Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Tories’ Green Dead End

Boris Johnson's latest economic announcements put the thinnest layer of green paint on an economic status quo which is driving the planet towards disaster.

The UK government is treating its own carbon neutrality target like a new year’s resolution: a worthy pursuit in theory but a bit too onerous in practice.

Stated ambition is not being matched with swift, systemic action. This will have severe consequences for both the UK’s credibility as the host of the COP26 climate conference – which is due to take place in Glasgow next November – and its ability to reach carbon neutrality by mid-century. 

One of Theresa May’s last acts as prime minister was to sign a 2050 net-zero goal into law; her successor, Boris Johnson, has chaired just one meeting of the cabinet committee on climate change since setting it up in October.

His defenders might say that Johnson has had a trying few months as the ‘pandemic PM.’ Coronavirus and the resulting economic fallout have inevitably taken precedence over all other policy matters. But with much-publicised promises to “build back better,” is the government finally getting serious about investing in domestic decarbonisation?  

There’s no doubt that the Overton window has shifted on climate policy since much of the world entered lockdown. Only a few months ago, the phrase “green industrial revolution” was most closely associated with democratic socialist movements seeking to pair green jobs with strong union representation as part of a wider vision for a more equitable society.

This is not what cabinet ministers mean when they talk about a “green recovery” from the pandemic. Instead, they want to jumpstart economic growth and deliver quick returns to private investors through a pipeline of clean technology projects. 

Major infrastructure schemes are a reliable way to resuscitate a struggling economy and there’s a persuasive financial case for switching from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. The combination of increased developer experience, refined technologies and economies of scale has led to a dramatic fall in the cost of renewable electricity over the past 10 years.

Multiple recent reports have indicated that it will soon be cheaper to build new wind or solar farms than to continue operating coal-fired power stations. Would-be investors should eye fossil fuel projects – many of which have lifespans of several decades – with profound suspicion. 

If governments actively attempt to restrict the rise in global temperatures to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – the more ambitious lower threshold of the Paris Agreement – some $900 billion of fossil fuel assets could become “stranded”. Warnings such as this make coal power plants and oil fields appear reckless investments. But relying on the markets to organise an orderly transition away from fossil fuels is a risky strategy for environmentalists. 

In a recent speech at the London Stock Exchange, Business Secretary Alok Sharma declared that “finance and investment are the lifeblood of net-zero projects.” There’s no denying that significant amounts of capital will be required to decarbonise our fossil fuel dependent economy.

But in framing the energy transition as a lucrative opportunity for shareholders, the government is sidelining environmentalists campaigning for a better society – one where wealth is more evenly distributed and human thriving is decoupled from ecological destruction. 

The issue of GDP growth is divisive, even within the climate movement. Some believe it’s possible to achieve “green growth,” in which consumption continues to rise and economies continue to expand as we transition to a clean energy system. Others doubt that it’s possible to sustain existing patterns of resource use while respecting planetary boundaries.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the affluent lifestyles of the Global North – encouraged by an elite with a vested interest in continued consumption – are wholly unsustainable.  

In a paper published this month in the journal Nature Communications, scientists concluded that planetary wellbeing will not be achieved if “affluent overconsumption continues, spurred by economic systems that exploit nature and humans.” According to the report, the world’s top 10% of income earners are responsible for between 25% and 43% of humanity’s environmental impact.

Encouraging this demographic to change their lifestyles will not drive the scale of change necessary to ensure a liveable planet. It seems increasingly necessary to challenge the supremacy of GDP and the belief that only an economy in a perpetual state of expansion can deliver a good quality of life. 

Sceptics will say that a society which is agnostic to growth – using metrics of wellbeing to gauge its success – is little more than a utopian fantasy. But there is little evidence to suggest that “green growth” will spare us the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

There is an obvious economic opportunity in overhauling our energy system. Yet approaching climate targets as vehicles to boost returns for private investors will not rectify the deeply unequal distribution of wealth that has driven us to the point of ecological breakdown. Solving the climate crisis is not a matter of ditching your coal stocks and buying a wind farm.