What is the climate & ecological emergency?
Life on Earth depends upon interconnected natural support systems: atmosphere, oceans, freshwater systems, land, soils and biodiversity. These vital systems support life, providing food, air, clean water and shelter. They also regulate the climate. Scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre have identified nine Planetary Boundaries that enable a ‘safe operating space’ for humanity.
The unsustainable activities of humans have driven seven of the nine boundaries to be breached, including those for climate change, biodiversity, pollution, and freshwater, putting all life on earth at serious risk. The planetary boundaries are interwoven, so breaching one impacts on others. E.g. loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, such as forests and peatlands, makes climate change worse. In turn climate change is causing decline in biodiversity, risking dangerous, irreversible tipping points, with dire consequences, including the loss of the Greenland ice sheet—probably already inevitable—and the transition of the Amazon rainforest to savanna.
What is causing climate breakdown?
The science is clear—greenhouse gas emissions are making the planet hotter and we have broken the safe planetary boundary for climate change . If emissions keep rising, scientists warn that we face an unlivable future, with extreme heat, drought and sea level rise causing widespread crop failure and mass migration. Rainfall will become more extreme with more frequent, more intense flooding events. In the UK, this puts coastal areas at serious risk, particularly when coupled with sea level rise.
Since humans started burning fossil fuels, the average global temperature has risen by around 1.2ºC. That might not sound like much, but it is beyond anything experienced by human civilisation, and is already causing a marked increase in fires, floods, crop failure and extreme weather across the planet.
Every extra fraction of a degree amplifies these effects, adding to suffering and economic cost both here in the UK, and around the world. And the longer we leave it, the greater the risk of crossing dangerous tipping points, like the loss of the Amazon rainforest or the collapse of giant polar ice sheets, which could accelerate warming beyond our ability to stop it.
There is still time to act, to clean our air and restore and protect nature. Scientists tell us that it is not too late to avoid the worst of climate change and restore the health of the natural world, but only if we are prepared to take bold action immediately.
David Attenborough said recently: “It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies. We are running out of time, but there is still hope.”
What is causing ecological breakdown?
Humans have been destroying the natural world for centuries but decline has accelerated in the last few decades. This is mainly due to unsustainable food production by developed countries such as the UK, largely driven by the increase in animal agriculture which takes up vast amounts of land and water resources. This has driven major loss of wildlife around the world, which scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction. Climate change is now accelerating decline even faster. This degradation of the natural world is not just a tragedy for the plants and animals forever lost, but also poses a huge risk for human populations.
We depend on a healthy planet for our survival—for the pollination of our crops, for clean water and air and to maintain ecosystems that help keep the climate stable. Scientists have warned of looming ecological collapse if politicians fail to take emergency action.
The UK has some of the most depleted wildlife and nature in the world. The RSPB’s 2019 State of Nature report on the UK’s biodiversity states:
- 41% of all UK’s species have declined since the 1970s (hedgehogs by 95%).
- 26% of the UK’s mammals are at a very real risk of becoming extinct.
- A third of the wild bees and hoverfly species have been lost, likely due to pesticides, habitat loss and climate change.
- 97% of the UK’s wildflower meadows have disappeared in the last century. Read more from Kew Gardens on why wildflower meadows are so important.
- Only 16% of water bodies are in good ecological condition.
- Marine biodiversity is in sharp decline, but less than 1% of UK seas are well managed.
Cuts in emissions from fossil fuels are only half the solution
The climate and ecological crises must be tackled together, with an appreciation of their interdependencies. The natural world is complex and the role it plays in regulating the climate is often overlooked. Protecting critical ecosystems that contain large stores of irrecoverable carbon, such as forests, peatlands, wetlands and the ocean, must take equal priority with cutting emissions. This is essential if we are to avoid tipping points that may lead to the large-scale release of carbon, resulting in catastrophic heating.
The CE Bill would formally recognise the link between the climate and ecological crises, helping ensure that solving problems for the climate don’t inadvertently create problems for nature.
About the Bill
Where can I read the Climate and Ecology Bill?
