China and India currently have much lower rates of car ownership than countries in the west, but as they grow richer their new middle classes will inevitably seek to emulate western consumers. The number of cars per thousand people are as follows: the US, 811; the UK, 471; China, 179; India, 22. There are 2.8 billion people in China and India. Do the math. Africa accounted for one in five of the world’s live births in the 1990s, but by the end of the next decade it will be one in three. Demand for energy will soar as the population rises.
All of which makes the case for a global green Marshall plan to finance the transfer of low-carbon technology to poorer parts of the world look pretty compelling. The US pumped billions of dollars into the reconstruction of western Europe after the second world war to secure markets for US exporters and to discourage the spread of communism. Enlightened self-interest is required again today. If rich countries provided the financial resources to transfer low-carbon technology to the poorer parts of the world, there would be three clear benefits to the west: lower carbon emissions, fewer economic migrants and bigger markets for green goods.
Donald Trump is no Harry Truman and US participation in a green Marshall plan will have to await a change of personnel in the White House. But Elizabeth Warren, one of the leading Democrats in the presidential race, is a fan. However, even as we wait for international agreement, there are low-hanging fruit to be picked. About one-sixth of carbon emissions in the UK come from residential property, largely as a result of old-fashioned and inefficient central heating. It represents a bigger contribution to global heating than meat-eating or flying.
A drastic cut in carbon emissions from homes requires two things: better insulation and the replacement of gas-fired heating with the latest technology – heat pumps and hydrogen boilers. This will not be cheap; few households have the money to pay for the new kit, and making them pay for it through higher energy bills would be unpopular.
The independent Committee on Climate Change said putting hydrogen boilers and electric heating into every home would cost tens of billions a year, and if this is to happen quickly – as it should – the government will have to foot the bill. It could do this in two ways: by taking advantage of historically low interest rates to float green bonds – something the German government is planning – or by channelling money created by the process known as quantitative easing into environmental projects.
Retrofitting homes so that energy does not leak out of badly insulated walls and roofs means lower energy bills and the prospect of well-paid, secure jobs in every part of the country – and would make public engagement with the climate crisis easier to sustain.