targets seem sensible, but are actually impeding effective action. Let’s do
something completely different.
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 29th January 2020
is not imminent. The crisis is here. The recent infernos in Australia, the
storms and floods in Brazil, Madagascar, Spain and the US, the
economic collapse in Somalia, caused
in part by a devastating cycle of droughts and floods, are not, or not only, a
vision of the future. They are signs of a current and escalating catastrophe.
why several governments and parliaments, the UK Parliament among them, have
declared a climate emergency. But no one in government acts as if it is real.
They operate within the old world of incremental planning for a disaster that
has yet to arrive.
this clearer than in the reports of the Committee
on Climate Change (CCC), the official body that began with such
hope and promise of holding the government to account, but that has now
abandoned scientific realities in favour of political priorities.
report, on changing the UK’s land use, is so
unambitious that, in some respects, it would take us backwards. For example, it
calls for a 20% reduction in our consumption of beef, lamb and dairy – the most
carbon intensive foods – over the next 30 years. But it admits that this is a
smaller reduction than is likely to happen anyway: there has already been a 20%
decline in the consumption of these foods over the past 20 years, and this
shift is accelerating rapidly. Cultured meat and milk could replace
these sectors almost entirely by 2050.
makes no mention of rewilding or natural regeneration. The only
means it proposes by which trees should return to the land is planting. This is
often a slower, more expensive and less effective way of restoring habitats and
sucking carbon out of the atmosphere than removing livestock or controlling
deer numbers and allowing trees to return by themselves. Its target for
reforestation is so feeble that the UK would still have less than half the
average current European forest cover by 2050.
One of the
reasons for this timidity is its preposterous assumption that if land is
unsuitable for commercial forestry, it’s unsuitable for trees. There are plenty
of places where trees grow well, store carbon and provide magnificent habitats,
but won’t produce straight 50-foot poles. It envisages not wild woods, but
plantations, whose purpose is the discredited policy of
“bioenergy with carbon capture and storage”. This means growing wood to burn in
power stations, then capturing and burying the carbon emissions. It will almost
certainly cause more harm than good. Could
the committee’s enthusiasm have anything to do with the fact that one of its
members works for Drax, the
energy company pioneering this disastrous technology?
Throughout the report, business appears to come first; nature and climate last.
the CCC says, is consistent with the target it has set for the
government, of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It tells me that the
rationale for this target “remains valid today”, meeting the UK’s obligations under
the Paris Agreement. This agreement commits governments to seek
“to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. But
in November, the UN published a report showing
that preventing more than 1.5°C means cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 7.6%
every year between now and 2030: a much steeper trajectory than the CCC’s. The
committee has set the wrong target, for the wrong date.
think the problem runs deeper than this. It’s not just the target that’s wrong,
but the very notion of setting targets in an emergency.
firefighters arrive at a burning building, they don’t set themselves a target
of rescuing three of the five inhabitants. They seek – aware that they might
not succeed – to rescue everyone they can. Their aim is to maximise the number
of lives they save. In the climate emergency, our aim should be to maximise
both the reduction of emissions and the drawing down of carbon dioxide already
in the atmosphere. There is no safe level of global heating: every increment
is implicit in the Paris Agreement: it requires governments to pursue “the
highest possible ambition”. In its land-use report, the CCC repeatedly admits
that it could go further, but insists it doesn’t need to, because its policies
will meet the target. The target has supplanted the ultimate objective, which
is to respond appropriately to the climate emergency. This is a classic
vindication of Goodhart’s Law:
“when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”.
We are all
familiar with the absurdities of target culture. We know how, in many
workplaces, the target becomes the task. We know how official targets for
depriving people of social security ruined thousands of lives. We know
that the Windrush scandal – the
persecution and wrongful deportation of people legally entitled to reside in
the UK – was caused in part by the Home Office target for
“enforced returns”. We know how targets encourage people to game the system, as
hospital administrators do with their waiting lists, and cause Kafkaesque
nightmares of overzealous officialdom, as David Boyle documents in his new book Tickbox.
discussed is the way in which targets can encourage officials to underperform.
As soon as you set a target, you pull back from maximisation. Even if you say
“this target is the minimum”, as the CCC does, politicians treat it as the line
they need to cross. At this point, they fulfil their legal duty, even if they
fail to fulfil their wider duty of care.
policy of maximisation possible? It is not only possible, it’s already
happening, in exactly the wrong place. The 2015 Infrastructure Act introduced a legal duty to
“maximise the economic recovery” of petroleum in the UK. If drilling companies
fail to maximise their extraction of fossil fuel from an oilfield, they will be
forced to surrender their licence to
operate. In other words, while the government observes a legal minimum (the CCC’s
target) for reducing greenhouse gases, it observes a legal maximum for
The appropriate response to the climate emergency is a legal duty to maximise climate action. The CCC’s board should be disbanded and replaced by people whose mandate is rigorously to explore every economic sector, in search of the maximum possible cuts in greenhouse gases, and the maximum possible drawdown. We have arrived at the burning building. The only humane and reasonable aim is to rescue everyone inside.