Parliament has declared a climate emergency because when it comes to stopping climate meltdown – we're in the last-chance saloon.
We need to put the brakes on climate change as soon as possible. That means urgently cutting greenhouse gas emissions until we’re only producing as many as the earth can naturally absorb.
Why? Because of the things we already know about: the extreme weather events and sea-level rises that are already devastating people’s lives.
But also because of the things that would take us over the edge – hurtling into irreversible ecological collapses – tipping points that will trigger hostile environments for people around the world.
We've identified 7 things the UK government should do immediately. I'll come to that in a minute.
First, let’s define what we actually mean by a climate emergency.
What is a climate emergency?
For those islanders who have already lost their homes to sea level rise – like the low-lying Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea – the idea of a climate emergency is not new.
Ditto for those communities of subsistence farmers across the globe whose land is becoming more salty and less productive due to climate change . Or those 60 million harmed by the extreme weather events in 2018 .
These impacts on many of the planet’s poorest people are a good enough reason alone to call climate change an emergency.
But, technically, we're in a climate emergency because it's our last chance to stop runaway climate change. Alarm bells are ringing and it isn't a drill.
We're in danger of going past points of no return: tipping points that will accelerate global warming and cause an irreversible collapse of natural systems that we depend on.
Passing these tipping points will significantly harm millions of people, now and in the future.
What are these climate tipping points?
There are numerous tipping points, including:
Loss of coral reefs
Coral reefs are under immense pressure, from over-fishing, nutrient pollution, ocean acidification and, of course, climate change.
The world’s top climate scientists – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – estimate that coral reefs will decline by a further 70–90% at 1.5°C of global warming.
The loss of coral reefs is predicted by researchers to harm tens of millions of people. Coral reefs provide a direct supply of food to people. They are also a nursery for around a quarter of the oceans fish. In addition they provide flood protection for low lying communities and ecosystems.
Without much more rapid and radical action on climate change we can probably kiss coral reefs and the services they provide goodbye.
Irreversible melting of ice sheets
The IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5°C states:
“Marine ice sheet instability in Antarctica and/or irreversible loss of the Greenland ice sheet could result in multi-metre rise in sea level over hundreds to thousands of years. These instabilities could be triggered at around 1.5°C to 2°C of global warming.”
We can’t be sure how much sea-level rise this would lead to – the understanding of how melt water may exacerbate the speed of ice loss is still developing .
Sea level rise isn’t likely to reach more than a metre by 2100, although even this will cause huge hardship and costs. But over the next centuries sea level rise could be 10 meters or more.
The impact of all this freshwater pouring into the oceans could significantly weaken ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream – which could further disrupt the weather.
Losing these ice sheets would be a calamitous injustice for future generations.
Loss of the Amazon
Destroying 40% of the Amazon would be enough to tip it from a forest into savanna and grassland.
That 40% threshold could be breached through logging or climate change or both. If it were just climate change (ie, logging had stopped) this would happen at a higher temperature (3°C). But with logging and lower levels of warming working together we'd lose the Amazon earlier.
The Amazon is a truly amazing biodiversity hotspot. But significantly, it’s also a huge carbon store.
Savannas store less than half the carbon of the Amazon forest, so the conversion of the huge forest to savanna would accelerate global warming.
Then there’s the potential domino effect of crossing these and other tipping points. The Stockholm Resilience Centre calls this “contagious collapses”.
Crossing one tipping point could trigger changes that make crossing the second more likely, and then the third, and so on.
This isn’t certain but it’s plausible and the rational reaction is to cut greenhouses gases as fast as possible to be on the safe side.
Climate emergency plan: what needs to be done
The school strikers, street protests and campaigning groups like Friends of the Earth have turned up the heat on the UK parliament. It has just declared a climate emergency. That’s a good start.
Now the UK has to act fast to do its bit to stop us overshooting the point of no return. Our best chance of avoiding these tipping points is to keep global warming below 1.5°C.
Here are 7 changes the government could immediately implement.
1. Ban fracking and double the amount of offshore wind by 2030.
Fracking for gas contributes to climate change. You’ve already helped our campaign to stop fracking getting a foothold in the UK. Now the government needs to ban it for good.
The offshore wind industry is a UK success story with new jobs and plummeting costs. The government has struck a deal with the industry to install another 30GW of offshore wind power by 2030, but these needs to be doubled.
2. Bring the Department for Transport (DfT) into line.
The DfT is acting like it’s never heard of climate change – as a result polluting road schemes and airport expansion plans have largely ignored the issue. Remarkably its own transport-investment strategy doesn’t even mention climate change.
The government’s own climate change advisors have repeatedly written strongly-worded letters about its poor performance to the Secretary of State.
3. Commit to put climate change centre-stage in the autumn’s spending review and budget.
Right now the Treasury is carrying out a spending review and the word is they don’t want to spend much money on climate change.
It needs to spend at least £22 billion. This could be part funded by introducing a new polluter-pays tax on the fossil fuel industry, which the government could introduce at the annual budget.
4. Cancel Heathrow and other airport expansion plans.
The sad truth is that right now there’s no way to make flying climate-friendly. Expansion of Heathrow and other airports takes us completely in the wrong direction.
As well as cancelling expansion plans the government should introduce a frequent-flier levy to discourage the minority of people that take multiple flights every year.
5. Scrap the roads programme and HS2. Invest in free buses and other public transport options.
Electric cars are great but until the electricity is totally renewable they will still contribute to climate change. That’s why the massive roads programme is totally incompatible with the climate emergency.
Perhaps surprisingly, the hugely expensive HS2 railway won’t reduce carbon emissions, according to official estimates. Instead we should be spending this money on public transport, such as free buses for the under 30s – and improving services out of cities.
6. Commit to making our homes energy efficient.
Allocate billions, in the spending review, for retrofitting homes with insulation and energy efficiency. And swiftly announce that all new homes must be zero-carbon, ie, they don't result in the net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
We did have a standard for zero-carbon homes but the house-building industry lobbied the government to scrap it.
All new homes should be zero-carbon with renewable energy technologies fitted as standard.
7. Help nature to help the climate.
Restoring peat bogs, salt marshes, and doubling tree cover in the UK would reduce our net planet-warming emissions. They are carbon sinks, meaning they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
As well as a climate emergency we’re also in the midst of a nature emergency. Species are dwindling.
We can beat the climate emergency
Humans are ingenious. We’ve put people into space, traced the history of our genes and how they affect our appearance and behaviour, and developed medicines that have extended our lives.
Our next big achievement is to stop runaway climate change.
Only 6 months ago the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests were not on the radar. Who would have thought that their actions would have led to parliament announcing a climate emergency?
Now let’s make the government adopt our Climate Action Plan.