When it comes to climate change, “tipping points” are regarded as something to be avoided. Should critical thresholds be exceeded, scientists fear, further warming could be triggered. For example, there is growing concern that, as temperatures rise, thawing permafrost may release large amounts of methane - a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 - with unpredictable consequences.
But a series of events over recent weeks mean that a climate tipping point of a very different sort may have finally been reached. Public awareness of - and concern about - climate change has risen to unprecedented levels following 10 days of Extinction Rebellion protests in London, David Attenborough’s primetime documentary on the threat posed by climate change, and a visit to the capital by Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.
We children are doing this to wake the adults up. We children are doing this for you to put your differences aside and start acting as you would in a crisis.Greta Thunberg
Recent days have seen significant interventions too from Bank of England governor Mark Carney, who warned global banks that they cannot ignore climate dangers, and Environment Agency chief executive James Bevan, who used a speech to describe climate change as a “bigger problem” than Brexit. Away from the glare of the media spotlight, dozens of UK towns and cities have already declared climate emergencies.
So we are, it seems, having a climate change moment. But will it change anything?
The government has responded with assurances that it is listening, and promises of action. Following Thunberg’s speech to MPs, environment secretary Michael Gove said that “in the past few years it has become inescapable that we have to act”. He added: “The time to act is now, the challenge could not be clearer - Greta, you have been heard.” Claire Perry, the clean growth minister, told MPs that words are not enough, “what counts is actions”.
But is the government doing enough? As Perry told MPs earlier this week, the UK has world-leading legislation in the Climate Change Act 2008, and has seen significant carbon emissions reductions since the introduction of the pioneering legislation. The government’s climate watchdog the Committee on Climate Change says that in 2016, UK emissions were 42% below 1990 levels, while the economy grew by two-thirds over the same period.
Much progress has been made. Recent figures show that the UK met its second carbon budget, with reductions in emissions from the energy sector playing a key role, and is on track to meet the third.
Substantial reductions in carbon emissions have been driven by UK coal plants coming offline in recent years, as demonstrated by an ENDS analysis of EU emissions registry data. The most recent list of the UK’s biggest carbon emitters is dwarfed by the same list from only five years ago. The 2013 list includes several now-decommissioned coal-fired power plants, at Eggborough, Longannet, and Ferrybridge C. Port Talbot Steelworks - 2018’s biggest emitter - occupied only tenth position on the 2013 list.
But significant challenges lie ahead. While energy emissions are down, emissions from transport remain steady and agricultural emissions are rising. Latest greenhouse gas projections indicate that both the fourth and fifth carbon budgets will be substantially breached.
I find it hard to exaggerate the peril... We are in terrible, terrible trouble and the longer we wait to do something about it the worse it is going to get.David Attenborough
The actions the government now takes will tell us whether it genuinely accepts Thunberg’s message, with a key test only a week away. Following a request from Claire Perry, the CCC is due to publish its advice to the government on a “net zero” target. How the government responds will tell us, as Thunberg puts it, whether ministers are prepared to act “like the house is on fire”.