You can read the Climate and Ecology (CE) Bill on this web page. For a list of contributors to the Bill, click here.
What will the Climate and Ecology Bill do?
The CE Bill calls for an emergency strategy for the UK to address the crisis. By passing the bill, the Government would be making a legal commitment to ensure that policy and action is driven by what the science tells us is necessary, not what big business lobby for.
The CE Bill would ensure that the UK:
- Makes its fair share of emissions cuts necessary to limit the increase in global temperatures to 1.5°C (the more ambitious end of the Paris Agreement).
- Accounts for its entire carbon footprint wherever the emissions occur. This means taking real action on the emissions we cause overseas through the production, trade and transportation of the things we consume.
- Halts and reverses the decline of nature by 2030, in line with COP15 commitment. Protects and restores natural and managed ecosystems, for healthy soil and water, increased biodiversity and thriving natural carbon sinks.
- Takes responsibility for its harmful impacts on nature around the world. This means being honest about the damage to the environment caused by our financing, investments and consumption; making sure we reduce our global impact on natural resources.
- The Bill calls for the creation of a Climate & Nature Assembly that would put forward recommendations for the emergency strategy to Parliament. This group of ordinary citizens, selected at random like a jury, would listen to expert evidence before reaching conclusions on the best way forward. Their recommendations would be debated in Parliament, but MPs would still have the final say.
The CE Bill is the only proposed legislation in the UK that tackles the climate and nature emergencies as one; recognising that the repair of our natural world and action on climate are two sides of the same coin.
History shows that MPs will only act when the public demands it of them. Please check out our Take Action page for simple things you can do to make a difference.
Why the Bill is needed
Isn’t the UK already addressing the climate crisis?
The UK has taken more action than many countries, but far from enough to stop catastrophic warming. But the UK’s climate targets (‘carbon budgets’) are out of date and fall a long way short of what’s needed to limit warming to 1.5°C.
After being taken to court for its inadequate climate plans, the UK Government issued a large batch of new policy documents on 30th March 2023. On the face of it, these new policies would close the delivery gap, with Government projections now showing emissions falling broadly in line with the UK’s targets (which are inadequate). However, listening to the experts it is clear that the Government’s new projections are unrealistic, with reliance placed on hugely expensive fossil fuel technology and nuclear power – which scientists say cannot deliver the benefits claimed.
Unfortunately the much heralded closure of the ‘Delivery Gap’ now looks like an illusion.
The new plan does little to accelerate the development of cheap clean renewable energy or to save the enormous waste of energy through our old leaky housing stock. Instead it involves handing £ billions to oil industry carbon capture and blue hydrogen projects, which scientists say are not capable of delivering the emissions reductions their lobbyist advocates claim, and locking into incredibly high prices for nuclear power, which will take far too long to develop.
And the Ambition Gap remains – the difference between the UK’s climate targets and what’s really necessary to limit warming to 1.5°C.
Isn’t the UK already addressing the nature crisis?
No. The warning bells are ringing from all directions:
- The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. UK nations are all rated amongst the 12 worst in the world at protecting nature, with England the 7th worst – according to a shocking new report from the Natural History Museum with RSPB.
- UK woodland cover is just 14.5% of our land area compared to a European average of 38%, and our uplands are nearly all bare, contributing to lowland flooding. Government plans to expand woodland cover by only 2% to 16.5% by 2050. This is far from enough when UK ecosystems are facing such danger.
- 80% of UK peatlands are degraded and now account for over 4% of our emissions. The Office for National Statistics estimates that restoring all UK peatlands “would deliver carbon benefits alone of £109 billion and would outweigh the costs by an estimated 5 to 10 times.”
- WWF and ZSL’s 2022 Living Planet report shows that our future is critically dependent on biodiversity and a stable climate but we have lost an average of around 70% of biodiversity. It confirms that unsustainable land-use and sea-use caused by our food system is the biggest threat, destroying or fragmenting habitats.
- The WWF report Thriving Within our Planetary Means shows that the UK’s overseas land footprint for just seven commodities takes up a land area almost equal to the size of the UK itself.
