This lunchtime I was strolling past the radio when I caught the end of an interview with “climate negotiator” Rachel Kite by Radio 4’s presenter Sarah Montague. It seemed to be so wrong-headed that I decided to listen back to it and transcribe it. I have inserted comments here and there.
The World at One, about 13.16 on 19.vii.2022
Well the fact that the country can’t cope shows how much may have to change, whether it’s adapting our transport, housing, farming, but also beyond how we adapt, also what we must do to prevent further warming. Rachel Kite is Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. She was an advisor to the UK COP26 delegation and is a climate negotiator of long experience. Good afternoon.
Um is this – I mean people are talking about wake up calls, but is this a taste of what will be more common if we don’t act and indeed even if we do act?
Yes. Unfortunately this is happening earlier than I think many people thought it would happen but that it would happen was clear as long as we kept putting climate pollution into the atmosphere, and I think that the point you’ve just made is very important.
[Jit: By “climate pollution,” you refer to carbon dioxide. Calling it “pollution” is erroneous. It is a rare kind of pollution whose presence in very large amounts in the atmosphere is necessary for life on Earth to continue. That it interacts with long wave photons and causes atmospheric warming is not a reason to call it pollution. It’s plant food, and we all, even picky eaters, rely on eating plants to continue to survive.]
We have baked this in. This is the result of the pollution we have put into the atmosphere up to now so we have to curb that pollution, those emissions really quickly, in order to come in at this sort of degrees of warming that we believe we can cope with um which means concerted action to remove those emissions while we learn to adapt and become resilient to these kinds of temperatures happening on a much more frequent basis just as the previous speaker excellently demonstrated [a previous item was on rails buckling].
[Jit: sceptics have for some time pointed out that adaptation is a more rational use of cash than “decarbonisation” efforts that either don’t work or cost an arm and a leg. You are saying that we need to adapt as well as cut carbon dioxide emissions. I think the former is evidence that you don’t believe the latter will happen to significant degree. I personally think that our efforts on this are expensive and mostly empty gestures, making us poorer and simply relocating the emission point of the “pollution” saved. As carbon dioxide is well mixed, cutting manufacturing here to make our climate accounts look better is pointless if the manufacturing moves elsewhere.]
OK so we are going to need to find ways to make our infrastructure and all our systems cope with this. But when you say very quickly what does that mean. What is that gonna mean for the – when you look at the sums required?
[A long pause]
Er, in Glasgow last year at the climate negotiations the focus was not only on the sort of Net Zero commitment that we sort of put the economy in balance with the planet by mid century, but that by 2030 we have to have taken a sizeable slice of those emissions and retired them. So by 2030 countries are coming in with commitments of 52% reductions United States, over 60% the UK, the European Union 55% reductions in emissions, and it’s cutting emissions by that sort of scale in this decade which is really important because, you know, these are long lived, you put it in the atmosphere and it causes warming for years and decades to come. So it’s this decade we have to cut our emissions by you know at least a half um and that’s where we’re falling behind at the moment.
[Jit: After 26 COPs, the concentration of carbon dioxide continues its inexorable rise. The decadent West is managing to trim its emissions quite a bit, but this is more than made up for by rises elsewhere. Only a mindless optimist would believe that this sequence would be interrupted within 7.5 years.
Despite lip service to the contrary, economies in the world that are actually growing in prosperity are increasing their carbon dioxide emissions. That is to say they are increasing their energy use, because since most energy use comes from fossil fuels, the two go hand in hand like Jack and Jill. Prosperity is cheap energy is (for now at least) fossil fuel energy.]
Right, how far behind?
Um….. a long way behind I think, I think the numbers are constantly being reappraised and from a climate negotiation point of view in 2023 there will be a global stocktake and we will be able to see what is the gap between where we need to be and our ambition and then the gap between what we say we’re going to do and what we’re actually doing. So we have both an ambition gap and an implementation gap at the moment.
