The fight of our lives

Asad Rehman talks to Ashish Ghadiali about why, across the political spectrum, Zero Carbon 2030 must become the rallying cry in GE2019.

November 18, 2019 · 16 min read
Aerial image of the Amazon burning in Altamira, state of Pará, Brazil. Photo by Victor Moriyama (Greenpeace) used with permission.

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Ashish Ghadiali: In terms of human and ecological consequence what’s the difference right now between the political promises of Net Zero 2030, Net Zero 2045, and Net Zero 2050?

Asad Rehman: We’re currently seeing all kinds of signs of the violence of climate change at one degree. Millions of people are losing their lives, homes and livelihoods. We’ve seen the Amazon burning. We’ve seen the Arctic ice melting. We see coral reef bleaching, and we’ve seen super-charged hurricanes and cyclones off the scale in severity and impact. We’ve seen killer floods, droughts and famines occurring in every corner of the world. In Pakistan heat-waves of 53.5 degrees are being recorded. Chennai, the fifth biggest city in India ran out of water this summer. A million people are currently on the brink of starvation in Mozambique, whilst the Caribbean islands of the Bahamas, Dominica and Puerto Rico are in ruins. Indigenous lives are under threat in Latin America from deforestation, forest fires and land grabs, whilst sub-Saharan Africa faces yet another drought that is impacting on food production. The reality is that millions of people are being impacted by climate change and that’s all at one degree.

If it was doing its fair share, the UK would be at -200 per cent emission reduction by 2030.

Climate scientists have warned us that breaching the critical 1.5 degrees will lead to even greater numbers of people being impacted by the violence of climate change and the possibility of triggering run-away climate change. It’s important to note that we still don’t fully understand all the sensitivities of the earth’s systems and what raising temperature levels can trigger. We were once told that the impacts we are witnessing around the world would only occur if temperatures breached the two degree celsius guardrail. We do however know that the devastation will be manifestly more profound than what we’re dealing with at the moment.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has said that the climate impacts of breaching 1.5 degrees will undo the last 50 years of development. His report sets out that it will lead to an economic catastrophe, and the result will be ‘climate apartheid’ where the wealthy will pay to escape hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer. The scenario of breaching 1.5 degrees for the Global South is profound and devastating. We are talking about major cities from Shanghai to Bangkok to Mumbai and Ho Chi Minh City being subjected to extreme floods. We are talking about profound changes to the world and to the lives of millions and millions of people, mainly the poorest in the world.

A flooded road in Nakhon Si Thammarat after tropical storm Pabuk lashed the province on 4 January 2019. Thailand is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events, which have increased in number and severity since the 1970s. Photo by Chanklang Kanthong (Greenpeace) used with permission.

It’s also important to note that when we talk about one, 1.5, two degrees – these are average global temperature rises. For countries that are most impacted, those in the global South, the warming they will experience can be anything up to eight degrees hotter than the average global temperature.

The difference between us going from say, breaching 1.5 degrees to two degrees is that nearly three times as much of the global population will be exposed to severe heatwaves. So at 1.5 degrees, about fifteen percent of the world’s population will be exposed to severe heatwaves on the scale that we’re already seeing. At two degrees it’s close to 40 per cent. At 1.5 you’d have the Arctic Ocean free of summer ice about once every hundred years. By two degrees it’s once every ten years. It’s ten times worse. At 1.5 degrees, we lose between 70 and 90 per cent of all coral reef. By two degrees they’re nearly all lost. Coral reefs are an important part of the marine ecosystem and close to a billion people rely on fish as their main source of protein. You will see a rise in species lost, loss which is about double between 1.5 and two degrees. You’ll see an increase in sea-level rise. Ten million people more will be exposed. That half degree makes a huge amount of difference.

No right minded person would get onto a bus or train if they were told it has a 50/50 chance of crashing – yet that is the gamble we are taking with the climate.

Now, regarding the question about how much carbon budget there is left, The IPCC [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] has said there’s about 360 giga tonnes of carbon pollution left that you’re able to pump out if you want to keep well below 1.5. That’s about 8.5 years of carbon emissions at current rates. That gives us about a 50/50 chance of not breaching the 1.5 degree rise. So, in reality, we’ve not even got ten years to keep below 1.5. The reality is it’s actually closer to five years, if you want to be absolutely certain of keeping below the crucial 1.5 degree guardrail. But many people say ten years because ambitious actions on stopping deforestation and reforesting could increase the available carbon budget slightly. But, if operated on the precautionary principle, we have a 50/50 chance of not breaching 1.5 degrees if we go for ten years. No right minded person would get onto a bus or train if they were told it has a 50/50 chance of crashing – yet that is the gamble we are taking with the climate.

