In Brief

Hot air and empty rhetoric: is the UK acting too slowly on climate change?

‘Every day, new evidence accumulates that humanity is on an unsustainable path’

“There is nowhere to hide from climate change,” said the New Statesman. “Every day, new evidence accumulates that humanity is on an unsustainable path.” In China last month, unprecedented rainstorms forced the relocation of more than a million people in Henan province. In the US, smoke from massive wildfires in California has spread as far afield as New York. In Germany, floods killed more than 150 people last month. In London, flash floods submerged cars and train stations.

Temperatures are now 1.1-1.3°C higher than pre-industrial levels. The world may have only a decade left to prevent them rising by more than 1.5°C – the point at which the risk of irreversible and catastrophic climate change “significantly increases”. So the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November, known as COP26, could hardly be coming at a more crucial moment.

There are less than 100 days until COP26, said The Times. “Yet Britain has spent the past week debating whether it is necessary to rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher.” Allegra Stratton, Boris Johnson’s COP26 spokeswoman, has suggested that such “microactions” can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This may be so, yet her advice seems symbolic of our failure to face up to the immense task ahead.

Britain is meant to be leading by example, and it has set ambitious targets: to cut emissions by 78% relative to 1990 levels by 2035, and to reach “net zero” by 2050. However, “it has yet to set out in any detail how it proposes to achieve this”.

A giant banner grown on a carpet of living grass tells governments to ‘act now’ in the lead-up to COP26, on 25 June 2021

A giant banner grown on a carpet of living grass tells governments to act now in the lead-up to COP26, pictured on 25 June 2021

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

The UK is often told that it is acting much too slowly on climate change, said Nick Timothy in The Daily Telegraph. Yet since 1990, it has cut its carbon emissions at almost twice the rate of the EU. China, meanwhile, is opening a new coal-fired power station at the rate of one a week. Even in Germany, 24% of electricity still comes from coal; and a meeting of the G20 large economies broke up last week without any deal to phase out coal. Does it really make sense for Britain, which generates 1% of global emissions, to impose big costs on taxpayers in order “to reach net zero before everybody else”?

This is the problem with climate politics, said Philip Stephens in the FT. They happen on the global stage, often completely removed from the “gritty local politics” that decide what actually gets done. The gap between the “soaring rhetoric” of international conferences and “policy inaction at home” will have to be bridged, and soon. “Look at the weather.”

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