The UK Gov's departing chief scientist on how radically our lifestyles must change, to hit climate targets

From  “Submerged Portraits”,  Gideon Mendel

From “Submerged Portraits”, Gideon Mendel

Rare to find a UK government official worth listening to at the moment…

But—perhaps in a demob-happy mood—the outgoing Chief Scientist to the Government, Prof Sir Ian Boyd, has confirmed some of the core lifestyle changes that will need to happen, for us to avoid disastrous climate meltdown. In a BBC interview, he’s very clear:

Sir Ian said polluting activities should incur more tax. He believes the Treasury should reform taxation policy to reward people with low-carbon lifestyles and nudge heavy consumers into more frugal patterns of behaviour.

It was vital, he said, for the changes to be fair to all parts of society.

He also believes Net Zero won't happen unless the government creates a Net Zero ministry to vet the policies of all government departments, in the way the Brexit ministry vets Brexit-related decisions.

Professor Sir Ian Boyd

Professor Sir Ian Boyd

Emissions won't be reduced to Net Zero while ministers are fixed on economic growth measured by GDP, instead of other measures such as environmental security and a relatively stable climate, he argued. 

…Sir Ian, a polar expert with a chair in biology at St Andrews University, suggested that the UK was in a good position to show the world how to achieve Net Zero. But he agreed that similar radical action was ultimately needed by all nations.

He said that on broader issues the government had produced (or was in the process of producing) impressive strategies on the environment, waste, air pollution, marine and food. 

Some ministers were enthusiastic to translate these into firm strategies, but they needed support from the public, he said. He confessed that he was not optimistic about the future of the planet because so many systems of government needed to change in a short time.

"The way we live our lives is generally not good for the environment. We like to consume things, but the more we consume the more we absorb the resources of the planet.

"That means we have to grow those resources or we have to mine them - and in doing that we generate waste. And consumption is going up all the time.

"(There's) a conundrum - how do we shift ourselves from consuming? We need to do more about learning to live sustainably. We talk about sustainability but we don't really know what it means.

"We need to make major technological advances in the way we use and reuse materials but we (also) need to reduce demand overall - and that means we need to change our behaviours and change our lifestyles.

"We certainly won't be able to travel so much as we have in the past, so we have to get used to using modern communications methods. 

"Moving material round the planet will be more difficult so we'll have to do more with 3D printing…

"We've got to reduce demand to a much greater extent than we have in the past, and if we don't reduce demand we're not going to reduce emissions. Emissions are a symptom of consumption and unless we reduce consumption we'll not reduce emissions. 

"It will very rarely come down to a direct message like 'sorry, you can't buy that but you can buy this'. But there will be stronger messages within the (tax) system that make one thing more attractive than the other."

He said UK government strategies were in place on air, environment, resources, waste, marine, and food. "[Ministers] need to be persuasive."

Asked if he was optimistic about the future of the planet, he said: “We have the intelligence to do it; we have the potential to develop the technologies to do it… I’m doubtful that we have the governance structures to make it happen at the speed it needs to happen at."

More here. We would bring your attention to the respected eco-macroeconomist Tim Jackson’s CUSP paper on the viability of XR’s 2025 zero-carbon goal. After an analysis of the UK’s realistic “carbon budget” - the limits we have to stay under to limit change to 1.5C degrees of warming - Jackson comments:

…The current UK target for net zero is, on its own, insufficient to guarantee that the country remains within its carbon budget. In fact, when measuring carbon emissions on a consumption basis, a net zero target of 2050 could lead to a ‘carbon overdraft’ more than five times the UK’s ‘fair carbon budget’.

Remaining within any budget depends inherently on the emissions pathway the country follows. Policy must therefore align any target date for zero carbon with a proposed emissions reduction pathway.

It may also need to put in place a policy process that could re-align the target date if the actual emission pathway deviates from the target emissions pathway, since this will inevitably shift the timescale on which the budget is exhausted.

It is also worth pointing out that each year the target level of emissions reduction is not achieved, the task in subsequent years gets significantly harder. Missing even one year of the required reductions along the pathway would change all the calculations, leading to higher reduction requirements in subsequent years and making it substantially more difficult to stay within the carbon budget.

…Ultimately, the setting of a target date depends on the position a country takes in relation to its global responsibility and the speed with which it is prepared to take action to reduce emissions to net zero. Notwithstanding the challenges associated with achieving the carbon reductions identified here, the lessons from this analysis are clear.

There is every indication that the current UK net zero target of 2050 is insufficient either to reflect our global responsibility or to motivate the early action that is needed if the carbon budget is not to be exhausted long before the target date.

In summary, the moral and prudential case for the UK to adopt a zero target sooner than 2050—perhaps as early as 2025 and no later than 2035—appears to be a very strong one.

More here.