- RSPB’s 2019 State of Nature Report warned that we have continued to allow nature to decline in the UK in the last decade, with 1 in 7 species facing extinction.
- Rates of decline have continued unabated. Government figures on wild birds in England show that over the short-term period between 2015 and 2020 47% of species declined.
We can hopefully all agree that protecting nature is important for its own sake, but nature is also inextricably bound up with climate change. Protecting and restoring nature is also part of the solution to climate change, with critical ecosystems like peat bogs, tidal marshes, forests and sea grasses able to absorb vast quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere and help us adapt to some of the worst impacts of climate change such as flooding, drought and overheating. We are currently destroying many of these environments and releasing CO2, making climate change even worse.
By passing the CE Bill, the government would be making a legally-binding commitment to halt and reverse decline and protect nature, as well as formally recognising the inter-relationship with climate change in order to encourage joined-up thinking. There is no other proposed legislation that would halt the destruction of important ecosystems like woodlands, peat bogs, wetlands and seas.
The Government’s Environment Act is sometimes held up as a solution to the crisis facing nature, but its main purpose is to tie up loose ends post-Brexit. It does not contain strong enough targets or the kind of bold policy action needed to respond to the stark warnings from scientists. The Environment Act only aims to halt decline of a limited number of species by 2030 and increase numbers by only 10% by 2042. At current rates of decline that is likely to result in less nature than we have now, in 2023.
The Government is relying on farmers to deliver the majority of the work to reach it’s targets on nature, including 80% of its flagship target to create 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat in England, outside of protected areas by 2042. That amount of land is only 2% of England and the Government is relying on farmers to deliver at least 80% through new stewardship schemes, the Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), which are voluntary, not legally binding and therefore cannot guarantee success.
Over recent decades, we have witnessed an extraordinary decline in biodiversity and the ecosystem services essential to life. From pollination & natural flood prevention, to crop nutrition provided by soils, we depend on a healthy biosphere. Humankind is part of the circle of life, not outside of it. Yet for decades, human activity has outstripped safe planetary boundaries, resulting in what scientists now define as the arrival of the sixth mass extinction. Experts now warn of looming ecological collapse if policymakers fail to take emergency action – see World Wildlife Fund article.
In his foreword to report on biodiversity, the Dasgupta Review, (commissioned by the UK Government) David Attenborough says:
“Today, we ourselves, together with the livestock we rear for food, constitute 96% of the mass of all mammals on the planet. Only 4% is everything else – from elephants to badgers, from moose to monkeys. And 70% of all birds alive at this moment are poultry – mostly chickens for us to eat. We are destroying biodiversity, the very characteristic that until recently enabled the natural world to flourish so abundantly. If we continue this damage, whole ecosystems will collapse. That is now a real risk.”
RSPB’s State of Nature Report warns that despite the Government making a commitment to nature in 2010 as part of a UN biodiversity treaty (Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020), we have continued to allow nature to decline in the UK in the last decade, with 1 in 7 species facing extinction. RSPB’s Lost Decade Report explains how, ten years on from the UN treaty, the UK has failed on 14 of the 20 biodiversity commitments it made
There is nowhere near enough Government focus on this issue which is inextricably bound up with climate change. The two need to be tackled together, with an appreciation of their interdependencies and we need transformation in our economy, particularly our energy and food systems to turn the tide, not just conservation measures. This is why we need the CE Bill to create a legal obligation to protect and restore nature, whilst ensuring that policies work hand in hand with those addressing climate change.
The good news is that nature can heal quickly if we just give it the chance. Read about the groundbreaking wilding project at the Knepp estate in Sussex.
Aren’t we ahead of other countries’ climate and nature targets?
No major country is doing enough. That’s why the world is currently heading towards catastrophic warming of almost 3°C. Doing more than our neighbours isn’t the answer. We need to do enough based on what the science tells us.
But we are not ahead of similar countries on many metrics, and a growing number of countries are banning exploration for new fossil fuels (France, Spain, Denmark, Ireland) whilst the UK commits to maximise recovery of oil and gas from the North Sea.
