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Time is running out to prevent a climate catastrophe – is Britain doing enough to tackle the problem?

Brexit and a snap election have drawn attention away from climate change but with the UK set to host COP26 at the end of 2020, the country must radically alter its course if it wants to be taken seriously

Heather Alberro
Saturday 04 January 2020 15:04
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Climate change could render assets ‘worthless’, Bank of England governor warns

The apocalyptic bushfires currently tearing through Australia and many other parts of the globe ought to serve as stark reminders of the realities of climate change.

The 2016 Paris Agreement saw delegates from 196 countries pledge to limit global average temperatures to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels. However, scientists warn that a 2C warmer world will likely result in catastrophic declines in biodiversity, extreme heat, food and water shortages, rising seas and extreme weather events threatening millions. This is predicted to displace up to 140 million people – not including other species – by 2050.

Thus, experts and movements such as Extinction Rebellion have repeatedly highlighted the need to work towards meeting the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious target of 1.5C. However, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that based on present trajectories the world is set to reach that by as early as 2030 and “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are required if we are to stand a chance at limiting warming to 1.5C. Time is quickly running out.

With the UK set to host the UN climate change summit COP26 in Glasgow towards the end of 2020 – and the Met Office documenting four new high-temperature records in 2019 alone – what is Britain doing to tackle climate change?

In 2018, the UK’s emissions were 44 per cent below 1990 levels. Under former prime minister Theresa May the UK government pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. In early 2019, parliament declared a “climate emergency” following weeks of protests by Extinction Rebellion over the government’s lack of ambition in mitigating climate breakdown.

Despite some successes, the persistent gap between rhetoric and action threatens to hinder the UK’s 2050 carbon-neutrality target. The UK government has slashed subsidies for renewable energy and energy-efficiency programmes while continuing to lead the EU in fossil fuel subsidies. In 2019, the investigative environmental journalism outlet DeSmog UK revealed that the UK government gave over £2bn through its export credit agency, UK Export Finance, in support of numerous fossil fuel projects abroad.

More recently, it was found that an additional £1bn in export finance, purportedly intended to fund green infrastructure projects abroad, will instead be used to support the fracking operations of oil giants including Shell and BP in areas such as the Vaca Muerta shale heartlands in Argentina. Fracking has already resulted in catastrophic damage to the area, which is the ancestral homeland of Argentina’s indigenous Mapuche people.

The UK’s climate change mitigation efforts have been further complicated by recent events. As the results of the recent snap election demonstrate, the spectre of Brexit looms large on the public imagination, often overshadowing concerns over climate and ecological breakdown.

The Conservative government’s new leadership under prime minister Boris Johnson augurs further uncertainty. Johnson’s track record on the environment and climate change is far from consistent, and it is clear that his primary focus is on negotiating a Brexit deal favourable to the UK. Reports have also shown that Johnson and former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt have received funding from the major climate denial campaign group, Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Far more promising developments can be seen at the local level. Bristol plans to be carbon neutral and climate resilient by 2030. London mayor Sadiq Khan, following a 2018 motion by the London Assembly led by the Green Party’s Caroline Russell, plans to make London carbon neutral by 2030. Khan has called on the government to grant greater powers and investments for implementing his 2030 plan, which includes preventing Heathrow’s further expansion, retro-fitting homes to make them more energy efficient, phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles, and mass urban greening.

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However, if the UK wishes to implement the swift and sweeping transformations mandated by the IPCC, and be taken seriously as a global actor on climate change, it must radically alter its course at the national level. It must immediately cease supporting fossil fuel projects at home and abroad. It must, among other things, embark on a national reforestation and urban-greening campaign, and not only transition towards electric vehicles but, more importantly, vastly expand green and affordable public transport.

As the global youth climate strikes inspired by teen activist Greta Thunberg remind us, failing to act now would condemn present and future generations to an inhospitable future.

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