Five years on from MP’s emergency declaration, the CAN Bill is our last, best chance of real climate and nature action

Five years on from MPs declaring an environment and climate emergency, over 800 champions—representing almost 25% of all Westminster candidates from all main parties—are calling for the Climate and Nature (CAN) Bill. Candidates—including Miatta Fahnbulleh (Labour, Peckham), Nathan Edmunds (Conservative, Torfaen), Graham Leadbitter (SNP, Moray West), Pippa Heylings (Lib Dem, South Cambridgeshire), Carla Denyer (Green, Bristol Central), Catrin Wager (Plaid Cymru, Bangor Aberconwy), Gina Miller (True and Fair Party, Epsom and Ewell), Guy Ingerson (Scottish Green, Aberdeen South) and Ed Gemmell (Climate Party, Wycombe)—are just some of the 800-plus candidates who are backing the CAN Bill.

Five years ago today, on 1 May 2019, MPs approved a motion to declare an environment and climate emergency. Time moves fast in a world of accumulating emissions, rising temperatures, escalating nature loss—and the dreadful, preventable impacts that come with it. When we scan the horizon now, half a decade on since May 2019, can we really say we’re making the necessary progress to tackle the climate-nature crisis? How are we to interpret the UK Government’s actions—and inactions—since the MPs’ declaration in 2019? And crucially, what should we—and what should (future) MPs—do now as we approach an election that will determine who’s in power for the second half of this vital decade? 

It was also five years ago, in Davos, when Greta Thunberg stood in front of world leaders and delivered the (now very well known) warning: “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear that I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire—because it is.” Have our leaders acted? And if not, are they now acting in line with what we know is required? 

Whether we approve of the language of emergency (or panic, or crisis), we should all be able to agree on the facts. The UK is now one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth. IPCC scientists warn of “a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a livable and sustainable future for all”. In this light, can we say that the UK Government is treating this as a crisis? Are they following the science? Are they delivering a just transition?

In June 2019, shortly after the MPs’ declaration, the UK Parliament passed legislation that required a reduction in the UK’s net emissions of greenhouse gases by 100% (relative to 1990 levels) by 2050. This target seemed to demonstrate a willingness to prioritise long-term action on climate change. However, it’s one thing to set a target—and another to deliver a plan to achieve it—an issue that’s just brought down the Scottish First Minister. We needed, and we still need, a joined-up climate and nature plan to put the UK on the right track. For climate, for nature, and for citizens.

It’s not just net zero by 2050. Or 2040. Or 2030. It’s about the pathway we take to get there. It’s about the impact of the UK’s cumulative greenhouse gas emissions—and the safe limits of the planetary boundaries we all live in—so that people today, and future generations tomorrow, have a liveable future ahead of them (as set out in Zero Hour’s Net Zero: The Ambition Gap report). The current net zero strategy offers promises for tomorrow—with little action for today. Even actions that had been promised have now been abandoned, including the phasing out of new gas boilers by 2035 and the transition to zero-emission cars and vans by 2030. The UK Government’s regrettable rollbacks—and a lack of science-led ambition—has led to wildlife broadcaster (and CAN Bill supporter) Chris Packham taking the UK Government to court. It’s the duty of Ministers to meet the commitments of the Climate Change Act and—as Chris has pointed out—they’ve failed to take this crisis seriously. And may have broken the law in doing so.

Analysis by Friends of the Earth on present policies in place to deliver a 68% reduction in emissions by 2030—as advised by the Climate Change Committee—shows a 9% gap in reductions. This means not only are we not on track, but that the next UK Government will have to strengthen current policies and increase ambition in order to meet the UK’s existing climate targets. Targets that were set before the 2015 Paris Agreement. Targets that, unlike the CAN Bill, don’t take our import emissions into consideration, leading to the fallacy that we can offshore the problem. 

