Climate and Ecological Emergency: UK’s Response

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:05 pm on 9 February 2021.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 8:05, 9 February 2021

It has been almost two years since this House declared a climate and nature emergency, and more than one year since Parliament last debated the climate and nature crises as an interlinked issue, yet the need for not only debate and declarations but ambitious action could not be more urgent.

The world is now hotter than at any time in the past 12,000 years, and 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have taken place since 2000. Record fires have raged in the Amazon and the US, ice caps in Greenland melt at a terrifying pace and Storm Eta wreaked havoc and unimaginable tragedy in central America. At the same time, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has set out the grim facts on nature and biodiversity: 1 million species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades—more than ever before in human history. Every warning light on the dashboard is flashing red. With the UK due to host the COP26 climate summit in November, and with the COP15 biodiversity summit also taking place this year, the responsibility to show honest and bold global leadership could not be greater.

That means acknowledging three things. First, our domestic climate policy is inconsistent and incoherent. To take just one example, the Government’s failure to call in the recent decision to allow a new coalmine in Cumbria prompted James Hansen, for 10 years NASA’s most senior climate scientist, to warn that the Prime Minister risks humiliation by showing such contemptuous disregard of the future of young people and nature. The UK cannot lead a good COP from a position of weakness and inconsistency.

Secondly, we are off course to meet both our fourth and fifth carbon budgets. Not only that, but those budgets are based on an 80% emission reduction by 2050, not net zero. The latest annual progress report from the Climate Change Committee highlighted that the Government have failed on 17 of their 21 progress indicators, and that only two of 31 key policy milestones have been met.

Thirdly, and most crucially for tonight’s debate, the science on which the target of net zero by 2050, and thus the revised Climate Change Act 2008, are based has moved on. It is time to update the legislation. Let me explain why. The climate does not care about target dates. What matters is how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere over the rest of this century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that a global carbon budget—the total burnable carbon between 2018 and 2100—consistent with a 66% chance of 1.5° C warming is just 420 billion tonnes of CO2. It is currently being burned at approximately 40 billion tonnes a year. On current trends, that gives us until 2030 at the latest before that global carbon budget is used up. After that point, we would have to rely on costly and uncertain negative emissions technologies to avoid global heating of more than 1.5° C. Historically, the UK has been one of the world’s biggest emitters. We started the modern fossil fuel age with the industrial revolution. We are disproportionately responsible for the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere. Factoring that in alongside the need to allow space for poorer countries to develop, a fair carbon budget for the UK looks like around 2.5 billion tonnes of CO2 over that same period.

If we calculate emissions on a consumption basis—that is, if we take responsibility for carbon burned overseas in the service of UK consumption—we are burning through our fair carbon budget at more than 500 million tonnes a year. That gives us just five years before it is gone. That is the reality, that is the inconvenient truth and that is why we urgently need to adopt the climate and ecological emergency Bill, a private Member’s Bill that I introduced into the House last year that so far has the support of 98 MPs from eight different parties.

The Climate Change Act 2008 was undoubtedly pioneering in its time, and many other countries have taken inspiration from it, but it is now hopelessly out of date. An emergency means that we need to act now, in line with what the science demands. The beauty of the climate and ecological emergency Bill is that it offers Government, Parliament and citizens a framework for the UK to play the fairest and most effective role it can to meet the crisis head on—a framework designed for coherence and integrity.

The CEE Bill follows the science; it represents the last best chance for the House to tackle the climate and ecological crisis that we all face together. It has been drafted with the help of expert scientists and has three primary goals: to ensure that the UK meets targets designed to limit global heating to 1.5° C, the point that we must not pass if we are to avoid catastrophe; to conserve and restore nature, ensuring that we protect this life-sustaining planet that is our common home; and to give people a real say in how we transition to a zero-carbon society, drawing on the creativity and ingenuity of the British people as we recover from the effects of the pandemic.

The Bill also seeks to fill in the holes of the 2008 Act in three key ways: first, by accounting for the UK’s emissions on a consumption basis, counting the emissions that we are responsible for overseas as well as those from international aviation and shipping; secondly, by setting out measures that tackle the climate and ecological emergency simultaneously; and thirdly, by involving citizens in what will need to be an equitable shift towards a fairer and greener society.

We need to tell the truth about our climate emissions. The Government like to say that they have reduced emissions by more than 40% since 1990, but that is true only on a territorial basis; one of the ways in which it has been achieved is by offshoring so much of our manufacturing and essentially outsourcing so many of those emissions to countries such as China. If we factor those back in, we have reduced emissions by much less than 40%—possibly by as little as 10% or 15%.

