A decade on from the Climate Change Act, the government should heed the public’s calls to halt environmental breakdown

By relentlessly pursuing fracking and granting airport expansion, the unpalatable truth is our government is failing us

Oliver Hayes
Monday 26 November 2018 10:58
Extinction rebellion: Climate change protesters arrested

Ten years ago, hundreds of thousands of campaigners made it clear that inaction on climate change was unacceptable. Activists with the bit between their teeth presented politicians with a draft bill on cutting emissions across the entire economy. The bill’s beauty was its simplicity: a law to compel current and future governments to cut greenhouse gases by a little bit year on year. Headline music acts such as Radiohead and Razorlight and acting luminaries including Jude Law and Gillian Anderson helped push the issue into the mainstream. In terms of people power, it was effective because it was bold. As a political campaign achievement, it was remarkable.

What became known as The Big Ask campaign persuaded MPs to take climate change seriously. The parliamentary consensus was remarkable, if not unprecedented. Only three MPs opposed the final bill. And so, the UK’s Climate Change Act became the world’s first law to cut greenhouse gas emissions, swiftly imitated by governments around the world.

Domestic CO2 emissions have since fallen an impressive 43 per cent. But progress is stalling and the government’s official advisors now warn that the UK is “off track” to meet future targets.

The unpalatable truth is our government is failing us – by relentlessly pursuing fracking, granting airport expansion, slashing insulation programmes, and faltering in support for renewable energy. If they carry on, we won’t be able to meet our own emissions targets in the next 10 years, let alone stop runaway climate change.

But there is – just – enough time to get back on track.

The policy solutions, while ambitious, are clear. And far from being a programme of sacrifice, real leadership would help build a safer, cleaner, fairer, and healthier world.

An accelerated transition from fossil fuelled transport, for example, will help us fight the air pollution health crisis that cuts short 36,000 lives annually in the UK.

UK forests and forest soils are already a significant store of carbon. But the UK is among the least forested countries in Europe. Restoring and enhancing these habitats should be a major priority. A happy side effect would increase protection for our struggling wildlife, and better access to nature for many more people.

There is a challenge in moving away from gas-powered central heating, complicated by the government’s fixation on fracking, but with new technologies emerging and an emphasis on insulating homes, it can be done. Nobody loses in this scenario: bills come down, jobs are created, older homes are made habitable and in so doing, illness and yes, winter deaths are reduced.

Importantly, public support is high, with polling from Client Earth showing a majority of the British public agree with not just immediate and urgent action, but even litigation on climate change.

People get it, ministers seemingly don’t. The proposed Heathrow expansion would send aviation emissions sky-rocketing. Instead of addressing head on the frequent flights taken by a small minority of the population, the transport secretary this month announced a new air route between Heathrow and… Cornwall.

This is indicative of the government’s priorities.

The IPCC, the body that objectively assesses climate impact and advises world governments, recently updated its research and the top line is we can contain climate breakdown. Granted, not under a business-as-usual model, but that model has failed all but the wealthiest.

The UK can be a net zero emissions economy – that means if you release emissions, you suck an equivalent amount out of the atmosphere – by 2045. The key to net zero is government must back up its claims of climate leadership with stronger, more ambitious policy. If you think the year 2045 is futuristic, it’s 27 years away. Twenty-seven years ago, in 1991, Terminator 2 and Silence of the Lambs were the cinema draws, and who doesn’t remember Everything I Do, the perennially chart-topping Bryan Adams cliff-topped belter with the electric guitar that needed no power.

Twenty-seven years ago feels recent; 27 years hence isn’t far away.

Temporality aside, there is a devastating human and wildlife cost because of climate breakdown. Today Friends of the Earth are highlighting the English communities already on the frontline of climate chaos. From devastating floods in Yorkshire, to wildfires near Manchester, to homes crumbling into the sea in Norfolk, all are worsened by our warming world. Here and globally, with absolute consistency, it’s the most vulnerable people paying the highest price.

And so, on the 10-year anniversary of the Climate Change Act, it’s clear that these are vows that need renewing. It remains feasible to limit global warming to 1.5C. A speeded-up transition towards a clean, sustainable economy is evidently worth it, it’s just that the future of the planet also depends on it. The UK used to lead, we can again.

Oliver Hayes is a climate change campaigner for Friends of the Earth

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