Skip to content
Infrastructure blog

Acting on the climate emergency – can we learn from Winston Churchill?

09 April 2024

Erik Dalhuijsen explains why it’s essential to have a relatable net zero vision and what this would look like.

Acting on the climate emergency – can we learn from Winston Churchill?
Developing a vision requires thought, focused on what you need to achieve. Image credit: Shutterstock

We’re all in an emergency, at the onset of several of the greatest existential crises humanity has ever seen, and we’re truly lost.

We’re late, too slow, doing the wrong things, and not even doing those things particularly well.

We seem to be missing an agreed common direction.

Thirty-five years ago, the climate problem was clear, but no direction for action was suggested.

Then in 2019 an emergency was declared in the UK, but again, no direction was either mentioned or chosen.

Today, with a rather clear and frightening understanding of the devastating effects that continued climate emissions will cause, we may still resolve this, but each year’s delay seriously reduces our chance of recovery.

Vision in an emergency is essential

Leadership starts with a shared vision: a target we can all see, recognise, and get behind.

Something stronger than prejudice, culture wars and myopic self-interest. Something Winston Churchill, who recognised an emergency when he saw one, understood clearly.

With his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of 4 June 1940, he left no doubt in anyone’s mind about the intended direction: the fight against oppression would be literally everywhere, until it was won.

No ifs, no buts, no wiggle room, no easy way out. Just a shared conviction on what had to be achieved.

In the far greater 'climate and environment emergency' we recognise today, our critical need is for something we can all rally behind.

Instead, we have 'net zero by 2050' which is neither goal nor vision: it’s open to interpretation, discussion, opinion, and not even universally accepted as necessary. That’s not good enough.

What does a vision need?

  • A vision needs to be desirable.

    'Net zero by 2050' isn’t imaginable, so cannot be desirable.

  • A vision needs to be visualised (who knew?).

    We have no idea what 'net zero by 2050' looks like. A fire? A field of potatoes? A cup of tea? And the time stamp helps nothing.

  • A vision needs to be relatable.

    Even if you can relate to an idea around 'net zero by 2050', such an idea will vary wildly from person to person and across sectors of society and industry. No common vision, no common ground, no result.

Is a shared vision even possible?

Developing a vision requires thought, focused on what you need to achieve.

Churchill had it easy: with a single enemy to defeat, any societal transformation was just a temporary side-effect and some discomfort was fully expected.

Today we’re also largely looking at a single enemy - the burning of fossil fuels - but to win this war we must achieve permanent and deep societal change.

That means multiple contexts and therefore multiple visions, even with 'net zero by 2050' as a common guiding thread.

In the UK, the sectors of energy, transport and buildings offer nice large common themes to work with, together accounting for well over three-quarters of all climate emissions.

Three visions might be a good start.

An energy vision

Energy is easy: the burning of fossil fuels must stop, so let’s imagine what makes this possible.

In this common vision, there’s no need to get distracted by niche solutions like nuclear, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and hydrogen (which isn’t even energy: it’s a carrier).

A valid vision might be:

  • All energy is renewable, distributed generation and storage
  • Sufficient storage for grid stability
  • Controlled, affordable prices
  • Less pollution, better health

Isn’t that easier to picture than 'net zero by 2050'?

Of course: it’s desirable, imaginable, relatable, and you know we can make it happen.

A transport vision

The transport sector is far more complex but much expertise is available, and the vision can begin with some major themes to guide the effort and create focus:

  • (Green) public transport - accessible and affordable for all
  • Long-distance: electrified rail
  • Short distance: electrified anything
  • Cycling and walking as a preferred choice

Isn’t that easier to picture than 'net zero by 2050'?

It’s desirable, imaginable, relatable, and you know we can make it happen.

A buildings vision

Buildings, including domestic and business sectors, covers a lot of ground, but common themes are readily found here too.

With some creative input from ICE members, this can certainly be clarified and improved.

  • Existing buildings: comfortable, healthy, affordable, in full use
  • Retrofit: low embodied carbon, high sequestered carbon (carbon that's removed from the atmosphere and stored), low operational carbon
  • New build: low embodied carbon, high sequestered carbon
  • Energy self-generating: zero operational carbon

Again: easier to picture than 'net zero by 2050' and it’s desirable, imaginable, relatable.

And if we make it happen now without delay, we will have achieved net zero by 2050 on the way.

And then what?

Any number of positive co-benefits may be added to these common visions to make the outcomes more desirable, clear and achievable:

Importantly, because these common visions are based on outcomes, some inconvenience on the way no longer matters.

You don't compete against an emergency

In an emergency the end justifies the means, as long as human decency provides the guiding hand.

Once we collectively know what must be achieved, all that remains is to facilitate this effort.

Just like in wartime, money must be made available, profiteering ostracised, skills made use of and relevant knowledge and learning widely shared.

You don’t ‘compete’ against an emergency – collaboration holds far greater power.

Get ready for a radical change for the better – truly working together to build a liveable future.

And then start building it yourself, where you are, with the tools you have. It’s how things get done.

*The ICE welcomes guests to share their views about infrastructure policy issues on the Infrastructure Blog. These views are the views of the individual.

If you’re interested in writing for the Infrastructure Blog, please email [email protected]. The ICE reserves the right not to publish articles that have been submitted.

  • Erik Dalhuijsen, director at Transition Catalyst Ltd