It is time for honesty and time to face reality. The Committee on Climate Change has now published its advice in relation to the sixth carbon budget for the year 2035 and specifically recommended that international aviation and shipping emissions be taken into account. I would welcome confirmation from the Minister tonight that the Government intend to heed that advice.

I also note that the CCC’s advice still leaves out the emissions associated with trade. I ask the Minister: will the UK commit to updating its consumption-based accounts and setting targets and budgets that take account of all the carbon emissions attributable to UK consumption, including those associated with imports? Does she agree that COP26 is the golden opportunity for the international community to start to co-ordinate action on consumption-based emissions with a view to ensuring consistent, robust methods of calculation, avoiding the risk of double-counting and getting the incentives right for different actors?

One of the most important policies in the CEE Bill is the inclusion of nature. Nature has been absent from these debates for far too long, and the UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, failing right now to meet 17 out of 20 UN biodiversity targets. Yet climate and nature are two faces of the same problem. The CEE Bill places a premium on nature-based solutions, and on making change now rather than relying on speculative future technologies. Unless we change the goals of our economic system away from ever-increasing growth, as the Dasgupta review demonstrates, we will undermine both our own health and that of the natural world. As Professor Dasgupta says, we need to change how we think, act and measure economic success to protect and enhance our prosperity and the natural world. If anyone is in any doubt about that, consider that the global economy is set to nearly triple in size between now and 2050—that means three times more production and consumption.

It is hard enough to decarbonise the current economy in such a short time span; the idea that we will be able to do it three times over while protecting and restoring nature is, frankly, for the birds. Or quite literally not: not the birds, not for the bees and not for the thousands of species at risk from the impact of human activity on the planet. The UN biodiversity summit COP15, due to take place in May, is an immediate opportunity for the Government to raise the bar and demonstrate that they are listening to Dasgupta and others.

Finally, there is citizens’ engagement. It is important to recall that the Climate Change Act 2008 itself also started life as a presentation Bill in 2005, inspired by civil society’s “Big Ask” campaign. It is proof that by working together, with shared purpose, giving a voice to thousands of concerned citizens calling for change, global history can be made.

Likewise, the CEE Bill is the people’s Bill. It has sprung from the grassroots, with the intention of giving the public a real say on the climate and nature emergency. The brainchild of the CEE Bill Alliance—a talented group of campaigners, including those who previously fought for the Climate Change Act—it has also had input from scientists at the cutting edge of climate and ecology. My thanks go to them all and to all those who have joined the campaign. The campaign for the CEE Bill is broad and inclusive, working with allies from business, trade unions, faith groups, charities, local communities, the arts and individuals.

The Bill has participative democracy at its heart. The transition to a zero-carbon future is not something that should be done to the people; it is something that should be done with people. Only then will it be a just transition. There is an opportunity, too, for the process to give citizens fresh agency and hope—for our response to the climate crisis to renew our tired and failing democracy. Initiatives such as the Climate Assembly UK show that people have a huge appetite to be part of identifying and agreeing positive solutions. Assembly members came up with ambitious ideas such as free bus travel, a frequent flyer levy, and advertising bans on high-emission products. We are often told that the public will not get on board with bold policies, but that could not be further from the truth. It is also striking that alongside clear, proactive, accountable and consistent leadership from the Government, assembly members also wanted cross-party consensus and for political parties to work together.

The CEE Bill proposes a new and much larger emergency assembly to guide Parliament and the Government in their strategy to reduce emissions and restore nature—this is to help Ministers, not hinder them, and ensure that action reflects the boldness for which citizens are crying out. So will the Minister outline tonight whether the Government have plans to actively and meaningfully engage the people of this country in tackling the climate and nature crises? What role does she envisage will be played by a participative democracy?

To conclude, we are nearing a cliff edge of cascading Earth system collapse. The narrow window for limiting warming to 1.5° is closing fast. Leadership means telling the truth about what that means for people’s lives and livelihoods. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most consequential decade in human history. The experience of covid-19 has demonstrated that with a collective understanding of the nature of a crisis Governments can take radical, unprecedented action. The scale and ramifications of the emergency require us to set aside party differences, as happened in 2008, and reach for the new vision of human prosperity that we know is possible. With sufficient political will, we can co-operate to ensure we all thrive within the limits of our planet, but that is not going to happen without new legislation that gives us a framework commensurate with the science and with the reality. The CEE Bill is that new legislation. It brings the future into the present and our responsibility to the future into the present, too. I hope the Minister will grasp this opportunity to recognise that the climate crisis is bigger than any one political ideology, and will work with me and others on legislation that could be a new and desperately needed global first.