The UK needs an emergency climate budget now... and this is what should be in it

Donnachadh McCarthy
It is difficult to see Mr Javid taking the crisis sufficiently seriously to announce all of the necessary radical changes – and action is needed now: Getty

During the Second World War, the UK spent nearly 50 per cent of GDP on protecting against the threat posed by fascism. Today, despite parliament declaring an emergency, the British government is spending a miniscule 0.8 per cent of GDP on protecting our climate and environment.

Lord Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, described the climate and ecological emergency as greater than that posed by the two world wars and the Great Depression. And the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, declared in 2018 that we must start cutting fossil fuels radically by the end of 2020 to avoid an existential crisis.

The chancellor, Sajid Javid, declared last week that he would prioritise the environment in his March budget, but the Tories have already said they want to cut fuel duties and diverge from EU regulations, and implied they want to cut domestic aviation taxes.

So, it is not yet clear whether Javid wants to put environmental protection at the heart of his budget, or instead embark on an agenda of environmental destruction.

What is clear, however, is that science is telling us we need an emergency climate budget.

So, what should such a budget include?

Firstly, the chancellor should make all new fossil-fuel investments illegal and end all fossil-fuel subsidies. This should also be a key target for COP26, to be held in Glasgow in November.

This needs to be part of a global effort. Financial institutions and oil corporations are currently planning to invest £5 trillion in new fossil fuels; if they invested that money in renewables, they could eliminate carbon emissions from electricity production without raising taxes.

Tax subsidies for North Sea oil should instead be spent on allowing the solar and on-shore wind industries to bid for renewable support contracts again. Both industries shed thousands of jobs when the government banned them from applying.

The budget should change the mandate of the Oil and Gas Authority that was set up in 2015 to maximise fossil fuel exploitation. Its mandate should instead be to transition the industry to renewable energy, ensuring no workers or communities are left behind.

Most importantly, the chancellor needs to ban the opening of all new coal, oil and gas fields in the UK. The Woodhouse colliery disaster must be stopped, and the billions of UK foreign aid being invested in fossil fuel projects must be invested in renewables instead.

Then there’s transport. This is the UK’s largest source of carbon emissions, and yet the government has frozen fuel duties since 2011. By the end of the current budget forecast, it is expected to have cost more than £80bn – and while motoring got 14 per cent cheaper between 1980 and 2014, bus and rail fares more than doubled.

We need to return fuel duties to 2011 levels and invest them in slashing public-transport fares and investing in new capacity, especially in areas outside London. The ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars, currently scheduled for 2040, needs to be brought forward to April 2021.

It is crucial to remember that more than 70 per cent of all trips by road and rail are under five miles. Thus, we need to stop building new roads and instead invest the £30bn budget for new roads in the creation of a national cycleway network by 2025. This would equal the 20 per cent that the UN says we should be investing in active travel, such as walking and cycling.

The chancellor must start to tackle the wider problem of emissions from air travel. He must rule out all airport expansion, and cancel the proposed £3.5bn cut in domestic aviation duty following the near-collapse of Flybe.

Instead, he should introduce a Second World War-style carbon flight-rationing system that would initially target frequent flyers. More than 70 per cent of flights are taken by just 15 per cent of the population, while half of us do not take any flights in a given year.

Here, it’s worth bearing in mind that the UK has a large tourism deficit, as UK tourists spend £23bn more abroad than tourists to the UK spend here, so curbing the number of flights we take could actually be a boost to UK tourism.

The chancellor should also declare that the climate emergency is a security emergency. Britain’s food security and its shores, in a literal sense, are under an existential threat from the climate crisis. We should therefore prioritise it in the defence budget.

As things stand, the Ministry of Defence accounts for 40 per cent of all spending on government procurement contracts, and its procurement budget is £178bn over the next ten years.

Climate defence should be allocated £6bn per year from this budget, in order to make all of the UK’s housing stock energy efficient and fund the installation of renewable-energy systems. This would tackle the 19 per cent of emissions that comes just from heating buildings.

The estimated gross cost is £250bn, but Labour estimated that £190 billion of this would be recouped in energy savings. These savings would also cut the capital needed to make the UK’s energy grids zero carbon. The Tories cut the home energy efficiency programme from £1.5bn a year in 2012 to £680m in 2019; those cuts must be reversed.

The army and its engineers need to be deployed, as they are in Germany and China, to provide the labour and logistics needed to restore the UK’s decimated forests and wetlands. This must in turn be overseen by rewilding experts from the Woodland Trust or Trees for Life.

With Brexit, the government plans to redirect farm subsidies away from livestock rearing to environmental stewardship. This is good. Given that nearly 50 per cent of all UK agriculture emissions are from the beef and dairy industries, eliminating subsidies and encouraging people to switch to plant-based diets are essential.

Finally, but most importantly, the chancellor must introduce a ban on high-carbon advertising, followed by a climate and ecological levy on social media and tech corporations – including Facebook, Twitter and Amazon – to fund our local and national media. We will not succeed in getting society and governments to cut emissions radically as long as media advertising normalises high-carbon lifestyles and companies.

It is clear the UK can afford to switch to a positive zero-carbon economy. We cannot afford not to. As in the Second World War, if we wish to survive, we have no choice.

So Sajid: will you fulfil your duty to protect Britain by putting environmental protection at the heart of your climate and ecological emergency budget, or will you pursue environmental destruction?

The ball is in your court.