If you had any doubt that the central theme of the UK general election campaign should be preventing climate breakdown, three reports published within three days ought to convince you.
At the start of the week came the World Meteorological Organisation’s report for 2018 and the latest major climate report from the UN Environment Programme. They confirm that carbon emissions have risen by an average of 1.5% a year for the past decade and are 50% higher than they were at the start of the industrial revolution. They need to fall by 7.6% a year for the next decade just to keep global heating below the 1.5°C ceiling that might, just, avoid disastrous consequences. Given global attitudes, there is little prospect of even getting anywhere near that rate of reduction.
Then, third, on Wednesday came a startling article about climate ‘tipping points’ from a group of leading climate specialists. Tipping points are where positive feedback kicks in, accelerating global heating still more. For instance, water absorbs more heat from the sun than ice does. As Arctic sea ice melts, it uncovers more and more open sea, which absorbs more solar radiation – which in turn leads to faster melting of the remaining ice. “Half of the tipping points identified a decade ago are now active,” the scientists say.
Overall, there are at least nine potential tipping points. Some climate specialists are particularly concerned about the thawing of vast areas of near-Arctic permafrost: this releases methane, which is a far more potent and immediate climate change gas than carbon dioxide.
The tipping-points report got some media coverage in the UK but was mainly drowned out by other election issues. What makes this a particularly poignant is that there has been a substantial change in the attitudes of most of the opposition parties in the UK, as discussed in a new briefing from the Oxford Research Group, ‘A Green Election – If Not Now, When?’.
All these parties are arguing for radical decarbonisation during the 2020s. The Greens have long been ahead in this, and want a zero-emission target of 2030, but both Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party want radical action, as do the Liberal Democrats.
The real change, though, has been in the Labour Party. In government Labour certainly put through some substantial policy changes before the 2010 election and continued to advocate them in opposition. During the five-year coalition the Lib Dems insisted on maintaining many of the previous Labour policies, but following the Conservative victory in the 2015 election many of the initiatives have been junked. Labour, by contrast, has progressively upgraded its climate-related policies and its 2019 manifesto is by some measure the most radical yet, calling for “a net-zero-carbon energy system within the 2030s – and [to] go faster if credible pathways can be found”.
The chance of anything like this happening comes apart with the Tories and their potential partners. The Democratic Unionist Party does not even list climate breakdown as one of its five key priorities and Farage’s Brexit Party just talks about planting millions of trees and getting the UN to do something. For the Tories themselves, they maintain the 2050 target for zero carbon, which would already have been hopeless in light of the World Meteorological Organisation and UN Environment Programme assessments but is near-ludicrous given the tipping-point risks now being identified.
What makes this so frustrating for anyone concerned about climate breakdown is that a radical decarbonisation programme really is possible, for the UK in particular. The technologies are far more advanced than even a decade ago, the UK has some of the best wind, wave and tidal energy potentials anywhere, and it is remarkably well placed to provide leadership.
Moreover, some other countries are at last getting serious about the issue, even if the likes of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsanaro don’t want to know. For the UK, some of the strongest arguments are coming from Commonwealth countries, both small-island states already being affected by wild weather and larger states that could skip most of the fossil-carbon phase of development and move straight to green energy sources.
With two weeks to go, and given the progressive climate policies of five opposition parties, one way to shake things up would be for all five to agree a pact that, if the UK ends up with a minority Tory government, then they would be willing to combine in forcing through substantial changes in policy on this issue. It is, after all, the most significant problem facing the UK, far more important than Brexit. A minority government forced to take action against its wishes on this of all issues – now that really would be something.