We have cut our territorial emissions considerably since 1990, but much of that improvement was thanks to offshoring UK manufacturing. That isn’t cutting emissions – it’s moving them.
Britain has cut emissions by almost 50% since 1990, so aren't we on track?
Government figures show a 48% fall in UK territorial emissions. But this excludes emissions from international aviation and shipping, and from the manufacture and disposal of the products we import. The UK is just following international rules, but these rules are hopelessly outdated. Once these missing emissions are included, our total carbon footprint (‘consumption-based emissions) fell by just 23% from 1990 to 2019. That’s not even 1% per year!
The CE Bill would require us to take responsibility for all our emissions, wherever they occur. This is a well established principle, with best practice for companies now to include scope 3 emissions when calculating their carbon footprint.
The good news is that accounting for the emissions caused by imports will lead to policies that help bring back manufacturing – and jobs – to the UK, where we can make low-carbon products on our ever greener power grid. What’s not to like about that?
International aviation and shipping were omitted from the 2008 Climate Act due to complications determining which country bears responsibility. But these emissions are becoming ever more significant and we can no longer ignore them. UK will include aviation and shipping in its targets from 2033 (the Sixth Carbon Budget), but it continues to allow airport expansion around the country which is not consistent with achieving those targets.
Equally we cannot ignore imports. Many of our companies have outsourced their manufacturing to countries like China. When we order products from abroad, the resulting manufacturing emissions are caused by our consumption decisions. It’s only fair to add these emissions to our account. But going beyond fairness, markets cannot operate efficiently if carbon costs are not recognised. It is already best practice for companies to include the emissions of products they purchase (scope 3 emissions) when calculating their carbon footprint. See British Standards Association’s PAS 2050 standard.
Recognising the carbon cost of imports will give an advantage to UK companies, helping bring back manufacturing and jobs to the UK where we can manufacture low carbon products with our increasingly green electricity grid. This will also help take the pressure off China to build new coal power stations.
The UK has made good progress in decarbonising power generation, but a large portion of the headline 48% cut in emissions has been achieved simply because we have moved so much domestic production overseas. Those emissions have not gone away.
The UK is small compared to China, so does it really make any difference what we do?
The UK’s territorial emissions may only be around 1% of total global emissions, but that still puts us near the top: 17th out of 195 countries. And if we account for our cumulative historic emission (still affecting the climate), we are in 5th place – thanks to leading the world into the industrial revolution.
How can we expect China to listen to us about its coal power stations if our house is far from in order? Zero Hour’s Ambition Gap report sets out how the UK’s emissions targets fall far short of what’s required to limit warming to 1.5°C.
It’s also important to acknowledge that China’s emissions are high because they are making our stuff after we moved so much manufacturing overseas. UK is the largest net importer of CO2 emissions in the G7.
The CE Bill would require that we account for emissions caused by manufacturing the goods we import. The great news is that this is likely to lead to policies like the EU’s recently proposed carbon border tax, giving British companies producing lower carbon products here in the UK an advantage, helping bring back manufacturing and jobs. This will also take the pressure off China to build coal power stations.
We still have the opportunity to lead by example, showing the world a path out of this crisis – but the window for acting is fast closing.
When you look at emissions per person, we’re even nearer the top at 8th in the world as the graph below shows. On cumulative emissions from the start of the industrial revolution, we are in 5th place: don’t forget, most of the greenhouse gases emitted since then are still in the atmosphere, or, just as bad, dissolved into the oceans, raising acidity.
These rankings are based on territorial emissions – occurring within our national borders. But many of our companies have outsourced their manufacturing to countries like China over recent decades. When we order those products imported from abroad, the resulting manufacturing emissions are due to our consumption decisions. The goods would not have been produced were it not for our demand. It’s only fair then to add these emissions to our account.. Imports, along with international aviation and shipping, are currently not addressed by the UK’s emissions reduction plans – despite being estimated by the WWF at as much as 46% of our carbon footprint.
The Bill requires the immediate addition of imports, aviation and shipping, to give a full picture of our global carbon footprint.
