Climate Change: Bigger than ‘life and death’

Carbon emissions

Some people, the famous former Liverpool Football Club manager Bill Shankly once said, think football is a matter of life and death. “I assure you,” he commented. “It’s much more serious than that.”

As Liverpool celebrate their first top flight title in English football for 30 years, the sentiment might be borrowed to address the climate emergency.

It was in October 2018 that the United Nations warned we had just 12 years to avert irreversible climate change. The aim was to keep global warming to a minimum of 1.5C. Beyond that, a half degree increase would significantly increase the risk of floods, droughts, extreme heat and poverty as parts of the planet become uninhabitable.

This “keeping the lid on the increase to 1.5C” was set as the target at the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. That also aims to limit a rise to 2C by the end of the century, against pre-industrial levels.

But it is no good waiting until 2030 to change our carbon emissions rates. In fact, a year ago, the emphasis was put on changing society’s ways within 18 months thanks to the Prince of Wales. The report quoted the previous year’s IPCC report suggested that as governments usually make plans to last five or 10 years, the plans had to be in place by the end of 2020.

Soaring temperatures recently have no doubt prompted the follow up stories that we now have six months.

Last week, there was another story saying we have just six months to make serious changes. This was according to the executive director of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol.

Decisions now, coming out of the Covid-19 crisis, will determine the global economy shape for the next three years, Birol says. (The problem with governments is that generally think short-term – until the next election time.) And it is during that time that carbon emissions must fall sharply to meet targets. When eminent world organisations are saying that environmental considerations must be at the heart of economic recoveries, it’s a no-brainer to listen.

The money spent so far, the article goes on to add, has tended to prop up carbon emitting businesses: because these are the status quo. What people know. The jobs that are current. Those traditional jobs that help people pay the bills and also give them leisure spending money. In turn, this stimulates the economy and brings taxes back to Government.

But now that we have an enforced pause, it would be easier to use it as a way of starting over. To rethink what we as a society want to achieve. To put new things in place instead of returning to “normal”. The polluting normal. We have a chance to create green jobs and form a modern, less polluting, economy.

Airlines, for example, one of the biggest polluters, are unlikely to return to their capacities any time soon. The skies around Gatwick Airport are notable for their bird song, not aeroplane song. Virgin has announced it will pull out of Gatwick and shed a third of staff. It estimates that flight levels will not return to 2019 rates for three years. Other airlines have also said employment will drop, immediately or short-term.

The target of hitting net zero carbon emissions in the UK was signed into law by then Prime Minister Theresa May (remember her?) a year ago. One source suggests very little has been achieved since. To hit those targets by 2050, says the Government’s own Committee on Climate Change, we need: much more robust plans than previously to insulate homes; a move away from gas boilers; an even quicker phasing out of diesel and petrol vehicles than the reset target of 2035; further taxes on fuel duty; huge investment in nature projects; reskilling programmes; encouragement to work at home to continue; research into low-carbon technologies; bring forward the planned expenditure on flood defences.

Retrain the people displaced from jobs at Gatwick, for example, to jobs making a positive impact on reducing emissions. They could work on projects in the wide Sussex countryside, or on those that improve energy efficiency in homes.

Essentially, what we need is for government to put reducing carbon emissions at the heart of decision and legislation. Or, as the Climate Coalition puts it, to build in a ‘net zero’ test to all economic decisions. As every decision has an economic consequence, that’s every decision that is made. That has to be the consequence of declaring a Climate Emergency, which both central UK Government and many councils, include Surrey, have done. We must press them to remember that is the essence of every decision they take from now on.