UK declares climate emergency: now it needs to act like we’re in one
The UK Parliament became the first in the world to declare a climate and environment emergency this May Day. What next?
A declaration of climate emergency has been a long time coming. Too long.
There is frighteningly little time left to prevent an ecological and human catastrophe. But for the thousands of activists and scientists who have dedicated themselves to environmental and climate justice, this is still an important milestone.
Now the imperative is to turn words in to action, demanding urgency, energy and commitment from the highest levels in Government.
Our planet is warmer now than at any point in the last 800,000 years and it is heating, fast.
The challenge for whoever is resident in No. 10 is to listen to the overwhelming body of science, telling us we have no time to waste and to move to zero net carbon emissions well before 2050.
Only this scale of reduction will give us a chance, in the real world, of preventing the run-away escalation of global temperatures that would see humanity inundated by too much water and damned by too little as the ecological systems that underpin our survival are destroyed.
Addressing those who sit today in Westminster, those who declared this climate emergency, I recall the words of a previous leader who faced a similar existential threat: “Owing to past neglect, in the face of the plainest of warnings, we have entered upon a period of danger.
"The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences … We cannot avoid this period; we are in it now”. So warned Winston Churchill on 12 November 1936.
We need a sea-change in the thinking, ambition and action of our political classes, across businesses and how we run our economy and, yes, in the way each of us live our lives. We need to declare war on our addiction to carbon.
How must we act? The full list of measures is long, but we can summarise, creating a “Manifesto to Combat Climate Change” for our Government, which appears either unwilling or unable to create its own.
We need to see massive, nation-wide investment in renewable energy, directing the billions currently being spewed on mis-guided, poor value projects like HS2 toward wind, wave, tidal and solar power.
And, let’s be clear: renewable energy does not mean nuclear, it does not mean fracking, it does not mean the cutting of forests to be shipped vast distances to burn in power stations.
New homes should have the insulation; the solar panels; the water saving; the structures necessary to eradicate the bleeding of greenhouse gases that currently account for 14 percent of the UK total.
Likewise, we must ensure the rapid delivery of the necessary infrastructure to support electric vehicles and zero carbon travel; investing massively in cheaper, better public transport, encouraging people away from their cars by giving them a genuinely viable alternative.
We need to close polluting industries, giving those workers and communities dependent on them better alternatives, not least in the huge expansion of renewable energy. We need to tax and rapidly eradicate our use of fossil fuels, phasing out greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
And along with these measures we must turn to nature as a fundamental part of the solution. A massive increase in the planting of trees in our towns and cities, but also creating far larger areas across our country of rich, biodiverse forested land; cooling our atmosphere, sucking in carbon and delivering oxygen, along with a home for wildlife to slow and halt the cascade of species extinctions that also threatens our survival.
Government is falling woefully short on its current tree-planting target of 20,000 hectares each year, and the CCC’s call to increase forest cover to 17 percent of UK land does not go nearly far enough.
Let’s get serious, rewilding the UK and doubling the cover of natural forests within the next 10 years.
I hear people shout: Cost! Economy! Jobs! But those who have argued against action on these grounds fail to see the alternatives, fail to see the reality.
There are vast numbers of jobs to be had in adopting this approach to our climate emergency. The renewable energy sector in the USA has had one of the fastest rates of job creation of any industry and the same can be true here.
Let's once again reflect on exactly what failure to act would mean. As I write this, extreme weather events are forcing millions of people from their homes across the world.
Since 2008 an average 21.7 million people, 59,600 every day, 41 every minute have been driven from their homes as our addiction to carbon has brought increasingly severe and common floods, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires.
While our oceans are becoming rapidly warmer, more acidic and more hostile to life and countless terrestrial species struggle to survive as our world heats up. We, in the UK, are not immune to these impacts – they will damn us too.
Our economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of our natural environment. The destruction of our environmental security would ultimately also see the end of our economy. In the final analysis, we have no option but to act.
What about the will of the people?
The UK parliament’s acknowledgement of the climate emergency took place at this late hour because of the pressure applied by the Extinction Rebellion activists, the school climate strikers, the years of work by NGOs including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF and the work of a tiny number of parliamentarians, most notably, the impressive Caroline Lucas.
What this proves is that consistent advocacy and civil disobedience does work. People in the UK are waking up to the crisis and demanding so much more than empty words the government has seen fit to force feed us: 63 percent of the British public recognise that we are in a climate emergency.
We can take hope that Westminster has become the first parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency, but now let’s hold our MPs to account; let’s make sure they act with the vigour, determination and impact the environmental crisis demands.
The UK can set off a wave of action from other nations around the globe.
This can be a historic vote and given the UK’s historically high carbon emissions, it is right that it should be leading the way.
Climate change arguably presents the most damning existential threat yet seen in our world, but it is not too late to take action.
Nor is it too late for such action to succeed. Borrowing the words of the truly inspirational Greta Thunberg: “Activism works, so act”.
- This piece was originally published by The Ecologist, and is reposted with permission.