In early May, following ten days of protests in London by Extinction Rebellion, the UK government declared a climate emergency. This was one of the environmental activist group’s key demands and it shows great progress; it means that the government, after admitting that we face ecological collapse, can be held accountable for its damaging actions which do not correspond with the declaration.
However, declaring an emergency is only the first step. Action must follow. MPs are calling on the government to become carbon neutral by 2050. But again, these targets must come with necessary change to our current systems: transport, food, energy – in other words, to capitalism.
We’re at risk of the words ‘climate emergency’ losing their meaning if action does not follow. The words could become another ‘Brexit means Brexit’: ‘climate emergency means climate emergency’ – but what does that mean exactly? I imagine Michael Gove uttering this meaningless phrase in response to a question about his environmental policies he doesn’t know the answer to, as if simply stating there is a climate emergency is enough to combat climate breakdown.
Sadly, this has been a common trend throughout the Extinction Rebellion protests. When the protests disrupted public transport in London, Sadiq Khan made a statement saying: ‘I share the passion about tackling climate change’ but ‘you must let London return to business as usual’. The second statement completely contradicts the first; return to ‘business as usual’ is exactly what we should not do. This tendency for politicians, oil companies and owners of huge corporations to say they support climate action but not do anythingis why we’re in this mess.
Another chilling irony is that on the same day parliament debated the declaration of climate emergency, the government also approved plans to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow – the UK’s largest carbon emitter. Obviously, these plans are not in line with the Paris Climate Agreement, but because this agreement has not been integrated into UK law, Chris Grayling, transport secretary, thinks the fact the plan is just about legal gives him the go-ahead, claiming it’s necessary to create jobs. Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth put it simply: ‘how can we take any government remotely seriously when they claim to care about climate chaos while supporting this runway?’
Concern for the planet is growing at an immensely fast pace; Extinction Rebellion have soared in popularity, Greta Thunberg is speaking with governments and the school strikes are huge. These movements are succeeding in gaining media and government attention, and subsequently, governments are being forced to act. It’s natural that in any fast-growing movement, there will be mistakes. Considering how quickly we’re all waking up to the realities of climate breakdown, there will be contradictions and that’s all part of finding a way forward.
But, we cannot let the declaration of a climate emergency be all words and no actions. A climate emergency means no more ‘business as usual’. The UK government have made their first step, it’s now time for experts from all over the world to collaborate and develop a course of action. We need economists, scientists, policy-makers, activists, from all backgrounds, to come together to pave a clear path in line with the demands of the emergency.