The UK, like other rich countries, has already polluted more than its fair share of the carbon budget. If the goal is for the world to be at zero carbon by 2050, setting a later date for the UK’s decarbonisation target means effectively taking that much more of the remaining budget from the poorest countries, which are also trying to deal with the impacts of poverty and inequality. This has been called carbon colonialism.

Another often ignored point is that even with the most ambitious 2030 decarbonisation target, the UK would still not be able to fulfil its own actual fair share of effort within its own borders. Other poorer countries will need to undertake these emissions reductions on behalf of the UK, supported by the UK providing finance and technology to enable them to do so.

In reality, if we delay action for about 20 years, which would be a target of Net Zero 2040, then it’s about a 66 per cent chance of keeping below two degrees. You go to 30 years, Net Zero by 2050, which is the UK government’s current position, then it’s just a 50/50 chance of keeping well below two degrees. Breaching 1.5 is really dangerous; breaching two degrees is simply catastrophic. Those years make a huge amount of difference as to the scale of impacts we’re about to see.

AG: Jeremy Corbyn, in the week of the Labour Party conference, told Andrew Marr that he wasn’t sure if Net Zero 2030 would be possible to achieve. Is it possible to achieve?

AR: This question is more about political will than what is technically possible.We need a rapid decarbonisation of our economy and if the UK was doing its fair share, the UK would be at -200 per cent emission reduction by 2030. As the fifth biggest historical polluter, with the fifth biggest economy that has grown wealthy from extraction of resources, that would be its fair share. It would therefore need not only to deliver its own domestic target but also provide billions to the Global South as part of its climate obligations. But the most critical part of all decarbonisation plans is that the decisions that take place in the coming decade are key. This is literally Decade Zero on climate.

Photo by Steve Eason

AG: In October, Extinction Rebellion were demanding Net Zero 2025, but have opted not to engage directly with this election. Do you have any comment on this strategy?

AR: The starting point must be to recognise that climate change is political. And taking action on climate change is itself a political decision. For that we need to have a vision, one that doesn’t shy away from recognising that this is a question about our political economy, and that the climate crisis is also a manifestation of a much bigger crisis. This requires demands that are intersectional and connect issues from migrant justice to trade justice . And it’s also about the transformative demands we make, what choices are made, and in whose interest. So all climate organisations should be holding all parties accountable for their policy proposals on the basis of the science and climate justice, and not prioritizing insider policy pragmatism.

It’s also about recognising that engaging in democracy is about building political power – building the power of our movements to shape the discourse, to align the political forces, and manifest that power in making demands of the political parties. So that the debate is grounded in what is needed, not what is politically possible. The role of all movements is to demand the impossible and then make the possible inevitable.

AG: In early November, major environmental charities including the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and your former employer, Friends of the Earth, made a joint statement advocating for Net Zero 2045. That suggests that you could be exaggerating the urgency of the 2030 target?

AR: Not at all. What we’re seeing in that letter is the classic clash, what I could say has been the mistake of the last 20 years of climate campaigning, to think in terms of only policy pragmatism and insider political advocacy: you think about where the government is, what is considered to be realistic and viable, so that you can incrementally move policy towards you. That’s firstly not telling the truth on the Climate Emergency, but it also fails to recognise the important role that Extinction Rebellion, Climate Strikers and countless climate justice organisations – many of which have been working for years to raise the ambition and centre the realities of the Global South – have had in driving forward not just ambition but also the ‘Overton window’ of what is deemed ‘pragmatically possible’ from a policy perspective. Less than six months ago, few would have said that climate would feature so strongly in the election. Quite rightly, there has been a lot of disquiet internally in all of those organisations and from their supporters and members about the intervention and its undermining of movement power.

It needs to be understood that rich developed countries like the UK have, for hundreds of years, benefitted from exploiting people and resources of the Global South. From slavery, colonialism, neoliberalism and climate change. This is how the UK has amassed huge wealth and created a world of deep inequalities and injustices. It’s now our moral, legal and political duty to tell the truth about the scale and speed of change needed.

