It’s become a bit of a cliche for people like me – elitist, north London, alternative, intellectual, left-wing… just say Jewish, this is taking forever – to talk about the “real crises” being ignored while our politicians go on about the Northern Irish backstop and Norway plus. But it’s April 2019 and, like an invasive bug plonked into a North American forest, Brexit continues to destroy everything in sight.
Almost three years after the referendum, it dominates news coverage and drains political will. Climate policy has been particularly badly affected. “If our house was falling apart, you wouldn’t hold three emergency Brexit summits and no emergency summit regarding the breakdown of the climate and the environment,” teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg told European political leaders in a speech this week. At the UN climate conference in Poland last year, energy minister Claire Perry arrived late and had to be briefed about negotiations on the plane to Katowice, after staying in London to back the Prime Minister in a no confidence vote. Labour shadow ministers simply didn’t turn up.
Last week official government projections showed the UK is set to miss its legally binding 2030 climate targets. The fifth carbon budget sets the government the target of reducing carbon emissions 57 per cent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. The new figures show that the UK is set to miss that by 10 per cent.
As an EU member state, the UK is obligated to set targets on reducing emissions as well as boosting the amount of energy produced from renewable sources. Amber Rudd stated that the UK would keep up this commitment in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. But today the government seems extremely relaxed about falling short.
The first line of the document revealing that the climate targets will not be met, talks up the UK’s “world-leading performance” on renewable energy and clean growth. Just before the figures were published, Theresa May talked up her government’s “fine record” on climate change, as she refused to meet up with young people taking part in the #FridaysForFuture
The UK has to date reduced emissions by 40 per cent since 1990. In 2018, as overall UK emissions dropped 3 per cent, it was revealed that carbon dioxide levels were at the lowest levels since the Victorian era. This drop-off has been driven in large part by the decline of the coal sector and the dramatic growth of renewables, particularly offshore wind.
Nevertheless the government remains reliant on eye-wateringly expensive and unworkable new nuclear facilities and is reluctant to pursue cheaper onshore wind projects due to the extremely “yer da”-take that they are an eyesore in the countryside.
Other green projects have been hampered by the Conservatives evangelical commitment to Thatcherite economics and the power of the free-market, with industry figures and climate campaigners critical of decisions to kill subsidies for electric cars and the solar industry.
The lack of ambition on climate in the UK is being matched in the rest of the world. Germany, so long seen as a progressive force on global warming has retreated in recent years, due partly to domestic political concerns about the fate of the country’s coal industry. Elsewhere, scholars have written about a so called “Trump effect” in international relations, with developing countries seeing little point in reducing emissions while the world’s most powerful country™ scraps key environmental legislation. With this backdrop, it's easier to understand why fossil fuel emissions continued to rise in 2018 even as anxiety over climate change grew.
The deadlock over Brexit has only added to this mess. Taking up the time of civil servants and policy-makers and weakening the public’s faith in democratic politics to achieve, well, anything.
“No. I can’t do this anymore. It’s too long,” whines Elaine Benes in an episode of Seinfeld called “The English Patient”. Sat in a cinema watching the film of the same name with her boss J. Peterman, her head in her hands, she yells at the screen: “Quit telling your stupid story, about the stupid desert, and just die already! Die!!”
That’s basically where we are.