XR challenges government climate change adviser over net zero ambitions

On Wednesday evening, senior figures from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and Extinction Rebellion (XR) went head to head on whether the UK should decarbonise sooner than 2050.

Climate scientist professor Corinne le Quéré, a member of the CCC and chair of its French equivalent said, “I hope we can get in position to strengthen the target” of reaching net zero within three decades.

The debate was held at the University of East Anglia, where her opponent Dr Rupert Read, one of the UK’s foremost philosophers, founding chair of the Green House thinktank and a spokesperson for XR, is also based. He backed full and urgent decarbonisation, arguing that the legal target is unsafe.

But, given the huge amount of work that needs to be done to reach net zero, 2050 is the date is “a reasonable date” said le Quéré. Its costs must also be distributed fairly, she added, noting violent blowback in France from raising tax on diesel fuel.

The government must also draw up a more detailed plan for net zero “as soon as possible – but no sooner than that,” she said.

Speaking in support of XR’s target, Read asked: “Is 2025 achievable? Is 2050 sufficiently ambitious?”

On the second question, his answer was “unfortunately not” as it implies a greater than 50% chance of exceeding a broadly tolerable 1.5°C of warming. As a 2050 target means making the climate emergency worse for 31 years, “I don’t believe that is a great way to stay safe,” Read said.

But, in le Quéré’s view, “safe is a very loaded word” and “a judgment matter. For that reason, it is not scientists who decide” on carbon targets, but politicians.

Discussing the feasibility of the 2025 goal, often derided as impossible, he said it “depended on which end of the telescope you look”.

His opponent’s approach looks at how we can preserve a modern way of life, he claimed, “but it’s not safe, if you… want to bequeath a living planet to our children and grandchildren.”

She replied that “I do recognise the desire” to strengthen the target, noting that an audience poll found broad support for more stretching goals..

In common with the CCC's collective view, Le Quéré said international aviation and shipping should be included within carbon budgets. They are being covered by international mechanisms, though these are “much weaker than what the UK is prepared to do”, she stated.

She was more bullish about reforestation, describing bioenergy CCS (BECCS) as “particularly promising” technology. Considering that the UK is “not necessarily the best place to plant trees”, it may be acceptable to use of international carbon credits derived from afforestation elsewhere, the professor argued. However, “the target is not really credible if we don’t try to do it here,” she added.

Read replied that he was “very sceptical” about BECCS and that a number of studies questioned it. But the issue that concerns him most is the creation of climate-vulnerable and ecologically problematic monocultures, “for the sake of being able to keep emitting in ways that are unsafe.”

He also laid into the expansion of the aviation sector, arguing that, in a climate emergency, aircraft should be kept for emergencies, such as mountain rescue and transporting human organs.

While he conceded that his views may sound extreme, “the realistic thing to do is to demand what seems to be impossible and make it possible,” he said.

But the two did agree that society has not recognised the necessity of urgent change. “2050 is the end target. It is not the date where we start… we start now! Today!” said le Quéré.

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