UK Government's best-case scenario for British climate in 2050 is terrifying. Yet neither Rishi Sunak nor Keir Starmer dares to show leadership – Stewart McDonald

The UK is saddled with a Prime Minister who stated, as the Mediterranean burns on our doorstep, that he doesn’t want the green transition to be a ‘hassle’

The year is 2050. The number of private homes at risk of flooding has doubled in the last 25 years, while flood damage now costs the private sector upwards of £1 billion a year. Successive waves of drought and heavy rain have damaged farming land across the UK so greatly that a quarter of the land is deemed “low quality”, resulting in reduced yields and threatening the livelihoods of already struggling farmers. Temperatures regularly exceed 40C in summer, overheating offices and homes damage our health, well-being and productivity, and there is an ever-present risk that this heat – or some other extreme weather event – will knock out the National Grid.

This, according to the UK Government’s own climate risk modelling, is the best-case scenario for our future.

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This is how the country will look in 25 years if the UK Government were to invest more than £50bn a year – more than two per cent of our GDP – on funding the green transition: doing things like investing in renewable energy production, building sustainable and affordable public transport and insulating homes. (That’s half the cost of Brexit, according to estimates from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility.)

What’s more, the Climate Change Committee – the UK Government’s independent advisory group – estimates that the long-term benefits that households and businesses will see, such as lower heating bills and cheaper transport, will cancel out much of the upfront cost of the green transition. Overall, they estimate the net costs to be about 0.6 per cent of GDP a year – a quarter of the cost of Brexit. “A pretty good deal,” suggests Mike Thompson, the CCC’s chief economist. I can’t help but agree.

What does it say about the UK Government that it will gladly sacrifice four per cent of GDP for a navy-blue passport, yet it cannot bring itself to spend a quarter of that to invest in the productivity, health and survival of its citizens and meet the defining crisis of our lifetimes head-on? It is nothing short of criminal madness.

July 2023 was the hottest month in recorded history. With the planet visibly burning around us, we are now, noted the UN Secretary-General, in an “era of global boiling”. Yet in the UK, we are saddled with a Prime Minister whose “apathy in the face of the greatest challenge we have ever faced” prompted the recent resignation of his libertarian environment minister just a few months ago and who stated this week, as the Mediterranean burns on our doorstep, that he doesn’t want the green transition to be a “hassle”.

Statements like this will rightly be looked at in horror by the generations to come. Right now, people across the world are dying in climate-induced heatwaves and floods and the natural world is being wiped out before our eyes. The scale of the crisis is scarcely possible for us to comprehend, but Rishi Sunak appears desperate to give the impression that he can’t be bothered thinking about it because it seems like too much work.

Flood damage to homes and businesses is set to soar while successive waves of drought and heavy rain will devastate farmland (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)Flood damage to homes and businesses is set to soar while successive waves of drought and heavy rain will devastate farmland (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)
Flood damage to homes and businesses is set to soar while successive waves of drought and heavy rain will devastate farmland (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

And what of Keir Starmer, who might well inherit the keys to Downing Street at some point next year? His Labour party have already u-turned on their flagship Green Prosperity Plan – £28bn worth of measures that would have kick-started the green transition – and last week, after a narrow loss in the Uxbridge by-election, Starmer began to murmur about scrapping anti-pollution measures in London that were alleged to have cost them the vote in a seat his party has never even held. This sort of political weakness would be a catastrophe.

The transition to net zero will be momentous. It will change the way we live forever – for the better. But, like any home renovation, these improvements will come with a financial cost and temporary disruption. It is up to politicians to be honest about those costs, make the case for why they are so necessary, and ensure that the burden of bearing them does not fall disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Instead, neither Starmer nor Sunak dares to lead on this issue. Both Westminster parties have shown they are more interested in winning power than wielding it.

No one is asking them to reinvent the wheel on this. Washington and Brussels have both shown that they recognise the scale of the challenge and that they are willing to rise to meet it. While the UK cannot match their ambition in financial terms, their legislative responses could nonetheless serve as a font of inspiration for a future UK Government.

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In the US, President Joe Biden’s Chips Act and Inflation Reduction Act together represent almost $800bn in new government spending. Taken along with his Infrastructure Act, the Biden administration has tripled the US Government’s spending on climate change and pushed the United States deficit to levels not seen since the Second World War. That is how grave this challenge is – and the scale of investment needed.

This process should have begun years ago. The Conservative party should have taken advantage of freakishly low-interest rates in the wake of the financial crash and borrowed to invest in this country’s future and public realm. The simple fact is that they didn’t. The simple fact is that every successive Conservative Prime Minister has dug the United Kingdom into a deeper hole than the last. And much as they might like that not to be the case, Sunak’s successor cannot change this.

While the UK’s economic forecast may be dire, the effects of not acting urgently and decisively to tackle our carbon emissions now will mean that the worst is yet to come. It will mean that inevitable future efforts will cost more and be less effective, and it will doom future generations to climate misery. It is the greatest imperative of our lifetimes.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



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