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Tackling the Climate Emergency - a Personal View of our 2019 Policy Paper and its influence on the Party.

March 14, 2020 8:15 PM
By Steve Bolter in GLD Challenge magazine 2019-20

facebookCalling out Carbon Neutral target dates is pretty Meaningless Gesture Politics.

Background Zero Carbon Graph (Steve Bolter)
Despite large demonstrations and media coverage, the general public's awareness of the seriousness of climate change had been developing only slowly, limiting public support for serious measures to tackle it.


Then came: David Attenborough's popular TV series; the publicity for Greta Thunberg's solitary demonstrations and the school strikes they generated; and Extinction Rebellion's obstruction of Thames bridges. The popular media became excited and public concern shot up.


This resulted in various organisations and political parties, trying to outdo each other with target dates for reaching "Zero Carbon" or carbon neutrality [that is when the rate of emission of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) matches the rate of their absorption].


Instead of being left to grab in the air for an impressive "Zero Carbon" date, the Lib Dems were already committed to a target, by the 2013 Policy Paper 109 "Green Growth and Jobs - Transition to a Zero Carbon Britain, which gave policies to achieve Zero Carbon by 2050.


Aware that progress towards that goal had slowed when the Conservatives took over from the Coalition, and that progress world-wide was slow, the Lib Dems had engaged consultants (partly funded by GLD) and set up a Working Group to update that 2013 policy.


GLD Conference highlights the Climate Emergency


At the time of the 2019 Green Liberal Democrats Conference, the final touches were being made to the resulting new "Policy Paper 139 Tackling the Climate Emergency". Those at the Conference were given an outline of its principle points.

The paper shows that the critical factor is rapidness of the fall of greenhouse gas emissions in the next 5 years, not when we reach carbon neutrality. The earlier emissions start falling steeply, the longer we will have to get down the last couple of per-cent to neutrality, and the less painful it will be.


To avoid a very high risk of climate catastrophe, we need to keep global temperatures less than 1.5°C above the pre-industrial levels, but it is quite possible to exceed the 1.5°C limit on a path designed to "hit Zero Carbon as early as 2035, or to keep warming to less than 1.5°C while on the way to Zero Carbon at 2050. [See the diagram]

Zero Carbon Graph (Steve Bolter)
In discussion it was agreed: that most calls by others, for early carbon neutrality target dates, were pretty meaningless gesture politics; and that it was essential to make sure that the media headline generating early pages of the final Lib Dem paper would give due emphasis to our readiness for the swift real action necessary.


The final version of the 80-page Policy Paper "Tackling the Climate Emergency" does that. libdems.org.uk/policy-papers-autumn-19
It has a plan for the first 100 days of a new government, which includes passing legislation to set targets and budgets, and devising a programme framework for the first 10 years of action.
Currently UK greenhouse gas emission are about 45% below 1990 levels. The Lib Dem paper has proposals for the achievement of (relative to 1990)

• a 59% reduction by 2025
• a 75% reduction by 2030
• a 93% reduction by 2040 and
• net zero emissions by 2045

One of the highlights of the 2019 Autumn Conference was the Speech by MP Wera Hobhouse, Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Spokesperson, contrasting our evidence-based plans for tackling the Climate Emergency with other organisations' calls for unrealistic Zero Carbon end dates, with no planning for the early action needed to avoid catastrophe.


September Federal Conference motion misses the sense of urgency


Sadly the motion F29 "Tackling the Climate Emergency", (https://www.libdems.org.uk/autumn-19-agenda pages 51 to 56), which should have been structured to draw attention to the critical points of urgency the Policy Paper made (in a way that the media and the casual information seeker would pick up), instead led on the Zero Carbon target, which experts had calculated could be moved from 2050 to 2045 because of the measures the paper introduced to catch up from the slowdown, since the end of the Coalition.


The urgent new targets were covered, but as if unimportant intermediate targets.


Amendments were proposed, including one to give more prominence to the plans for achieving a steep fall in emissions over the next five years, one to draw attention to recent observation on the increasing emission of methane, a strong greenhouse gas, and ones to try to get to Zero Carbon even earlier.


