The outcomes from COP26 are, at best, modest – a far cry from the transformational policies we need to avert climate disaster. Analysis of the deal shows that we are on course for a global temperature rise of 2.4C, instead of the 1.5C outlined in the Paris Agreement. I know people don’t want doom and gloom, and there are positives to learn from, but to really tackle the issue with any success we need the urgency of a Covid-style global response to climate change – not hollow words and forced tears from the podiums of power.
Climate change does not pose a distant threat. It is here now. Whilst we can mitigate some of the worst impacts on communities and protect the most vulnerable through, for example, innovative coastal defence measures or land management, we cannot avert climate change itself. Flood risks will increase year on year, heatwaves will be fatal for many, and freak weather events such as Barking’s recent tornado will become commonplace.
So what can we do? As individuals we can all make more responsible choices, but if we are to bring about real change we need commitments from government. Labour government has promised it would spend £28bn per year until 2030 to invest in green jobs, cleaner air, and warmer homes, which is a good start. However, we also need to reimagine global supply chains to reduce emissions and unethical practices. Passing the buck with creative carbon accounting won’t cut it anymore.
As we transition society away from fossil fuels towards an electrified future there is much to consider, not least whether we have the national grid capacity to power our ambitious plans for electric vehicles and heat networks. For many areas with older infrastructure the reality is that unless we invest in local renewable energy and energy storage solutions we will not be able to support our electric dreams. We must also consider how sustainable sourcing the materials needed and generating energy at such an enormous scale will be for the planet and for society.
A recent report from the APPG for Fair Fuel for UK Motorists and UK Hauliers outlined how 70 per cent of the world’s cobalt, a key component of electric vehicle batteries, was sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2020. The DRC is one of the most politically corrupt nations in the world and the trade of cobalt relies heavily on child labour, allegedly under exploitation of Chinese tech giants.
At an electric vehicle infrastructure conference earlier this year, I asked the head of sustainability at a major UK car manufacturer whether they have safeguards in place to ensure the raw materials used in their vehicles are ethically sourced. The answer I got was: “The supply chain and the procurement process operate as ethically as they can given the availability of rare earth minerals.” The industrial revolution that kickstarted the climate crisis was powered by exploiting the working classes, and people from poorer nations. The green industrial revolution must be a just transition for all.
Electric vehicles are definitely part of the solution, but they are not a panacea. Reducing emissions from transport is only one part of the challenge, but our interventions must be bold and broad. Any emission reduction plan should hold companies to account over their supply chains, devise a national strategy to increase grid capacity, and invest heavily in a public transport network fit for a net-zero climate positive Britain.