Group of activists protesting for climate change during covid19
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At COP28, the world agrees that maybe fossil fuels are a bit of a problem

Amongst the summit platitudes and pledges, how much is the UK actually doing to combat climate change?

COP28 wrapped up in mid-December 2023. Arguably the world’s leading climate summit, COP is held annually by the United Nations (UN), an international organisation that essentially functions as a forum for almost all the countries in the world to talk, make decisions and take action on global issues. COP28 was held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which as one of the world’s foremost fossil fuel producers was a controversial host even before it was leaked that the country planned to use the summit to strike new oil and gas deals.

Getting 193 disparate countries to agree on anything - let alone issues as complex, impactful and controversial as climate change mitigation and adaptation - is undoubtedly really, really hard. But the outcomes of the COP summits have long been considered underwhelming by many climate activists. The big victory of COP28 was that for the first time most countries agreed to “transition away from fossil fuels”. At some point. Eventually. To quote the UN Climate Change Executive Secretary “we didn’t turn the page on the fossil fuel era”. Still, he believes that this is “the beginning of the end” (of fossil fuel use, not the world at large, although at least some of the 1.2 billion people who are currently destined to become climate refugees by 2050 might quibble with that.)

Frustrating slow progress does not mean there is no point continuing with global climate talks: given that climate change has little regard for international borders, the problem can only be fully confronted with a global response. But it does turn more attention to the actions of individual countries who are striking off on their own to try and reduce carbon emissions. Despite the global nature of the problem, such country-specific actions still impact. Indeed, given how uneven carbon production is between different places - Qatar emitted 37.6 tonnes of carbon per person in 2022, Uganda just 0.1 tonnes - any carbon-reducing choices made by big carbon-emitters could have a substantial effect, even without 192 other co-signatories. Given that, how is our own country doing in regards to combating climate change?

The UK emitted 4.7 tonnes of carbon per person in 2022, which puts it just outside the top third of all countries in the world. It has a bigger population than all but seven of the countries above it in that carbon-per-capita table, though, which means the total amount of climate-changing-fumes our country is currently pumping out is a significant share of the total. So far, not so good. However, the UK has legally bound itself to hitting net zero by 2050, which means any carbon dioxide it does produce must be offset in some way. That would be better news, if not for the fact that the country is not taking all the steps it needs to for analysts to feel confident it can actually hit that goal.

Take transport, which is the largest emitting sector, responsible for about a quarter of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. Nine-tenths of transport emissions come from cars, so the UK government decided it would ban new petrol and diesel cars. Over time, that should push more and more of the population to switch to electric cars. Originally this ban was due to come into force in 2035, then it was moved to 2030, before being moved back to 2035 again by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in September 2023. His stated reasoning was that demanding the British people make too many changes to their lifestyle too quickly would cause a “backlash [that] would not just be against specific policies but against the wider mission itself meaning we might never achieve our [net-zero] goal.”

The Prime Minister is right that there is a significant support gap between net-zero policies in principle and those same policies if they imposed a personal cost on an individual. For example, more than half of the people who support frequent flyer levies would no longer support them if it meant the cost of their own plane travel went up. But an alternative policy response to this reality of human nature would be to find ways to make electric cars more accessible and more affordable to more people before the 2030 ban came in.

For instance, at the moment electric cars currently cost more upfront but are cheaper to run over their lifetime. There are policies that would help people, and particularly lower-income people, to meet that initial purchase cost. Subsidies or zero-interest loans would be examples. Such policies could flip the financial incentives and make people see electric vehicles (EVs) as a money-saver as well as a better choice for the planet. There is still a cost to these policies - a government spending money on EV subsidies may need to raise taxes or spend less on other things - but again, policy choices can be made that mean personal costs are not being borne by those least able to absorb them, or even by a majority of the population. Taxes could be raised for just the richest, for example.

The government’s stated preoccupation with voter-friendly policies that centre around things working better for less cost is also hard to square with the fact that it has not made the decarbonisation of the railways more of a priority. Electrifying the trains is one of those policies that should be a government's dream. At the same time as making rail transport greener, it would also make it cheaper and more efficient, because electric trains have more seat capacity, need less maintenance and can speed up and slow down much more quickly. The Railway Industry Association, a trade body, reckons that over its lifetime an electric train is up to £3 million cheaper than a diesel train, and 300 percent more reliable on suburban lines.

A cheaper, better railway service would be popular and entice far more Brits to swap out their polluting cars for at least some of their travel. Yet Britain has electrified just 38 percent of its railway network, compared to the 60 percent the EU has managed. Even within the UK itself there is divergence. Scotland, where the devolved government oversees the work, is on track to have electrified everything by 2025. For the rest of the country to keep up, a humongous 448 km would need to be electrified each year, which is about the equivalent of the train journey from Southampton to Newcastle.

For any UK government serious about climate change, getting a start on such easy wins feels like a no-brainer. But they probably cannot shield their constituents from the true costs of climate change forever. This is especially true because questions about the global responsibility of rich Western countries like the UK that are - and always have been - the biggest greenhouse gas emitters are likely to intensify as the impacts of climate change continue to disproportionately wallop poorer places.

Indeed, another headline-grabbing aspect of COP28 was the launch of a “loss and damage fund” where richer, higher-carbon-emitting countries will give money to poorer, lower-carbon-emitting countries to help salve the various issues climate change may bring down on their property and people, including losses from higher-intensity natural disasters, a wider spread of infectious diseases, and crop failures. As of yet, the words of the declaration are not being backed up with much action. The money so far promised (£556 million) is a paltry amount (0.2 percent) of what it is estimated will be needed, and the £60 million the UK ‘pledged’ is money that it had already committed to other other global climate financing initiatives. More will clearly be needed.

One set of ideas doing the rounds is that richer countries could change the terms of the debt they are currently owed by lower-income countries. One policy, called for at the African Climate Summit in September 2023, is for a ten-year pause on interest payments, with the idea that countries can instead use that money on climate resilience. Because suspending interest means rich countries would only be forgoing new income, not spending current budgets, this policy could play well with voters and governments who want to appear fiscally conservative. A further step would be for lender countries to forgive the debts entirely, with a caveat that the the savings are diverted to climate issues. Portugal has recently done this with Cape Verde, as has Germany with Egypt and Kenya.

The UK currently has $1.8 billion of debt it is owed by lower-income countries. Writing it off could be another low-hanging fruit for combating climate change. After all, the UK has already forgiven substantial amounts of foreign debt in the last few decades without even attracting much notice, let alone ire, from UK voters. However. for many global injustice campaigners, such policies miss several points. They argue that the Global South should never have been on the hook for debt repayments regardless, given the vast repatriations they are owed by the West for the enduring damages that have wrought by not just climate change but also their legacies of colonialism, racism and imperialism.

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