The climate crisis: why the UK needs to stay on the front foot

The UK needs to mobilise commitment and resources, and go much further and faster to address the climate crisis. In this blog Lucian Hudson, Chair of Earthwatch Europe, urges for greater concerted action by the UK Government in leading the world in climate mitigation.

Increased public awareness of the climate crisis and a greater determination to tackle it has helped the UK to reduce its carbon emissions by 42% in the last 27 years, at least according to official estimates. The UK has travelled far: it now needs to travel even further and faster. To meet its commitment of net zero emissions by 2050, the UK must adopt a holistic and concerted approach across all sectors of society - government, business and civil society.

1990, the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published their first Assessment Report, was a very different time. The World Wide Web was just being invented; ‘global warming’ framed most conversations around tackling harmful emissions and climate change; UK households recycled less than 5% of their waste; and per capita we emitted 13.9 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, helping set the world on-course for a rise in temperature of 4oC by 2021.

How the UK is performing

Last year’s UKSSD report Measuring up revealed for the first time how the UK was performing on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our work on Climate Action Goal (13) showed performance to be inadequate to achieve the aims of this SDG. Measuring up demonstrated the links between these targets and stressed the importance of collaboration. By mobilising the commitment and resources of societies across the world, we can deliver on goals contributing to the United Nations 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

One year on and the UK’s Voluntary National Review published in June, highlights the progress that the UK has made in confronting the drivers of the climate crisis. The UK is the first country in the world to introduce legally-binding emission reduction targets, which have helped reduce the UK’s annual carbon emissions to 7 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per capita. It is one of the largest providers of climate finance in the world, supporting developing countries in becoming more climate resilient, taking up low carbon development, reducing deforestation, and actively addressing environmental challenges through interventions.

Concern about climate change is growing – with good reason

Despite this progress, concern over climate change is justifiably higher than at any point over the last decade.  A recent survey finds 34% of Britons are now anxious about the climate crisis and 29% feel overwhelmed by the threat - 40% for 16-24 year olds. The UK is increasingly experiencing the effects of climate change. For example, rising sea levels have resulted in the ‘decommissioning’ of Fairbourne, a coastal town in Wales, with the result that 850 people will have to abandon their homes, yet there is no compensation scheme in place. Globally, over the next 30 years, the climate crisis will drive over a hundred million people into poverty with 143 million losing their homes. Underscoring the evidence that the climate crisis is hitting the most vulnerable, Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has said that the crisis could push more than 120 million people into poverty by 2030.

The Voluntary National Review highlights that progress made by the UK, however creditable, is just not enough. Neither current policies nor pledges are sufficient to meet the Paris Agreement commitment of limiting global temperature rise to well below 2oC. Now is the time to build on public concern by accelerating climate education, and turning awareness into concerted citizen action. However, a recent article by the Guardian revealed that three quarters of teachers don’t feel that they have received adequate training to educate students about climate change. Educational programmes like our ‘Teach Earth’ and ‘Discover Earth’ empower teachers and students to tackle overwhelming issues such as the climate crisis and translate ideas and potential solutions into action.

We now need Government to exercise even greater leadership, give the global climate crisis even more priority and ensure consistency across its departments, working with business and civil society to ensure that the UK remains a world leader in climate action, and continues to deliver on SDG 13. Such is the scale of transformation that is needed and the pace with which we need to make progress that citizens informed by science have to be mobilised to act in a way that is unprecedented. The right way to tackle eco-anxiety is to engage.

Lucian Hudson is Chair of Earthwatch Europe.