This year’s crucial international climate summit, which kicked off in Dubai last week, takes place against a backdrop of an accelerating climate crisis and record levels of global carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.
The world has increasingly been battered by extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, storms and floods, which are growing in intensity and frequency as the planet rapidly warms. All of this is having disastrous consequences for people and communities.
Parts of East Africa are experiencing their worst drought in 40 years putting millions of people at risk, Iran recorded a ‘feels like’ temperature of 66.7 °C in July, while terrifying floods in Pakistan in 2022 caused over $30 billion of damage and displaced over 8 million people.
But the impacts aren’t just being felt abroad. People in Britain are increasingly finding themselves on the frontlines of the climate emergency too.
Kevin Jordan lives in the coastal village of Hemsby in Norfolk, where coastal erosion and increasingly severe storms have left his home – and those of his neighbours – at serious risk of collapsing into the sea. When he bought his home 13 years ago, he was told it should be safe for about 100 years. But much more rapid erosion means he now lives just five metres from the cliff edge. And a recent road collapse has made it inaccessible for vehicles.
Doug Paulley, from Wetherby in Yorkshire, has a number of health conditions which are exacerbated by searing summer temperatures, causing not just great distress and discomfort, but also putting him at increased risk of serious harm. He is not alone. According to the UK Health Security Agency, over 2,800 excess deaths occurred during the summer of 2022. Those with pre-existing medical conditions, older people and very young children are especially at risk from the dangerous health outcomes associated with soaring temperatures.
Kevin and Doug don’t think the government is doing enough to protect people on the sharp end of the climate crisis and have joined Friends of the Earth in a legal challenge to the UK’s adaptation strategy.
To try to limit the impacts of the climate crisis, governments around the world have agreed to try to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels. How to achieve this target – which is currently off track - will be one of the main the focuses of this year’s COP28 climate summit.
New figures published this week by Carbon Action Tracker warn that projected warming has remained almost unchanged for two years “as governments push false solutions over climate action.” While nations accept the need to act, there is huge disagreement about who should do what – and who needs to make the fastest and biggest cuts in their emissions.
Friends of the Earth has always maintained that it’s wealthy nations who need to take the lead. Countries like the UK are historically the biggest climate polluters and have developed strong economies off the back of fossil fuels. They need to take the lead in tackling this threat.
On the face of it, the UK has been at the forefront of action to cut emissions. It was the first country to introduce legally-binding emission cuts and has separately made an international pledge to cut UK emissions by more than two thirds (of 1990 levels) by 2030.
However, despite repeated assurances, progress towards these climate targets has veered dangerously off course, with the government’s independent advisor – the Climate Change Committee – warning that without tougher action, targets are unlikely to be met.
But astonishingly, rather than taking more action to cut emissions, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has actually decided to do less. In recent months Mr Sunak has vowed to “max out” North Sea gas and oil and watered down key green policies, and continues to allow a new coal mine to be built in Cumbria. If we want to play our part in confronting the crisis, and encourage other countries to play their part too, we must do much better.
Going green isn’t only good for the planet; it’s good for our economy too. Onshore wind is one of the cheapest sources of energy, it’s quick to develop and it’s popular with the public too. The untapped potential is huge. Fixing the nation’s heat-leaking homes – and there are millions of dwellings with little or no insulation – would slash bills and reduce our reliance on gas. Instead of running down the green economy and undermining business confidence and investment, the government should do more to champion it. A bold new climate action plan would help create new jobs and business opportunities, reduce our dependency on costly fossils fuels, and make the UK a genuine world leader in cutting emissions.
But we also need to help other countries too. Nations that have done the least to cause the crisis, are facing the biggest impacts – and are least well-equipped to build low carbon economies or deal with these consequences of increasingly severe climatic events.
The UK and other rich countries which have been churning out emissions for centuries have agreed to share finances and technologies to help these nations deal with the climate crisis. But now wealthier countries are trying to shirk their side of the bargain, reopening the question of what counts as financial support and dragging their heels in meeting promised goals.
Climate change is a global crisis that will affect every nation, but not equally. Everyone has to play their fair share in solving it – and rich countries like the UK must do more.
Rachel Kennerley is international campaigner for Friends of the Earth.