Alan Whitehead: If we don’t act urgently on climate change the consequences will be dire
After this week's worrying report from the IPCC, the UK government must step up to the plate and take bold action on global warming, writes Alan Whitehead
The IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming above 1.5C, published earlier this week, is not any old report: it is the work of many working groups comprising the input of thousands of pre-eminent climate scientists across the world. And it says very clearly that time is running out to make the necessary changes to the way we live, produce and consume energy, how we produce and eat our food and how we get around the world without driving global warming above 1.5C of warming by 2050.
We are, the report states, way off being able to do that. We are heading for perhaps almost double that increase by 2050, even after the initial commitments at the Paris Climate summit of 2016 are considered.
If we let global warming run away to that extent the report illustrates, the consequences will be dire. Not just well flagged up disasters like the loss of all coral reefs across the world due to sea warming, but a host of other outcomes such as seriously increased flooding, entire nation-states lost to sea level rise, widespread species extinction: in short, a world far more hostile to human and animal life that it has been for a very long time indeed.
The 1.5C figure is not just accidental. It is the level of warming that will in most cases keep the world looking something like it does now. And the report records, we have already, with human-made warming, added 1C to surface temperatures since pre-industrial times.
One thing the report does not do, however, is spell out in detail what we need to do to, country by country across the world to reconfigure our economies so that together the goal is reached. That is up to the politicians of the world to act on. But it contains pointers and some very hard assessments: yes, it is possible for to limit global warming to 1.5C but that will require it says ‘rapid and far-reaching transitions’ in land, energy, industry, transport and cities. And the timeframe for such radical transition is very short: perhaps two decades to have the changes or firm trajectories for such changes in place.
So, what should we now do in the light of this devastating, but not completely unanticipated new appraisal of where we are with global warming and where we need to go? One new aspect of the Paris climate summit was that it required all countries to submit a plan of what actions they would take called an INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions). Add those all together and, if everyone is pulling their national weight, the contributions add up to the required figure – except that when added up so far, they come to well above the 2C and will need to be revised to get even to that level, let alone the 1.5C level now so strongly advocated by the IPCC.
Our national contribution to that revised outcome is likely to have to be that, as a country, we will need to move from the long-standing commitment framed in the Climate Change Act of achieving an 80% drop in greenhouse gas emissions in the UK economy between 1990 and 2050: it will have to be a net-zero greenhouse gases commitment. This means reducing the carbon pollution created right across the economy until any sector left still producing emissions by 2050 will need to be offset by another sector taking emissions out of the atmosphere through for instance CCS or land use change.
Given that the UK’s present low carbon plan does not even meet the emission targets for existing carbon budgets of reducing emissions by 80%, let alone moving towards a 100% or net-zero target, the current administration needs to step up to the plate.
New targets like the proposal from Labour that 60% of all power and heat should be provided by renewable or low carbon sources by 2030 need to become the centrepiece of the next stage of the effort. It is not that the UK has done badly so far in its efforts to fight climate change: we have a good story to tell, at least in comparison with many other leading industrialised countries of the world – but the IPCC report spells it out clearly, we have to do far more, and far more quickly, than we had hitherto anticipated, and the work needs to start now.
Alan Whitehead is Labour MP for Southampton Test and shadow minister for energy and climate change