The failure to do so raises profound questions about the role of civil society organisations in the Global North – our responsibility and our accountability. In the Global North, our first responsibility is ensuring we have a movement and that it is actually rooted in the realities and demands of the Global South. Prioritising what is acceptable within Westminster discourse at the expense of what either the science or justice requires is ultimately negotiating who lives and dies in this climate crisis.

This kind of policy pragmatism is only an option if you are not the ones who are dying or likely to be sacrificed in the interest of maintaining the current neoliberal economic model. If the people who signed that letter were living in the Global South and feeling the impacts of the Climate and Inequality Crisis on a daily basis, they would not be calling for Net Zero 2045. They would be saying throw the kitchen sink at it. Throw everything you possibly can at it to do this by 2030.

Photo by Steve Eason

AG: Should this be a Brexit election or a climate election?

AR: From a climate emergency point of view and reflecting the opinion polls that state a majority of the British public support a Net Zero 2030 goal and see climate as one of the most important if not the most important factor in determining how they vote, clarity around this question may prove decisive in the days and weeks to come.

Ultimately, the vote around Brexit is an expression of a much deeper, bigger crisis. It’s a crisis of our economy, of inequality and austerity, the rise of right-wing forces, and the shaping of a toxic and racist discourse against migrants. But all of those issues are also being played out, first and foremost in the climate crisis.

If we lose the next five years to climate inaction, it’s a death sentence to the poorest people in the Global South.

Our primary demand to political parties should be the climate emergency and how they can respond through a Global Green New Deal that tackles the climate crisis as well as existing social, racial and economic inequalities, rather than putting centre stage the question about remain or leave.

I would much rather there was an alignment around supporting the Green New Deal. Because that’s the most important thing. If we lose the next five years to climate inaction, it’s a death sentence to the poorest people in the Global South. We need our movement to force a cross party consensus around the need for a rapid decarbonisation, with every candidate being asked first and foremost where they stand on a Green New Deal, and a 2030 target.

AG: So what needs to happen between now and election day?

AR: I think the argument for why we need a rapid transformation of our economy, not just to decarbonise but also to tackle the economic inequalities in the world, needs to come front and centre. We need to be able to put forward a compelling vision of the society we are going to create, the economy we’re going to create, not just in this country but globally.

We’ve got the resources to do it. We’ve got the technologies to be able to do it. We simply lack the political will. This is the time when, on every single doorstep, we should be explaining to people why we need this transformation and why it will be good for people so that actually we’ll be creating a better society; a fairer, cleaner, and a happier society. That is our opportunity. There’s the potential to really create the social license for the kind of positive transformation that’s required right now.

AG: Isn’t it safer territory, in electoral terms, to focus on the issues that affect people in their daily lives – food banks, austerity, labour rights and the gig economy?

AR: No one lives single issue lives and no issue is isolated from other issues. Tackling austerity and tackling climate change are ultimately the same issue. Everybody has the right to a dignified life. Everybody should have the right to food and land, energy and water. These are fundamental human rights. We should have a living wage, access to income, public services – health, education, housing – universal public services, yes in this country, but also globally.

We should have an NHS. We should also have a health service globally. We should and must make real all the rights that were set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 71 years ago. We can do that. It is achievable. For example, the amount of finance that’s required to fund universal basic access to health care is only $100 per person. A small tax on the wealth of just 2,200 billionaires would be enough to finance that.

Solutions to climate change that are fair are also the solutions needed to tackle economic inequality.

We should be calling for the end of unfair global debt, which is choking countries in the Global South but also delivering unimaginable horrors to people in the Global North. We should be making our financial system and our trade work for people not for corporations and their profit. These are the same corporations that are polluting the planet. Our demands are people’s demands.

To create the finance for us to invest in either public services or green energy here, you have to fix things like tax havens and corporate tax evasion. These are the same ways that you then finance what needs to happen globally.

It’s a win-win situation. And that’s the amazing thing about climate change: while it’s the greatest injustice that those least responsible are the ones most impacted, fair solutions to climate change are also the exact solutions needed to tackle economic inequality.

Asad Rehman is a climate justice activist and co-conveyor of the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice, a founding member of Wretched of the Earth, and Executive Director of War on Want.

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