A few weeks ago, my friend Cheryl started posting lots of information on Facebook about the climate crisis, and I learnt so much from her. As much as I care about what is happening in our world, I feel overwhelmed by all the data, so it was super helpful to have someone condense it all for me.
As a result, I asked Cheryl if she would like to write a guest post for my blog, and she has done a wonderful job. In fact she has created two posts, this one and another on biodiversity, both with lots of research and suggestions for further reading. I do hope you will find them as helpful as I have. Please share this with your friends and leave Cheryl a comment too if you can, as I know just how many hours will have gone into creating a post like this (it’s a lot!)
So without futher ado, here’s Cheryl:
THE CLIMATE CRISIS AND UK POLICY
This post is an overview of the climate crisis, with an analysis of current UK climate policy. It is the first of two posts (the second will deal with biodiversity, this one will focus on carbon emissions).
The Climate Crisis
In 2018, the UN released a comprehensive report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which explained the likely impact of global warming to +1.5°C and +2°C (we’re already at +1°C). The report recommended that in order to prevent increasingly catastrophic impacts, we need to slash carbon emissions by 2030, and work towards net zero by 2050, whilst also devising ways of removing carbon from the atmosphere. This would give us a chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C. The UK government recently made it a legal obligation to reach net zero by 2050, but they are currently not on track to meet their 2030 target (let alone the 2050 one).
Despite the warnings of the IPCC, carbon emissions globally are continuing to rise. We are currently on course for a temperature rise of 3°C – 5°C by the end of the century.
Below is a graphic showing the dangers we face at a temperature rise of 1.5, 2 and 3°C (sourced from the prestigious scientific journal Nature using content from this study by IOP Science):
To make things even more alarming, scientists have been warning that the impacts of climate change are happening faster than they predicted. Ice melt is occurring at an unexpected rate, threatening more rapid and extreme sea level rise and leaving more people at risk of flooding and coastal storms (storms which will happen more often and with increasing severity as warming continues). Loss of sea ice in the Arctic may also speed up the process of warming, as ice reflects heat from the sun, while the open ocean absorbs it. And as temperatures rise, even more ice will melt. This is just one example of “positive climate feedback” (i.e. a process which, once started, will accelerate the process of warming), and something scientists are very worried about:
“The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected… Especially worrisome are potential irreversible climate tipping points and nature’s reinforcing feedbacks (atmospheric, marine, and terrestrial) that could lead to a catastrophic “hothouse Earth,” well beyond the control of humans. These climate chain reactions could cause significant disruptions to ecosystems, society, and economies, potentially making large areas of Earth uninhabitable.”
This was a recent warning in a paper endorsed by over 11,000 scientists. The threat to human health and society is so severe that in the UK, over 1,000 doctors have called for peaceful protest and non-violent civil disobedience as a means of tackling political inaction over the climate crisis. In their words:
“As caring professionals we cannot countenance current policies which push the world’s most vulnerable now, and all our children in the future, towards progressive environmental catastrophe… We are particularly alarmed by the inevitable effects of rising temperatures on health: the Lancet’s “biggest global health threat of the 21st century”. We observe escalating extreme weather events, spread of infection, loss of productive land and massive flooding of low-lying areas. We heed predictions of societal collapse and consequent mass migration, both worldwide and within countries. Such societal collapse risks damage to physical and mental health on an unprecedented scale.”
In this context, it is unsurprising that campaign groups and numerous charities have begun calling on governments to step up their ambitions and deliver zero carbon sooner than 2050. A more ambitious target – backed up by decisive action – would maximise our chances of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C (already a dangerous level of warming in itself) and avoid the need to rely on unproven carbon removal technologies (source).
Multiple reports (including the IPCC) stress the urgent need for bold, widespread changes across all sectors in order to give the world a chance of limiting warming below 1.5°C. This includes reforming the energy sector, buildings and infrastructure, land management, finance, industry and transport (sources: one, two, three, four). One of the most recent papers, endorsed by over 11,000 scientists, goes further and calls for a new economic model; one that explicitly recognises our dependence on nature, and puts a halt to “excessive extraction of materials and overexploitation of ecosystems”. They call instead for an economic model that focuses on sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being.
“To limit warming to 1.5°C., not only should no new fossil-fuel-using infrastructure be built, ever again, some existing power plants need to shut down early—and yet today many new power plants are under construction or planned.”
This was the conclusion of a recent study which calculated how much CO 2 existing fossil fuel infrastructure is expected to pump into the atmosphere globally over its working lifetime. With what we have already got, we’re going to push the planet over 1.5°C of warming, and that’s not even counting emissions from other industries (such as agriculture) or the impacts of deforestation. This puts us firmly on track for at least 3°C of warming.
And yet, the UK continues to support drilling for oil in the North Sea, and has also approved a new gas power plant in Yorkshire and a coal mine in Cumbria. The UK government has also been criticised for spending billions of pounds funding fossil fuel projects in other countries. It is the recommendation of scientists that wealthier countries support poorer nations to transition away from fossil fuels; UK policy pushes them into further dependence on it. These overseas projects do not count towards the official UK emissions, allowing us to appear far “greener” than we actually are.
