As the winter solstice and the season of Yule approach, bloggers like me start to peer into the murky waters of the future and try to make predictions for the year ahead, so here are mine for 2020 (and beyond).
To start with, as per my predictions this time last year, we live in an unstable world at which anything could happen at any time to upset the status quo. It would only take one mentally unstable head of state to start lobbing missiles at another, and to be honest, I don’t have any particular head of state in mind because there are too many potential candidates in the field. Just choose your least favourite deranged head of state and let your imagination do the rest.
But assuming that doesn’t happen in the next 12 months, we can get some insight into the way things are going by looking at the outcome of the British general election which took place on 12 November this year. As you may know, the result was a landslide victory for the Conservative Party, a crushing defeat for the Labour Party, and significant gains for the Scottish National Party. For overseas readers, the Conservative and Labour parties are somewhat similar to the Republican and Democratic parties in the USA, respectively.
The election was overshadowed by the Brexit debate (Britain’s exit from the EU) which has been rumbling on for over three years and resulted in political gridlock. The Conservatives promised to “get Brexit done”, the Scottish Nationalists were opposed to it, and Labour sat on the fence and said they would hold another referendum. However, there were other issues exercising the minds of the voters apart from Brexit, which I will discuss below.
If you live in the United States, or Canada, or Australia, you may be thinking “what relevance is the British general election to me?” but you will probably find, when your election time comes around, that your politicians are grappling with, or attempting to evade, the same issues. I’m going to categorise those issues in terms of the three E’s: Energy, Economy and the Environment.
I’m going to lay out the election manifestos of the three parties I’ve just mentioned on the table like a pack of Tarot cards and see what we can divine about what the voters liked or didn’t like about them. There is surprisingly little difference between the parties’ energy policies. All three parties promised to improve the energy efficiency of homes and transition away from fossil fuel energy and towards “clean” or renewable energy. What was largely dodged by all three parties is how fast this would happen, and what sacrifices would need to be made. The Conservatives pledged to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, Labour and the Scottish Nationalists by 2040, with the Scottish Nationalists adding an additional interim target of a 75% reduction by 2030. These targets are all comfortably far off in the future: even the closest one (2030) will be at least two more General Elections away, and by the furthest one (2050) most of the politicians elected this month will be retired or dead. If the targets aren’t met, there are lots of opportunities for deflecting the blame onto someone else. What was left unsaid by all three parties was how much they are going to reduce carbon emissions in the next 12 months, or by the end of the 5 year life of this parliament, because that would be too easily measurable and accountable. Taking the least ambitious target (net zero carbon emissions by 2050), a back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests that we would have to reduce them by an average of 3-4% per year, starting now. So can we expect to see a 3% reduction by the end of 2020, or a 16% reduction during the 5-year term of this parliament? Nobody wants to say.
Also, net zero carbon emissions would mean either zero air travel, or sequestering 100% of the carbon emitted by aeroplanes. At the moment we have neither electric aeroplanes nor the capability of sequestering that much carbon. A search for the phrases “air transport” and “air travel” reveal that neither of these phrases are mentioned in any of the manifestos.
So do I think these promises of “zero carbon” and “clean energy” will be met? In a word, no, although the Scottish Nationalists are walking the walk to some extent: Scotland already has hundreds of wind turbines and is continuing to build more.
Both politicians and voters seem to be functionally illiterate when it comes to the economy. The Conservative manifesto mentions the word “growth” 21 times, as in “we will deliver economic growth, not just through the 2020s, but for decades to come.” (page 7). The SNP manifesto makes frequent reference to “sustainable growth” and also promises to grow the Scottish population. However, the Labour manifesto is surprisingly muted, mentioning “growth” only twice. The voters fell for the “growth” narrative hook line and sinker, and punished Labour for not promising it.
Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible, so the Conservative promise of perpetual economic growth cannot, and will not, be kept. Nor is “sustainable growth” possible; in fact it’s an oxymoron (two contradictory terms appearing together). Something which is growing is not sustainable, because eventually it will run out of resources and stop growing. The only kind of growth which is sustainable is cyclical or regenerative growth, like a forest, where as new trees grow, old trees are decaying and dying at the same rate and forming the raw material for new trees, so the whole system is in balance. However, that is absolutely not what politicians mean when they talk about “sustainable growth”.
What is actually going to happen to us, whether we like it or not, is de-growth or contraction. The planet can’t support any more growth in the traditional 19th and 20th century model, and can’t even support our present level of consumption. Nobody who wants to get elected is talking about that.
With growing public awareness of climate change, no political party can avoid talking about the environment; however, what they are actually going to do about it is another matter. The Conservatives express vague aspirations to “lead the world in tackling climate change”, which they plan to do mainly by achieving the target of zero carbon emissions by 2050, which as I have already said, is probably not going to be achieved, and by planting 75,000 acres of trees a year. Labour plans a “Green Industrial Revolution” and will instruct the Committee on Climate Change to recommend policies (hang on, I thought your manifesto was where you were supposed to recommend policies…?), and plant a total of 1 million trees. The SNP accepts that there is a “climate emergency”, makes frequent references to it throughout the manifesto, and promises to plant 60 million trees a year.
There’s nothing wrong with planting trees, and it’s nice to see all the parties trying to outdo each other with their tree planting promises, but it’s difficult to see on what land they would plant these trees, because Britain is a crowded island and nearly all land is already being used for something. If fossil fuels become scarcer and more expensive in the future, we will need to move to a less intensive and more localised farming system to produce our food, which will require more land, which will compete with the land needed for tree planting. Also, if we are planning to grow the economy and the population, we will need more land for roads, houses, shops, schools, factories, mines and so on.
In conclusion, I don’t think any of the parties are being honest with the public about where the future is taking us or what needs to be done. So for the next five years it’s likely to be business as usual as we speed ever closer to the cliff edge.
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin