Every bit of policy now needs to be refreshed, says one of the authors of the new report. It’s the government’s job to tell the public that small and easy changes will not suffice, the report also mentions.
Researchers from Imperial College London have been working on a report advising the UK’s ministers how to reduce the country’s carbon footprint. The report is meant to advise on how the country can respect a recently-passed law which obliges the UK to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. It is basically a to-do list for the government, followed by an assessment of how things stand at the moment, and how they can evolve in the future.
While the report is not public at the moment, journalists from the BBC have seen the report and have described its contents. While the report is tailored for the UK, the general takeaways are valid for the entire developed world.
Taxes for carbon — not subsidies
“Every bit of policy now needs to be refreshed,” warned Chris Stark, the Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, in an interview with the BBC.
For starters, subsidies for fossil fuels have to go. According to the International Monetary Fund, the world offers a whopping $5.2 trillion a year in subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. We can’t transition to a low-carbon economy if we don’t tax carbon-producing industries, and subsidies for fossil fuel simply have no place in a low carbon economy — UK or otherwise.
Furthermore, taxes on low-carbon technologies must be cut to encourage their emergence. Taking subsidies from the fossil fuel industry and moving them towards renewable energy is a potential approach.
Lastly, the infamous carbon tax must be applied — in one form or another. Leading economists are already calling for a carbon tax, which makes simple economic sense: carbon is a negative externality, it produces damage supported by a third party (the entire society), and must therefore be taxed. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a direct tax. There are several ways to tax carbon, but in some form, this must be implemented.
“These changes need not be expensive or reduce well-being,” the report concludes, “but they will not happen at the pace required unless policy first removes obstacles to change in markets and consumer choice.”
Diet & home heating
While the former problems are mostly about policy, the report also highlights changes for the rest of us — starting with our diet.
Worldwide agriculture has become a massive contributor to global emissions, and researchers recommend switching to low-carbon diets — which basically means more plants, less meat. Already, numerous studies have published similar conclusions: one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to eat less meat. This is better for the environment, better for the animals, and better for your health.
Another aspect discussed in the report (and particularly relevant in the UK, where many houses are old and non-insulated) is home heating. The report has a whole catalogue of policy recommendations here, but the bottom line is that we need to transition to low-carbon heating systems (such as air-source heat pumps, which absorb heat from the outside and then use it to heat the house). Pricing gas higher than electricity can also help in this regard.
We can’t really talk about reducing greenhouse gases without discussing transportation. Favoring public transportation and cycling/walking should be done with urgency. This means investing in the bus and train network, as well as developing infrastructure for safe cycling (which is missing in many parts of the UK and the world).
Switching to electric cars is also an important aspect here, the report acknowledges. In this regard, researchers urge for larger subsidies for electric cars. A smart technology is also highlighted for electrical cars: smart EV charging systems. This would encourage drivers to recharge their cars when electricity is cheap or when renewable power is plentiful. This too would require important investments in infrastructure.
Lastly, flying is also addressed. An important part of most households’ emissions comes from flying, but the average is misleading here: 15% of the population is estimated to take 70% of flights. The report recommends focusing these frequent flyers and develop a policy that taxes them — not the family who is flying once per year on vacation. As a first step, the researchers suggest stopping air miles and frequent flier reward schemes and offering passengers more information about the emissions generated by flights.
The bottom line
None of these changes are easy. They will require substantial efforts from every one of us, as well as healthy and timely policies.
“If the public are to become engaged with the climate challenge and contribute to achieving net-zero emissions then the wider policy context will also need to be more supportive. New, compelling narratives will be needed to inspire and mobilise mainstream participation in solutions, adoption of technologies and change in behaviours,” the report concludes.
“Government must create a wider context which nurtures public engagement with action on climate change and must also enable consumers to take specific concrete actions that deliver large emissions reductions.”
However, these changes don’t need to be expensive — they could even save a lot of money in the long run. But timely action is essential, especially on the policy side, the researchers conclude. It’s up to us to support politicians in favor of such actions.
The findings can be read here.