Why is equity important when tackling climate change?
Poorer countries, which often face a more immediate threat from climate change argue, understandably, that those who polluted the atmosphere should do the most to fix the problem. The fossil fuels burned by developed countries like ours helped create our wealth, which means that we can better afford the measures necessary to transition to a zero carbon future.
Along with the rest of the world, the UK signed up to a principle of equity, or fairness in tackling climate change. It was formalised in international law in Kyoto in 1992 and known as Common but Differentiated Responsibilities. This established that all countries share responsibility for tackling the climate crisis, but that those who contributed more to the problem, and who generally have deeper pockets, must do more to fix it. This includes:
- Cutting emissions more quickly than countries which have yet to industrialise;
- Providing financial and technological support to the poorest countries to help them decarbonise. Wealthy countries pledged over a decade ago to transfer $100 billion per year in support but action has fallen short of promises.
The CE Bill will simply enshrine these principles (which we have already signed up to) in UK law, helping us lead by example.
Some people ask why we should give financial and technological support to other countries. There are two main answers to this:
The moral reason. As the 5th largest historical emitter, the UK played a major part in causing this problem, with most CO2 emissions from the start of the industrial revolution still in the atmosphere, or just as bad, dissolved in the oceans raising the acidity of the water. It’s a simple matter of taking responsibility for cleaning up our own mess.
The self-interest reason. As poor nations rise out of poverty, the cheapest way to industrialise can sometimes be the most polluting – e.g. burning coal, particularly as other countries ban coal power and prices drop. Faced with the choice between poverty and burning coal, many will take the latter route. This will make climate change worse – for everyone in the world. We can help by providing green technology and financial assistance. In addition to mitigating climate impacts, this will provide a boost for our companies operating in the green sector.
Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) also sometimes appears with ‘and Respective Capabilities’ on the end, referring to different abilities to afford to pay for decarbonisation. The short version is usually used.
The original 1992 definition of CBDR was based on an outdated categorisation of countries into developed and developing. This led to the unhelpful situation where relatively wealthy and advanced countries like China, Singapore and Saudi Arabia (still classed as ‘developing’) were categorised together with very poor countries like Gambia or Bhutan. The 2016 Paris Agreement has moved the definition on, introducing the idea that not all ‘developing’ countries are equal, and removing the possibility that, for example, Greece might have to support Saudi Arabia. More here.
What is the role of hydrogen?
‘Green’ hydrogen, made by electrolysing water using renewable electricity, is a clean technology. However, it is a highly inefficient use of energy, with a roundtrip efficiency (converting from power to hydrogen and back to power) of under 40%.
This fuel needs to be reserved for difficult-to-decarbonise sectors like heavy industry and shipping. Widespread deployment of hydrogen would make net zero more difficult and costly to reach, by taking up scarce clean energy capacity. It would also open the door to ‘blue’ hydrogen, made from methane, which some studies show would be worse than coal for the climate due to unavoidable methane leaks (‘fugitive emissions’).
Hydrogen’s clear unsuitability for home heat is well documented, but it is being promoted heavily by powerful fossil fuel interests looking to preserve the market for methane, and to avoid the gas grid becoming a stranded asset.
- Made by electrolysing water using renewable energy
- Likely to be required in difficult-to-decarbonise areas, such as industrial
- energy, shipping, aviation & seasonal power storage
- Energy inefficient & far more expensive than heat pumps, which deliver around 6 times more heat per unit of electricity than green hydrogen.
- Limited supply until we have surplus clean power/nuclear fusion later this century.
- Made from methane using unproven carbon capture and storage technology – relying on us trusting fossil fuel companies to safely capture all the CO2 and store it permanently.
- Unavoidable leaks of methane (‘fugitive emissions’) mean some studies conclude it would be worse than coal for the climate
- Promoted by fossil fuel industry as route to continue extracting methane, despite huge damage to environment and cost to homeowners.
