At a moment when the world’s attention remains focused on the unfolding pandemic, this year’s Climate Week comes as a timely reminder that Covid-19 is not the only crisis the planet faces. A UN report published in November 2019 found that the world is on course to hit 3 degrees of warming even if (and that’s a big IF in many cases) current climate commitments are met. The implications of this warming scenario make the impacts of Covid-19 pale in significance.
If the planet warms by 1.5 degrees (which has already happened across much of the world) we will see more heatwaves, sea level rise, droughts, flooding, wildfires, extreme weather events and significant biodiversity loss. In this scenario, 70-90% of coral reefs will be destroyed. These effects are set to become more extreme with every degree of warming. At 3 degrees (which is possible as early as 2050) the carbon cycle would be reversed and instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, vegetation and soils start to release it, further accelerating the impacts of global warming and pushing the planet beyond any point of return.
Climate migration, economic recessions, global health crisis and widespread food insecurity are inevitable across all of these scenarios. As highlighted by David Attenborough’s latest documentary, biodiversity loss is a particular concern for many scientists as the huge variety of organisms that are interdependent on each other to provide a life support system for the planet have been in significant decline over recent decades. This decline is due to many factors including large scale agriculture (especially cattle farming), resource extraction, huge consumer pressures and climate change. Covid-19 itself is thought to be the result of humans exploiting the natural world, with pressure on habitats causing humans and animals to live in closer proximity, and intensive farming and animal trade. This virus provides a stark warning of what is to come if the destruction of nature continues unchecked.
Far from being a distant threat, climate change is becoming ever more apparent in all parts of the UK and Ireland with every passing year. Average annual temperatures in the UK have risen nearly 1 degree Celsius this decade compared with the 40 years up to 1990 and the risk of hitting 40 degrees every three years is rising rapidly. Increased rain and sea level rise is also expected if current trends continue meaning a significantly greater risk of widespread and severe flooding. Flood projections for the UK show that major cities including Edinburgh, Liverpool, Hull and London are likely to suffer from significant flood damage by 2050.
In Scotland, as is the case across the world the impacts of climate change will cause major disruption to plant and animal species, urban and rural communities, infrastructure and the economy. In recognition of this, the First Minister declared a climate emergency in 2019 and Scottish Government put in place the Climate Change Act (2019) which sets a net-zero target for all greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. Scottish government has also developed a biodiversity policy which is underpinned by the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy and 2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity.
Covid-19 has also triggered the creation of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery whose recommendations outlining the steps needed to ensure a fair and sustainable economic recovery have been incorporated into the country’s most recent Programme for Government. The country has also put together a Climate Assembly which will “bring together people from all walks of life, from across Scotland, to learn about and discuss how we can tackle climate change.”
While this is all positive in the planning, the importance of large-scale, fast action on this issue cannot be overstated. Out of this crisis has emerged an opportunity for change and national governments must take the lead in facilitating that change across society.
The role of local authorities
In 2019 Councils across the UK and Ireland declared a climate emergency with many developing plans and working groups to figure out how to meet newly established targets and adapt to a changing climate. Groups convened by Glasgow City Council and Highland Council are just two examples of working groups that have been convened to advise these local authorities. Despite the disruption caused by the pandemic many Councils have recognised the importance of utilising this moment to push forward climate goals. In Dundee, for example, the Council plans to use a software platform which will visualise current CO2 emissions per sector, proposed and approved policies and indicators of the progress made, in order to manage the City’s climate action plan.
In response to the pressures on pedestrian infrastructure during lockdown Councils acted swiftly to widen pavements and install pop-up bicycle lanes. Exposure to air pollution has been linked to breathing difficulties and other long-term conditions in the lungs and the heart, all of which has increased people’s vulnerability to Covid-19. Obesity has also been shown to increase the risk of mortality from the virus, a fact which has catalysed the recent publication of the UK Government’s Obesity Strategy. The drop in air pollution and the increase in physical activity seen across the country has been one of the few positives of this crisis and many Councils are now planning on making permanent some of the pedestrianised infrastructure changes made during lockdown, something that will benefit both climate and health goals.
From a health pandemic, to the effects of climate change, local authorities are always at the front line dealing with the lived realities of crisis. The work of Council staff has been vital in supporting communities and preventing the spread of the virus over the last few months and will continue to be hugely important in tackling climate change. LGIU have written a number of briefings looking at the role of Councils in the climate crisis including pieces on Ecological Public Health, pensions, business, biodiversity, food and food waste, air pollution, young people and climate emergencies.
Working towards COP26
With the implications for a 3+ degree world in mind, Covid-19 has arrived at a crucial time with many commentators urging governments to harness the lessons from this crisis and ensure a fairer, more sustainable future for the planet and its people. This wave of concern and hope has been channelled through a plethora of ‘green recovery plans’ setting out the blueprint for a sustainable future. This is demonstrated by the Confederation of British Industry’s ‘Principles for a low-carbon, sustainable and net-zero aligned economic recovery post COVID-19’ which states that:
CBI members view the COVID-19 recovery as a real opportunity to do things differently, by delivering the benefits of a low-carbon transition fairly around the country. Warmer, energy and water efficient homes that are cheaper to run; cleaner air with more zero emission vehicles that can be charged and fuelled easily around the country; hubs of industry capturing and storing CO2, and increasing supplies of low-cost decarbonised electricity from nuclear power stations to new wind farms and even negative emissions from biomass with CCS, connected to a flexible grid. The 2020s remain a critical decade for delivering this vision that will get us on track to achieve net-zero emissions and with COP26, G7 and G20 taking place in 2021 with the UK at the helm, this is the moment to lead on the delivery of such a vision.
Recovery plans such as this one highlight the positive side to this doomsday scenario which is that not only do we understand the causes and implications of climate change significantly better, but the technology and interventions exist for us to make real progress in addressing it.
Perhaps most importantly of all, throughout this challenging time we have shown our capacity for collaboration. From checking on neighbours and protecting our communities, to communicating and working across municipal and national boundaries, in a world which seems increasingly insular and competitive, this crisis has shown our capacity for working in partnership and it is this what must come to the fore if we are to address climate change effectively.
As the CBI plan points out, COP26 is scheduled to take place in Glasgow in Spring 2021. With the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss becoming devastatingly clear on an almost daily basis and communities across the world demanding change, the stakes for this meeting could not be higher. This is the first time the summit has taken place in the UK and it presents a vital, and possibly final, chance to demonstrate our commitment to tackling climate change in partnership with countries across the world. With green recovery plans and the voices of citizens paving the way, it is time for governments at all scales to take heed and work together to ensure a fairer, more sustainable future for all.
As always, local authorities and their partners sit at the heart of the LGIU’s work on this issue. If there is any way that we can support your organisation’s work on climate change, or you’d like to tell us more about the work you’re doing, please do not hesitate to get in touch.