Roger Manser – Net zero Needs a Ministry of Transition

The question is if a special ministry is needed to deal with the climate crisis or simply a competent political class free of corruption?

At work an active business journalist/editor, but now retired, and enjoying life as an environmental activist (and country walker)

I first saw Greta face to face in Katowice in late 2018 in a scrubby park. She was a meter or so away on the back of a small pick-up truck urging – in her exact English – the nearby UN climate summit to take serious action. Along the route of the ensuing demo, the police were also a meter or so apart, wearing military style uniforms and equipment, to ensure we did not commit any acts of hooliganism. The Polish government, banking on coal to provide its energy, was perhaps also using the strong police presence to distract the demonstrators from the lack of any domestic carbon reduction plan.

Fast forward a year or so, many of us are cooped up in our homes across the world. Today’s pandemic rode across the world on the back of globalized supply chains, advanced in the eighteenth century by the East India Company, whose imports of spices, tea and other “luxury” goods into Britain structured our habits and behaviour in many ways up to today. And just as we used the Empire to exploit the world, the Empire made us. We have inherited its overarching mental and physical structures, and now find it hard to dislodge them.

The Polish nationalist government – in some ways – was doing the same in Katowice – it had inherited coal from communism and opposed closing the mines, it said, to maintain jobs for the miners. That argument had not stopped another nationalist, Margaret Thatcher cutting coal subsidies to destroy the miners’ union and the coal industry in the early to mid-1980s, and herald an era of rampant free markets. This was a pivotal moment in British industrial history, as it was coal – along with the cotton and chemical imports from the East – which set the pattern of global economic growth, and which – along with other fossil fuels – has resulted in today’s high levels of atmospheric carbon.

Today, our governments are seeking – wherever possible – to avoid upsetting this resources-driven economy and its corporate structures. They are allowing us to shop “for essentials,” as defined both by colonialism and the linked post-war booms, fearing a consumer backlash. However governments also fear a major recession brought on by the significantly reduced economic activity. Globally, some say this could be as much as 5% or more, but as carbon emissions are already down, I believe the downturn – if humanely managed – should be seen as a springboard for major further reductions in greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Governments have been blinded by the horror of the pandemic to avoid taking more than very short term action, such as heavily subsidising jobs and wages, encouraging mutual aid and urging self-isolation, where appropriate. All this is vital. But immediate responses to other recent ruptures were typically turned into medium and then long term policies with unplanned consequences. The postscripts to both the bombing of the Twin Towers (2001) and the credit breakdown (2008) show this. The US war on the jihadists led to long term military meddling in the Middle East – in part to maintaining the flow of oil to the West, and shore up the profits to the large fossil fuel companies, irrespective of their greenhouse gas emissions. And similarly austerity, or the big squeeze, was extended to support the global finance industry. The cutbacks sought to maintain business as usual for London’s banks (again ignoring their contribution to climate change), but not for the mass of citizenry.

The world now faces several emergencies, driven by its linked environmental, societal and economic structures. So we could now ask how to gain from the (hopefully very short term) pandemic and its recessionary effects to achieve a zero carbon society and nature-rich Earth? To achieve the targets set by Paris in 2015 of keeping temperatures well below 20C, rich-world governments would have had to cut their countries’ carbon footprints by 10% a year. As they have to date failed, another approach is now necessary.

It is thus time to launch a ministry of transition. Just as some countries have bureaux of the past, a ministry of transition would help us achieve net zero. It could move government action from short to long term, examine different policy routes and their social/behavioural, economic and environmental implications. Futurology has always been an inexact art/science: but a transition ministry could develop longer term policies for cutting carbon and methane emissions (and strengthening carbon sinks) – from transport, power generation, homes, farms and other consumer and producer supply chains. It could operate nationally and locally.

The current pandemic, through its state interventions in the jobs market, and in the travel, health and education sectors would seem to have inadvertently spurred the transition. Some companies are already in lockdown and others, such as Dyson, are apparently changing their product lines. Falling oil (and in due course gas) prices may well bankrupt some fossil fuel producers.

