ourEconomy: Opinion

It's time the UK paid its fair share for international decarbonisation

The UK’s unique contribution to environmental breakdown means we must take responsibility for tackling the crisis beyond our own shores.

Lesley Rankin
30 November 2019
Image: Mark Thomas/Zuma Press/PA Images

This week’s climate debate proved the political salience of environmental breakdown. In a first for a British election, all the main parties have highlighted climate change in their manifestos, setting deadlines for domestic emissions reduction.

Voters are also now more concerned about the environment than the economy. Rightly so – 11,000 scientists have warned that “without an immense increase in the scale of our endeavours”, environmental breakdown will cause “untold suffering”.

But no country is an island. The public conversation needs to develop beyond domestic action, to grapple with our responsibility beyond these shores.

The UK likes to shout about its world-leading action to tackle climate, including becoming the first major economy to commit to a legally binding target of net zero emissions by 2050. But the UK’s responsibility for the problem exceeds what domestic action can achieve alone. This country has both a gargantuan cumulative contribution to environmental breakdown, and a significant ability to respond.

The UK’s role in creating the age of environmental breakdown is unique. It is where industrialisation began and for centuries the UK has played a leading role in spreading an economic model founded on environmental degradation. It still enjoys the privileges and advantages this bought and continues to contribute disproportionately to environmental breakdown through its high levels of consumption. Since 1750, the UK has contributed the fifth largest levels of CO2, exceeded only by the USA, China, former USSR, and Germany.

The consequence of this is that less industrialised countries have a reduced capacity to respond to the environmental crisis to which they have contributed little. Environmental breakdown is an issue of justice.

The UN has warned that emissions must now fall by 7.6% every year from now until 2030 to avoid disaster. For the UK to contribute its 'fair share' it should contribute to this reduction beyond just its own emissions due to its significant responsibility. We can do this by acting in solidarity, helping other countries reduce their emissions on their own terms.

IPPR has calculated this means supporting less industrialised nations to reduce their collective greenhouse gas emissions by 4.4 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030 – the equivalent of a 200 per cent emissions reduction for the UK. We could help achieve this by committing £20 billion to the UN’s Green Climate Fund up to 2030. The UK is the fifth wealthiest economy in the world, so we can afford this, and action on the environment pays for itself.

Environmental breakdown is a global problem that needs a global response, but this is about more than financial investment, crucial though that is. The UK can help build a new model of international cooperation – a model that is fit for the age of environmental breakdown.

Multilateral cooperation is destabilising and the persistent failure to halt environmental breakdown threatens international stability. The world is becoming a far more dangerous place and it is those who contributed least and who are most vulnerable who are and will suffer the most. This injustice is facilitated by global economic structures and the very design of the multilateral system.

In response, it is imperative that the world’s communities and countries urgently realise a new, positive-sum model of international cooperation that enables all to accelerate progress toward a more sustainable, just and prepared world.

Ahead of the UN climate conference next week, the UK needs to commit to delivering on its global fair share of decarbonisation. Doing so could help realise a genuinely new role for the UK in the world after Brexit and in the context of its presidency of the UN Climate Conference in 2020. Change is possible, and urgent.

Our responsibility: A new model of international cooperation for the era of environmental breakdown, by Laurie Laybourn-Langton and Lesley Rankin is out today.

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