In the year that it plays host to the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference COP26, the UK and its efforts to battle the climate crisis are taking centre stage. But what is the UK government doing to lead the way not only during preparations for this event, but also beyond?
We are all aware of the catastrophic and irreversible changes that our planet and everything on it will face if we fail to prevent a 2C increase, including an estimated 140 million people who will be displaced (this number doesn’t include wildlife). But given recent and very justified scrutiny by environmental experts and climatologists, perhaps the question should be “what is the UK doing NOT to tackle the climate crisis?”.
Let’s take it back to when the UK joined almost 200 other countries in making the pledge which made it the subject of all this scrutiny.
In 2015 the Paris Agreement saw 196 countries pledge to act in order to reduce carbon emissions and keep global warming below 2C by 2050, and after that you only need look at the number of new alternative milks offered by your local supermarket, or at the spike in sales of products like KeepCups to see how the world reacted. The volume of people wanting to get involved with climate action began to swell.
What has happened since the 2015 Paris Agreement, and are we keeping our promise to reduce emissions?
Theresa May’s government pledged that the UK will reach net-zero emissions by 2050 – an ambitious but not unrealistic target if industries got on board with legislation and policy changes needed to achieve this – and at the start of last year the UK parliament declared a climate emergency making it the first National Government to do so. All in all, not a bad effort.
Sadly, what began as an upward trajectory of climate action by the UK government wasn’t to continue, and the perceived interest in battling the climate crisis took a downturn – in a way that it was hoped our emissions would do. The irony isn’t lost.
A report based on current global warming trajectories published in 2018 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed that the world is currently on target to hit 2C of warming by 2030 – two decades earlier than our Paris Agreement pledge, and now only one decade away.
It’s easy to point the finger at other nations with more obvious carbon-contributing industries and blame them for having a larger impact on the global warming, but it’s trickier to see how the UK is involved in global efforts failing to reach targets.
Just what role are we playing in all of this?
Currently the renewable energy industry and all projects relating to improving energy efficiency rely heavily on government subsidies to fund them. But back in 2015 our government cut these subsidies and instead directed 30 times the amount of funding towards fossil fuel subsidies. If you’re wondering how this can be true when no new coal-fired power stations were built in the UK, it’s because the funding was diverted to projects overseas.
Worse still, since then it has been identified that £1bn supposedly intended to fund green infrastructure overseas was actually applied to fracking projects carried out by the likes of Shell and BP. It made a great headline when the UK rejected plans to continue funding fracking on its own soil, but it’s beginning to look like this was just a greenwashing exercise.
Bring it up to 2019 and the murky climate action track record of new PM Boris Johnson does little to calm fears of activists. “Get Brexit Done” isn’t exactly a call for removal of aviation fuel subsidies…
But it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the shortfalls of the UK Government’s decisions without acknowledging the far more hopeful action occurring at a more local level.
Back to our original question: what is Britain doing to tackle the climate catastrophe?
In light of the Government not seeming to take action, people all around the UK (and the whole world over) have taken matters into their own hands – and here lies the hope. From Greenpeace to Extinction Rebellion and other youth climate action groups, local initiatives are leading the charge and delivering more promising results.
Additionally, individual institutions like Universities and councils have declared a Climate Emergencies and cities such as Bristol are introducing initiatives to become carbon neutral. London was the latest city to join in, with Mayor Sadiq Khan pledging to make London carbon-neutral by 2030.
Urban reforestation is becoming such a popular project that non-profit organisations like Trees For Cities has run out of space to plant trees in London, and is having to look outside of the city for empty land which will enable them to fulfil their clients’ pledges.
Where does rewilding fit into all of this?
Efforts to rewild the UK and bring back the staggering loss of biodiversity since the industrial revolution and later following the second world war are gaining increasing amounts of attention, and credit from the public domain. And for good reason, given their their role in reducing our carbon emissions through carbon sequestration.
From tree planting to regenerative farming, peatlands restoration to species reintroduction, initiatives across the UK are becoming more common, and better funded than ever before. The potential for these methods to mitigate the climate crisis is enormous – they are in themselves natural climate solutions.
It’s fantastic to see more and more natural climate solutions being put into place – such beaver reintroduction to prevent flooding – throughout the UK, even if the reasons for doing so are financially rather than environmentally motivated, because these all contribute to the UK’s efforts to tackle the climate catastrophe.
There has been a big shift in attitudes towards rewilding, and therefore the number of projects being implemented, but this still needs more support from a governmental level if the movement is to continue to grow.
If government level action is failing but local is improving, how about what can be done at an individual level?
A common bug-bear of readers is being preached at by authors and not being given constructive, achievable take-homes to put into action. In order to avoid that disappointment, here are a few suggestions of how you can make a difference yourself:
- Change your diet by reducing your meat and dairy intake and replacing these with more plant-based products. Check out this article for more reasons why.
- Try to reduce the amount you rely on air travel to take you to new and exciting places. Trains are great too.
- Buy less “new”. Give eBay, Depop, Schpock or GumTree a go – chances are what you need is out there and much cheaper than buying brand new.
- Look at labels. Check whether a product can be recycled or is made from sustainably sourced materials.
- Think & Question. Take time to think about and ask how your diet, travel, or purchase is impacting the environment.
Bring on COP26
Whilst 2020 got off to nothing short of a biblical start in terms of natural disasters caused – and significantly exacerbated – by the climate crisis, the opportunity for action has never been more available. As the host of COP26, the UK will have the world’s spotlight well and truly focused on its efforts to tackle the climate crisis. President of COP26 Claire O’Neill this week has suggested that the UK has just “one shot” at COP26 to get large carbon emitters like Brazil, China and Australia to agree to plans to change their approach to tackling the crisis, otherwise the reputation of the entire UN will be undermined. No pressure then!
But as conversations surrounding these issues get louder, and greater numbers of smaller, more local initiatives gain momentum, preparations to prove ourselves as a worthy host arguably seem to be well under way. Given recent events at the World Economic Forum in Davos – where we saw world leaders reprimanded by 17 year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg for their inaction and their lack of ability to translate rhetoric into positive and permanent change – hopefully we will soon see the same momentum grow at a National and International level too.