UK Parliament Declares Environment and Climate Emergency

The House of Commons has tonight declared an “environment and climate emergency.” The first national parliament in the world to do so.

This comes in the wake of mass civil action by Extinction Rebellion, school strikes for climate, and local declarations of climate emergency all over the world.

The UK Labour Party, which proposed the motion, asked MPs to “act with commensurate urgency.” Something which the Green Party have been urging for a very long time. 

In the last few days, the Scottish government and the Welsh government have also declared climate emergency. All late to the party, but very welcome.

MPs today fell over each other today to express their ecological concerns. There was unanimous agreement to pass the motion.

A significant moment came when British Environment Secretary Michael Gove at 2.29pm admitted, on the House of Commons floor, that the situation is indeed “a crisis… an emergency… a threat.”

It is another question altogether what the present Conservative government intends to actually do about it. Indications are that they are not yet ready to take more than baby-steps.

The situation is similar in Ireland, where progress was made this week on People Before Profit’s Climate Emergency Measures Bill, which passed through the Dáil – despite government opposition – and now will proceed to select committee stage.

Today’s declaration, and the tone of the debate, shows that a political consensus is building around climate and ecological emergency. And that a combination of grassroots movements, public opinion and cross-party political coalitions are finally beginning to force governments’ hands.

But what does climate emergency actually mean?

In one sense it’s symbolic. Declaring an emergency is a recognition of the urgency of change. If you need a quick refresher on why it’s so serious, start with David Wallace Wells, or watch David Attenborough’s recent BBC programme Climate Change: The Facts.

It’s clear that drastic action needs to be taken immediately, and needs to be well underway as soon as next year. In addition to carbon emissions, the debate today highlighted the impact of extreme weather on people and health, the economy and infrastructure, the loss of biodiversity and its consequent impact on soil quality and food production.

But declaring climate emergency is much more than symbolism. It puts pressure on politicians to put their money where their mouth is, and embark on a series of practical measures.

To take a local example, a handful of Green Party councillors led on a climate emergency declaration in Ards and North Down Borough Council in February this year, which passed without opposition in the chamber. There is currently a public consultation on a Local Development Plan, which involves a sustainability plan, environmental protections and efforts to build local resilience to climate change. All hugely important for a Borough which is a key food producer, with coastlines highly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Recent findings about dangerously high levels of air pollution in Northern Ireland (amongst the worst in the UK) also focus attention on the urgency of tackling environmental distress. Air pollution is thought to cause at least 500 deaths, and many more illnesses, in Northern Ireland each year.

Derry City and Strabane Council are well ahead of the curve on this, and are in the midst of developing a climate adaptation plan for the District.

National and devolved government declarations, however, have the potential to scale things up dramatically.

UK Labour are now focussing heavily on Green economics. In Rebecca Long-Bailey’s words, climate emergency is “the first step in a long list of radical action we want the government to take,” which will “unlock the huge economic benefits of backing a green industrial revolution.”

This is, in essence, the Green New Deal, something which global activists and European Green Parties have long pioneered. The Green New Deal is an economic and environmental programme to create more jobs and climate justice.

The nettle that governments in Britain and Ireland are struggling to grasp, is what to do about fossil fuels. Legislation regulating fossil fuel companies, stopping subsidies, and de-incentivising their growth, are central to change.

In today’s debate, Michael Gove talked up the importance of individuals and free markets in bringing about change. But the free market is based on an assumption of perpetual growth. And this is not possible on a planet with finite resources. So this individualisation of the problem, and disinclination to intervene in markets, has left governments on these islands footering with small issues like plastic straws, whilst sticking their fingers in their ears about the biggest issues.

GreenPeace launched a climate emergency plan today, which helps us understand what immediate action could look like. It contains 134 “practical actions” which governments can take right now – from energy production (de-incentivising fossil fuels and incentivising renewables), increasing energy storage in the grid, transport, buildings, industry, agriculture, nature, aviation and shipping.

It says implementation of these actions on all fronts would put the UK on course for achieving net zero emissions “well before 2045.” Extinction Rebellion use zero net carbon by 2025 as their jumping off point. But either way, the message is clear. Immediate and urgent action is needed.

Indeed, there is wide public support for such measures. Survey evidence released by Opinium today found that:

  • 63% of British public think they are in a climate emergency.
  • 76% say they would vote differently to protect the planet and climate.
  • 64% say government is responsible for taking action on climate change.

Extinction Rebellion has also been active across Ireland, with a large protest a few weeks ago. 95% of second level students said they are worried or very worried about their future due to the threat of climate change, and 86% felt the Irish government was not doing enough to tackle the problem. The school strike for climate in Ireland has also gained significant momentum.

As for what we can do in the north in the absence of devolution, it’s worth thinking about how to support action groups and political parties at Council level who are addressing – in the UN’s secretary general António Guterres’ words – “the defining issue of our time.” Namely climate change, the collapse of nature, and the “direct existential threat” which faces our planet.

Environmental activists have known for long time how urgent this is. But most people saw it as future politics. It’s is now widely accepted that climate and ecological breakdown are the politics of the present. The challenge is how to transform this from bandwagonesque greenwash into deep, practical and lasting action.


67 Climbers” by Felton Davis is licensed under CC BY

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