Londoners have been getting used to some extra disruption as Extinction Rebellion, an environmental movement, has stepped up its campaign to persuade the government to treat climate change as a national emergency. Activists have stripped naked in parliament, smashed the entrance to Royal Dutch Shell’s headquarters and generally messed up traffic and train services around the capital.

It is tempting to satirise this as a bunch of well-off Britons (many with professional backgrounds) demanding a grand act of renunciation from the public — one that will principally fall on those less financially comfortable than themselves.

But they are right about one thing: despite the efforts of the past three decades, the world has yet to make much progress in containing growth in CO2 emissions. True, the EU-28 cut output by 12 per cent between 1990 and 2013 to 3.42 gigatonnes, and US growth has been constrained. But at the same time China’s output increased from 2.44Gt to 10.27Gt as the country has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty; something that will continue. Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative envisions hundreds of new coal-fired power stations, of which 240 were under way in 2016. Overall, global emissions are up by 60 per cent.

Extinction Rebellion’s answer is for developed countries to go on to a war footing. They want an iron target for the UK to move to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025; a move that would entail scrapping 38m petrol and diesel vehicles over the next six years. To secure it, they favour sidelining democratic politics in favour of “citizen’s assemblies” to lead action on the environment.

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Now there has always been a puritan side to the green movement; one that thinks the answer is for us to live much more modestly, and it is perhaps unsurprising that Extinction Rebellion has attracted support from the likes of the austere ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. But there are a number of reasons to believe that with this particular problem, a fusion of sackcloth, ashes and renunciation simply will not work.

The first thing is that this war will not be won in Britain, or even Europe and the US. Almost all emissions growth is in developing countries, where the priorities are understandably weighted towards economic development. Indeed our own approach to decarbonisation has deactivated some levers we could have pulled. So we have cut our own emissions by outsourcing production to cheaper, more emitting locations in the developing world.

What is needed now is a different approach. Some sort of carbon tariff would be a more effective mechanism for driving down CO2 — either by repatriating production to developed countries or establishing equivalent environmental standards in middle-income ones (as the price of tariff-free access). It would not have to apply to everything; just energy intensive industries, such as steel and petrochemicals. After all, we are presently in the daft position of subsidising domestic players in these sectors to keep them from shutting down.

Second, we need to accept we have not yet got the technologies to get to the desired destination. That means a smarter approach to using public money.

We have spent a lot on existing technologies that can help but will not ultimately solve the problem, such as offshore wind and solar panels. About 20 per cent of electricity bills go towards legacy subsidy costs, a significant burden for poorer households (and one that fuels a brand of populist politics that is hostile to environmentalism).

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We need to de-link spending from corporate interests, and fund more R&D in promising but as-yet-uncracked areas such as hydrogen, nuclear and solar film. None may come off, but if just one did it would give us much more bang for the buck.

Haste would only make sense if we genuinely did not have time. But although the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has become more insistent in its pressure for action, it has yet to truncate its timetable drastically. Extinction Rebellion is in one sense a mirror of the climate change “deniers” in rejecting expert opinion, albeit pushing in the opposite direction. Given the complexity of the problem, going off scientific piste makes little sense.

Lastly, there is the charge that democratic systems are too conflicted to take action. Sure, decarbonisation will be costly — which requires politicians to have the guts to spell out the price to achieve the benefit. But history shows we can move fast when we need to. After the oil shock in the 1970s, Sweden responded by building a fleet of nuclear reactors that cut emissions per capita by 75 per cent in just 16 years.

Would an unaccountable regime do better? Who knows, but melancholy experience suggests otherwise. All too often, environmental degradation and authoritarian politics have gone hand in hand.

jonathan.ford@ft.com



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