Jeremy Leggett for the Guardian: One of the biggest transformative signals that 195 governments sent to energy markets via the Paris agreement at the weekend was a goal for the global warming ceiling to be set well below 2C, and as low as 1.5C if possible. The scientific advice given to governments explains why. At 2C, coastal plains and island nations are submerged, food and clean water supplies shrivel, and social cohesion comes under threat as a consequence.
Scientific advisers also spell out carbon budgets for governments in stark terms these days. 2C of global warming – long the ceiling governments have talked of aiming at, in a quarter-century of negotiations without a comprehensive agreement until now – involves a “bubble” of unburnable carbon that amounts to 60-80% of fossil fuel reserves, depending on the risk tolerance assumed. Having any chance of 1.5C means the world can only burn a fraction of existing fossil fuel reserves. The coal, oil and gas that would have been burned under past plans must be replaced by the zero net carbon emissions regime that the Paris agreement targets within just a few decades. The world might have to be 100% renewable-powered as soon as 2030.
All this might sound like green dreaming until one considers that Apple intends to be mass-producing solar-charged electric vehicles less than five years from now, each of them a micropower plant, doubtless communicating with each other to trade energy in ways most current energy incumbency executives do not have the cultural bandwidth to imagine. Or that in Paris 1,000 cities committed to becoming 100% renewable-powered. Or that many huge corporations have pledged to become carbon neutral or 100% renewable-powered across their global operations: Unilever by 2030, and Ikea as early as 2020.
There are many other such examples of energy transition emerging, at speed, in my book chronicling all this drama: The Winning of the Carbon War. This momentum by non-state actors has done much to create the space for state actors to perform as well as they did in Paris.
Encouraging as all this is, some state actors currently have policies diametrically opposed to the Paris agreement. The UK is at or near the top of this list. Virtually every sector of green energy is nursing wounds – all deep, some potentially fatal – as a result of chancellor George Osborne’s post-election preference for incumbency technologies. Thousands of solar jobs have been lost due to recent ambush cuts in subsidy. Electric vehicles are now taxed at the same level as Porsches.
The Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change talk of the strictures of austerity, and deploy a blizzard of obfuscatory detail in trying to defend their actions. But I am told by unimpeachable sources in Whitehall and Westminster what is really going on. Osborne and his acolytes are conducting a scorched earth assault on the green energy sector in order to clear space for investment in oil, gas and nuclear.
In so doing they are exhibiting an Orwellian inability to be embarrassed by the size of the subsidies they intend to throw at their preferred incumbents, or the incongruence with the Paris agreement to which they are party. Each and every shale oil or gas fracking site will receive remarkable largesse from the public purse if Osborne gets his way. The intended Hinkley Point nuclear plant will be the most expensive power plant in the world, so costly that workers from its intended operator EDF have pleaded with their bosses not to build it, for fear it will bankrupt the company.
Even before the UK begins attempts to exploit shale in earnest, government fossil fuel subsidies greatly exceed renewables subsidies. The UK is the only G7 country where fossil fuel subsidies are growing.
Had Ben Elton invented all this when he was writing environmental comedy thrillers in the 1990s, we would have laughed and told him to come up with something more realistic. But that was then. As things stand, this government is making real life stranger than fiction. The perfidity of the course they are on would be hilarious if it was not so serious.
One head of state or government after another talked of existential threats from climate change in Paris. The governor of the Bank of England spoke of a threat to global capital markets. The message from the man responsible for the stability of the financial system in the UK couldn’t have been clearer. Those who invest in further expansion of coal, oil and gas – knowing what there is to know – are wilfully threatening the stability of the global economy.
The corollary of “less than 2C” is clear. No new coal mines. No new oil fields. No new fracking, either for oil or gas. There is only room for one great global race as the fossil fuel era runs down – to copy Apple and Ikea.