10 years of UK climate change action: problems, progress and essential next steps

Martin Siegert looks back at action on climate change and offers ways forward to a low-carbon future

Image of CO2 dial being turned to low. Martin Siegert looks back at some of the progress made over the past decade on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, considers the factors limiting development of low-carbon technologies and offers a way forward to accelerate the necessary action on climate change

Our future is low carbon. Image: Shutterstock

— By Martin J. Siegert, Grantham Institute, UK & Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London, UK

2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the UK Climate Change Act — legally-binding legislation that commits the UK to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of the 1990 value by 2050. A decade on, while progress on emissions has been made in the UK and indeed several other nations, global emissions of carbon dioxide continue to rise, with the value now standing at 403.5 ppm. The last time the Earth had this level of atmospheric CO2 was in the Pliocene — ~3.5 million years ago, when sea levels were 10-15 m higher than today and the world was several degrees warmer. This will be our future unless we tackle climate change with greater urgency.

Here, I take a look back at some of the progress made, consider the factors limiting development and offer a way forward to accelerate the necessary change.

Climate change: A continued grand problem

Despite proclamations by world leaders a decade ago that climate change is humanity’s greatest challenge of the 21st Century, since 2006 we have seen global temperatures continue to rise to levels never-before measured, sea levels increasing due to warming of the ocean and melting of land ice, and atmospheric carbon dioxide hitting a level not seen for 3.5 million years (NOAA, 2017). The reason, as agreed by the scientific community through several comprehensive assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2013), is the continued burning of fossil fuels at unprecedented rates. Based on these measures, it is difficult to disagree with the view that attempts made so far to curtail climate change have failed utterly.

Steps towards lower emissions

But while the underlying statistics look bleak, there are reasons to be optimistic. International attempts to limit emissions of greenhouses gases took a major step forward in December 2015 at the Paris summit. Considering that just six years earlier in Copenhagen no agreement was met — or even looked likely — the Paris agreement is a remarkable first and critical step. Its design is clever; individual nations contribute what they deem is possible to lower emissions, based on their economic and developmental need, as well as recognizing a wider global need.

Alone the Paris agreement is not enough, however. Even if implemented fully, global temperatures would rise to over 3°C from what they were before industrialization in the mid 19th Century (Kintisch, 2015). There is now plenty of environmental, economic and social science evidence to conclude this scenario must be avoided (AVOID2, 2017) — it would be a humanitarian disaster, likely affecting poorest nations the worst and making conflict for diminishing food and water resources more likely.

False economics of fossil fuels

It seems obvious that a low-carbon future is necessary. However, the grip that fossils fuels have on our way of life cannot be overestimated. The main problem is that the true economics of fossil fuels are incorrect. So called ‘externalities’ — problems that arise directly or indirectly as a consequence of fossil fuels that have an actual cost either now or in the future — are not properly accounted for, if at all, in the sale and use of fossil-fuel derived energy (Stern, 2007).

As a consequence, the costs of health problems due to polluted air in our cities is paid by general taxation, rather than an appropriately costed price on its cause. Furthermore, there is little immediate economic incentive for a power company to clean itself up. Similarly, the costs of future climate change consequences are not covered in the pricing of fossil fuels — instead we leave it to future generations to pay for.

Who doesn’t want cleaner air and lower utility bills? Both can be achieved by low-carbon power and transport systems, with increased energy efficiency. To drive this popular and worthwhile transition, new technology is needed. We’re now seeing the results of such technological advances in the roll-out of cheap wind and solar energy, improved batteries that make energy storage possible and, from this, the rise of electric vehicles (Carbon Tracker and Grantham Institute, 2017). Ten years ago, no-one saw these things coming at the scale we’re now seeing.

Indeed, who doesn’t agree that access to clean breathable air is a basic human right? If so, why is it that we allow pollution to be emitted from power stations, cars, ships, airplanes and trains at no cost, when doing so contributes to denying this right?

