The UK is asleep at the wheel at the wrong moment in the face of climate change - Liz Barber
This is no time to be downplaying the urgency or the scale of the challenge. The National Infrastructure Commission reported that progress on climate action is too slow and that ‘the risk of delay is now greater than the risk of over correction’. And the UK Climate Change Committee’s latest assessment ‘found very limited evidence of the implementation of adaptation at the scale needed to fully prepare for climate risks’. There appears an increasing consensus that the UK is asleep at the wheel at precisely the wrong moment.
The IPCC report finds that the consequences of global warming appear worse than previously thought. Losses and damages increase with every increment of temperature rise, creating “compound and cascading risks that will become more complex and difficult to manage”. Its message is stark but not without hope: deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in emissions would slow the warming within 20 years.
The Paris Agreement target to contain warming to 1.5 degrees is not arbitrary: there is clear evidence of how natural systems face increasing stress, with the risks of crop failure and species extinctions rising sharply once 1.5 degrees is passed. The IPCC considers that currently implemented policies will produce warming within the range 2.2 to 3.5 degrees. Species loss, crop failure, and people’s exposure to extreme heat will all be hugely worse at those temperatures, but the more we can slow the warming down, the better the prospects for adaptation.
Research for the UK Climate Change Committee shows the need to invest between 1 and 2 per cent of GDP in climate action to reach the UK’s Net Zero target Environmental organisations have grappled for decades with how to make the hard-nosed business case for climate action.
It is frustrating that Sir Nicholas Stern’s landmark report, showing the clear economic benefit of acting sooner than later, is now 17 years old, and crucial time has been lost in implementing his findings.
The IPCC restates the need to act now in unequivocal terms. The report finds that the consequences, and therefore the costs, of delaying are getting worse as evidence of irreversible tipping points grows.
The report states that all scenarios that could still limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees involve “rapid and deep, and in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas reductions in all sectors this decade.”
Our region already has plans to achieve rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. We have a net zero target of 2038, and several local authorities are aiming as early as 2030. And, it’s not just about carbon: Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission are working to build momentum for our Climate Action Plan around a much broader suite of targets.
On the production side, Yorkshire and Humber has a high-carbon industrial heritage and is still home to some exceptionally large emitters, including power stations as well as many chemical industries around the Humber. These emitters have their own decarbonisation programmes.
On the consumption side, about 1 in every 1,500 people on the planet live in our region and we consume more than our global fair share of resources, so our direct contribution as individuals is certainly significant.
The area of land we inhabit may be small, but it’s the only land we have and we must put it to good use. The UK as a whole is very ecologically depleted, but our region has some globally significant ecosystems, especially our peatlands. The fact that we live so densely and yet still side-by-side with amazing habitats makes the Yorkshire and Humber region an ideal testbed for developing a coherent multifunctional approach to land use at scale, in which human development, food production, nature recovery and climate adaptation can be done in more integrated, harmonious ways. To be successful this needs a level of integration in decision-making that we have yet to see.
Communications that ridicule climate action are plainly irresponsible and fly in the face of the science, but neither are doom and panic a good response to this kind of emergency because they don’t motivate people to act.
Changing the minds of climate sceptics would be great, but it’s a sideshow. Much more important is that so many people and organisations already care and already want to act, but they face a frustrating series of barriers. What they need is practical help – finance, training, regulatory backup – and confidence that there is a pathway they can take that will work for them, as individuals or as organisations, and that will make a difference.
Liz Barber is chairwoman of the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission.