openDemocracyUK: Opinion

As the world burns, the UK must lead once more

The gaps in the Climate Change Act urgently need patching.

Caroline Lucas head shot
Caroline Lucas
20 October 2020
Wildfires in California
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Jeff Head, public domain

Once the UK really was a climate leader. The 2008 Climate Change Act of was the first legally binding climate change mitigation target set by a country. The UK parliament was the first to declare a climate emergency, in May last year.  

Both landmarks had cross-party support and followed huge public engagement. Extinction Rebellion protests preceded parliament’s declaration of a climate emergency. Fifteen years ago, more than 100 NGOs, led by Friends of the Earth, came together as part of the Stop Climate Chaos coalition to push for the 2008 ActOnly five MPs (all Conservative) opposed the bill in the Commons.  

It was a moment to be proud of, and has led to real change. Wind power is providing as much as 20 percent of the UK’s electricity, and the government is now pledging to quadruple its capacity. Other governments followed the UK in passing climate laws, many of them modelled on the UK Act

But it’s not enough. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, fuelling an accelerating climate emergency whose impacts are being felt across the world.   

The wildfires in California, which are still raging, have burned through a staggering 4 million acres, driven by rising temperatures and prolonged drought – both symptoms of the climate crisis.  

There’s been an exceptional Asian monsoon this year, displacing millions in China and Bangladesh. Mumbai saw the second wettest day in recorded history. And who can forget Australia’s devastating wildfires earlier this year, or the worst floods on record which hit parts of England in February.  

Coupled with that is a biodiversity crisis with more than a million species being driven to extinction and vital habitats like the Amazon being torched.   

The Climate Change Act is no longer adequate to deal with these accelerating crises – even though its emissions target was strengthened last year, pushing the goal from 80 percent emissions reduction by 2050 to net zero. Many climate models show that a 2050 target date is too late if we are to have a chance of staying within 1.5oC of warming, as signed up to in the Paris Agreement.   

The Act’s focus is also too narrow and leaves major sources of emissions untouched. It doesn’t address emissions from aviation and shipping, nor those from consumption, which has allowed successive governments to claim credit for cutting emissions when they have simply been outsourced to other countries while we consume what’s produced.

If those emissions were on our balance sheet, as they should be, the true picture for the UK would be a reduction just 10 percent compared to 1990, rather than the 42 percent that ministers claim.  

Nor does the existing Act give us the tools we need to tackle the trashing of ecosystems which aren’t only essential for a healthy planet and our future existence, but also vital for addressing the climate crisis. According to a recent report from the RSPB, the government is missing 17 out of 20 of its own biodiversity targets, and going backwards on six of them.   

Our current approach isn’t working. The gaps in the Climate Change Act urgently need patching, and we need to be much more ambitious in line with the latest science. That is why I have tabled the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. 

It’s been drafted by climate scientists, academics, lawyers and activists with the backing of a broad range of campaign groups, NGOs and public figures. It ensures we move further and faster to cut our emissions, with a focus on the limits agreed in Paris in 2015 rather than an arbitrary date. 

It discounts speculative and unproven Negative Emissions Technologies, so no more political delay in the hope that technology will somehow save the day.    

It legislates for the active restoration of nature and biodiversity and the protection of soils, and requires that our supply chains minimise adverse impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems.  

And it provides a role for the public to be actively engaged in the transition to a carbon-free future via a Citizens’ Assembly. Weaning ourselves off carbon won’t be easy, which is why people from all walks of life must have a say in how we make the changes needed so that the transition to a carbon free economy and society is fair and just.

We already have a model for this in the UK’s Climate Assembly, which was set up by six parliamentary select committees and produced its report last month with clear recommendations on the guiding principles of transitioning to a zero carbon future, and how it could be achieved. It showed the huge benefits of involving citizens, alongside experts, when it comes to grappling with some of the biggest challenges of our generation, though its remit of looking only at the 2050 net zero target date was far too narrow.  

The political and public unity in 2008 was an example of what can be achieved when politicians of all parties, responding to public pressure and guided by the science, work together. My Early Day Motion on the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill has drawn cross-party support, though not yet from Conservative MPs.   

It’s time the government acknowledged the science, listened to the voices of people like the student climate strikers, Extinction Rebellion and the Citizens Assembly on climate and took the necessary action by backing my Bill.  

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