The period for submitting amendments is short. The rush to accommodate the wishes of a sufficient number of supporters can result in poorly-drafted amendments. What is really needed is people to get together live, hammer out each amendment.


The Green Liberal Democrats decided to submit an amendment to the motion via a local party. It firstly attempted to replace some text to bring in that sense of emergency that was missing:


"1. Conference therefore resolves that the UK must reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases as a matter of extreme urgency."


"2. Conference recognises that early action on setting and achieving drastic but credible interim targets is more important than setting a notional, precise end-date to achieve net-zero emissions, and therefore endorses the interim aim of a 75 per cent reduction from 1990 levels by 2030 at the latest." Alone, or with a separate vote, these would almost certainly have been carried, but there was also:-


"3. Conference also recognises that the rapid global heating effects of methane have been severely under-estimated until very recently, and therefore calls for urgent action to reduce methane emissions, in particular from intensive beef farming and the industrial energy sector and by immediately banning fracking.". The "severe underestimation" and the implication that beef production and fracking were especially responsible, making their reduction particularly important, were in my opinion hype with little foundation. It seems many in auditorium agreed.
The most frightening increase in methane emission is that released when former permafrost melts because of the global warming that has already happened. We need to reduce all the greenhouse-gas emissions we can. Although methane is the more powerful greenhouse gas, there is more warming due CO2 because there is much more of it in the atmosphere.


Then there was:
"4. Conference believes that these steps would enable a faster reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and calls for an interim target of a 90 per cent reduction by 2035 leading to net-zero emissions by 2040 (with all targets subject to revision should faster progress prove possible)."
I do not consider the argument for shifting the Zero Carbon date forward a further 5 year was made, but I think it was paragraph 3 that was principally responsible for the defeat of the whole amendment. It illustrates that a controversial topic, within but not central to the main thrust of an amendment should, unless a separate vote can be agreed, be removed and made a separate amendment.

Climate Policy and the 2019 Election


There was largest ever support in the country for saving the environment, and we had new comprehensive policy on Tackling the Climate Emergency.
In a rousing Conference speech our Parliamentary Spokesperson, Wera Hobhouse, had explained that immediate action on a swift reduction in greenhouse gases was needed to prevent a climate crisis, and that Zero Carbon date promises were a distraction.


There was support for Europe and the Environment being the two big campaign issues.


All looked set for big Lib Dem gains. What could go wrong? Well, number one was that not all Lib Dem activists were at Conference. Number two was that the Libs Dems lent support to a December General Election, which resulted in the cancellation of training sessions for activists to explain our well-planned policy of urgent action, and to help them counter others' claims that the earliness of a Zero Carbon end date is the measure of effectiveness. And number three was that Europe and the Environment were not adopted as joint principal foci of the campaign.


We were underprepared for an election we had called for. Labour had a glossy pamphlet on climate. Labour, the Greens and others were making unrealistic promises we should have been challenging.


Unfortunately, our own campaign team produced an absurd release claiming that a Lib Dem government would "Reach 80% renewable energy by 2030". The actual promise was simply for 80% of electricity to be renewable by then.


The campaign team had forgotten that in 2030 there would still be large amounts of non-renewable energy used in gas heating and in petrol and diesel vehicles. To make matters even worse they attributed the statement to Ed Davey, and put it out at the time our candidates were sending their main election leaflets to press.


It would have been impossible for local parties that used the release to reprint their leaflets. Hence, instead of feeling free to criticise the unrealistic claims or demands of other parties or and organisations, I for one felt I had to bite my lips and just hope others would not criticize us.


The campaign team cannot be experts on all of our policy. It is my personal opinion that they should have used the expertise of the Green Lib Dems to check their releases. I feel that, once again, an opportunity to increase support for Lib Dems policies has been missed.

Steve Bolter Member of G L D exec policy committee.
19 February 2010


Challenge 2019-20 Front Cover - Green Liberal Democrats' Magazine (Wikimedia and George Miles)

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