Parliament passes climate emergency motion

A target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is achievable, says a new report from the Committee on Climate Change, as the House of Commons passes a motion to declare a climate emergency – but will the government take action?

Extinction Rebellion activists and police surround a vehicle during a protest on Waterloo Bridge
Extinction Rebellion activists and police surround a vehicle during a protest on Waterloo Bridge

Martin Hearn / Flickr / cc-by-2.0

Extinction Rebellion protesters and police on Waterloo Bridge

Green World

The UK Parliament has declared a climate emergency after a motion put forward by Jeremy Corbyn passed without a vote yesterday evening (1 May).

The Labour leader proposed the motion as part of the opposition day debate on climate change and the environment – opposition days are set out during each parliamentary session for the debate of subjects chosen by the opposition parties.

The motion called on the House of Commons to ‘increase the ambition of the UK’s climate change targets under the Climate Change Act 2008 to achieve net zero emissions before 2050’. The UK’s current target for 2050 is to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions are at least 80 per cent lower than the 1990 baseline.

“We have no time to waste,” said Corbyn. “This is no longer about a distant future. We’re talking about nothing less than the irreversible destruction of the environment within our lifetimes.”

Corbyn spoke of being “deeply moved” by the recent school climate strikes and also referenced the actions by Extinction Rebellion (also known as XR) – the call for the government to make a climate declaration was the first demand of the protest group, which shut down parts of central London for 11 days in April.

He continued: “An emergency of this magnitude requires large-scale government intervention to kickstart industries, to direct investment and to boost research and development in the green technologies of the future.”

Lucas: “We cannot be serious about a climate emergency and continue with aviation expansion.”

Environment Secretary Michael Gove, responding for the government, agreed that there was a climate emergency, but stated that he did not agree with the need for a formal declaration. He also met with XR campaigners on Tuesday (30 April) but the group felt the meeting was ultimately “disappointing”; the Environment Secretary said he would like the government to be judged by “not what it proclaims, but what it achieves.”

Extinction Rebellion protestors recently met with Environment Secretary Michael Gove

Gove refused, however, to answer questions from Green MP Caroline Lucas about the controversial expansion of Heathrow Airport. Lucas responded: “We cannot be serious about a climate emergency and continue with aviation expansion.”

In her statement to the House, Lucas said: “The failure to act with sufficient ambition to avert the climate catastrophe will be the greatest moral failure of our time… We have to turn it around in our lifetimes.” She called for a “single-minded mobilisation” akin to that required during times of war, noting that in the six years after 1938, the UK reduced its use of coal by 25 per cent and private cars by 95 per cent, while public transport use went up by 13 per cent.

Commenting to Green World after the debate, Lucas said: "We have a government that’s still backing climate-busting airport expansion, billion-pound hand-outs to dirty energy, and a business-as-usual economic model – meanwhile the Labour Party is still green-lighting coal mines and dithering on electric vehicles. These policies are not compatible with tackling the climate emergency and the other political parties must urgently acknowledge that the scale of this challenge demands an immediate end to business as usual.”

On a roll: The growing climate emergency movement

The motion to declare a climate emergency was passed by the House of Commons without a vote. This means that although the motion represents a significant acknowledgement of the climate catastrophe on a national level, it is mainly a symbolic gesture and does not require the government to take any further action on climate change.

The motion passed yesterday comes after similar declarations made earlier this week by the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments – the Scottish First Minister made the commitment at the SNP national conference while Welsh Assembly Members voted on the motion yesterday (1 May) – and follows in the footsteps of a large number of cities and local authorities that have made the declaration. The first in the UK was Bristol City Council, where the motion to declare a climate emergency was put forward by Green Party councillor Carla Denyer.

So far, the UK nations are the only in the world to have declared a climate emergency on this level. “By declaring a climate emergency, we could set off a wave of action from parliaments and governments around the world,” Corbyn stated.

UK can achieve net zero emissions by 2050, says report

The news comes as the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published a report today (2 May) claiming that the UK can cut its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 – 25 years later than the demands of Extinction Rebellion, which is calling for a target of net zero by 2025.

The CCC is a non-departmental public body that advises UK governments on preparing for climate change. Its ‘Net Zero’ report finds that a new emissions target would be achievable in the UK at no greater cost than to achieve an 80 per cent reduction. This could also, the CCC claims, be achieved using known technologies, with a focus on resource and energy efficiency, an expansion of renewable and low-carbon energy, the electrification of transport and heating and carbon capture to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

If other governments were to follow suit, global warming could be restricted to below a 1.5 degree rise, which is now considered the limit beyond which devastating environmental effects would occur.

Caroline Lucas welcomed the report and commented: “[I] hope the government will take particular note of its powerful recommendation that net zero should be pursued through bold action here at home without recourse to controversial international offsets or credits.

"However, we need a significantly earlier target date to ensure we reach a more certain outcome, and to reflect both our consumption, and historical, emissions. We needed to be guided by what’s scientifically necessary, not just what’s deemed to be currently 'politically possible'.”

"The report also contains a stark warning – ministers can’t simply adopt a net zero target without radical change in the short term. That makes it all the more galling that this government has scrapped many of the politics we know that we always needed, from scrapping support for clean energy to ditching a commitment to zero carbon homes. If they’re serious about the ‘Climate Emergency’ that was declared by Parliament yesterday, we need to see an immediate step change in action”.