The recent deadly heatwave should act as an alarming warning about the danger of climate change: that it is here, that it is now, and that it is going to get worse. It was not, of course, a phenomenon restricted to the UK. Extended extreme heat is now common in the US, India and China, as well as on the continent of Europe. That record temperatures, such as over 40C in the UK, have arrived as early as 2022, shocked even climate change scientists.
The threat to human life posed by climate change has been understood by policy makers for over 30 years, as illustrated by the speech made by Margaret Thatcher to the United Nations in 1989.
The implications of the heatwave in mid-July 2022 were, however, almost completely ignored by her putative followers in the Tory leadership contest. Half of them, including current favourite Liz Truss, advocated the abolition of the ‘green levy’ on energy bills – a levy on fossil fuels designed to support investment in renewable technologies; Truss backs Boris Johnson’s line on gas and oil exploration, and both she and Rishi Sunak would give the go-ahead to fracking.
Little enthusiasm for climate action
Meanwhile, those who get to choose our next prime minister are equally lukewarm on climate action: in a recent poll, only 4 per cent of Conservative members put net zero in their top three priorities for the new leader.
The test will be whether Alok Sharma, president of the COP26 summit, remains in post: he has threatened to resign if the new prime minister reneges on the net zero pledge. The target is legally binding under the Climate Change Act, which was enacted by Labour but received cross-party support.
Recent legal action by, among others, Friends of the Earth, prompted a High Court judge to state that the Government lacked “any explanation or quantification of how [its] plans would achieve the emissions target, and as such had failed to meet its obligations under Climate Change Act (CCA) 2008”. He ordered the Government to outline to Parliament, by next April, exactly how its net zero policies will achieve emissions targets. The Department for Business, Energy and industrial Strategy (BEIS) commented merely that their plans were “well on track”.
Damaging consequences of failing to act
The shambles at the heart of government has had damaging repercussions on vitally needed decisions on reducing energy consumption and decarbonising energy.
It is manufacturers, energy companies and the finance industry, all of whom need to plan for the medium and long term, that can deliver net zero. Neither Rishi Sunak’s mini-budget in March (which did not mention net zero) nor the government’s British Energy Security Strategy, launched in April this year, provided bold policies on demand management. This would include initiatives such as help with home insulation to ease consumer pressures over the coming winter.
Because of the repercussions of the invasion of Ukraine, instead, net zero and decarbonisation as a strategy seem to be being sidelined in favour of energy security. UK oil and gas reserves in the North Sea are now being termed a “medium-term transition fuel”.
This change of direction, in order to reduce dependence on imports from Russia, means that the war in Ukraine is hampering Europe’s efforts to get a grip on global warming. However, dangerous heatwaves caused by climate change are not a medium-term problem: they are already here, and will get worse, year by year, as carbon emissions continue to increase.
Welcome to the ‘new normal’
In May, the World Meteorological Office warned that the planet is increasingly likely to experience global warming of 1.5C within the next five years. Its secretary-general, Petteri Taalas, said, “Heatwaves will happen more frequently because of climate change” – describing it as “the new normal”.
Meanwhile, our dependence on fossil fuels is driving up energy prices and is the main cause of an escalating cost of living crisis.
The answer, however, is surely not more fossil fuels and more air-conditioning (which itself uses large amounts of energy) but more insulation, more renewables, such as wind and solar power, and less use of fossil fuels.
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