How are we doing on climate change? UK and world update

Is the UK doing enough to tackle climate change? And what about the rest of the world?
  Published:  16 Aug 2017    |      8 minute read

The Paris Agreement came into force at the end of 2016. Its aim – to prevent severe global warming.

Almost every country in the world signed up to it. Even without Trump's signature, many US corporations and city mayors are getting on board.

But enough of the didn't-we-do-wells. The deal clearly said we needed to act fast. So how are we doing?

We review the progress – or otherwise – move onto 10 things the UK needs to do if we're serious about stopping catastrophic climate change, and end on a message of hope.

So, are the UK and the rest of the world on track? Scores out of ten. 1 being a bucket of melted ice and 10 being Bruce Willis' Armageddon-saving face.

I hear no objection in the room. I declare the Paris Climate Agreement adopted. Laurent Fabius, the French President of the climate talks, 12 December 2015

What is the UK's climate change record?

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions = 6/10

These are the gases that trap some of the sun's rays, causing the planet to heat up. Burning fossil fuels – like coal, oil and gas – increases these gases in the atmosphere. More greenhouse gases lead to more warming and a more extreme climate.

In response, the UK has enshrined in law that it will reduce its emissions by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. To get us to that point, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is setting targets – carbon budgets – every 5 years.

The CCC has so far set carbon budgets up to 2032. Successive governments – regardless of their political outlook – have passed them all. The UK met the first carbon budget (2008-2012), and is on track to outperform the 2nd and 3rd budgets (2013-2017, and 2018-2022).

Overall, the UK’s greenhouse emissions were 42% below 1990 levels in 2016.

Sounds good, right? Well, yes, but…

First, it is great news that emissions have come down. They’ve come down while the economy has grown. Since 2008, emissions have fallen while energy bills have come down. It shows that saving the planet and a strong economy can go hand-in-hand.

So why only 6/10 you ask?

There are 2 reasons.

Firstly, the CCC has repeatedly warned that we are off-track for the 4th carbon budget. These warnings have increased in very recent years, as the government has weakened climate policy across a wide range of areas – particularly on energy saving and renewable energy. And it has repeatedly delayed its strategy to get us back on track.

Secondly, our budgets aren't tough enough.

The Paris Agreement commits nations to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. Current UK targets give us – at best – a 50% chance of hitting 2°C. That’s way too risky.

On top of that, we're leaving developing countries with too much to do. Our carbon budgets, even for 2°C, don't represent our fair share of the global emissions problem. Imagine sharing a flat with friends, and only wiping one table as your contribution to keeping the place clean. It wouldn't be fair – especially if you were one of the messier inhabitants.

Shifting to a renewable electricity grid = 6/10

At least 75% of our electricity needs to come from renewable sources like the wind, wave and sun by 2030.

The story so far has swung between major success and government sabotage.

First the good stuff...

In 2016, renewables rocketed to provide 25% of UK electricity. That was up from just 7% in 2010. It was a major success story for the UK – fuelled by government support for renewable power in the early 2010s, and government action to make coal power pay for its pollution costs.

From May to September 2016, solar power produced more electricity in the UK than coal.

We've seen plummeting costs too. Onshore wind is now the cheapest form of new electricity generation. And – due to consistent government support – offshore wind has experienced stunning cost reductions. It's now cheaper than new gas power stations.

These trends – and major advances in energy storage – mean that renewable electricity can become the dominant, clean heart of the UK energy system within a decade.

Now for the bad news...

In recent times the government has made many policy attacks on UK renewables – pulling support, creating uncertainty and driving away investment. Renewables investment is in severe danger of a sharp fall. Instead the government has focused heavily on nuclear power – a very expensive and risky option. And it's been busy forcing fracking on communities.

There are still some positive signs. It seems to be backing smart grids and meters, which will upgrade our electricity grid and give people more choice to opt for the cleanest and cheapest electricity. And our offshore wind sector is continuing to flourish.

But overall the government remains too fixated on propping up old, dirty and increasingly expensive technologies.

Energy saving = 2/10

Energy saving is the top-priority for action on climate change.

But the CCC reports that “Progress improving the energy efficiency of buildings has stalled since 2012.”

And since 2015 the government has further watered down or cancelled a wide range of energy-saving policies.

This is particularly shameful given that the UK has some of the worst-quality housing in Europe. Our housing stock is so inefficient that millions of people cannot afford to keep their homes warm. Such “fuel poverty” causes tens-of-thousands of early deaths every year.

Transport pollution = 3/10

Overall progress is far too slow. Transport emissions have even been rising in recent years.

The government is pouring far more investment into high-carbon road building than low-carbon public transport, walking and cycling.

And its aviation policy is completely at odds with its commitment to tackle climate change. Heathrow expansion is set to produce an additional 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution. There is no strategy for curbing aviation emissions.

Car fuel-efficiency is improving. But the Volkswagen scandal shows the need for better independent testing. In 2015 VW admitted that it had been programming its vehicles to spew out less diesel pollution during laboratory tests than on the road.

On the plus side, electric vehicle production and sales are growing rapidly. Over the next decade, they'll play a key role in our electricity supply – storing surplus energy from renewables, and releasing it when we need it. The government deserves credit for its support for electric vehicles and battery charging.

Keeping fossil fuels in the ground = 1/10

No one should be drilling for new coal, oil and gas.

80% of the stuff we've already found must stay in the ground. It's unburnable if we want to avoid dangerous levels of climate change.

Yet the UK government remains gung-ho in its support for an entirely new fossil fuel industry – fracking for shale gas. It's also supporting new opencast coal and attempting to maximise oil and gas production in the North Sea.

What is the world doing about climate change?

Global emission reduction targets = 4/10

Under the Paris Agreement, countries are committed to cutting their emissions and pursuing efforts to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5°C. Agreeing a 1.5 goal was a great first step.

Sounds good. But there's a problem. Right now, all their emissions targets are adding up to warming of planet-burning proportions. We're talking over 3°C.

Governments need to take serious action leading up to 2020. That includes increasing their weak targets at the climate talks in 2018. If we miss this window, scientists say it's increasingly unlikely we'll prevent temperatures from breaching the 1.5°C target.

Unfortunately, some governments are dreaming about distant, unproven “negative emissions technologies” – this is a distraction away from the urgent task to cut pollution right now.

Climate money promised to poorer countries = 2/10

Rich countries have historically pumped the most climate-changing emissions into the atmosphere.

They're more responsible for climate change – and are more capable of tackling it. Poorer countries are suffering some of the worst effects of climate change – and they don't have the resources to climate-proof themselves.

Rich countries have promised poorer countries $100 billion by 2020 to help them tackle climate change and adapt to its impacts.

It sounds like a lot of cash but it's nowhere near enough. What's more, rich countries still haven’t outlined how and when they will provide the money.

Incredibly, some rich countries want climate money for poorer countries to go towards supporting dirty energy. The Japanese government wants to use it to finance new Japanese-built coal-fired power stations in developing countries.

Nearly 1 in 6 people – 1.3 billion people – are without any access to electricity. Friends of the Earth is supporting poorer communities to develop clean energy alternatives, that are owned by them, rather than big business.

In Paris we made a major breakthrough with our idea for a renewable energy fund. Countries pledged $10 billion for a new Africa Renewable Energy Initiative. We’re now working to make sure that the money supports the right kind of projects, as well as pushing for a comparable global renewable energy fund.

There has been some progress in getting a “Loss and Damage” mechanism into the climate talks, to help poorer countries cope with climate damage we can no longer avoid. But richer countries are putting a lot of effort into slowing and weakening this initiative.

Protection for climate refugees = 1/10

Millions of people are losing their homes and livelihoods because of climate impacts like droughts, floods and extreme weather.

But these climate refugees fleeing from danger – be it food and water scarcity, or sea-level rises submerging their communities – have no right to legal protection.

The Paris Agreement: 10 things the UK must do

1. Think 1.5°C and a fair UK contribution

We're releasing too many climate-changing pollutants. Our targets are only for 2°C – and they give us only a 50% chance of even hitting that. They also give the UK an unfair share of what pollution we can emit.

The Paris Agreement commits world leaders to pursue efforts to limit the gloabl temperature rise to 1.5°C.

We need to do far more – and do it now.

2. Keep Britain frack free

Developing new fossil-fuel sources is the last thing we should be doing if we’re serious about 1.5°C. We must join France, Bulgaria and New York in saying no to fracking.

3. No new coal

Extracting more coal takes us in completely the wrong direction. New open-cast coal mines are dinosaurs which need finally consigning to history.

4. More renewable energy, batteries, and smart grids

The government should be backing renewable electricity, not slashing support. Around 75% of our electricity needs to come from renewable sources by 2030. Renewables plus batteries and smart grids can be the new beating heart of the UK’s electricity system.

5. North Sea renewables – not oil and gas

Instead of trying to squeeze every last drop of oil and gas out of the North Sea, we should be taking advantage of our huge offshore wind potential. There needs to be a just-transition out of jobs in North Sea oil, and into North Sea renewables.

6. No new runways and major roads

We need a definitive "no" to airport expansion in the UK, starting with Heathrow – cutting air and noise pollution as well as helping tackle climate change.

And the government must scrap its major road building plans and instead put the money into public transport, walking and cycling.

7. Warm homes

Insulating homes will cut energy bills and save lives as well as helping tackle climate change. Energy saving should be a priority in the government’s national infrastructure plans.

8. Deal with the impacts of climate change

We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change in the UK, with more and more damaging floods.

The government must increase spending on flood protection. And as one of the world’s leading economies we have a responsibility to protect climate refugees, and help poorer countries cope with the effects of climate change we can no longer avoid.

9. Clean air

Air pollution, much of it from traffic, kills thousands of people in the UK every year.

By 2025 every new car or van sold in the UK should be electric-powered; all UK cities and towns should have air which meets World Health Organisation standards by the end of 2018.

10. Green industry

The government needs an industrial strategy which:

  • helps heavy industry go green;
  • supports new clean-tech industries; and
  • invests in essential low-carbon infrastructure such as zero-carbon buildings, smart-grids and electric vehicle charging points.

Take-home messages on climate change

1. Our climate is changing fast

We saw this from 2017's horrific Asian floods and Hurricane Irma. It is increasingly urgent that we ramp up action to cut climate change pollution, across all sectors of society, in all countries.

2. A green economy will be stronger

There are huge economic opportunities – for jobs and new businesses – in investing in energy saving, renewable electricity and low-carbon infrastructure. It also means warmer homes, cleaner air, a greener countryside, and safer communities. People’s health and quality of life will improve, the economy will be stronger.

3. We're seeing positive momentum

Renewable energy is rocketing, worldwide. Its costs are plummeting. Coal is in deep trouble. Oil is under threat from the exponential growth in electric vehicles. More money is being pulled out of fossil fuel companies every month. More and more people, businesses, cities and governments are taking action on climate change.

Climate change is happening, now, and it is undoubtedly frightening. But the economics have changed, finance is shifting and ever more people are taking action.

There is growing hope that at last we can keep climate change at bay.