Dozens of climate activists gathered in Parliament Square this morning to mark the 14 weeks that are left between now and the 2021 UN climate change conference, aka Cop26, scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November.
Standing behind a giant banner, adorned with green hearts and the words “100 days to Cop”, London Assembly members, academics, priests, parents and environmental charities chanted that they wanted “action” – and told the government it must happen “now”.
It comes during growing concern that the Tories have failed to implement many of the promises set out in Boris Johnson’s 10-point climate plan last year – and that the party is continuing to sanction policies which directly undermine Britain’s vision of a so-called Green Industrial Revolution.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent and successful bid to cut foreign aid from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent, as well as allegations that ministers are set to approve the development of a new North Sea oil field, are seen as particularly alarming and ill-timed – with Cop26 considered to be the largest summit of its kind since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.
Some of the demonstrators on Friday held placards which read, “Missing in action” and asked, “Have you seen this man?”, alongside images of both Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak, to scrutinise senior ministers’ continued climate pledges but the lack of real-life change.
Each sign ended with a simple statement: “The climate needs you!”
Other people stood behind lifesize alarm clocks, all set to show just minutes were left until time had run out on dealing with the crisis altogether.
One of the group’s key chants, started by 56-year-old priest Vanessa Elston on Westminster’s doorstep, was: “Deeds not words”.
Speaking to The Independent, she explained: “I feel like the government doesn’t really have a plan, and Boris just wants it both ways. He’s made a few gestures towards a green agenda but it’s gestures – we’re talking gesture politics.
“This crisis really goes beyond party politics, so how do we get the level of change that we need?”
Asked about the significance of commemorating 100 days until Cop26, Ms Elston said it was simple: “We’re so far from anywhere we need to be. Our government lacks any proper strategic planning approach and we just haven’t grasped the scale of what’s needed on any level.”
The priest, who is based at a church in Vauxhall, south London, said as well as a new climate-focused citizens’ assembly, the public is in need of “proper and courageous leadership” to overcome the climate emergency.
“We need leadership that’s prepared to rethink things at a fundamental level,” she said. “We need to rethink our economics, we need to rethink about how we live – which includes having someone who’s able to stand up and say, ‘actually, we have got to eat less meat, actually we have got to rethink our whole food distribution’.”
But she added it was also time for people, “the voters”, to “wake up to what is going on around” them. “We have to tell our politicians that we aren’t going to vote for them if they don’t listen, so it’s big stuff,” she said.
The action today came at the end of a week-long heatwave across the UK, as well as catastrophic flooding across Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, which attendees argued further warranted their call to action for the government.
Green Party London Assembly member Zack Polanski said continued ignorance of the climate emergency risked “seriously harming” London, other cities around the UK and, “of course, other parts of the world”.
“What we’re seeing is a trend of rare weather events happening and some of these things have serious consequences,” he told The Independent, before pointing out there were countries – “particularly in the global south” – already suffering the consequences of prolonged adverse weather conditions.
“I think something we, as the environmental movement, have been guilty of in the past is focusing too much on wealthy communities – particularly in the UK, where educated people tend to be the ones talking about these issues,” he said. “So, I’m glad to see the conversation is now shifting to how we can protect the most marginalised and the most vulnerable in society.”
“Credit to the government for having those talks,” Mr Polanski, 38, added. “But words are not enough.”
Turning to next week’s ministerial meeting – one in a series of talks being held to discuss plans for Cop26 before it goes ahead between 1-12 November – the Green Party member stressed he was “supportive of the fact there’s even a meeting” but suggested little is expected to come of it.
“Previous experience has shown that too often those meetings are a time for people to network, talk about things and do press interviews, but not actually make that meaningful change,” he said, adding: “What actually needs to be the watchword of this conference is ‘what action are you taking?’”.
Asked what he would say in a meeting with the prime minister, Mr Polanski – after admitting he would “absolutely love a meeting with the government about this” – said simply: “I’d say that on any minister’s list of 76 priorities, the climate cannot be number 76, as it so often is.”
Bridget Fox, who works for an environmental charity, listed a multitude of failures – including the “erosion of natural habitats” in the UK – as her reasoning for wanting “action now”.
Speaking about the need for policy changes, Ms Fox, 57, said the government has “talked about decarbonising transport” – and yet is simultaneously giving “road building and aviation expansion a green light, which is the opposite of green policies”.
“We need our government to follow their words with actions,” she told The Independent, echoing the 100-strong gathering’s chants earlier in the day. “And the reason we’re doing this now is not just because it’s 100 days until Cop26, but also because ministers are meeting [at the pre-Cop ministerial meeting, taking place next week] to set an agenda for the summit – and we want to be at the top of that agenda.”
It remains to be seen how, or even if, the government will respond to these fresh demands for climate and environmental justice. Alok Sharma, who was appointed the full-time president of Cop26 in January, tweeted earlier to show his support for recognising the 100-day countdown.
“In just 100 days, we will host the crucial UN climate conference in Glasgow,” he wrote. “Every country, government and part of society must seize this moment to protect our planet, and keep 1.5[C] alive.”
For those on Parliament Square this morning, though, it seems only action will suffice – not words in a tweet.
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