of his first actions after becoming prime minister of Australia was to abolish his own climate change advisory council, followed by a decision to scrap Australia’s carbon tax.
Global heating is starting to run out of control. At a time when the need for concerted international action is greater than ever, the international community is failing to reduce its carbon emissions. The Kyoto protocol was designed to curb global emissions of all greenhouse gases, but annual emissions have actually risen by more than 60% globally compared with 1990, the baseline year for the protocol. More carbon has been emitted as a result of human activity since 1990 than in all previous years since the start of the industrial revolution. By any standards, the Kyoto protocol has proven a spectacular failure, but the fault cannot be laid entirely at the door of the UN.
The main obstacles to progress have been the reluctance of fossil-fuel-dependent nations to change their business model, and the cynical strategy of disinformation launched by the fossil fuel industry, and secretly funded free-market thinktanks, notably the Global Warming Policy Foundation.
Cop26 is probably our last opportunity to turn this situation around, but it won’t happen without a set of game-changing proposals from the organisers. Probably the most critical measure would be to introduce an effective global carbon tax. At the moment we have carbon trading schemes, but these are just a market mechanism for purchasing the right to emit carbon. It is cheaper for industry to pay for its emissions than to invest in greener technologies.
The most fair and equitable method of introducing a carbon tax is to set up a global carbon incentive fund, and to levy the tax on countries whose per capita emissions of carbon dioxide are above the global average. The fund would then disperse grants to countries whose per capita emissions are below the global average. The beauty of this scheme is that it penalises the richer nations for their profligate lifestyles, and it incentivises developing nations to avoid fossil fuels and to develop their energy infrastructure using low-carbon technologies.
For this strategy to work the price needs to be set at the right level initially, and then escalated rapidly. The UN has determined that carbon emissions have to fall by 7.6% each year over the coming decade if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C. The current carbon price on the European emissions trading system is just under €30 per tonne of carbon dioxide, so one proposal would be to set the starting price at $30, and then double the price every two years.
If that were introduced in 2022, the price would be $240 per tonne of CO2 by 2028. Before the fossil fuel industry emits ritual howls of protest, it needs to be remembered that Sweden already operates with a carbon tax of $123 per tonne of CO2, while the cost of air pollution to society, according to the IMF, is $140 per tonne of CO2.
The calculation for the amount of carbon needs to be made on the basis of consumption, not production. Many countries export a large volume of manufactured goods, so their territorial emissions are high, whereas the end consumer is based in another country. China, India and Russia, which together represent 40% of all carbon emissions, would benefit from using consumer-based emissions, whereas the US would lose out, but not as much as would the UK.
At $30 per tonne, the UK’s contribution would be more than three times larger: $7bn versus $2bn, reflecting the demise of the UK’s manufacturing base. However this is still less than half of the annual budget of the former Department for International Development. In addition, the UK started the industrial revolution and would have been responsible for virtually 100% of global carbon emissions in 1750. It is therefore entirely appropriate for the UK to lead the world in demanding a consumption-based carbon tax.
Calculating the figures should be straightforward, as the Global Carbon Project already produces annual consumption estimates. However, it does have limitations. The Global Carbon Project does not include other greenhouse gas emissions, and more importantly it does not estimate carbon dioxide emitted by changes in land use, such as deforestation, crop-burning, ploughing and so on. So there needs to be a supplementary tax that penalises environmentally irresponsible governments such as Brazil’s, which seems to regard trashing the planet as a political accolade.
The solutions are clear, but as host nation, Britain is in desperate need of a leader with vision and determination. The question is: can anybody identify anyone in Boris Johnson’s cabinet who might have the political will to carry this forward?
• Robin Russell-Jones is chair of Help Rescue the Planet and scientific adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution