Ministers are pouring petrol on the climate crisis - it’s time they were held to account
We’re facing rising seas and soaring temperatures. Parliament needs the teeth to make ministers act, says Green MP Caroline Lucas.
Today marks 10 years since the UK showed leadership on tackling climate change.
On this day in 2008, Parliament passed the Climate Change Act – a groundbreaking piece of legislation introducing the first legally binding emissions reduction targets and a framework for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
But it would be wrong to spend today celebrating. This morning the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released its latest projections on what climate breakdown means for the UK – and if we continue down the path we’re on, it’s not looking good.
Our top scientists are warning that, in a worst-case scenario, sea levels could be a metre higher and summer temperatures could be 10 degrees hotter within our children’s lifetimes – and we’ll all see more storms, floods and droughts in the coming years. As the sea encroaches on the land and our green pastures turn to dust, the UK will look very different by the end of the century.
Delivering the projections, Michael Gove spoke vaguely about his department’s efforts to mitigate the worst impacts of this devastation. But his talk of new wetland habitats being created as farmland turns to bog, and assurances that he’d already ‘factored in’ the serious threat of flooding in London, didn’t bring much comfort.
Because – while there’s no question that the Government understands the planet is burning – it’s increasingly clear ministers have no plans to call the fire brigade.
In fact, in the past two months alone, a whole new government-backed fracking industry has broken ground, the Chancellor has ear-marked billions for new roads and fossil fuel subsidies, and the Transport Secretary has launched new climate-wrecking flights from Heathrow to Cornwall. On Friday, the Communities Secretary failed to stop a new opencast coalmine from plundering the Northumberland coast. While Michael Gove draws up “ambitious plans” to salvage precious items from the flames, his Cabinet colleagues are pouring on petrol. The lack of joined-up thinking is astounding.
One of Theresa May’s first and most damaging acts as Prime Minister in 2016 was to disband the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) – rolling its functions into the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and hinting that climate change would be woven into every economic decision. In reality, that rhetoric was pure spin. With both the department and the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change gone, we have lost proper parliamentary scrutiny of all the ways ministers are making matters worse.
With a wider remit, it’s no wonder climate change has fallen down the agenda of the BEIS Select Committee. Of the 30 inquiries it has pursued so far, just eight have related to climate change – compared with all 80 of the DECC Select Committee’s probes.
But 10 years on from a good start and 12 years before time runs out to avoid climate catastrophe, I’m getting fed up of cajoling ministers into getting the basics right. I’m sick of repeating the common-sense arguments for backing cheap, clean energy, investing in warmer homes, delivering 21st-century trains and buses, and building a more sustainable farming system.
The Government has had its chance and blown it. Now it’s up to MPs to admit that our strictest emissions targets and our loftiest ambitions for green energy aren’t good enough – and get on with implementing the all-encompassing transformation we so urgently need.
One step towards this would be for Parliament to create a Select Committee on Climate Change to scrutinise every government department and chart a course out of this crisis.
Our economy is still built on the assumption that precious minerals, fresh air, clean water and rare species can magically regenerate themselves in an instant. That the Earth is expanding to meet our insatiable appetites.
But the reality is we’ve stretched the planet beyond its limits – and without a bold reimagining of our economy it won’t be able to spring back into shape. Meanwhile, we’ve pushed our society to breaking point – and revolutionising how we live is the only way to end inequality and restore ourselves to health.
It’s an enormous task, and our lives depend on it – but a Select Committee could be one way to show the way forward.
Its MPs must urgently begin drafting legislation to impose absolute limits on our use of resources and outlaw wasteful product designs. They must measure the Government’s success according to people’s quality of life and the health of our ecosystems – not economic growth. And they must set out binding plans to ensure people can thrive as we transform our society.
The economy we have now divides and degrades by default. The economy we build next must distribute and regenerate by design. Passing the Climate Change Act was an important first step – but its 10th anniversary should be a wake-up call. We need a Select Committee dedicated to laying the foundations for that new economy now. If by 2028 we aren’t living in a radically different world, we will have failed to secure our own futures.