In the UK, Climate Isn’t a Political Issue. That’s a Problem.

In the UK, Climate Isn’t a Political Issue. That’s a Problem.

In the UK, Climate Isn’t a Political Issue. That’s a Problem.

The choice we face in responding to the climate crisis is between a just transition—and just a transition.


On the final day of the Oxford Citizens Assembly on Climate Change—a cold, gray British October Sunday almost a year ago—I witnessed a strangely moving exercise in direct democracy. Strange because it seemed, at first, mundane and almost childish: Assembly members were instructed to write letters from their future selves, imagining what it would be like to live in Oxford after the city had zeroed out its carbon emissions. When they had finished, some volunteered to read their letters out loud.

Slowly, detail by detail, a world came into view. A net zero Oxford had no cars, one assembly member declared or, another amended, perhaps one shared car per block. No cars meant no parking lots, she added. Replace them with parks. Roads narrowed into bike routes. Sidewalks broadened. One member proposed public solar-powered boat-buses, cruising along the river Isis—for leisure, another clarified, since most people would work from home. Those homes, said a third, would be stripped of their gas lines and warmed by electric heat pumps.

The more people spoke, the more radical their proposals became. “I’ve got wind farms on the outskirts of Oxford!” one shouted. The iconic university library became a solar tower. Cornmarket, Oxford’s main drag, which today is lined with garish souvenir shops and fast-food joints, was turned into a community apple orchard. St. Giles, another major artery, was converted into woodland. One of the final speakers, a middle-aged man, captured the mood with gusto. “We did it,” he said. “We didn’t like the way successive governments had made the problem worse—not even just ignored it but actually made it worse—so we took over the government and solved the problem for ourselves.”

Citizens’ assemblies are a new take on a very old idea: the Athenian deliberative forum refashioned for a world of representative democracies. A governing body convenes a small group of citizens, randomly selected but demographically representative, to deliberate on a set policy question. After hearing from experts and politicians, the citizens debate among themselves and advise the governing body on what to do. Such assemblies have become something of a fad across Europe in recent years. In 2017, Ireland held a national one on abortion that played an important role in breaking the political deadlock around the issue. In 2019, Belgium moved to establish a permanent regional assembly that would take over some of the local parliament’s governing responsibilities.

The concept has caught on in the UK, too—and become linked to one issue in particular. In the past year there have been 25 assemblies across the country, and 14 have focused on the climate crisis. There has been a national citizens’ assembly on the issue, which wrapped up its proceedings (via video conference) in late June. The Oxford assembly, which had been in the works since early 2019, was the first.

It is not a coincidence that these climate assemblies are having their moment now or that they are having it in Britain. Over the past decade, the UK has charted an aggressive course on climate action, though it has been muffled by the divisive chaos of Brexit. The UK’s emission reductions since 1990 are, on some measurements, unmatched by any other nation. Last year it became the first major economy to put a target of net zero emissions by 2050 into binding legislation. The country can boast what is, at least on the surface, an impressive political consensus around the need for rapid climate action. And yet, perhaps because of the very strengths that have gotten it this far, the UK has found itself ill-equipped to deal with a now urgent question of climate justice. It is the same question that motivated the series this article concludes: What would it mean for the transition to a net zero society to be just?

The UK’s path to a net zero commitment was, to all appearances, remarkably smooth. On May 2, 2019, the Committee on Climate Change, an independent group tasked with advising the government on climate policy, released a report titled Net Zero: The UK’s Contribution to Stopping Global Warming. It was a doorstop of a document—300 pages of policy recommendations—but the bottom line was clear: The UK could and should increase its 2050 reduction target from 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions compared with 1990 levels to 100 percent. Going net zero, the CCC emphasized, was economically prudent and ethically necessary. It advised the government that the new target “should be set in legislation as soon as possible.”

