21 years ago the UK had its warmest winter day since records began – 19.7 degrees. 26 February 2019 saw 1.5 degrees more – and all those people who flew to Ibiza for a half term break would have been warmer at home. So it’s another record – and a big, big jump. Cue jollity and Beach Boys songs, with pictures of people in shorts amongst the daffodils. But you have to get a bit nervous, don’t you, when you remember that today’s temperatures are 33 degrees hotter than they were this time last year.
It seems the jet stream is becoming a bit unreliable nowadays, and because we’re clever humans, we can track it and forecast stuff. But I’m not so sure about the insects; and the migratory bird populations; and bees; and hibernating animals. Natural selection must be having a field day.
Then there’s the spooky image of wildfires – not in California in mid-summer, but on Saddleworth Moor in winter. Even the least observant amongst us must be acknowledging that something is going on, even if we don’t have a clue over what to do about it.
UK Leads the World
As far as doing stuff, your MP will tell you (we’ve asked him) that the UK leads the industrial world in its response to climate breakdown. And it’s true. We have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by over 40% since 1992 – from 601.6 Mt to 366.9Mt. Even better, had we carried on as usual, those emissions would have risen by 25%. That means GHG emissions in the UK would have been twice as much as they are today if we had done nothing. The UK is now back to the levels of CO2 it faced in 1890 and we have dropped out of the top ten most polluting countries in the world. We should be proud of ourselves.
Those top ten between them make up 60% of total emissions (so it’s a bit unfortunate that over one eighth is Donald Trump’s legacy – cos he’s not even trying). Yes, we can be pretty pleased with ourselves. Way out in front, setting an example to the rest of them. Off the naughty step. Doing the business.
Here’s the problem. We are still at double the emissions we should be if we are to remain within that 1.5 degree target (and don’t forget all this weird weather stuff is happening when we are now – at one degree above pre-industrial levels. Who knows what an extra half will do?) So we have to halve what we have achieved again. (actually, we still need to reduce our emissions by 68% over the next three decades) And we’ve done all the easy stuff that we can do without changing our lifestyle. Most of our excellent progress is down to just two factors. We’ve reduced our demand for electricity by about 25%; and we’ve got rid of coal almost completely from that electricity generation and replaced it with gas and renewables. UK has less heavy industry, particularly since the financial crash, and what is left is more efficient. And because gas is less polluting than coal, every coal fired power station that closed to be replaced by a gas one meant a big drop in emissions. The problem is, that windfall is gone now. From now on, every new gas fired power station will increase, not decrease, our emissions. And unfortunately, in the other main areas of concern, travel and domestic heating, the progress we made in the early days has stalled. The average car now does 40.5miles per gallon as against 33.2 in 1990, but we now drive 28% more miles than we did; so the 123.5Mt of CO2 we churned out in 1990 has gone up to 124.4Mt. Domestic homes reduced their demand for energy in the earlier years, but government policy has failed to encourage better levels of insulation and lower GHG emissions in energy use. Worse, it has actually undermined progress. The emerging renewables industry in UK has foundered and has all but disappeared from our shores.
So, we have done well up to now, but in almost every area we have come to a stop. For the future, as the Committee on Climate Change has put it, ‘policy details are largely absent’. Does it matter? If you are 80 or over, probably not – although your eventual death (and it’s an appointment we are all destined to keep) is more likely to be climate -related than it used to be. For the rest of us, the younger you are, the worse it will be. Unless something really drastic happens, everywhere…
Four Things the Government Should Do (says the Committee on Climate Change)
- Support Simple Low-Cost Options – onshore wind, home insulation, woodland creation
- Effective Regulation and strict enforcement – better standards in transport and buildings
- End Chopping and Changing of Policy – cancelling Zero Carbon Homes policy and CarbonCapture and Storage schemes led to uncertainty and lack of investment
- Act now to bring in long-term options – CCS, hydrogen power, electric car infrastructure, electric heating