[Jit: Hi, I’m a climate negotiator. I get paid a lot of dosh to attend international junkets and sit about in meetings where emissions cuts are discussed. It’s what I do. No, I don’t know how many cuts are in train at the moment. I’m not a details person.
An implementation and an ambition gap? What about a reality gap?]
OK let’s just talk about the ambition gap because we’ve seen in the Tory leadership contest concerns voiced about the costs of aiming for Net Zero by 2050. Do you – what do you make of what you’re hearing, because there are a number of comments made by different candidates, whether it’s Kemi Badenoch suggesting it could be pushed back further, or, er, indeed people talking about changing the green levies, or even Rishi Sunak talking about going too hard and too fast on climate action.
[Jit: Dimly, a tiny glow of light is playing on the minds of the wannabe Prime Ministers. They are beginning to realise that climate action is crucifying the country. They still don’t dare to say so. Nor do they dare say that the medicine (Net Zero) is worse than the disease (present heatwave notwithstanding). It is obvious to me that if climate action was erased, permanently, with a swift pen stroke, the UK would suddenly snap out of its stupor and elbow its way at least into the global economic midfield from its position at the back of the pack.]
Well I think that there are two things here. Er, first of all, it’s everybody’s contribution to a global commitment and so no as a developed country we should not be even considering pushing back Net Zero out beyond 2050, in fact we should be thinking about bringing it forward, er why because we put most of the pollution up there in the atmosphere and we’ve got a duty to act, but also because our competitiveness as an economy is entirely predicated on managing our value at risk. So if our railways can’t work for days every year that’s economic productivity down the drain. So no we shouldn’t be pushing it back.
[Jit: Our economy is predicated on cheap energy. Every penny you put onto the price of a KWh is another drag anchor thrown off the back of the good ship UK. Every green measure you take is making our economy worse. This is obvious. Fixing the railways to resist extreme weather is an example of a no-regrets policy.]
But secondly what’s really concerning is that you’ve got four now candidates vying for the leadership of the ruling party and therefore the premiership and what it shows is that we still have a very cosmetic understanding of what this is. This isn’t just a sort of verbal commitment with some sort of policy process that’s got to happen. This is about “can our health system when temperatures are running at this kind of severity on a frequent basis. You know, is our farming system, can we continue to produce the food that we need. What’s happening to our railways, what about our roads, what about our airports? This is about investing right now in being able to be competitive and then building a green economy to be able to compete when we’re decarbonising so I just feel it’s very cosmetic, the debate.
[Jit: The commitment to Net Zero is cosmetic because it is impossible to achieve. The plan at the moment is to slouch towards it while the media and others toss bouquets at us praising what we are saying we are planning to do. The game is to progress as slowly as possible while keeping the flowers flying. If we stop, the bouquets will become bricks. If we go too fast, we’ll step over a cliff into oblivion.
And, while I presume you are very familiar with airport departure lounges, I get the distinct feeling that the rump of the UK’s people won’t know what one is, if your plans come to fruition. I’ve picked one as the featured image for posterity.]
Just very briefly, if we’re moving faster, rather than pushing Net Zero back, do you think it needs to be brought forward and to what year?
I think that the current targets that we have are extremely ambitious and it’s actually in our case, in the UK’s case, it’s the implementation gap not the ambition gap that is the problem, and so I think that we need to just – all parties – this is a national emergency – everyone sit down and work out how we’re gonna reach the target we’ve committed to.
[Jit: You are dreaming. If we go any faster, the policy will collapse faster. There will inevitably be a re-balancing. The targets we are committed to will not be met, not unless the good folk of the UK are prepared to live like it’s 1722 rather than 2022. The game, as mentioned, is to make it look like those commitments will be met for as long as possible without putting too much extra pain on the public.]
Rachel Kite, thank you very much.
[Jit: Now get the hell off my radio.]