In tackling the cost-of-living crisis, Liz Truss is adding fuel to the climate crisis
New British Prime Minister Liz Truss walks outside Number 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain September 7, 2022. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Britain’s new Prime Minister needs to keep in mind that boosting fossil fuel use now sets the country up for worse crises soon.
Richard Beardsworth is a professor of international relations at the University of Leeds, and Dhanush Dinesh is founder of Clim-Eat.
It’s a busy time for the UK’s new Prime Minister, Liz Truss.
As well as marking the passing of Queen Elizabeth II and welcoming King Charles III to the throne, she must also navigate two simultaneous crises.
The first is the cost-of-living crisis. This is a “fast” crisis that arose with little warning, driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its effect on fuel prices. It quickly hit Brits where it hurts the most – in their pockets.
The second is a “slow” crisis: climate change. This is more insidious, its effects unfolding over decades.
But unlike the cost-of-living crisis, this one comes as no surprise; scientists have been warning about it for years. By way of a reminder, the UK’s record-breaking summer temperatures were credibly attributed to humanity’s impact on the Earth’s climate.
So far, Prime Minister Truss has focused on tackling the “fast” crisis. Talk has been of securing oil and gas supplies from friendlier nations and ending the moratorium on fracking in England. There was also swift action to cap household fuel bills.
But in the scramble for solutions, Prime Minister Truss needs to keep in mind a vital point: continued use of fossil fuels will aggravate climate change, storing up more crises for the future.
We need a plan for that too.
As it happens, we have one.
Less than a year ago the UK government announced the Breakthrough Agenda, when it hosted the UN’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.
The clean technology plan committed the UK as part of a coalition of 45 world leaders to transform key economic sectors and make them more environmentally friendly, from power to transport to agriculture.
So, how’s that going?
Well, a progress report released this week makes for sobering reading: we are off track. Not enough is being done to limit global greenhouse gas emissions, and a “collaboration gap” between governments threatens to delay achieving net-zero not just by years but decades.
The report calls for coalition countries to present urgent plans for ways to move forward at COP27 in November.
This call applies equally to Prime Minister Truss and her government as to the others. But there’s one big, nagging concern: having only just taken up her new post as the UK’s premier, and with the cost-of-living crisis front and centre, there is a real danger that acting on the Glasgow commitments could fall between the cracks.
Trumped by more urgent tasks, they could end up a legacy of the Johnson administration and fade, quietly, into obscurity.
This would be a grave mistake.
If the fast crisis has taught us anything, it’s the importance of thinking long term, and aligning - as far as possible - solutions to short and long-term needs.
The fast crisis took root many years ago. If the UK had doubled, or tripled, its investments in renewable energy decades earlier, could it have avoided its need for Russian energy today? What if it had invested in transforming and localising its food systems too - could this have dampened some of the food-price inflation we’re currently seeing?
Upholding the Glasgow commitments is therefore an opportunity for the Truss administration to learn from the past and say, ‘we should have acted sooner to end our reliance on Russian energy, but we can act now on climate change’.
The problem, of course, is that responding to climate change is a multi-generational challenge that is likely to involve short-term pain in order to achieve long-term gain. Only the bravest - or most enlightened - of politicians would play such a high-stakes game with their party’s popularity and their own careers.
That’s why we must all now call on Prime Minister Truss to step up and reaffirm her commitment to the Breakthrough Agenda and demonstrate climate leadership.
Doing so is not just a test of her character as a politician at home and stateswoman on the international stage, but also a test of whether she truly appreciates this simple fact: slow crises are often just fast crises in the making.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.