The East India Company – in many ways – was the intangible ministry of transition of Britain in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It changed our behaviour. Now we should use the opportunity of the pandemic’s disruption to rethink consciously our inherited mental and physical structures. Britain has the Committee on Climate Change (and other countries have similar bodies), which usefully sets goals and policies to meet our carbon targets, but it has no teeth. It works mainly behind the scenes. Much of the work of the COP requires consensus and is not backed up legally. To meet net zero, Britain needs suitable laws, regulations and taxes (all aligned to Europe?); to strengthen our biodiversity we need nature recovery areas; and to give us a say in what is being changed we need strong local and national democratic accountability. A ministry of transition could set the signposts and lay down the routes, much as the UK Treasury does now, and other ministries could follow.

Fundamental to the ministry’s role would be the sector management of the economy, supporting some industries, such as renewable energy, and winding down others, such as airlines and petrol/diesel vehicles. Many governments internationally are already intervening in such ways, spending large sums here and there to support or not particular sectors. Previously I used the term V or variable growth for this transition; others have used the more drastic term of degrowth. Ensuring sufficient well paid work for those who want it could be through either a tax-funded basic income and/or the provision for universal basic services, but the overall objective would be cutting carbon now.

British MPs introduced into Parliament a decarbonisation and economic strategy bill in late 2019. It envisaged a Green New Deal Commission to prepare a strategy to decarbonise the UK economy and eradicate inequality. It foresaw “a ten year economic and public investment strategy that prioritises decarbonisation, community- and employee-led transition from high carbon to low and zero carbon industry…” and required regular reports by the Government on its adherence to this strategy. In addition, it sought to establish high environmental standards for air, water and green spaces, as well as protect and restore natural habitats. Needless to say, it made no progress in the House of Commons.

Other green new deals have been proposed over the last decade or so. They too mostly focus on decarbonisation and inequality through a transition to new skills and quality wages. They visualize that by investing in new products and services such as home insulation and electric vehicles, they will achieve a full employment low carbon economy. These proposals are definitely welcome, but I believe they don’t go far enough. They would for example require the carbon intensive mining and refining of metals and other materials for vehicle battery materials and light weight car bodies, but fail to tackle the issue of sustainable mobility. They would require a halt to North Sea and Scottish oil and gas production and associated chemicals, but say little about how and where those working there would live in a changed world.

In the 1700s and 1800s, British society slowly absorbed the consequences of building an Empire. On the one hand, it was a haphazard and cruel transition with many killed as the slave trade took hold, and poverty wages left others unable to fight hunger and disease. On the other hand it set new patterns of behaviour, and hence new economic trends, such as tea drinking that we follow to this day.

This century has already seen the UK begin to wean itself of some of the material elements inherited from that time, and now should be the time to go further in a humanely managed way. Smoking tobacco is eventually in a managed decline; the coal fuelled industrial revolution and that too has been wound down, even if in a chaotic and inadequate way. Sugar is threatened and salt is under question. In some cases, a government-led industry-managed circular economy might provide a way forward for cotton or steel. Scrap steel, for example is already, recycled by the market a number of times and much more could be done. Today’s policies are too often ill-prepared and excessively piecemeal; to be effective, a state-led transition needs to be planned and implemented.

But it also needs resilience and democratic strength to fight vested interests. The annual UN top-down summits have made some, but insufficient headway to curtail worldwide emissions and look unlikely to do so in the near term. Over the last year or so, Greta’s Fridays for the Future school strikes, together with XR have moved the Overton window so that most Europeans now believe we need to make changes in our lifestyles and government policies to combat climate disaster. This is the real turning point we cannot afford to miss. With them as bottom-up catalysts for change, working alongside national and local ministries of transition or similar entities, we could well succeed in reaching planetary net zero within the next 10-20 years. 

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