How to win “Net Zero”, and soon

Submitted by AWL on 15 May, 2019 - 12:43 Author: Mike Zubrowski
net zero

On 2 May, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published official advice on the UK’s emissions’ reductions, Net Zero. It argues that the UK should aim to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050.

CCC, a government-appointed body, mostly of academics, notes that the government is seriously failing in 15 of 18 areas, and set to miss its current, more conservative, targets. CCC’s proposed targets themselves aren’t ambitious enough, but they point in the right direction and are worth unpacking. Inadvertently, they indicate the need for democratic planning of the economy.

Net Zero estimates that the direct government spending necessary for such a transition would be 1-2% of GDP. It emphasises the need for this to be coupled with stronger legislation. Net Zero advocates electrification of all sectors — such as transport and heating — combined with a transition to green energy. It advocates Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as part of this transition, at least temporarily, alongside huge expansion of renewables. One possibility it explores is that “natural gas” — primarily methane — is still extracted, and then hydrogen is created from that, with carbon byproducts stored.

Doing so is much more energy efficient than extracting hydrogen from water. CCS and hydrogen extraction from natural gas should not be ruled out, but could only ever play a minor part in environmental transitions. Net Zero advocate that homes be heated either by electricity or hydrogen, and made more efficient through insulation and the like. Retrofitting and new-building of this should be in part centrally funded. They recognise that environmental transition of industry is not technically difficult, but introducing policy can be complex.

They raise concerns to avoid carbon “offshoring”, a phenomenon as yet not evidenced, in which production of goods moves offshore, attracted by laxer environmental regulation in other countries. The socialist answer to that is workers’ control and nationalisation. CCC also discuss transition in vehicles, farming — involving greater carbon sequestration — the food industry, diets, aviation, and shipping. Much of it could be fairly straightforwardly transitioned, given adequate funding and regulation.

Media reactions have focused on potential impacts on lifestyles. I’ll discuss those in a further article. But the report focusses more on economy-wide transformations, as what is needed, than changes in individual behaviour. CCC’s model would, on their analysis, achieve 38% of the emissions reductions entirely through technological shifts, 53% through “measures with a combination of low-carbon technologies and societal/behavioural changes”, and just 9% through “largely societal or behavioural changes”.

Net Zero encourages individuals to use high efficiency appliances, reduce waste, buy good quality products that will last longer, repair commodities where possible rather than replace them, and share infrequently used items. A socialist society, democratically run by workers, would pursue such aims anyway. One of many mind-boggling absurdities of capitalism is “planned obsolescence”, where goods are designed to break down or be superseded within a given time period, to encourage replacements to be bought. In a rationally organised society, less rather than more necessary work is better. Products would be constructed to be high-quality and enduring, and as modular as possible, that is, subdivisible into separate parts that can be independently created and swapped in. If my bike’s brake-pads wear out, or I want an additional bottle-cage, newer tyres, or different pedals, I can swap those components without getting a whole new bike.

Commodities are increasingly designed to be less modular, but the same principles could apply to smartphones or furniture. As well as reducing frustration and work, and being environmentally better, modularity allows individuals more control over the tools we are using, and by allowing us to more easily understand and mend them, a less alienating existence.

Net zero by when?

Net Zero’s proposals are for meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement’s targets, on the “1.5° pathway”. This pathway would involve severe and damaging climatic changes, some of which may trigger feedback mechanisms, and so further warming — only, less than pathways which would lead to higher levels of warming. More ambitious reductions, globally, are technologically and socially possible and desirable.

Many environmentalists have called for a much-sooner target of net-zero emissions than CCC’s 2050. Extinction Rebellion calls for 2025, many others call for 2030. The recent UN IPCC report on climate change called for a global reduction of at least 50% by 2030.

Targets or demands for reductions by 2030 are necessary, even if not necessarily for 100%, because a reduction to zero by 2050 will be less possible, and less effective, if a big part of the reduction has not been made earlier.

Net Zero states that “Delivering net-zero GHGs by 2050 is technically feasible but highly challenging. In assessing whether reaching net-zero GHG emissions is feasible we also consider realistic time frames for the transition. Achieving net-zero emissions domestically prior to 2050 does not currently appear credible for the UK as a whole.”

Socialists should be concerned with the truth, with reality as it is, and should demand only things which are technologically feasible. We should not pretend to be experts, or draw more confident or detailed conclusions than our research supports. In Net Zero however, as would be expected, the CCC is being extremely conservative.

As it notes, UK’s 2017 emissions were down 42% from 1990 levels. That reduction came from governments only responding in minimal ways to the crisis. The 2014 report Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future documented how the UK could go achieve net zero by 2030, while maintaining a modern standard of living. In 2019, we have a 5-year handicap on that, but we also have slightly better technology, and need not avoid nuclear power, as ZCB does.

The key limit on the speed of most of the changes necessary in any such transition is, to first approximation, the resources thrown at it. CCC’s report estimates a cost of 1-2% of the UK’s GDP in direct spending, reducing to under 1% of GDP by 2050. With a GDP of a bit over £2 trillion, 1% amounts to £20 billion. Even on conservative estimates, this is considerably less than the quantity of money lost through tax evasion alone – and that’s before even talking about increasing taxes! To give other figures for comparison, total central and local government spending is predicted to be around £800 billion, Shell’s 2018 revenue was £240 billion, the richest 1,000 people in the UK had a combined wealth of over £700 billion in May 2018. Expropriating the banks and the wealth of the rich can free up significantly more than 1-2% of GDP per year to be thrown into the most serious existential threat facing humanity.

Zero net emissions by 2030 is three times as fast as by 2050, by 2025 almost six times as fast. Faster transitions likely cost more than the same transition over a longer time-period. However, as a rough indicator of scale, six times CCC’s proposed £20-40 billion/year is £120-240 billion/year, 6-12% of the UK’s GDP. Much of the expenditure would be into infrastructure, and so once net zero emissions had been achieved, it would not need to remain so high. Socialism The costs of many of the transitions on CCC’s estimation is significantly higher than necessary because of goods and services being run by for-profit companies.

Taking the key industries into public ownership and democratic control would reduce costs. Having them directly under democratic control also avoids additional difficulties in transitioning them, compared to having to influence them at arm’s length through government regulations and incentives. The production cost of many technologies will decrease with the economies of scale of a full-throttle transition. With a socialist transformation of society, there are other important things we would want to spend our collective resources on, besides reducing carbon emissions.

But tackling climate change is a central priority, and reaching net zero three or six times as fast would roughly mean, to first order, a third or a sixth of the total emissions ending up in the atmosphere. Additional complexity is added, secondarily, by the emissions costs of implementing the transition itself, and, third, of constructing sufficient tools to do this at a given pace. How short a transition has to be before such factors become comparable to the everyday emissions which they are reducing I do not know. I would be surprised if this length of time was anything near the 10 ½ years which would take us to 2030, or even the 5½ until 2025.

Mobilising the resources to achieve net zero by 2030 is technically possible. What will decide the real possibility is social and political issues: how soon we can mobilise the labour movement to press governments into immediate measures, and how soon we can win a workers’ government which enables the necessary democratic and social control of industry. It is a target worth aiming for.

Short of a more detailed calculation suggesting it is not possible, I would not quibble with a 2025 demand either.

Upcoming climate events

UK Youth Strike for Climate, next national strike, Fri 24 May. See local events here

Momentum and People & Planet’s “Bankrupt Climate Change” second national day of action, Sat 25 May

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