Why 2030 is the right target for decarbonising the economy

In the face of an existential threat, the only "credible" target is one that averts disaster.

Michaela Collord
1 October 2019, 11.10am
Image: Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

At the recent Labour party conference, constituency delegates and affiliated trade unions voted overwhelmingly for a motion backing a Green New Deal and, crucially, the ambition of a 2030 net zero carbon target for the UK.

As a delegate voting for that motion, it was an exciting and hopeful moment.

The Labour Party has the right strategy to tackle climate change, one demanded by its members and fully endorsed by its leadership. The party is committed to a massive state-led investment in green energy, public transport, housing and more. It also appreciates the need to ensure a “just transition”. In the UK, this involves supporting green jobs and the restoration of worker rights. Internationally, it means transferring finance and green technology to hard-hit developing countries so they can leapfrog to a zero-carbon economy.

Strategy aside, the conference motion also communicates the necessary ambition through its 2030 zero carbon date. But while Labour has yet to come under sustained criticism for its climate strategy, things get tricky with this 2030 target. To broaden the consensus around the date, we need a major change in thinking beyond the Labour Party. This is true not only of key political actors — business, some unions, political parties and the like — but of climate policy experts too, many of whom have been critical of the 2030 commitment.

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It is the reaction of this last group that is perhaps most inconsistent and confusing. It is also in urgent need of sorting out. As Greta Thunberg reminds us, we should “listen to the scientists”. But we also need the scientific community — which includes the policy experts — to agree its message, and to recognise that whatever message it sends has political power too.

Necessary targets, not the same as “credible” targets?

We all know tackling the climate crisis is an immense challenge.

If we sit back and do nothing, current projections put us on course to reach a catastrophic 4.1 – 4.8 degrees warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100. If implemented, policies consistent with the Paris Agreement commitments would lead to 2.6 – 2.9 degrees warming. But most countries are not honouring those commitments, and in any case, the latest research confirms they are woefully inadequate.

To limit the rise in global temperatures to a “safe” 1.5 degrees, and to have a decent hope of balancing the economic costs of mitigation, we need a very rapid reductions in carbon emissions beyond what anyone has planned for.

But how do we translate that rapid reduction into a zero-carbon target date for the UK?

Our current target date of 2050 would almost certainly mean we used up far more than our allotted “carbon budget”, the cumulative amount of carbon we can afford to burn while keeping global temperatures below 1.5 degrees. Recent research suggests that, to stick to a “fair” carbon budget, slightly reduced to account for the UK’s historic carbon emissions, we need a near total elimination of carbon emissions by 2030.

Given how climate change appears to be happening faster than many scientists expected, with an increased frequency of statistically “ridiculous” climate events, 2030 may not only be what’s required to stay within a “fair” carbon budget; it’s likely what we need to stay within any kind of meaningful carbon budget at all.

In short, we need to do everything we can to meet Labour’s 2030 ambition. But again, this is where we run into trouble.

Responding to Labour’s conference motion, Michael Jacobs, a professorial fellow at Sheffield University, warns that “no serious climate policy expert thinks it is either technologically or politically feasible to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030.” He adds that “radical symbolism isn’t enough” and that “the Green New Deal must become a serious programme for government.”

Other researchers in the same field reaffirm that “credibility” is important, and therefore doubt the value of explicitly mentioning a seemingly unrealistic 2030 date.

So here we have our catch-22. We need to decarbonise by as near to 2030 as humanly possible, but a 2030 ambition is not “serious” or “credible”.

This reaction from a segment of academia then puts the Labour Party in the uncomfortable position of trying to “listen to the scientists” even as some of said scientists question the Labour leadership’s “credibility”, in the process reinforcing a ready-made media narrative.

A step change in ambition

This is unacceptable. Yes, we need to acknowledge the challenges of rapid decarbonisation, but in no way should that discourage much needed leadership or ambition. In this instance, it’s the Labour Party that has the balance right; not the climate policy experts.

The conference motion sets the 2030 date as a benchmark, a target to guide the development of the most transformative plans we can, working in collaboration with academia and key political constituencies, notably trade unions. That doesn’t mean we’ll necessarily achieve net-zero carbon by 2030. No one can guarantee that. But to quote Shadow Energy Secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey:

“[H]aving a fixed target might worry people because we’ve got to work quickly to get a plan together, but if we’ve got 90% of it done by 2030 and it takes us till 2035, I’ll take that on the chin because that date will have pushed everyone on into taking that action and developing that plan.”

It is frankly bizarre — if predictable — for policy experts to insist that any ambition already be supported by a pre-prepared credible plan, or a “serious programme”. In the face of an existential threat, are we really going to tell our political leaders to hold back, to limit themselves to the imaginative scope of a competent bureaucratic manager?

No one, I repeat, has a credible plan for how the UK — or really any advanced industrial economy — is going to decarbonise in time to avert planetary meltdown. The UK’s 2050 target emerged out of a “polite conversation between government, industry and researchers” and is “credible” only in so far as it has been carefully modelled and costed, not in the sense that it will avoid us all getting burnt to a crisp.

Meanwhile, it appears there has been no recent attempt to model what 2030 would look like, despite some organisations trying to find funding for this research.

So rather than criticise, we must accept that the Labour Party has something to teach us about how we set climate targets, something the policy experts should learn from. The simple idea, obvious to most climate activists, is that you start with what needs to happen, and then you commit to going all out to get there.

Similarly, in a war, the target is to win. You don’t know how you’re going to win, but the alternative is to lose, so you stop at nothing. The war analogy is not ideal, but it does point to one of the most compelling historical examples of how a defined purpose backed by massive public investment can dramatically transform an economy. As Kate Aronoff writes of the US during the Second World War:

“[P]ublic-backed industry built the world’s largest factory in under a year near Ypsilanti, Michigan; it went on to produce a B-24 bomber every hour. Overnight, car seat factories switched to parachute production and Cadillac assembly lines started churning out tanks.”

While we do need to commit everything to transforming our economy, thankfully this will not be to produce tools for destruction. Instead, it will be to protect our environment and, hopefully, to build something more beautiful — an economy of “public luxury”, a more just and sustainable world.

Ultimately, the 2030 date is not a target for the Labour Party as such. It is a target for us as a society. It is a target for the planet. The Labour Party is only showing leadership by clearly and publicly acknowledging what must be done.

Now we all need to follow — especially the climate policy experts, who were supposed to be leading all along.

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