The timing was fortuitous. The climate activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) staged major actions in the fall of 2018 and in April 2019, bringing Central London to a standstill. Greta Thunberg, who arrived for the 2019 protests, stopped by Parliament and administered one of her vintage dressing-downs, prompting chastened MPs to declare a climate emergency the day before the CCC released its report. And Prime Minister Theresa May, her resignation looming, seemed desperate to put something besides a bungled Brexit to her name. On June 12 her government introduced the net zero target in Parliament. On June 26, Parliament approved it with overwhelming support. On June 27, less than a month before stepping down, May signed it into law. “She’s in the dying embers of her premiership, and she rolled this very simple net zero grenade,” recalled Luke Pollard, a Labour MP from Plymouth and the shadow secretary for the environment. He added, in a tone of grudging admiration, “It was very good politics.”

The day that the UK’s commitment became official, the French Parliament passed its version of the same target. In May of this year, Spain, still reeling from a devastating coronavirus outbreak, introduced legislation committing the country to net zero by 2050 as part of its postpandemic recovery plan. Net zero by 2050 is the keystone of Joe Biden’s climate agenda. The UK did not spark this shift on its own. But it was the first domino to fall, and it did so without acrimonious debate or climate-denying culture wars.

The roots of this remarkable consensus stretch back to November 2008, when Gordon Brown’s Labour government, with support from the Conservative opposition and at the urging of then–Energy Secretary Ed Miliband, enacted the Climate Change Act, which established a series of five-year targets leading up to a goal by 2050 of 80 percent fewer emissions than in 1990. Just as important, however, it created the CCC, a group of scientists and policy experts charged with advising governments on what their emission targets should be and warning them (in sharply worded letters that read like a delinquent student’s report card) when their policies are falling short.

Over the past 12 years, the committee has become something of an untouchable institution in UK climate politics. Activists and policymakers across the political spectrum—even those who dispute the CCC’s recommendations—are reluctant to criticize it (with a few exceptions, most notably the British climate journalist George Monbiot). “It’s hard to overstate how important it’s been to the transition,” said Joss Garman, the UK director of the European Climate Foundation. The committee’s strictly scientific, just-the-facts-ma’am approach helped turn the climate debate into “a very clear technocratic choice,” he continued. “It’s almost like having an [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] for your own country.”

The government tapped Adair Turner, Baron of Ecchinswell and a member of the House of Lords, to chair the committee. Turner, who stepped down in 2012, is a self-described technocrat with an impeccably establishment (and fossil-fuel-friendly) résumé—BP, JPMorgan Chase, McKinsey, Merrill Lynch—that speaks to the committee’s anti-political approach: Climate change is a technical problem, and no one is the enemy. (When I reached him in June, he seemed eager to display different credentials, thrice invoking the labor theory of value and insisting that, on this one point, “Marx has it right.”)

By Turner’s account, the committee quickly realized that “the only route to a zero-carbon economy is deep electrification.” This approach—“clean up electricity; electrify everything,” as Vox climate reporter David Roberts put it in 2017—is today widely regarded as the best route to net zero. There is now a clear and feasible path to zero-emission electricity production. So Step 1 is to green the energy grid, and Step 2 is to hook everything up to it.

On Step 1, the UK’s record has been undeniably impressive. In 2008 some 80 percent of the UK’s electricity came from fossil fuels. Coal, the country’s staple energy source since the mid-1800s, began to decline in the 1980s, but it was replaced by a glut of oil from the North Sea. Today only four coal-fired power stations remain in the country. All will be phased out by 2024. Natural gas still accounts for nearly 40 percent of the UK’s electricity generation, but that is down by a quarter from 2008.

Meanwhile, the renewables sector, mostly driven by a boom in offshore wind farms, is thriving. “The good news,” Turner recalled, “is that decarbonizing electricity and building lots of green electricity is now cheaper and easier, faster than we dared dream in 2008.” A good metric for this dramatic transformation is carbon intensity, or how much carbon dioxide each kilowatt-hour of electricity produces. In 2008 the carbon intensity of UK electricity was 495 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. By 2018 it had tumbled to 207. US electricity, for comparison, had a carbon intensity of 450 in 2016.

