Turning climate pledges into reality: Now for the tricky bit

By Dafydd Rees

Firstly, let’s focus on the good news. 9 out of the world’s 10 largest economies have now made pledges to reach the target of zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century. 

Yet, in the aftermath of President Biden’s Climate Summit of world leaders held last week, humanity faces the daunting prospect of turning those political promises into practical reality. 

This isn’t just about sharing information. It’s about involvement of everyone, everywhere. 

My concern is that, like the owners of Manchester United and Liverpool football clubs have discovered, our scientific experts, politicians and business leaders forget to engage in an open and honest public debate in the months and the years to come. 

Over the past few months, I’ve been working with a number of focus groups here in the UK to explore public attitudes to the messy complexities and compromises that will be required to reach a net zero world. 

The lesson I learned was that the public want transparency and to be given the facts to appreciate both the financial costs and uncertainties and the scale of the solutions required. 

Communicating better with consumers about the sustainability of goods, services and investments is vital. As a recent Commons Select Committee report highlighted, the measures being used currently to gauge progress are too broad and provide no clear idea of what success looks like. 

To take the necessary measures to limit the rise in global temperatures, society has to take stock of how we heat our home, to what we eat and where we go on holiday. 

Progress is being made. In the decade between 2008 and 2018, the UK’s emissions reduced by more than a quarter, faster than any other G20 economy. In 2013 coal was the UK’s biggest source of electricity generation. It has now fallen to less than 2%. 

But more fundamental change is yet to come in the way we live our daily lives. This is a complex transition not a binary decision and requires business, politics and the media to work together to explore and explain the issues properly.  

Politicians have long been wary of the career jeopardy of getting ahead of voters. Yet the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow this November is still on course to be a decisive moment in the battle against climate change.

The world needs a common strategy on how to reduce emissions with agreed standards and definitions. Consumers also need to understand the carbon content of what they buy. 

The importance of acting globally is only too apparent when you realise that China is planning to build 300 coal plants around the world despite making its pledge to reach carbon neutrality by 2060.    

Here in the UK official estimates state that the UK needs to spend £50bn a year over the next three decades to green our economy. The National Infrastructure Commission believes decarbonising the heating in our homes will cost £450 billion by itself. 

The USA will need to double its production of carbon free electricity over the next decade to be on track to meet President Biden’s latest emissions target. 

The world of football has demonstrated in the most dramatic way possible the importance of clarity and honesty. In the space of 48 hours, Europe’s biggest clubs found themselves publicly humiliated following a blizzard of hostility which left their plans, years in the making, in tatters. 

The climate revolution that faces us won’t be simple or predictable. Technology and innovation will play its part but there will be difficult choices and very few easy answers. 

To borrow a phrase overused by UK politicians during the financial crisis, we’ll fail if we forget we’re all in this together.