In the UK at least, we now have the legislative ingredients for a low-carbon future: a legally-binding Climate Change Act (meaning the UK’s emissions will be cut by 80% of their value in 1990), a Clean Growth Plan, an Industrial Strategy and a National Infrastructure Commission. The way ahead for Britain is clear — it is a low-carbon future, and investments are starting to be made accordingly.

Anti-science obstacle

Then there’s President Trump. His anti-science rhetoric and refusal to develop his views using evidence and expert opinion, coupled with the enormous power his office holds, have undoubtedly knocked progress. The reaction of US scientists, businesses, cities and states against Trump’s decision to take the US out of the climate deal agreed in Paris is encouraging, however. We owe a great debt to the US for our shared understanding of climate change, and technologies that can be developed to combat it. Presidents come and go, and for the next few years while the isolationist US policies on climate change will likely be difficult to take, the commitment of other important US actors in this area will remain and grow.

Donald Trump is not alone in his anti-science views. Nigel Lawson is equally vocal in his campaign against arguments that have been long-settled within the scientific community. No-one would be listening to him if it weren’t for media organizations like a few UK newspapers (the Mail, the Telegraph) and the BBC, which has apologized twice for allowing Lord Lawson to make statements on climate change that are blatantly incorrect.

Even in academia there are some who dismiss work of the IPCC. Ten years ago I was once confronted by a senior professor who told me “climate change research in social sciences is trivial and uninteresting” as I tried to engage a broad consensus on such research. He is now a Vice Chancellor at a UK University. He may have changed his views, of course, but my experience tells me that views on climate change are surprisingly varied among some in the academic community — but not among the scientists who actually undertake the work. Why has their carefully-crafted and evidenced-based message not been accepted by everyone? Is it because of a failure among the scientists to get their message across? Or is it because some people are simply contrarians — especially in the media, whose job it seems is to take opposite views?

Our future is low carbon – but do we have the skills?

While we have made some progress, the problem remains enormous. And one problem in particular gets little attention.

When we think about the future, we often hear about decisions being driven by economics, innovation and politics. We hear less about skills, however.

Are we equipping the next generation with the skills they will need to deliver the low-carbon transition required? The answer is, in my opinion, probably not.

Students, by and large, are passionate about the need for action on climate change. Our universities are doing a good job in thinking about climate change, certainly enough to say that they are doing something, but are they doing enough? Do they fully support their students’ ambitions? Again, probably not.

The UK’s universities are world-class as measured by research — but not against innovation. A challenge is to help students learn not just about the world that has passed, but how they can influence the world they will inherit. If our students are to become entrepreneurial, then why don’t more universities have clean-tech accelerators coupled with teaching programs? Plans are being drawn up at Imperial College, for example, but answers to this problem cannot be the preserve of one or two institutions – the scale of the challenge is massive and it requires effort from many, not a few.

We’ve come a long way, but there’s still much to do

The science behind climate change is settled, despite what devout climate change sceptics, would have you believe. There is international support for action on reducing emissions. Companies are taking active roles in investing in the low-carbon future, and we’re seeing transitions in clean power and electric vehicles that no one imagined could be achieved so quickly. All this despite one-sided fossil-fuel-biased economics. Imagine what we would achieve under a level economic playing field, with the true costs of greenhouse gas emissions being paid upfront!

The bottom line though remains the too-high concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases. There is so much to be optimistic about — but there is so much still to do for a low-carbon world. If we can get the economics right, our training in good shape and public acceptance of the need for a low-carbon future, then we really will be in business.

NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), 2017. Carbon dioxide levels rose at record pace for 2nd straight year.

IPCC, 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp

Kintisch, E., 2015. Climate pledges so far would allow extensive global warming by 2100. Science, 358, Sep. 28, 2015 doi:10.1126/science.aad4634

AVOID2, 2017. Can we avoid dangerous climate change?

Stern, N. 2007. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. Cambridge University Press, pp712. ISBN 9780521700801.

Carbon Tracker and Grantham Institute. 2017. Expect the unexpected: The Disruptive Power of Low-carbon Technology.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Frontiers.

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