Saturday, 27 February 2021

Global Britain and green politics

Extinction Rebellion has just held its second round of major protests – seeing parts of London brought to a standstill, 1,300 arrests (so far) and £850,000 of crowdfunding – and Greta Thunberg is still touring the United States (US) after a lengthy boat trip across the Atlantic. ‘Green politics’, therefore, seems to be growing in popularity in the United Kingdom (UK) and elsewhere ‒ representing a further political shift away from the politics and economy of the ‘neo-liberal’ era. But, what are the misconceptions of climate change and green politics, as well as their implications for British defence and security? Are the green politics of Miss Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion merely a dishonestly-veiled Marxism, or is it a genuine project with the right ideas?

1. ‘Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are right: humans should “panic” over what they are doing to the environment.’

Absolutely. Until the twentieth century, the world had been warming at 0.01°c per century for 7,000 years (since the last Ice Age). Since 1970 it has started to warm at the rate of 1.7°c per century, an exponential increase – faster than at any point in the past hundreds of thousands of years. While a number of factors may be converging, one factor cannot be ignored: humans have added carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at 60 times the normal rate (since the last glacial maximum).

The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs was the only mass extinction (of five) in the Earth’s history not to be caused by greenhouse gases (including methane and sulphur dioxide); the worst extinction, 250 million years ago, was caused by an increase in carbon dioxide ten times slower than the current rate. Consider also: species’ extinctions are commonplace in the Earth’s history, but the current rate is 1,000 times the norm; meanwhile, the human population has grown faster than exponentially, with an estimated 15% of all humans who ever lived, being alive today – and the global population is expected to balloon further still.

2. ‘Britain only produces 1% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions: it would be economically disadvantageous for the UK to decarbonise when other countries produce far more pollution.’

It depends on how decarbonisation is undertaken! As Britain pioneered industrialisation – enjoying the benefits longer than any other nation – the country has a responsibility to make the internal economy carbon neutral as quickly as possible, which the government has pledged to do by 2050. Whilst it is true that emissions from within the UK have fallen to the same level as 1888 – equalling roughly 1% of the global total – these statistics hide the nation’s ‘external emissions’. Insofar as what much of what Britain consumes is produced offshore in countries like China, Taiwan and Indonesia – a consequence of deindustrialisation – and then transported across the world to the British Isles, actual UK emissions are considerably higher than they now seem.

Part of the answer must involve drawing back manufacturing to Britain and/or reducing distances for transportation of finished goods. Some of the solution also resides in cutting the 20% of UK emissions alone that come from inefficiencies in construction, food, electronics and clothing.

But merely cutting emissions would not be enough: to reach carbon-neutrality, more radical changes are required, including to the current model of market-led innovation. Rather than doggedly holding on to current energy sources ‒ including nuclear fission ‒ the UK should forge ahead in solving the complex problems of nuclear fusion, workable hydrogen power and greatly-improved battery storage technology. This presents an incredible opportunity to place Britain at the forefront of an energy revolution that could propel Britons forward into a new epoch, as did coal-fuelled industrialisation in the late eighteenth century.

Given the scale and capacity of the British scientific and technological base, the UK has the potential, with greater resources, to give the nation a technological and commercial headstart over its economic competitors. The UK already has a world-leading nuclear fusion research project in Culham; indeed, additional investment into this and other areas would provide much-needed resources and have positive spillover effects for related areas of research and economic activity.

3. ‘UK withdrawal from the European Union (EU) weakens attempts to tackle climate change.’

Counter-intuitively, the opposite is probably the case. While global decarbonisation will require international cooperation, it is not necessarily the case that it will only succeed if undertaken through the EU and/or without a sustained national effort. As a leading global power, the UK has the national capacity to draw together its political, economic and technological capabilities and to work with several different countries, including many outside Europe, not least highly-advanced nations like the US, Japan, Canada and Australia.

To leapfrog forward, the UK should be more active in instigating and leading international cooperation. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated, the global mobilisation that is needed is ‘unprecedented in terms of scale’. One example of successful international technological cooperation – albeit in a very different context – was the Manhattan Project during the Second World War, when the UK worked with the US and Canada to develop the atomic bomb – a momentous technological effort, costing over £16 billion (US$20 billion using current exchange rates). Britain could lead a similar international effort today, albeit with the endpoint being the first viable Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs), a working fusion reactor or advanced and commercially-viable hydrogen fuel cells.

4. ‘We should use the defence budget to fund the economy’s decarbonisation.’

Why? Climate change and geopolitics are likely to come together this century to present a ‘super-wicked problem’. The Arctic is projected to be permanently and completely ice-free in summer by 2050, uncovering the world’s largest unexplored fishery, considerable fossil fuel deposits and a sea route that is 37% shorter than the ‘Royal Route’ through the Suez Canal. Under current warming the US, but China and India especially, face huge land-loss and population displacement by the end of the century due to rising sea-levels. Moreover, countries in the mid-latitudes, like the US, India and China, are estimated to lose 36-92% of their potential agricultural and economic output under current warming by the end of the century.

Now consider one main aspect: four billion people – roughly 40% of the world’s population – are projected to live in drylands by 2050 and land degradation, combined with climate change, will on average reduce crop yields by 10% globally by 2050 and by 50% in some regions. Land degradation is so bad that soil erosion is potentially catastrophic, occurring at ten times the replenishment rate in the US and thirty in China and India, all of which is taking place regardless of climate change.

Consequently, climate change will likely make conflict more common and widespread in the future. Since 2014 as it was becoming clear that climate change was exacerbating the drought that precipitated the Syrian civil war the US Department of Defence has highlighted climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’. Overall, it is estimated that every 0.5°c of warming brings a 10-20% increased likelihood of armed conflict, so even in the Paris Agreement’s extremely optimistic 1.5°c warmer scenario, armed conflict would be 30-60% more likely. 

A greatly increased likelihood of armed conflict and war, combined with resurgent geopolitics, would make it deeply unwise to reduce defence spending. Under such circumstances, it would be wiser to ‘normalise’ defence spending back up to at least 3% of national output. If any spending is to be reviewed, it should be ‘Official Development Assistance’: rather than spending billions of pounds on the alleviation of extreme poverty, Britain should consider spending more to assist with the decarbonisation of developing economies ‒ tackling both current and future causes of poverty and suffering, rather than just the effects.

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