What is a 'climate emergency'?
The UK has declared a climate emergency for the national government in Westminster and devolved administrations of Scotland and Wales. But what does it mean?
What is it?
The climate change emergency passed by the UK government is a motion rather than legislation and does not change the government’s legally binding targets under international accords, such as Paris, or national legislation, such as the Climate Change Act 2008.
This Labour-led motion is a largely symbolic gesture, which makes the UK the first state in the world to make a declaration of an ‘environment and climate change emergency’. It was developed following pressure after the Committee on Climate Change’s report on net zero, weeks of protests about perceived government inaction on the issue, political meetings with global youth climate figurehead Greta Thunberg, and several television documentaries on the BBC and Netflix highlighting climate change.
In his reasoning for putting the motion onto the floor of the Commons, leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn made a series of comments about UK policy and why an emergency should be put in place. These included missing biodiversity targets, an increase in extreme weather events, avoiding more than a 1.5C rise, water availability, cuts to Natural England budgets, and increasing the targets set out in the Climate Change Act 2008. However, as it is a motion, rather than binding legislation, none of these desired changes will necessarily be put in place as a result of declaring an emergency.
Environment minister Michael Gove did admit during the Commons debate that the Government needed to do more, and on Tuesday produced pledges from the government to reduce carbon emissions to “net zero” but without a timeline.
Presenting the motion, Corbyn said: “The House must declare an environment and climate emergency. We have no time to waste. We are living in a climate crisis that will spiral dangerously out of control unless we take rapid and dramatic action now. This is no longer about a distant future; we are talking about nothing less than the irreversible destruction of the environment within the lifetimes of Members.”
An abstract concept
There is no precise or accepted international definition of a ‘climate emergency’, but making such a declaration was a key element of the Extinction Rebellion and youth climate protests that have recently occurred across London, the UK and worldwide, and was a byword for taking immediate action and developing policy to mitigate climate change beyond current government targets and international agreements.
The government is actually following UK local authorities on this issue, and several councils across the UK have passed motions for a climate emergency in recent months, including in London and also in Bristol, where it has been tied into plans to make the city carbon neutral by 2030.
Although it is hard to find an origin story of the phrase 'climate emergency', Bristol Green Party councillor Carla Denyer could be the first politician to put forward the idea of declaring "a climate emergency" in November 2018 after it had become common parlance among environmentalists and climate activists. In the motion to British City Council, which was passed, she stated that she was inspired by the recent IPCC report which warned that humanity has 12 years to take emergency action in order to prevent global warming greater than 1.5°C. Above this temperature, the risks to humanity of floods, droughts, extreme heat and poverty become much greater, impacting on hundreds of millions more people - hence the need to declare ‘an emergency’.
Ambition into action
In terms of turning the declaration into action, comments made by former leader of the opposition and Climate Change minister Ed Miliband are telling. This week he said we should be on a ‘war footing’ when it came to tackling global warming, and referenced programmes such as the nationwide move from town to natural gas in the 1960s and 1970s as an example of the kind of large-scale projects that will be required. Therefore, it is expected that many of the programmes, projects and policies associated with net-zero and science-based target setting will be used to react to the climate emergency.
Perhaps a crucial difference – and why the government has chosen to use the alarmist word ‘emergency’ – is the expectation that these projects should be scaled up from pilots and small schemes into large, company or industry-wide programmes to mitigate climate change and limit temperature rise to 1.5C.
The emergency is also illustrative of a desire to bring our current 2050 targets forwards – potentially even by decades to 2030 - and even to 2025 as Extinction Rebellion and youth climate leader Greta Thunberg have called for, although this is unlikely. But as a case in point of how fast moving the activity has been around the climate change emergency, this morning (Thursday 2 May) the first minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon announced a net zero by 2045 target.
So how can sustainability professionals respond to the climate emergency? The UK business sector has been a leader in the field of net zero and delivering ambitious goals through the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi) to try and reduce the planet’s warming to less than 2C.
But recent plans to drive this down to 1.5C – which could be seen as being in line with the broad goal of the climate emergency and bringing forward targets – have only been taken up by Tesco, Carlsberg, BT and herbal tea firm Pukka Herbs.
The SBTi has put plans in place to help more businesses convert to 1.5C targets, a move which could be strengthened by the news this week on the climate emergency, the CCC report and the drive to net zero.
It remains to be seen if targets do change at a UK government level – or if the ‘emergency’ is simply a symbolic political tool that will be used by the opposition to illustrate a lack of government action in response to the climate strikes.
But it is early days, and it is important to note that the government’s official position to the Labour climate emergency motion was to oppose it. It is also worth noting that current government policy, such as the UK's first deep coal mine in decades (supported by Labour), the expansion of Heathrow, fracking, and continued use of natural gas and oil - as well as 'downgrading' standards outlined in the Environment Bill - illustrates we are some way from seeing the 'climate change emergency' become central government policy.