Climate crisis: UK ‘acutely vulnerable’ to environmental breakdown, think tank warns

Policymakers must ‘wake up’ to growing risks of unprecedented complexity and severity, IPPR says

Harry Cockburn
Wednesday 24 June 2020 18:19
Huge waves from Storm Freya lash the Welsh coast at Porthcawl in March 2020
Huge waves from Storm Freya lash the Welsh coast at Porthcawl in March 2020

A major report into the UK’s preparedness for the impacts of the global environmental crisis has warned the government is “woefully unaware of and ill-prepared for” the imminent existential threats posed by climate breakdown and the destruction of nature.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) conducted a year-long investigation into environmental breakdown and concluded the country is “acutely vulnerable” to the enormous effects this poses and is not ready for what it described as the “policy challenge” required.

The report concluded that the overall environmental crisis has already reached critical levels due to the “historic disregard” for the destruction of nature. Soil has been degraded, species are going extinct, and oceans are polluted, the report noted.

The IPPR has called for a royal commission – a major public inquiry – into the UK’s preparedness for natural crises, after the coronavirus pandemic exposed our “fragility” when it comes to major threats.

The report warned the rapidly accelerating process of environmental breakdown the planet is already witnessing “will leave no area of human society untouched” and said potential global consequences include persistent financial instability, food crises and conflict.

These and other impacts amount to persistent destabilisation on a global scale, the IPPR said, urging policymakers around the world to “wake up” to this “new domain of risk” of unprecedented complexity and severity.

The IPCC said “nothing less than the overall transformation of society and the economy is required ... to bring human activity within sustainable limits and prepare us for the consequences of the damage already caused to nature”.

Luke Murphy, head of the think tank’s Environmental Justice Commission, said: “The lights on the environmental dashboard are flashing red. As we recover from the Covid-19 crisis, we must not accelerate headlong into another crisis for which we are not prepared.

“The UK should use the recovery from Covid-19 to transform its economy, to address climate change and increase preparedness, and tackle wider inequalities – all of this can and should be done at the same time.”

The report proposes key measures the UK should adopt to drive the country towards becoming a fairer society which is better prepared for the impacts of the climate crisis.

These include:

  • A sustainable economy act – a legal framework to bring all economic activity into line with ambitious targets for cutting environmental damage. Such an act would encompass the environmental impact of goods and services both produced in and imported to the UK
  • A new minister for the UN Sustainable Development Goals – this role would involve championing sustainable development at the very top of government, backed by a cabinet committee for coordinating the response to environmental breakdown
  • A fair environmental foreign policy – this must recognise “the UK’s historic contribution to environmental damage” and should aim to help reform international organisations that have also helped “entrench environmental damage, such as the World Bank and the IMF”
  • Votes at 16 – expanding the franchise to those with the most at stake in the future of the planet

The think tank maintains that a thriving UK economy is possible without destroying the natural environment and the animals that inhabit it.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton, IPPR associate fellow, said: “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the UK was not adequately prepared for the coronavirus pandemic. The threats posed by the environmental crisis could also emerge quickly and could overwhelm our capacity to respond. So the pandemic gives us a window into a future increasingly beset by the consequences of environmental breakdown.

“In the UK, we are not ready for this future – far from it. But all is not lost. We can be better prepared for environmental breakdown. And the changes we need to make to our society and economy are exactly those that can also make a happier, healthier and fairer world.”

Responding to the report, Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate change at WWF, said: “The climate crisis is here and we no longer have time to plan – the time has come to act.

“Right now, that means that as we rebuild post-pandemic, a green recovery is our only option. A recovery where we ignore climate in nature is not a recovery at all – it is starting the timer for the next crisis.”

Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Muna Suleiman said: “This is yet another stark warning of the UK government’s continuing failure to address the looming threat of runaway climate breakdown.

“The planet and its people should be at the very heart of our economic recuperation from coronavirus. This is why the chancellor must make a fair and green recovery the centrepiece of his stimulus package announcement next month.

“We must build back better – and that means greener and more equal.”

A government spokesperson told The Independent: “This government remains committed to being a world leader in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, and as we rebuild from the coronavirus pandemic we will continue to shape an economy and society that is cleaner, greener and more resilient.

“We’re already championing innovative and eco-friendly technologies, and our ambitious Environment, Fisheries and Agriculture Bills will enable us to protect our precious natural environment and diverse ecosystems for years to come.”

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