A crucial part of delivering on our targets—as laid out in the cross-party CAN Bill—is recognising the interconnectivity of the climate-nature crisis. We cannot solve one without the other, they are two sides of the same coin. It’s important to recognise that we are making strides with this, and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework at COP15, which was signed by the UK and 195 other members in 2022, agreeing a new global mission to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. A commitment that was recently reiterated by Steve Reed MP (Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary) in an article in The Guardian where he pledged that a Labour Government would uphold our international agreements. This is the right way to build upon the 2021 Environment Act plans, and will bridge the ambition gap between what’s currently in law, and what’s needed to truly ‘bend the curve’ when it comes to reversing nature’s destruction. Furthermore, as required in the CAN Bill, we need to account for our full ecological footprint. We can’t simply rely on protecting our own backyard—we need transformational change, via a holistic, whole-of-government approach—so that the UK stops offshoring damage, and starts accounting for the destruction of nature caused by our supply chains, which are wrecking critical ecosystems (such as the Amazon rainforest).

The next occupants of Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster must deliver on our climate and biodiversity commitments by demonstrating national delivery of the UK’s obligations agreed in Paris in 2015 (UNFCCC COP15) and in Montreal in 2022 (UNCBD COP15). When combined, these two COPs—confusingly, both called ‘COP 15’—set a dual and interconnected mission for all governments to deliver. Two guiding lights, one on climate, on emissions reductions in line with 1.5°C of global warming; and one on nature, on halting and reversing nature loss by 2030. Ministers must lock these science-led targets in law as part of achieving a joined-up climate and nature plan. And that’s what the CAN Bill will deliver. Not to do so, ahead of October’s nature COP (COP16 in Cali, Colombia) sends a clear message to Britain’s partners. “We’ll agree with you in public when the spotlight is on us at UN summits. But we won’t legislate to actually deliver these treaties. That’s not a priority.” The same goes for November’s climate COP (COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan). “We all agree that ‘1.5°C is on life support’. But we won’t acknowledge our fair share of the remaining global carbon budget. That’s not a priority.”

In 2029, when a decade will have passed since the UK Parliament’s declaration, we want to be able to look back and see that the next, incoming Government has turned the tide. At Zero Hour, we have a way forward—and it’s gaining growing support from our next crop of MPs. Zero Hour’s Westminster election campaign—The Nation Needs You!—is calling on all candidates to get behind the Climate and Nature Bill and demonstrate to voters that, if elected to the green benches in the Commons, that they will advocate for serious, science-led legislation that, delivered in the right way, can provide near endless benefits to us all. Lower energy bills. Flourishing wildlife. Cleaner air. Green jobs. Home-grown renewable energy. Protected green spaces. A happier, more sustainable society. And a liveable future for future generations.

Today, Zero Hour can proudly share that since launching our election campaign in March, 24% of candidates have come out in support of the CAN Bill; the only proposed and published legislation to tackle the climate-nature crisis, together. [1] This means that over 800 cross-party candidates—from across all four nations—are calling for bolder, more ambitious, and science-led action in the next UK Parliament.

However, we know that we can’t stop here. As Chris Packham said when he helped Zero Hour launch our election campaign: “This is the ‘last chance’ election to address our climate and biodiversity crisis”. We call on all candidates to pledge their support for the CAN Bill and, if elected, help us deliver the strong, science-led laws we need. Not only to make the ambition of the 2019 declaration a reality—but to reclaim the UK’s environmental leadership—and finally get serious about reducing our energy bills, protecting our wildlife, creating green jobs, and bolstering our energy and food security.

[1] In total, there are 3,392 candidates. These include 631 candidates each for the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Labour, Conservatives, and Reform Party; 57 candidates each for SNP and Alba; 32 candidates for Plaid Cymru; 18 candidates each for SDLP, Alliance, DUP, UUP and Sinn Féin; and 1 candidate representing the Climate Party. Independents are not included in this calculation.

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