These advances in clean energy have led the UK to an overall emission reduction trend unmatched by any other nation. According to an analysis by Carbon Brief, the UK’s CO2 emissions in 2019 were 41 percent lower than they were in 1990 and the lowest since 1888. From 2010 to 2018, the UK boasted the fastest rate of decline in CO2 emissions of any major economy—and, what is more staggering for such a small country, it was nearly the largest absolute decline as well (though this says more about what bigger nations haven’t done than what the UK has). Only the United States, by virtue of its size, has cut more in absolute terms, but its rate of decline is one-eighth that of the UK.

However, this sparkling record comes with three crucial lines of fine print: one for the “net,” one for the “zero,” and one for the 2050 deadline.

First, going net zero does not actually require the UK to stop producing emissions. The country intends to achieve some of its reductions by using a technology called bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which takes emissions and sequesters them underground. The commission said BECCS will be a necessity if the UK is to reach net zero, and the current government is singing its praises. But there are no operational carbon capture facilities in the UK. “These things have the characteristics of a time machine,” said Duncan McLaren, a professor of climate policy at Lancaster University who has written extensively about BECCS. “They promise to do something in the future, which even in the most well-meaning hands ends up meaning delay in the present.”

Moreover—this is the fine print for the “zero”—the UK’s target applies only to territorial emissions, or those that are produced on UK soil. This is standard practice for national reduction targets, but it means that the UK could outsource more and more of its emissions to other countries (for instance, by closing down its steel factories and importing from China or elsewhere in Europe), which would result in global emissions staying the same or possibly growing, even as the UK’s plummeted. If you measure consumption emissions rather than territorial ones, the UK’s reductions since 1990 amount to just over 10 percent—a much less impressive achievement.

And then there is that deadline. The CCC insists that 2050 is “the earliest credible date” by which net zero would be “deliverable alongside other government objectives” and that an earlier date “could lead to a need for punitive policies and early capital scrappage to stay on track to the target.” Mike Thompson, the director of carbon budgets at the CCC, said, “You could maybe do 2045 if it went absolutely perfectly, without having to scrap things early.” But that is a crucial caveat. Activists who push for a date earlier than 2050 argue that avoiding early capital scrappage (shuttering dirty power plants and leaving fossil fuels in the ground) and preserving other government objectives (GDP!) should not be the determining factors in climate planning. Just the opposite: If the UK can feasibly get to net zero before 2050, as it indeed can, then that should be the government’s primary objective—scrappage be damned.

These three lines of fine print will limn the size and scope of the UK’s achievement when it reaches its target. If the country reaches it: In February 2019, a few months before issuing the net zero report, the CCC sent a letter to the government warning that despite its impressive headline figures, the UK had failed to meet 15 of 18 mini-targets in its second budget, which ended in 2017. It was on track to meet its third budget (for 2022) but not its fourth or fifth. In other words, the UK’s emission reductions, so impressive for the past decade, would soon come shuddering to a halt.

The problem lies in the second half of the electrification strategy: Electrify everything. The UK has made great strides toward greening its electricity production, but it has done comparably little to connect polluting sectors to that greener grid. This was, in part, a conscious choice. Electricity production was Britain’s “low-hanging fruit,” Turner recalled, and the committee “always knew that there were some sectors which were more difficult…but we almost consciously left those aside within our early work.” Three areas remain particularly troublesome: agriculture, transport, and heating.

In agriculture, the problem is land. The CCC maintains that at least one-fifth of the land now used for agriculture will need to be “moved into long-term, natural carbon storage”—translation: plant more trees and restore more peatland—if the country is to hit net zero by 2050. For the moment, though, incentives for farmers to give up land are ill-conceived at best and nonexistent at worst. What’s more, a change in land use will mean a change in the British diet. The CCC conservatively calls for a 20 percent drop in red meat and lamb consumption by midcentury. Otherwise, better land use in the UK will mean more imported meat, worsening land use patterns in, say, Brazil.

