UK to Target 100% Zero Carbon Electricity by 2035. We Need to Go Even Faster.

This news is mildly encouraging and still inadequate sign.

Wind Turbines Erected Next To Europe's Biggest Coal Powered Power Station
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

In the United Kingdom, outright climate denial has mostly turned into climate delay these days. By that, I mean opponents of rigorous climate action no longer question whether the climate crisis exists. Instead, they question the price tag or feasibility of the measures proposed to address it. (Meanwhile largely ignoring the costs of the crisis itself.) Yet this less obvious type of opposition is no less damaging or deadly than actual denial, and it’s increasingly clear that it’s part of a coordinated, well-funded effort

If rumors in Britain’s The Times newspaper are true, however, British prime minister Boris Johnson will be using his party conference speech this week to push back against a small group of his Conservative Members of Parliament announcing, among other things, a new goal of a 100% renewables and nuclear electric grid by 2035. 

The only way I can describe this news is as a mildly encouraging and still inadequate sign. 

After all, Johnson’s recent private jet flight to a climate conference—coupled with his touting of far-off technological solutions rather than demand-side reductions in aviation—have caused many, myself included, to question whether he really grasps the level of commitment needed to tackle this crisis. This doubt was only exacerbated by his recent speech at the United Nations, which claimed that Kermit the Frog was wrong and that it’s easy being green. (It’s many things, but on a macro-political level, it certainly is not easy.)

While it’s good that Johnson is pushing back against those who would go even slower, it’s important to note that even this 2035 goal, unimaginable a few years ago, really should be accelerated further. Here’s Australian renewables expert Ketan Joshi’s take on the news: 

Still, the reason why Johnson’s speech will be likely welcomed as ambitious by many is not because it’s actually ambitious. It’s just that it’s less inadequate than the rest of the world. In the U.S., for example, president Joe Biden’s Build Back Better campaign—which Mary Anne Hitt argued so beautifully for recently—is likely getting whittled down further. (Some reports suggest a package about 2/3 of its original size is being discussed.) Here’s the thing though: As climate journalist Amy Westervelt noted on Twitter, the original $3.5 trillion over ten years price tag was already a mismatch compared to the work that actually needs to be done: 

We should, of course, be careful. Politics is and always has been a dance between what’s possible, what’s politically feasible, and what’s actually needed. And passing a $1.9 trillion "Build Back Better" package—as long as it retains its strong climate protection measures—is 1.9 trillion times better than sticking with a $3.5 trillion package that fails to pass. Yet we are also in a situation where the decades of delay have left us desperately needing bold, even heroic leadership. And that means we need to fight for the best possible outcomes. 

To quote Joshi again, “the ‘possible’ in ‘fast as possible’ changes depending whom you ask.” In his most excellent critique of Australian techno-optimists, he set out the task that really stands before all world leaders, and all influential decision-makers: 

“A gentle slope to reduce emissions may have been possible in the 1990s, but the hour is now late. There are only two choices: bloated delay and worsened climate impacts, or rapid action and lesser climate impacts. Our efforts now should go towards figuring out how to ensure that rapid action is fair, fast and furious.”

For sure, there will be times when we need to accept incremental wins. And incremental wins may sometimes be the thing that helps us reach tipping points that make further, faster progress feasible. 

But let’s please not get lulled into the idea that slow and steady wins the race. That ship has sailed a long time ago. Every time we fail to pass the measures that are actually needed to address this crisis, it means that the measures that will come further down the road will be more costly, more disruptive, and still result in more harm—and more death—that could have otherwise been avoided.