Earth Day: For real action, we need the climate and ecological emergency bill

Barry Gardiner
© Chris McAndrew/CC BY 3.0

We saw the government this week announce a new target to cut CO2 emissions by 78% by 2035. They have adopted recommendations from the committee on climate change (CCC) and included emissions from international aviation and shipping for the first time. Well done!

Setting the world’s most ambitious target for reducing emissions seems wonderful. But it only is wonderful if it is backed up by policies that are capable of delivering it. The public accounts committee has just concluded that a lack of coordination between government departments means we still have “no plan for achieving net zero” two years on from that announcement.

People rightly grow tired of new targets when they see policy moving in the opposite direction. And people know that we are not on track to meet the existing, less ambitious targets set in the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, let alone this latest sixth carbon budget announcement. Is this really what global climate leadership looks like in the year of our COP26 presidency?

The government will be judged by its actions. So, what does this year look like? 

  • Green homes grant – scrapped. 
  • New licenses for oil and gas in the North Sea – announced.
  • Air Passenger Duty for domestic flights – cut. 
  • Capital allowances to cutting air passenger duty for domestic flights.
  • A super-deduction tax relief of 130% available to fossil fuel companies announced.

This bizarre spate of policy decisions seeks to undermine our credibility as COP26 President and overshoot our emissions targets. Meanwhile our natural world is in decline, and dangerous levels of air pollution are killing our children.

That’s why this Earth Day I am backing the climate and ecological emergency bill (CEE bill) to ensure we tackle the climate and ecological crisis together and put people at the heart of our response. There are three key features of the bill that will provide the transformative change we need.

Firstly, the proposed legislation would require the government to reduce the impacts of UK production and consumption on our climate whilst ensuring consumption-based emissions are included in emissions reductions calculations. 

The UK government likes to boast that we have gone further than any other major economy in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 43% since 1990. Yet this only tells half the story. We cannot ignore the impact of our carbon-intensive lifestyles, which means we must begin to account for emissions from the imports we consume, as well as from aviation and shipping, if our boast is to have any integrity.

A powerful report released last week from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission highlighted that consumption patterns of the world’s wealthiest 10% – from carbon-intensive diets to long flights and fast fashion – have contributed to nearly half of the growth in carbon emissions globally since 1990. The CEE bill’s focus on reducing the impacts of our consumption patterns on our climate and ecosystems is vital in response to a government that is relying on unproven negative emissions technologies as a get out of jail free card.

Secondly, the bill puts tackling the ecological and nature emergency on equal footing to the climate emergency, by requiring government to restore and protect our natural ecosystems. The bill rightly emphasises that we cannot tackle the climate crisis in isolation from the ecological crisis. The impact of our current lifestyles is devastating our natural world, threatening the capacity of ecosystems to act as vital carbon sinks and deliver the services we rely on for survival, whilst also depleting species populations.

The recent Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta report on the Economics of Biodiversity reiterated the fundamental truth that our economy is embedded in nature, not separate from it. This means that our failure to protect the natural world is actually a profound failure of asset management. The CEE bill commits the government to restoring and enhancing our natural ecosystems through active restoration and minimising the impact of domestic and international supply chains on biodiversity and habitats.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the climate and ecological emergency bill recognises that the best way to achieve its aims is for people to be given the power to propose solutions to these crises. The bill will establish a citizens’ assembly, representative of the UK population, to debate and decide the best solutions, informed by experts.

If the government’s performance has lost the trust of the people, perhaps it is time for the government to trust the people instead. This will give citizens a stake in their future and democratise our politics. The climate and ecological crisis cannot and need not strike the same blow to livelihoods and jobs as Covid has. Our emissions reductions strategy and nature restoration plan must be driven by people – citizens – equipped with the skills and knowledge to deliver at a local level.

The bill recognises that there cannot be climate justice without economic justice, and emphasises financial support and retraining opportunities for those affected by deindustrialization as a vital requirement alongside a citizens’ assembly. I hope the government will grant the climate and ecological emergency bill the debate it deserves in the next parliamentary session in May.

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