Transportation, which as of 2018 accounted for just over one-third of the UK’s territorial emissions, is perhaps an even greater challenge. This year the government declared that new gasoline and diesel cars will no longer be sold in the UK by 2035. But the CCC insists that even this is too late—it recommends 2030—and has emphasized that the country will need at least 27,000 more rapid chargers on the roads before the ban on fossil-fuel cars goes into effect. This is absolutely doable. It’s just that very little has been done.

The biggest problem is heating. The vast majority of British homes and offices are warmed by boilers hooked up to a natural gas grid. To zero out emissions, those boilers must be replaced with electric heat pumps or hydrogen-fueled systems. Neither is anywhere near ready to be deployed at the necessary scale. Homes are still being built with gas boilers; they will need to be retrofitted almost immediately. “Our building stock is shite. That’s the technical term,” McLaren said. In July, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £3 billion (nearly $4 billion) program to decarbonize the UK’s building stock, but this is nowhere near enough. The CCC argues the initial annual investment needed to pull off the transformation will be approximately £15 billion.

Agriculture, transportation, heating—why have these sectors proved so difficult to decarbonize? To some degree, the answer is scientific. There are certain carbon-intensive aspects to all three that remain difficult to green. But these scientific concerns rest atop a political rationale. What these sectors have in common is that their decarbonization will have a direct impact on the daily lives of the British public. Farmland will be transformed into forest or repurposed for different crops (and animals). Your car will need a plug (or you won’t have a car at all). Your drafty windows will be replaced. Your plumbing will be renovated. You will trade your gas stove for an electric one.

In other words, the UK’s path to net zero so far has been, by and large, an invisible one. Now, though, the country has reached a turning point. Should it continue to decarbonize, it will have to deal with what the CCC terms the “more visible” sectors of the economy. And the more visible the change, the argument runs, the more politically difficult it will be to implement. “People don’t really notice where their electricity is coming from,” Garman reasoned. “Whereas when you’re starting to talk to people about what cars they drive and what heating they have in their kitchens and what their diet looks like and, to a certain extent, about their lifestyle, it does get more difficult, obviously.” Thompson agreed. “The targets are getting harder,” he said, but not on a technical level. “They’re requiring us to get into sectors that require people to do things differently.”

Here, the advantages of the UK’s hypertechnocratic approach to climate politics become limitations. The CCC is an institution built to generate consensus not by working through questions of climate justice but by setting them aside. Unless instructed otherwise, it will attempt to isolate the technical elements of climate change from the political ones and leave the latter untouched, or as Turner put it (and he meant this positively), “build a decarbonized version of what we had before.” This is a technocrat’s logic: The less we interfere with peoples’ lives, the more easily we can get on with changing things. But it is also a political calculus. The less we interfere with peoples’ lives, the less likely they are to blame us for changes they don’t like.

Or don’t know about. A government survey conducted in March found that 64 percent of UK citizens had never heard of net zero. That some two-thirds of the UK public remains unaware of the country’s single most important policy goal for the next 30 years is perhaps due, among other factors, to the sheer lack of climate politics in the UK since 2008, when the veneer of cross-party consensus made the climate crisis appear a purely scientific issue.

That veneer has begun to crack. In the 2019 election, Labour called for a green industrial revolution and promised to shoot for net zero in the 2030s. The Conservatives stuck with 2050 and avoided the topic, to the point that Boris Johnson refused to even attend a climate debate with all the other prime ministerial candidates. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, calls for a radical Green New Deal have abounded on the British left and been rejected by the right—a signal that the era of polite climate cooperation is coming to an end.

And then there is Extinction Rebellion, whose rambunctious actions have thrust the climate crisis into public awareness, although XR also contains traces of the same anti-partisan logic that undergirds the technocracy it seeks to transcend. At a rally last October, an XR organizer explained that the group wanted to avoid the “[Al] Gore route,” which had turned climate politics into a left-right issue in the United States. By contrast, Extinction Rebellion prefers to skirt electoral battles and go “beyond politics,” as its slogan states. One of its core demands, displayed on banners at every XR event, is for a legally binding nationwide citizens’ assembly.

