Last December, Boris Johnson stood up in front of triumphant Conservative Party staff and vowed to make Britain the “cleanest, greenest country on Earth with the most far-reaching environmental programme”. Waking up that dark winter’s day, it was hard to find any cheer. But the prime minister’s speech suggested that he may at least have recognised an important truth: the general election wasn’t only about Brexit, it was also the climate election.
In 2018, scientists at the IPCC told us we had just 12 years left to almost halve global greenhouse gas emissions if we were to have even a 50 per cent chance of limiting the rise in global average temperature to 1.5˚C. And achieving this would require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.
The extreme weather events of this year have shown us the terrifying consequences of not achieving that: California has been on fire for most of the summer, as Australia was at the start of the year. Britain saw heavy flooding in February, torrential rains left a quarter of Bangladesh submerged, and Greenland’s ice cap is melting faster than at any time in the past 12,000 years.
As Greta Thunberg has said, we must act as if our house is on fire, because it is. It is not enough to dial 999 and ask for the fire service to come in 30 years’ time. So the first step to achieving net zero in time is honesty about the scale of the challenge, and what has been achieved to date.
The government often claims to have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 42 per cent compared to 1990 levels. What it doesn’t say is that this is only because we have outsourced our emissions to other countries through our supply chains. If we factor in consumption emissions, the true reduction is closer to 10 per cent. Emissions from aviation and shipping are still missing from our climate targets. The UK Export Finance scheme continues to support fossil fuel projects overseas.
Read more: What Joe Biden’s win means for net zero
The coronavirus crisis has, rightly, grabbed most ministers’ attention this year. It has also given us some valuable lessons about responding to emergencies, including the heavy price of being unprepared, or acting too late.
We have also seen what government can do when it needs to, and how people are willing to come together to protect communities and those most vulnerable. The response to both the public health emergency and the economic fallout has been unprecedented and has surely laid to rest all that Tory dogma about “no such thing as society”.
People’s appreciation of nature has grown, and so has concern about climate change – which has actually gone up during the pandemic, according to a recent study by the Climate Change and Social Transformations Centre. Local and regional leaders have also found their voice, standing up to the centralising and controlling instincts of Downing Street. Most importantly, a majority of people want the government to prioritise health, wellbeing and the environment over economic growth – even when the coronavirus pandemic is over.
We need to build on this. We must use this disruption as an opportunity to reimagine our society. We have a huge opportunity to reset our economic system, turning away from the relentless pursuit of endless GDP growth and the global ecological destruction it is causing.
After a drip-drip of announcements over the year, we finally got Johnson’s much-trumpeted major “speech” on the environment in mid-November – downgraded to a late night press release. Frankly, that was about all it was worth. A shopping list of initiatives from bringing forward the phase-out date for petrol and diesel to investing in hydrogen – with barely more than £3bn in extra spend. Compare that to the £27bn earmarked for roadbuilding.
The plan for nature amounts merely to a commitment to plant a lot of trees. There wasn’t even a ban on the burning of peatlands, a huge store of carbon. This “green industrial revolution” will not close the yawning gap between our climate targets and our chance of achieving them, and there was little detail on how any of it would be achieved.
In the meantime, the government is pressing ahead with programmes which will take us in the wrong direction. As well as roadbuilding, the proposed changes to planning rules, too, are likely to see countryside being built on, with no requirements for developments to focus on walking, cycling or good public transport access. The current “garden communities” programme is already leading to housing developments that are dependent on, or creating the need for, increased road capacity.
We need policies which will deliver the scale of change needed to address these crises and funding to match. In other words, the “global leadership on climate” that Johnson so often boasts of, but has yet to deliver.
In September, I tabled the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, which provides a framework for the UK to meet its global climate commitments. It requires the UK to rapidly reduce our carbon footprint to keep use close to the 1.5˚C target we signed up to in the Paris agreement, and provides for the protection of biodiversity. More than 40 per cent of species in the UK are in decline because of the way we farm, urban expansion and climate change – 15 per cent are at risk of extinction. The Early Day Motion in support of the Bill has cross-party support, but we have yet to see the strong backing from both sides of the House that we saw in the run-up to the Climate Change Act in 2008.
Over the summer, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Green New Deal gathered the views of more than 55,000 people via opinion surveys, workshops and in-depth interviews, on the kind of future they want. Our Reset initiative showed the public is way ahead of the government on the scale of change they’d like to see, with ambitious ideas about the future of work, public services, community and the environment.
Some sections of the business community are also showing real leadership on climate, calling on governments to be more ambitious in their policy response. And other governments are showing the way. The Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership, which already includes Scotland and Wales, recognises that “development” in the 21st century means delivering human and ecological wellbeing rather than GDP growth.
Caroline Lucas is a former leader of the Green Party and the MP for Brighton Pavilion
This article first appeared in an upcoming Spotlight supplement. To see our most recent editions, click here.