Skip to main content

The U.K. Has Declared a Climate Emergency—but a New Report Advocates More Aggressive Action

A new report pushes for zero carbon emissions by 2050, more electric vehicles, and retrofitting urban buildings.
Climate change activists block traffic in the London's financial district during environmental protests by the Extinction Rebellion group on April 25th, 2019.

Climate change activists block traffic in the London's financial district during environmental protests by the Extinction Rebellion group in London on April 25th, 2019.

In an unprecedented step toward a comprehensive climate change response among G7 countries, British Parliament voted to declare a "climate emergency" in the United Kingdom earlier this month. The motion came from the main opposition Labour Party, which has championed environmentally ambitious policies.

"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," Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, told Parliament, according to Reuters.

Because it is a non-binding motion, however, while the government has to respond to the declaration, it isn't committed to any specific climate change policies. The vote is largely symbolic, according to Baroness Bryony Worthington, executive director of Environmental Defense Fund Europe and a lead author on the U.K.'s Climate Change Act (legislation from 2008 that established climate goals for the U.K.). It's not equivalent to other emergency declarations the government has issued in the past in response to issues such as natural disasters or terrorism, which led to specific policy responses.

Still, the vote "indicates that there is a majority of voices in the House of Commons who support more ambitious action to address the risk of global climate change," Worthington says.

Mik Aidt, a journalist at the Centre for Climate Safety, says that the new declaration is different from environmental agreements that preceded it. He runs two environmental websites, one of which urges governments to declare climate emergencies. The Paris Agreement, Aidt argues, "sent the signal that we still have plenty of time to get it all sorted." In contrast, he says, the emergency declaration "justifies that new and faster measures are taken, and it justifies a lot of 'deeper' actions in terms of how we structure our lives, how and who we employ to specific leadership roles, and whether they are on board with the new emergency situation."

While the emergency declaration made headlines, the government is also taking serious steps toward stronger environmental policies. The governments of the U.K., Scotland, and Wales requested an updated assessment of the U.K.'s "long-term emissions targets" from the Committee on Climate Change, an advisory panel. That report was published last week, shortly after the emergency declaration was made.

The report provides recommendations to raise the standards for the U.K.'s climate change response and accelerate the transition to a more sustainable economy. The report urges the government to commit to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. (Its current target is to reach 80 percent of emissions compared to 1990 levels by 2050.)

Here's a closer look at current climate activism in the U.K., the committee's recommendations, and how the committee's proposals are being received.

Climate Activism in the U.K.

The U.K. has experienced an unparalleled wave of climate activism in recent weeks and months. The declaration came after nearly 10 days of protests by the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, which targeted roadways and public spaces. The highly publicized stunts included protesters stripping down in front of Parliament and glueing themselves to trains and buildings. The demonstrations culminated in over 1,000 arrests.

They were, by some measures, successful. As Quartz reports, amid the protests, April set a new record for the number of times climate change was mentioned in the U.K. press. Councillor Kevin Frea, founder and chair of the group Climate Emergency UK, writes in an email to Pacific Standard that Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes led by teenage environmental Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg have had a "massive impact" on the momentum that led to the national declaration.

However, these protests are just the "tip of the iceberg," according to Worthington. "There has been huge pressure being built up over the years as scientists have continued to sound the alarm and the impacts of climate change are seen to be unfolding across the globe."

Local Emergency Declarations

Before the government's declaration, the idea of a climate emergency had been gaining traction at the local level. Across the U.K., 59 local councils have declared climate emergencies, which have been tracked by Climate Emergency UK. According to Frea, the organization "[provides] information on best practice and model declarations, and [promotes] best practice in actions to achieve carbon neutrality." It also connects local leaders to environmental activists.

These declarations have been followed by local steps to transition communities and economies to become carbon neutral. Elsewhere, residents have signed petitions to encourage local leaders to make such a declaration.

What Does the CCC Report Call For?

The report is mainly geared toward structural changes, commending the energy industry for its changes and encouraging other industries, such as transportation, to accelerate improvements.

The committee recommends that all new cars in the U.K. be electric by 2035. This transition will be supported in part by government subsidies, according to Wired. Additionally, the report calls for forest coverage to be increased, through measures like planting trees and improved land management, to cover 17 percent of land by 2050 (it's currently 13 percent). It further recommends that buildings be retrofitted for energy efficiency and better management of biodegradable waste.

The report also encourages individual consumers to walk or cycle more, fly less, consider buying electric cars, and eat less of environmentally damaging foods such as meat and dairy.

The Labour Party, a major proponent of the declaration, has also emphasized the importance of environmental justice in climate change plans. According to Wired, the party is considering energy poverty solutions, including providing free loft insulation to those with incomes under a certain level to make homes more efficient.

The CCC is also—at least tangentially—taking potential economic costs into consideration, maintaining that the transition will be "managed in a fair way for consumers and businesses."

Is the Report Ambitious Enough?

Extinction Rebellion has criticized the report, claiming that, even if the U.K. fully adopts and commits to the report's recommendations, it would still only give the world a 50 percent chance of limiting temperature increases this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The group argues that net-zero emissions must be reached by 2025.

On Twitter, Extinction Rebellion even labeled the CCC report a "betrayal":

Frea agrees, arguing the U.K. "should make a serious attempt to reach zero carbon within 10 years."

Aidt criticizes climate change activists, who have focused on specific goals and demands, for what he regards as their failure to see the importance of the new declaration. "My experience tells me [that environmental activists] are naive and will keep wasting an awful lot of time, which we don't have," Aidt says. He agrees that these goals are not ambitious enough, but he sees them as a "strong step in the right direction."

Worthington, who also believes these goals aren't ambitious enough, still thinks they are valuable. Currently, she says, "There is insufficient focus on the near-term actions that need to be taken to get us [to those larger goals]." She says that the government is already behind on "easier targets" (such as the U.K.'s carbon budgets that aim for only 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050) and it currently has "no plan in place" to meet them. These goals (or more ambitious ones like those proposed by Extinction Rebellion) mean very little unless the government can implement new policies to actually achieve them, she notes.

The declaration ultimately represents a change in the "story" of the climate crisis, forging a newfound sense of urgency, according to Aidt: "If we don't have a good story that gets everyone to come together around a common purpose and goal, we will fail to deal with the enormous challenge of transforming our societies to zero emissions and begin the task of carbon drawdown."

As the climate emergency becomes clearer and the public grows increasingly aware of it, Worthington says, "Politicians will not get away with small tweaks to climate policy here and there anymore."