How Extinction Rebellion might spur action on climate change in the UK

Britain can lead on cutting greenhouse gas emissions but developing carbon reduction systems would be more productive

Climate activists from the Extinction Rebellion group march along Whitehall towards the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K., on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. The demonstrators are demanding that the U.K. acknowledge the "crisis" posed by global warming, enact legally binding policies to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2025, and form a citizens assembly to oversee changes. Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Their protests are eye-catching, important and dangerous.

Over the past fortnight, a 1,000 Extinction Rebellion activists were arrested in London. They glued themselves to pavements outside Shell’s office and the stock exchange, and highlighted a “sixth mass extinction” by lying under a blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum.

This is just part of an upsurge of climate action. Extinction Rebellion protested in New York two weeks ago. Last month, British schoolchildren went on strike and marched through London and other cities. Greta Thunberg, 16, a Swedish campaigner, addressed both the rallies and parliament. David Attenborough, doyen of television naturalists, has launched a new documentary on climate change.

Extinction Rebellion wants the British government to bring net greenhouse gas emissions to zero and halt biodiversity loss by 2025, and to convene “citizens’ assemblies”, bringing together randomly-selected groups of people to hear from experts, debate and agree recommendations.

The 2025 goal highlights how far the UK has come, yet how far it still has to go. It has decarbonised faster than any other major economy, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 3.3 per cent each year since 2006, more than three times the rate of supposed environmental champion, coal-addicted Germany. Only windy Denmark and woody Finland did better.

Earlier this month, the UK went almost four days without generating any electricity from coal, the longest stretch since the Industrial Revolution. This has been done mostly with a huge rise in wind, solar and biomass power, and a 10 per cent drop in electricity use with greater efficiency.

Most of the easy work has been done. Future cuts have to be deeper, faster and more difficult. Reaching net zero by 2025 would require reducing emissions twice as fast as in the great recession, every year. If not replaced by non-carbon energy, this would be an annual economic contraction equivalent to Venezuela’s.

Almost half of the electricity generated last year was still from fossil fuels. Solar and wind are forging ahead but nuclear power plants take years to build and the large-scale electricity storage to meet demand at night or in a long winter cold snap is still absent.

Nine-tenths of the UK's 25 million homes are heated by gas or oil. Of 35 million cars on UK's roads, about 212,000 were electric last year, the most in Europe after Norway, but still less than 1 per cent. The UK produces significant amounts of steel, cement and chemicals for which no zero-carbon commercial process exists.

All this would have to be replaced at a time when every other major country would be doing the same if the programme is to have any use. The miners of cobalt, lithium, graphite and nickel for batteries, the makers of wind turbines and solar panels, would be stretched beyond breaking point.

But pointing out the scheme's impossibility does not absolve critics of the responsibility to offer an alternative. The governing Conservative party and the right-wing press remains in the grip of the same climate-denying charlatans who brought Brexit, itself a major distraction from climate change and socio-economic stagnation. For them, flashy rhetoric and cheap debating points trump decades of study of physics, meteorology, biology or geology.

Will Extinction Rebellion’s bold actions be the catalyst for a shift in political alignment? They have raised the visibility and urgency of the issue. In the UK and also the US, the reaction against empty populism may give space for fresh ideas, even new parties or at least groupings.

But action on climate change is not like the suffragettes’ call for votes for women, or the 1960s civil rights movement. It is not a social change that can be granted and then become part of the political furniture, with benefits to many and no real inconvenience to the others. It will be a continuous and fundamental reshaping of the economy, of technologies, lifestyles and international relations.

Disruption is unavoidable and has to be minimised, but will trigger backlash. Calls for nationalisation, climate justice and anti-capitalism, and idolisation of fossilised 1970s Marxist, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, repel those on the political right who are nevertheless worried about conservative issues such as the destruction of the natural world and new threats to national security.

For winning over the general public, the problem is that by 2025, not much climatically will have changed for the UK’s inhabitants. It will be warmer, there may be winter freezes and summer droughts and heatwaves, but these are things the British will cope with. The melting Arctic ice, desertification, intense hurricanes, crop failures, floods, wildfires are things that will happen to other people, including future generations of Britons.

If there are new waves of refugees linked to conflicts worsened by climate, the causation will seem distant, and politicians will blame culture, religion, socialism, imperialism, globalisation, neo-liberalism or some other cause not their fault. It will be an excuse to put up further walls. And the 2025 target will seem hysterical, passing as other warnings that we must “solve” climate change or start reducing emissions by a certain date have passed.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions continue shifting to the Asian giants. The UK needs to cut its own emissions but, more than that, it needs to harness its entrepreneurial and scientific talent to create low-carbon solutions that everyone can use. Inventing a new solar panel, a new battery, should be more inspiring than gluing one’s semi-naked body to parliament’s viewing chamber.

The UK has often led revolutions in global political thought, from the 18th century liberals to 1980s free-marketers. Its record on climate change is very inadequate, yet better than almost everyone else.

Now, business people, government, academics and civil society need to respond to the demands of Extinction Rebellion with a new framework that obeys simultaneously the laws of physics, economics and politics.

Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis