The state of our planet is back in the spotlight at last and about time too. But until the government acknowledge that it is an emergency, we will not move fast enough to solve this problem.
The environment is being degraded at a startling rate. We have lost 60% of wild animals in less than 50 years, while more than 40% of insect species are declining. Climate change is making food and water shortages more likely, as the global population heads towards nine billion. Is this not an emergency?
And it is not just happening elsewhere, or at some vague point in the future. The climate emergency is already happening here, right now. The 10 warmest years in the UK have all occurred since 1990. In England, the warmest summer on record was in 2018. The UK has had had more frequent droughts, floods and rising seas, a pattern which is consistent with projections of our planet overheating, according to the Environment Agency.
This is an emergency by anyone’s definition – even the government’s. According to the Cabinet Office guidelines on emergency preparedness, an emergency is defined as:
an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare in a place in the UK [or] the environment of a place in the UK.
Within this definition, climate change is clearly an emergency. Naming it would push us towards more substantial action.
Calling on the government to take real action
I have now asked Climate Change Minister Claire Perry three times whether she will declare a climate change emergency, in several debates in the House of Commons (see here, here and here). Every time she has ducked the question, arguing that such words are unimportant.
I disagree. Actions flow from words.
Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, recently came to speak in Parliament and I was privileged to hear her speak. Shew warned us that we have to treat climate emergency as if it were our house on fire – because effectively that is what is happening to the planet.
If the fire alarm were to sound in the House of Commons, we would not consider how many more members could speak before the House burnt down or argue about what level of harm would be acceptable. We would put every effort into putting out the fire and getting out of harm’s way.
The government continues to repeat the fact that UK domestic emissions have fallen 43% since 1990. But in a fire, would we relax and pat ourselves on the back if we had put out 43% of the flames?
If we recognise climate change as an emergency, we would not think about digging up new fossil fuels, such as shale gas, or support fossil fuel projects abroad. In recent years, UK export finance has spent several billion pounds supporting coal, oil and gas projects overseas. This is only acceptable if we are narrowly focused on our own emissions and targets. But if we are on an emergency footing, the priority becomes protecting our atmosphere, so all emissions reductions are important, wherever they occur.
Declaring a climate change emergency would show real international leadership, not seen in this country since Labour brought in the world’s first Climate Change Act with the world’s first legally binding carbon emissions reductions targets, led by then Climate Change Minister Ed Miliband in 2008.
The Tories have taken the country into reverse, first by scrapping the Department for Energy and Climate Change in 2015, failing to support vital renewable energy developments like the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon Project and relying on strategy documents rather than action. As a result, this apathetic government looks like it will miss several milestones towards the current 2050 emissions reduction target – and this is before we raise the ambition in line with the latest science and recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change.
We should congratulate the peaceful activists of Extinction Rebellion, many of them from Bristol, who have successfully brought this up the agenda. And most people agree with them. Recent polls found two-thirds of people in the UK believe there is a climate emergency and three-quarters would cast their vote differently to protect the planet.
I recently secured and led a debate in the House of Commons on Bristol’s leading environmental groups, such as Transition Towns. They have done a lot of work in places like Bristol, taking early steps to move away from fossil fuels.
Protestors and activists do a fantastic job of raising awareness and challenging public and politicians. We also need a responsible government to change the systems we live in. Whatever commitments we take in our personal lives, it will not be enough unless the government acts decisively.
I will continue to support my colleagues in Labour’s environment and climate change teams. Together, we will keep pushing the government to take this seriously. I believe we must lead the way in tackling climate change and environmental degradation. Our planet cannot wait.