‘We are going to do this but it’s not going to be easy’, says Lord Deben

The Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change says critics and deniers are in the minority and claims we can take the public with us to net zero by 2050

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Lord Deben is sprightly and personable. At 80 he is full of vigour and enthusiasm, confident even, that his dream of a cleaner future is within reach.

In a wide-ranging interview, he tells me the net zero target by 2050 is not pie in the sky but a reasonable aim that we as a society, can achieve but not without hardship.

“For the majority, they see this as a moderate, sensible, deliverable, difficult product. We are going to do this and we are going to achieve it but it’s not going to be easy. But it’s really possible.”

Mrs Thatcher’s former Environment Minister has been Chair of the Committee on Climate Change for more than a decade but nothing has thrust him into the spotlight more than last summer’s declaration by the government, to set the net zero target in statute.

But why now?

Why was it right at this time for politicians to get the right brains in the room, to set a bold vision which will have huge economic and practical repercussions for decades to come? Lord Deben’s answer is clear, because business has finally cottoned onto the realities of climate change and its effect on our lives.

He said: “I think it’s a different world, in particular the finance industry has changed and begun to understand that if it wants to be here in ten years’ time, it’s got to get this right.”

He added: “Because if we waste our resources and don’t provide for the effects of what we do, then the costs will be enormous. The cost will not just be felt by the community but also the individual companies, so yes they have changed.”

There has been a lot of criticism of the target from both sides of the debate. Most climate activists say it doesn’t go far enough or fast enough. While others believe it’s unobtainable given the scale of the changes we must make in just 30 years. Let alone the huge cost implications.

Lord Deben is measured in his response, aware of the path his committee has had to tread: “There is always the battle with people who would prefer not to know. That’s what the remains of the deniers now are, they would rather it all went away. And then of course there are these absolutists on the other side, who say we are not moving fast enough.

“We had to produce something that was scientifically correct, that was credible. We were not going to produce a report that said huge changes in lifestyle, could take place in a certain way. And the second thing we were insistent upon, was that we didn’t want to bring into the equation, new technologies about which we knew not enough.”

The target is set to cost us between 0.5 and 2% of GDP yearly and Lord Deben believes this is costed reasonably. He also believes slowly nudging behavioural change will pay greatest dividends rather than forcing wide-scale change.

“So, we said yes, we can meet net zero using the current technologies and not expecting a huge change in public behaviour, though we should expect some change.

“For example, it would not be unreasonable to say there would be a 20% reduction in the amount of meat we would eat. The public are already heading in that direction, so a bit of nudge in that direction is a reasonable thing to do.”

“We will only do this if the nation does it, if the world does it. So, you’ve got to make sure it is do-able.”

When I ask about the climate protests we saw all last year he says a level of reality is missing from their argument, a lack of recognition that we have moved a long way though we still have a far longer path to tread.

“I think there is a great reluctance in many of the campaigners to say thank you and be grateful for the things that are done. I think that’s very silly of them, because it doesn’t encourage people to do more.

Extinction Rebellion

“I think extinction rebellion has been good, because what it has done is to remind people of the one thing which we still have not got, which is urgency. They have no answers but that’s not what their job is.

“Their job is to say, ‘you cannot go on like this’. And tomorrow is crucial, we have to be doing it now and I think Greta and Extinction Rebellion are constantly pressing for the urgency that we need.”

However he adds there must be a way to keep public trust in the end goal: “But you must not then say, we will do it by a date you know you can’t.

“I am very concerned that we have people who are turned off the whole thing because they are not told the truth.

Truth matters

“If you’re truthful, you will not be entirely favoured by those who don’t want to know and by those who don’t want to understand how difficult it is. And we ought to be somewhere in between those.

“That doesn’t mean to say you’re being led astray by politicians. It means you are doing your job which is to enable politicians to deliver.”

As we end that is clearly what keeps this 80 year old energised: “That’s what I have got to do. I’ve got to enable politicians of all political parties to deliver net zero by 2050.

“If I do that. I’ve done something really worthwhile.”