Just a few weeks ago, Storm Babet swept across the UK, leading the Met Office to issue two red warnings for parts of eastern Scotland, which cautioned that exceptional rainfall was expected to pose a “danger to life”. Indeed, the storm brought with it torrential rains and significant disruption. By the time it had passed, hundreds of homes and businesses had been flooded, fields of crops had been destroyed, and at least seven people had lost their lives.
In the UK, we can often feel that we are sheltered from the brunt of the climate crisis, nestled in our damp, mild corner of the Atlantic Ocean. We might treat it as something that we can observe from afar rather than experience ourselves: watching a news report about a drought in Africa? Or a hurricane hitting the States?
This assumption obscures a more pressing reality. First, Britain is increasingly exposed to the effects of climate change, and second, we remain worryingly unprepared for it.
Last year’s unprecedented heatwave—where temperatures reached over 40°C and the UK Government declared a national emergency—severely disrupted rail services, triggered wildfires, and caused a surge in calls to emergency services. Extreme heat may be a silent killer, exacerbating existing health conditions and targeting vulnerable populations, but that doesn’t make its impact any less real. The heatwave was estimated to have caused over 1,200 heat-related deaths, most of which occurred over just a few of the hottest days (for reference, that’s eight times the total number of terror-related deaths in the UK since 2000). Extreme weather events will only become more common, and, without adaption, annual heat-related deaths in the UK are projected to increase between twofold and thirteenfold by the end of the century.
Of course, many countries consistently experience far hotter temperatures than the UK without the same level of disruption or harm. Measures can be taken to mitigate the impact of extreme heat, yet Britain is a long way from their full implementation. Over half of the existing UK housing stock, insulated to retain heat in the cold winter months, are already deemed to require intervention to mitigate against overheating in the current climate—a figure that will reach over 90% if temperatures rise 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Similarly, our railway network is unsuited to operate in extreme heat, which causes tracks to buckle and overhead cables to sag. Rail infrastructure upgrades are possible, but they are expensive and remain slow; according to then-Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last year, it will be “many years” before services can handle the hotter climate. Investment, from both public and private sources, is central to efforts required to improve UK climate resilience, with the UK’s climate watchdog estimating that £10bn will be needed every year for the next decade. Yet, we are far from meeting this target—the chair of the watchdog’s Adaption Committee has warned that climate adaption remains “chronically underfunded and overlooked”.
This brings me that one final assumption that we’ve made: that Britain is comfortably ‘world-beating’ (to borrow a phrase) in the race to carbon neutrality. Given how our carbon emissions have roughly halved since 1990, we’re firmly on track to meet our target of net zero by 2050. The truth, unsurprisingly, however, is more complicated than the rhetoric.
There are, first, some recent success stories—the decarbonisation of the UK electricity sector, with coal driven out of our energy mix in favour of natural gas and renewables, has led power sector emissions to drop by almost 60% since 2010. Yet, though impressive, it is uncertain whether this pace will continue. Offshore wind—an industry which has grown ten-fold since 2010 and now powers over 7.5 million homes—is stalling. No new projects were agreed upon in the latest government auction, owing to the government’s failure to adjust auction prices to account for inflationary pressures on the supply chain. And, elsewhere, the picture is less rosy. The emissions of the agricultural industry, responsible for one-ninth of the UK total, have barely shifted in the last decade, as the government places its hopes in voluntary schemes and technological innovation over policies to reduce demand, most notably food waste prevention and dietary change. In some areas, the government is even actively moving in the wrong direction, doubling down on support for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea, as well as delaying the phase-out date for new petrol and diesel cars, and scrapping proposals for new energy efficiency rules for rental properties.
This reveals what is unfortunately but inevitably central to UK climate policymaking – politics. To date, governments have hoped to find a politically easy path to achieving net zero, where decarbonisation can remain a mostly painless process—the phase-out of coal, for example, did relatively little to impact consumers and their wallets. However, this may not be possible from now on. The climate watchdog does not expect the UK to meet its target to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030, and the planet is likely to overshoot the 1.5°C limit within the next decade. Moving forward, meeting our international climate commitments and preventing the extremes of climate breakdown may begin to require more tangible changes to our lives and the ways we consume. Yet, though we can make individual lifestyle changes and companies can make (often spurious) green pledges, change must be driven by coherent and credible government policy. But this should hardly be taken as a signal that it is out of our hands, or that we are powerless. Ultimately, reaching net zero represents a monumental effort of political will—something that must, and I hope will, be found at the ballot box.