- Encourages fracking: The lobbyists aim to secure permission to frack for natural gas to produce hydrogen. Fracking involves unavoidable leaks of potent greenhouse gas methane (‘natural gas’) into the atmosphere – BBC May 2021
- Public subsidies: Incredibly, fossil fuel companies are beginning to ask for public money to pay for the infrastructure to capture carbon.
- The head of the hydrogen industry association resigned in 2021, warning he would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on the problems with blue hydrogen. A very strong sign that our Government is taking us in the wrong direction.
- Risk of explosion: Due its very small molecule size compared to natural gas, hydrogen can escape through pipework, and since it is odourless, this does present the risk of explosion.
It is likely that hydrogen will have a role to play for tough-to-fix challenges like aviation and steel manufacture, but that needs to be ‘green’ hydrogen produced using renewable power.
Does the Bill reject Negative Emission Technologies (NETs) like Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS)?
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What are Natural Climate Solutions, and can they help?
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Climate & Nature Assembly
What is the Climate & Nature Assembly mentioned in the Bill?
The Climate & Nature Assembly is a citizens’ assembly, a form of deliberative democracy in which ordinary people help guide politicians in making political decisions. A group of randomly selected members of the public representing a cross-section of society will hear from experts, ask questions, deliberate on policy options and make recommendations to help shape government policy. Citizen’s Assembles are growing fast in popularity around the world as a successful way to tackle difficult decisions, with hundreds taking place right now here in the UK. Find out more at www.participedia.net.
A great BBC documentary follows some of the ordinary members of the public that took part in the limited scope Climate Assembly UK in 2020, interviewing them as they wrestled with the big decisions on how we should respond to climate change. Watch it on BBC iPlayer. Leading Conservative Alok Sharma has spoken out very favourably about this climate assembly.
Haven't previous citizens assemblies around the world failed to deliver?
Business-as-usual has failed for decades to deliver action. A Citizens’ Assembly giving ordinary people a say would help raise public awareness whilst giving the Government the mandate it needs to tackle difficult decisions quickly.
Some people quote the unsuccessful Canadian assembly, but this took place a decade and a half ago and much has been learned since then. Citizens’ assemblies are now used extensively and very successfully around the world. More info at www.participedia.net. There are hundreds taking place right now in the UK including a new Climate Assembly set up by forward-thinking Conservative-led Devon County Council.
Citizens’ Assemblies have been demonstrated around the world to be a very effective way to find consensus on difficult national challenges. Democracy is more than just a general election every 5 years and we need to be creative and bold in engaging the public to find the answers. You will know that there are many different views on how to tackle climate change so let’s enhance our democracy and find a way forward that can complement the existing policy making mechanisms and restore a bit of trust in our politics. We can probably all agree that our established confrontational political system has not delivered the action needed on climate change over recent decades.
The Canadian Citizens’ Assemblies of 2006 were very poorly publicised and hence the uptake on the subsequent referendum was lower than needed for success. This reflects more on the Canadian Government’s lack of commitment to the process than the worth of the process itself.
Other Citizens’ Assemblies have produced excellent results, particularly the Irish Assembly on Abortion 2018 which broke years of political deadlock, and receiving strong public support. The 2020 French Citizens’ Assembly followed many months of ‘Gilets Jaune’ civil unrest. Many imaginative recommendations were made which are now in the process of being considered to enter law. As long as the Government acts to take the recommendations seriously they have every possibility of producing impactful, long lasting results.
Important note – the Climate & Nature Assembly proposed in the CE Bill would not in any way circumvent Parliament. MPs would still have the final say over recommendations from the assembly. The bill simply requires that the assembly’s recommendations are put before Parliament not swept under the carpet. Parliament would remain sovereign.
Aren't citizens' assemblies undemocratic?
Climate & Assembly proposed in the CE Bill would NOT in any way circumvent parliament. MP’s would still have the final say over recommendations from the assembly. The CE Bill simply requires that the assembly’s recommendations are put before Parliament not swept under the carpet. Parliament would remain sovereign.
How can this Bill become law?
What is the plan for the 2023 Parliamentary session?
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How did the CE Bill campaign begin?
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What is a Private Members’ Bill and why are we using one?
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