Politicians need to show courage with environmental policies like Sadiq Khan and the ULEZ expansion
Just weeks after a leading climate scientist warned he was "very pessimistic" about limiting the world to 2C of warming, Rishi Sunak announced more than 100 new oil and gas licences.
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Earlier this month, one of the country’s leading climate scientists warned that he was very pessimistic about the world meeting the Paris warming target.
Almost every country on Earth signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2015 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C - or 2C at the very least. And experts say failure to do so will result in more heatwaves, floods, sea level rise, crop failure and health problems.
Professor Robert Watson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change said: “I’m very pessimistic about achieving even 2C, but if we allow the target to become looser and looser, higher and higher, governments will do even less in the future.”
He added: “We need to try and hold governments to start to act sensibly now and reduce emissions. But even governments with a really good target, like the United Kingdom, don’t have the policies in place, don’t have the financing in place to reach those goals.”
The UK has within law a target of reaching net zero by 2050. This means the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the UK, would be equal to or less than the emissions removed from the environment.
So Prof Watson’s words were very prescient, as only a few days later Rishi Sunak granted more than a hundred new licences for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea. The Prime Minister said the huge fossil fuel expansion was “entirely consistent” with the UK’s net zero commitments, as he also announced two carbon capture projects.
This has been met with scepticism from environmental campaigners and experts. Greenpeace UK's climate campaigner Philip Evans said: “Relying on fossil fuels is terrible for our energy security, the cost of living, and the climate. Our sky-high bills and recent extreme weather have demonstrated that.”
While, Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs, said that Sunak’s energy security drive should focus on energy efficiency and the UK’s home-grown renewable resources, rather than "championing more costly and dirty fossil fuels".
It has been surreal to watch politicians from both parties reconsider their climate policies on the basis of one by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where the Ultra Low Emission Zone expansion was a key issue.
Yet that narrow Tory win - by less than 500 votes with just 46% turnout - appears to have inspired Rishi Sunak to discard parts of his green policies. He’s ordered a review of low-traffic neighbourhoods and is under pressure over the 2030 petrol and diesel car ban, alongside the new oil and gas licences.
While Sir Keir Starmer has lobbied Sadiq Khan to pause the ULEZ expansion, thankfully something that the mayor has ignored.
However, morally and politically, our politicians should treat the climate crisis with the priority it deserves. At the 2019 general election, all parties referred to a “climate emergency” and had differing dates with commitments to net zero - with 2050 being the least ambitious.
There is a clear public backing for climate policies - not just on the basis of the last election - but from recent polls as well.
Ahead of May’s local elections, non-profit the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit found that three-quarters of those who said they would vote supported the UK’s net zero target, with more than half saying they think the government should be doing more.
But on top of this, it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that our country is going to be safe for future generations - even if this means looking for long-term solutions in the face of immediate resistance.
This is why we have the fixed-term Parliament act - to ensure that governments plan for the future and not just focus on the present. However having three different prime ministers in less than 12 months has put paid to that in many different policy areas, including the environment.
This is why Sadiq Khan should be commended for carrying on with the ULEZ expansion, despite the opposition of a vocal minority and an election next year. Bold action is needed to tackle our pollution and climate crisis, and sometimes there may be some short-term pain.
However, research from Imperial College London already shows the impact it is having on air quality. Harmful emissions have been reduced by 26% within the expanded ULEZ to the north and south circular roads, and the original ULEZ has reduced PM 2.5 pollution levels by 41% since 2017.
We need the rest of our politicians to have similar levels of courage, if we’re going to keep our country safe for future generations.