The Gillet Jaune protests in France started as protests against climate-related taxes on petrol. Photo: Koshu Kunii

It’s been a dramatic few weeks.  Climate Emergencies were declared by the Scottish, Welsh and UK parliaments last week (and the Irish Parliament this week) whilst, last Thursday, the government’s own Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published a report recommending the UK have a target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The last few weeks have also seen climate protests on the streets of London, whilst the visit from Greta Thunberg—the Swedish girl who sparked off global school-strikes—stimulated, at the very least, some warm words and commitments from our politicians.  I also loved David Attenborough’s programme which really described well what we are facing.

All this activity is raising my spirits.  The CCC report, for example, is surprisingly upbeat and positive.  You get a strong impression of a well-thought through plan that really can deliver.  And net-zero by 2050 is just about good enough to avoid the worst consequences of climate change (as long as everyone else does the same).  I’ve not been this optimistic about global warming in years. 

Hopefully our government will accept the CCC recommendations before the end of this year.  If they do, the UK really will be an international leader in tackling climate change.  Perhaps my fellow columnist at Marlborough News—MP Claire Perry, the Minister for Clean Energy!–could say a few cautious words about this in her June column although I appreciate that even the pages of Marlborough News are not the right place to announce government policy.

Last week also saw publication of a less widely publicised Government document—a consultation on how the UK will replace the European Union’s Emission Trading System (ETS) when (if?) we leave the EU.  You’re probably unaware of the ETS but it’s been operating since 2005 and it places a cap on the greenhouse gas emissions of our biggest polluters (e.g. electricity generating companies, steel makers and so on).  Importantly, this cap is reduced over time so that these large organisations are forced to reduce their emissions.

It’s not a bad way to do things but it does have one major flaw.  It only controls about 30% of the greenhouse gasses we put out.  The remaining emissions come from lots of small things (e.g. heating your home) and these cannot easily be controlled by an approach like ETS.  The government’s current answer to this problem is to introduce lots of regulations (e.g. a ban on petrol cars from 2040) but that has flaws too.  Apart from the fact that it generates lots of red-tape, it also relies upon a few (admittedly very clever) people in Whitehall to come up with all the necessary regulations, and they can’t think of everything.

There is another way.  We can tax all emissions.  It’s simple and it applies to the entire economy.  But taxes are not generally popular even for good causes like combating climate change.  We can see that just by looking at the continuing Gillet Jaune protests in France (which started as a protest against climate-related taxes on petrol) or the problems the UK government had with the “fuel price escalator” in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  Any such taxes have to be applied intelligently and I’ll talk about one possible solution in my next column.

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