There’s a story about Margaret Thatcher in her late-80s pomp. One of her ministers realised that sea levels were going to rise and so the government needed to bump up spending on flood defences. He quickly convinced the Prime Minister, but not the rest of his cabinet colleagues, which was a problem because he needed the cabinet to agree before he could start the extra spending. Before the crucial meeting he rang Mrs Thatcher and told her he was nervous that most of them would oppose it, and that probably the two of them were the only ones who would be in favour. ‘I think,’ came the reply from the centre of power, ‘that that will be enough.’ And it was.
That minister’s name was John Selwyn Gummer, now known as Lord Deben. He’s still in the business of helping the government respond to climate change and plan ahead. He’s the chair of the Committee on Climate Change, set up by the government to help it set its carbon budgets, which plan how much greenhouse gas the nation will emit and how much climate change we’ll cause. Back in 2008 the Climate Change Act put into law that the UK would cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 – in other words, in 2050 we’ll burn only a fifth as much fossil fuel as we did in 1990.
That’s a visionary, long term commitment that will change how we do things in a huge number of ways, mostly requiring planning well ahead (like how we generate our electricity or fuel our cars). The way it gets put into action is a Carbon Budget to cover each five year period up to 2050. I can’t promise they’re very exciting to read, if I’m completely honest, but I can promise that getting them right and following through on them is very important.
In June the government are due to publish the Fifth Carbon Budget, which takes us from 2028 to 2032. It gives me a sudden rather surprising realisation that my children will be well into their 20s at this point, plus a nagging sense that I ought to be doing some personal planning further ahead than my normal couple of days. To help the government avoid experiencing similar feelings to me as they contemplate these years, Lord Deben and the Committee on Climate Change have recommended they set a target of reaching 61% cuts in our carbon emissions by 2032. For Scotland, they recommend the same 61% target, but two years earlier at 2030.
Hit those and we’re in with a chance of keeping climate change within levels we can cope with, and keeping the promises we and 200 countries made at the Paris Agreement last year. Miss it, and you know what’ll follow – more floods, more droughts, more disasters like Taiphoon Haiyan in the Philippines (pictured below), more people in poor communities round the world going hungry, more endangered species, and higher bills. This is a time when wise planning matters.
So I’m very much hoping to hear the government announce that they’re following in Margaret Thatcher’s footsteps and taking Lord Deben’s advice.