It has been a rather exciting couple of weeks for people that care about our continued existence on the planet. On the back of protests by the Extinction Rebellion movement, it seemed like all the governments in the UK were rushing to see who could be the first to declare a climate emergency.
In fact, I have been drafting this post for two weeks and keep putting off publishing it because more exciting things keep happening! But here it is – an exploration of what all these climate emergency declarations are all about, what is happening where, and what individuals can do about it.
What is a ‘climate emergency’?
There isn’t a set definition of what a climate emergency is, or what a government declaration needs to contain. However, generally it includes a recognition of the climate crisis and the need to urgently respond to it. This Club of Rome briefing note has a clear and detailed explanation.
Perhaps the sentiment has been best communicated in by Greta Thunberg in her speech at the World Economic Forum this year:
I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.
Who declared what when?
In Australia, local authorities have been filling the gap in climate policy at other levels of government for years. It isn’t particularly surprising then that the first council in the world to declare a climate emergency was the City of Darebin (in Melbourne), way back in December 2016, followed quickly by City of Yarra (where I used to live!).
In the UK, Bristol kicked off the climate emergency declaration phenomenon back in December 2018. In response to the IPCC report on 1.5 degrees of global warming. It was rather a bigger deal because alongside the declaration they made a commitment to decarbonise the city by 2030 – including consumption-based emissions. Since then, the number of cities declaring climate emergencies has gone wild.
At the end of April, the declarations kicked up a notch as the Welsh and Scottish Governments declared climate emergencies. A few days later the UK parliament joined in the fun and Ireland was the second country to make a declaration just last Friday.
(I imagine this list is going to be out of date as soon as I publish the post, but a complete list of constituencies that have made climate emergency declarations is available here.)
So what will actually change?
It is hard to say.
In cities like Bristol and Manchester, where the climate emergency declaration was accompanied by a commitment to reach net zero emission by 2030 and 2038 respectively, there is a clear target to achieve. However clarity on what the target is does not make it any easier to achieve. Local authorities like Bristol have set themselves the challenge of reducing emissions that they have very little control over. Bristol’s net zero target includes consumption-based emissions – so the emissions associated with all the things people in Bristol do (heating homes, driving around, watching Netflix) and consume (growing food, manufacturing clothes, managing waste) need to be considered. Very tricky and ambitious!
At a national level in the UK, the climate emergency declaration comes in the context of a country which has:
- Had a legally-binding emissions reduction target since 2008, set by the Climate Change Act. The target is currently an 80% reduction in emissions on 1990 levels by 2050.
- Currently has emissions at the lowest level since the industrial revolution, having reduced emissions by 42% since 1990 (although this does not include emissions from aviation, shipping and those pesky consumption-based emissions).
- Coal has also been systematically phased out, and in the first week of May the UK had its first week without coal power since the industrial revolution and continues to break records. Lovely weather this week meant that generation of solar energy also broke records.
Of course, there is still a lot that needs to be done in the UK. At the start of May, the UK Committee on Climate Change recommended that the long term emissions reduction target for the UK be updated to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Extinction Rebellion, the protest group that brought London to a standstill in the second half of April, are demanding that the UK adopt a target of net zero emissions by 2025.
At the same time, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. So does the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which just hit a terrifying 415 ppm (that doesn’t mean a lot to most people, but it is probably higher than any time humans have been alive). It isn’t enough for countries like the UK, with emissions already on a downwards trajectory, to declare a climate emergency. All countries need to do so, and act on it!
Is this just a UK phenomenon?
The majority of climate emergency declarations have come from the UK, however it not the only country that is experiencing an upswing of climate action. Climate emergency declarations have also been made by local authorities in France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Canada, the United States and, of course, Australia.
And action hasn’t only taken the form of climate emergency declarations.
A growing number of countries either have, or are considering net zero emissions targets. Just this week, Germany committed to climate neutrality by 2050. This is in line with France, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, who are pushing for the EU to adopt a net zero target for 2050. The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit have a nifty tracker that shows all the countries with net zero emissions ambitions (and have more information on their website about cities and states that have adopted a similar target).
Over in the United States, the House of Representatives passed its first climate change bill in a decade in early May. If enacted, it would require the President to develop a plan to reduce the nation’s emissions in line with their commitment under the Paris Agreement.
New Zealand have also introduced a zero carbon bill, which will include a net zero target for all greenhouse gases (except biogenic methane) by 2050. (Interesting aside – New Zealand has a very different emissions profile to other countries like Australia and the UK, with agriculture making up almost half their carbon footprint. Agriculture is one of the trickier sectors to decarbonise, so there is a separate less ambitious target for methane.)
The Australian school strikes for climate have been recognised all over the world, and even inspired the movement here in the UK. Climate change is also shaping up to be a key issue in the Australian federal election on Saturday, so hopefully after that we will stop being such an embarrassment of a country and start actually doing something about the climate crisis at a federal level!
So what can individuals do?
I’m so glad you asked!
- If you are in Australia or the EU, you have an election coming up. Make sure you vote for someone that will take action on the climate crisis. I wrote a whole blog post about it here.
- The UK Committee on Climate Change have outlined some actions that individuals and households can take to reduce their carbon footprint. Check out page 25 of their report. I trust these smart cookies, it is their job to advise us (and the Government) on climate change. The recommendations include thinking about the way you travel, use energy in your home, and what you eat and buy.
- “Talk about your experiences and help to raise awareness of the need to act” – this one is also directly from the UK Committee on Climate Change. Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes have shown that activism works, but you can take it as far as you are comfortable. Even a conversation with your family or mates will make a difference!