Imagine if Britain shifted gears on climate action. If we decided to produce zero carbon emissions by 2030 instead of 2050; seriously got going on a meat tax or air travel levies; radically reversed the vast decline in tree planting; or maybe, you know, just not made climate protests illegal?
But it still wouldn’t be enough. Even if the UK became net zero tomorrow, emissions across the planet would still rise. Either the whole world plays ball, or it’s polar ice cap soup for everyone.
That’s why it’s so crucial that rich countries prioritise climate policy both at home and abroad — and do everything humanly possible to urgently bring global carbon emissions down.
But while many activists argue that large swathes of UK climate policy abroad does more harm than good, there's at least one government department that is putting its green foot first.
Over the last nine years, the Department for International Development (DfID) has used UK aid — the UK's only budget committed to achieving the UN’s Global Goals to end extreme poverty by tackling its root causes, including the climate crisis — to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 31 million tonnes.
To put that into context, that’s the equivalent of taking 6.7 million cars off the road for a year — more than double the number of vehicles licensed in Scotland.
The results have come from investments made by UK International Climate Finance (ICF), partly funded by UK aid to tackle poverty by supporting countries dealing with the consequences of the climate crisis.
From 2011/12 to 2019/20, ICF has supported 66 million people worldwide to cope with the effects of climate change, provided 33 million people with improved access to clean energy, and installed 2,000 megawatts of clean energy capacity, according to its own reporting.
What’s more, it’s leveraged £2.2 billion of private finance to fight climate change — and saved 270,000 hectares of forest in Indonesia.
“As the world starts to recover from coronavirus, we have a unique opportunity to help the poorest countries build back greener from this devastating pandemic and become more resilient to the impacts of climate change,” said Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the UK's international development secretary.
“UK aid is fighting climate change while lifting people out of poverty,” she added.
#UKaid has helped 66 million people deal with the effects of climate change, provided 33 million with improved access to clean energy and avoided 31 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.— DFID (@DFID_UK) August 19, 2020
That’s equivalent to 6.7 million cars off the road for a year: https://t.co/pKJcYHQGbMpic.twitter.com/TcWG59YPZv
But although the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) — an independent public body that helps the UK prepare for climate change — has reported that Britain’s emissions fell by 28% from 2008 to 2018, it released a report in June that warned that the UK failed on 14 out of 21 indicators of progress, while just two of 31 key policy milestones were met in the last year.
And when you count UK influence across the world from government departments other than DfID, billions of pounds have been invested in fossil fuel projects abroad.
Specifically, projects funded by UK Export Finance (UKEF), an agency within the Department for International Trade, will reportedly emit an additional 69 million tonnes of carbon a year by completion — more than double that removed in the last decade by UK aid programmes.
It presents a stark contradiction as the UK prepares for Glasgow to host the COP26 climate summit in 2021, the most significant gathering of world leaders on the issue since the pivotal 2015 Paris Agreement.
The conference was set to be the largest summit the UK had ever hosted before it was postponed to next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — with over 36,000 delegates likely to attend, according to the Cabinet Office, including 200 world leaders.
And as Boris Johnson prepares to scrap DfID as part of a controversial merger with the Foreign Office in September — a move that could reduce the effectiveness and transparency of UK aid, compromising the support it offers to the world’s poorest people — there have been concerns among green campaigners that the herculean administrative task might distract from the reason the UK decided to host COP26 in the first place: to convince nations to do more to reduce their emissions.
In addition, activists have warned that the merger might make aid projects a “bargaining chip” in international negotiations, according to Business Green, and deprioritise investment in green energy projects.
So while UK aid has been doing some truly astonishing good, it’s arguably not enough.
It’s safe to say that an aid budget focused on the poorest countries, especially communities most vulnerable to the climate crisis, and set aside from Britain’s political or diplomatic goals, might go some way to cementing the UK's reputation as a world leader on climate action.
Two thousand years of global temperatures in twenty seconds pic.twitter.com/zHArHtRnoi— James Veitch (@veitchtweets) August 19, 2020