I attended the Oxford assembly because I wanted to see if advocates like Extinction Rebellion were right to claim that the format can serve a double purpose: restore people’s faith in democracy and generate radical climate policies. For much of the weekend I remained unconvinced. Ipsos MORI, a giant polling company, ran the meeting less like a town hall than a carefully supervised focus group. Members of the Oxford City Council lined the walls, eyeing the citizens as though observing an experiment. The proposals presented to the assembly members for deliberation were mostly modest and moderate. It didn’t help that the assembly was held at the Thatcher Business Education Centre, an awful building whose windowless cream facade, broken only by a single black revolving door framed by tinted glass and a few strips of ribbed black marble, resembles a Brutalist mausoleum, giving the impression that democracy was being interred.

But all that changed with the final exercise, the letters from a net zero Oxford. For a moment, it was possible to glimpse the power of a truly democratic climate politics. Here were 40-odd citizens, well informed after a weekend of presentations by climate experts and encouraged to decide how their community should look in a fossil-fuel-free world. The vision that emerged was remarkable for its willingness to address those visible sectors (agriculture, transportation, heating) that the government has shied away from and to address them radically, not avoiding change but seeking it out. Here was an acknowledgment of what has become a common refrain: There will be no returning to normal if we are to tackle the climate crisis—and this is no obstacle but a tremendous opportunity.

Still, as long as assemblies are bound to the narrow agenda set by governing bodies and their recommendations remain nonbinding—both true for every climate assembly so far in the UK—their immediate impact will be only as radical as politicians want it to be. The UK-wide assembly, which began before the coronavirus crisis and ended in its midst, put out a final report on September 8 report calling for a green recovery. But Parliament, with its dominant Tory majority, will likely pick at the national assembly’s recommendations until they align with the party’s platform.

Perhaps it is better to think of climate assemblies not as a solution but as a symptom. They are an indication that the UK has reached a moment when the question of what makes an energy transition just has become unavoidable. In that sense, the assemblies raise an important point for climate politics around the world. There is clearly an inherent injustice to our carbon-choked present. However, that does not mean there is an inherent justice to a carbon-free future. Getting to net zero is a necessary condition for a just transition, but it is not sufficient. There needs to be a justice to the transition itself—a justice to the process by which we decide how we will remake our lives.

Perhaps that is also the lesson of this series, which attempted to take the measure of a just transition across three very different backgrounds. In Senegal, one of many unequivocal victims of the climate crisis across the Global South, frontline communities are grappling with the true toll of climate injustice in a way that we in the West have yet to do. For them, the idea that the climate crisis is fundamentally a question of justice is obvious. In Australia, which holds the (for now) unique position of contributing to the climate crisis as well as being severely affected by it, the connections between climate change and justice remain threadbare. But they are starting to meld beneath the flames of each successive summer.

In both places I witnessed microcosms of a global trend: The choice we now face in responding to the climate crisis is between a just transition and just a transition. This is a choice not about whether to transition away from a fossil-fuel economy but instead about how that transition ought to look—what kind of economic, social, and political arrangements should bring it about and what kind of economic, social, and political arrangements it should produce. We can choose a radical and open transformation of both our energy and our political systems. Or we can choose an invisible transition: maximum energy transformation, minimum political reform.

Yet we are also coming to see that this second option is not really an option at all. That is the reality in the UK. The country has pursued an invisible transition further and more capably than any other developed nation, and its progress toward net zero—however qualified—cannot be ignored. Nor can the fact that this progress owes its success to an older model of climate politics, one that proposes to sideline questions of justice altogether. That model takes us only so far. We cannot tackle the climate crisis on the sly. We must change our lives, and how we propose to do that becomes, unavoidably, a question about what kind of society we wish to create and how we wish to create it. The answers to that question can be just or unjust but never neither.

Clarification: A previous version of this article refers to carbon capture and storage, a technology that the UK intends to use to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions. More specifically, the technology in question is bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), a negative emission technology that would offset continued emissions.

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