Carbon Emissions Reductions
As previously mentioned, the UK already has targets to cut carbon emissions by 2030 (specifically, a cut of 57% from 1990 levels). The government also recently legislated to become carbon neutral by 2050. There are no plans to be more ambitious than this. Unfortunately, the UK is currently failing to meet even these targets:
“During the last year, the Government has introduced some new policies to reduce emissions, but their impact will be only incremental. Overall, actions to date have fallen short of what is needed for the previous targets and well short of those required for the net-zero target.”
Committee on Climate Change report, 2019
The Committee on Climate Change is the official body which advises the government on their carbon emissions strategy. Their most recent report concludes that while the UK has made improvements in reducing emissions from electricity, overall the government’s approach is vague, uncoordinated and failing to make progress in other sectors. The CCC state that strong government policy is vital to driving the necessary changes. Action is required to slash emissions from transport, farming, land use, waste and construction. Not enough is being done to insulate people’s homes, install renewable heating sources, plant trees, and build new wind turbines.
Also cause for major concern is the fact that the UK doesn’t even include emissions from aviation and shipping in their targets, though it is a highly polluting industry (and the UK government is supporting the expansion of Heathrow airport, which will also increase emissions – even if it doesn’t appear on the official statistics).
Even the target of net zero by 2050 is not necessarily as promising as it seems. Caroline Lucas (Green Party MP) points out that there are several loop holes in the legislation that may allow the government to avoid making meaningful changes in the UK. She raises 3 main points:
- The UK is still neglecting to include aviation emissions in its new target (discussed above).
- There is a “get-out clause!” in the legislation, meaning after 5 years the government can decide to downgrade its targets. But certainty helps investors to commit to low carbon projects. The latest CCC report stressed that government policy should be as business-friendly as possible, because we will rely on businesses to make a lot of necessary investments and low carbon innovations.
- Under current legislation, the government may simply choose to use carbon credits to “offset” its emissions. This means that rather than changing things much in the UK, they can simply try to fund carbon reduction projects elsewhere (e.g. by planting some trees or funding a wind farm in another country). This is not a very good strategy and goes directly against the advice of the Committee on Climate Change. Recent research concluded that the vast majority of offsetting schemes are likely to fail to reduce emissions.
I have laid out an overview of the climate crisis and the issues we – and politicians – need to tackle if we are to have a chance of limiting global temperature rise and averting global catastrophe. The scale of the problem facing us is immense. Our response, and our government’s response, needs to be immense as well. Current UK policy is falling well short of what is necessary to give us even a passing chance of keeping global warming below 1.5°C.
Promises and targets are easy to make, but harder to keep. Any credible plan to clean up the UK’s carbon emissions needs to set out how reductions will be made across all sectors (as well as putting an end to fossil fuel subsidies overseas). As we move into this period of election pledges, I urge everyone to consider carefully which party has best understood the scale of the crisis we are facing, and whose plans go furthest
towards meeting the challenge in the most socially equitable way possible?
If you’d like to look into this in more detail, the following environmental groups have posted a more detailed analysis comparing each party on their manifesto pledges:
Friends of the Earth:
General Election: Our take on the party manifestos
Brexit and Environment:
The election manifestos and the environment: Six unanswered questions
Full list of sources and further reading:
The following reports assess the impact of climate change on the UK:
Summaries of the IPCC 1.5°C report:
NASA: Why a half degree temperature rise is a big deal:
Global temperatures on track for 3-5 degree rise by 2100:
The hard truths of climate change – by the numbers:
What is positive climate feedback?:
Report into faster than expected ice melt and impacts:
World Scientists Warning of a Climate Emergency:
World Health Organisation factsheet on climate change and health:
UK doctors call for protest against political inaction on climate emergency:
Climate crisis will affect lifelong health of young, warn doctors:
Study into fossil fuel infrastructure (and why we can’t afford any more):
Gas plant approved in Yorkshire:
Coal mine given go ahead in Cumbria:
UK funding fossil fuel projects overseas:
Report into UK carbon emissions:
Aviation and Heathrow Expansion:
Caroline Lucas assessment of the 2050 target:
Research into carbon offsetting:
Charities and other groups arguing for an earlier zero carbon target:
Campaign Against Climate Change:
Charities say next UK government must bring forward climate targets:
The Guardian view on net zero carbon emissions: sooner is better:
Centre for Alternative Technology – can we reach zero carbon by 2025?:
Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity – Zero carbon sooner:
Majority of UK public back 2030 zero carbon target:
Reports into how to cut carbon emissions:
(see also: IPCC 1.5°C report)
Mission 2020: A new global strategy to ‘rapidly’ reduce carbon emissions:
UN report into land management:
Climate Emergency, Urban Opportunity: