Parliament has declared a climate emergency because when it comes to stopping climate breakdown – we're in the last-chance saloon.
We need to put the brakes on climate breakdown 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 6 areas the UK government should focus on 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 breakdown. Or the millions of people harmed by extreme weather events over the past few years.
These impacts on many of the planet’s poorest people are a good enough reason alone to call the current situation 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 more 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 breakdown.
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, burning, climate change or all three.
If it were just climate change (ie logging had stopped), this would happen at a higher temperature (+3°C). But with logging, fires 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 Action 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 declared a climate emergency. That’s a good start.
Now government 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 6 solutions the government should commit to to combat climate breakdown:
Government must crack down on the most polluting modes of transport. They should introduce a frequent flyer levy and phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans within the decade and help motorists switch rapidly to electric vehicles (with electricity powered by renewable sources).
Public transport needs to become the go-to way of getting about across all UK regions. Instead of funding the massive roads programme, government should be spending this money on cheap and brilliant public transport, such as free buses for the under 30s – and improving services out of cities – while making it easier for people to cycle and walk wherever possible.
Electricity can't come from dirty fuels like coal, oil and gas anymore.
We need a permanent ban on fracking. And instead of importing dirty energy, the UK should be powered by a home-grown renewables sector.
Government must pull out all the stops (through finance and regulation) to double the speed of renewable energy rollout and achieve 100% clean energy from the wind, sun and sea. The offshore wind industry is a UK success story with new jobs and plummeting costs. The government has said it wants 40GW of offshore wind power by 2030 and has said it will help onshore wind and solar with guaranteed prices. But they haven’t changed the planning rules that are holding back onshore wind. We need a lot more renewable energy that the government is currently considering.
3. Buildings and homes
Government should fund a massive insulation scheme and shift to homes heated mainly by electricity, provided by the UK’s vast renewable energy resources (see solution 2).
All existing homes should be retrofitted with insulation, and all new homes should be zero carbon with renewable energy technologies fitted as standard.
A scheme like this would help end fuel poverty, and the misery of cold, expensive-to-heat homes (whether rented or owned).
4. Trees and food
Government needs to put funding in place to double tree cover (which removes planet-wrecking emissions from the air around us) and incentivise nature-friendly farming.
They’ll also need to introduce policy support for sustainable diets and reducing food waste to enable this shift.
Our current system encourages us to waste food and rely on single-use plastics or short-lived products (such as gadgets and clothes), a lot of which end up in landfill, incinerators, or in our seas and waterways.
We need to redesign products and reshape how the economy works so that we extract, use and consume much less of the Earth’s resources. And government leadership is key to making that happen.
6. International justice
Poorer countries (predominantly in the Global South) suffer disproportionately when it comes to the effects of climate breakdown – such as droughts and floods – and yet often they have contributed the least to global carbon emissions.
The UK, on the other hand, was the first country to industrialise and is in the top 10 of the world's worst emitters of all time. We're also effectively funding climate breakdown. Over the last decade, billions of pounds of taxpayers money have been spent on supporting oil and gas projects overseas. Instead of funding such projects, the UK government must pay its fair share to support more vulnerable countries dealing with the impacts of climate breakdown.
We can beat the climate emergency
Humans are ingenious. We’ve sent people to 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 12 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.