FEATURES HOW TO THE SAVE THE PLANET
want you to act like the house is on fire,” 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has urged us. On the face of it, the UK parliament just has. On 1st May it declared “an environment and climate emergency.” Proposed by Labour, not contested by the Conservatives, passed without opposition. It felt like a big deal.
The last “state of emergency” is outside most people’s memory—it was declared in the early 1970s, in response to industrial strife. But unlike that emergency, no special powers have yet been put in place, nothing has changed on our streets, no legislation has been passed and the House of Commons has returned to its becalmed state, for now a sideshow to the Tory leadership contest. This muted response to an alarm that we ourselves have sounded symbolises the challenge we face.
All sensible people can agree that climate change is real, and that the consequences of not acting will be devastating. That’s why the historic Paris Accord of 2015 set a goal of keeping temperature rises “well below 2 degrees” while “pursuing efforts” to keep them below 1.5 degrees. But these goals are not yet matched by the pledges of individual countries which, even if implemented, would mean something like 3 degrees of warming by 2100.
The consequences of this would unimaginably and dramatically alter our world. The last time the Earth was three degrees hotter was in the Pliocene era, three million years ago, long before humans inhabited the planet. Sea levels were 10-20 metres higher and forests went to the edge of the Arctic Ocean. In these conditions, deadly heatwaves would stalk much of the world with many places facing drought and potentially killer floods. The world would potentially have to grapple with largescale climate migration. Conflict over land and water would be
hard to avoid. And given the potential of feedback loops that kick in at some unknown point, as polar caps melt and methane escapes from previously frozen land, it could be too late for humanity to pull the planet back from the brink.
Astonishingly, we now know that half of all global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have come in the last 30 years. In other words, we have done more damage in the few decades when we have known what we were doing, than we did in the centuries when we didn’t have a clue. On the timetable of last year’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, there are now only 11 years left on the clock to take decisive action. We need a 45 per cent cut in global emissions—an indicator, by the way, that is still rising—to have a chance of meeting 1.5 degrees. This is why the legendary US climate activist Bill McKibben says, “winning slowly is the same as losing.”