The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned of more intense and more extreme weather events and was much more certain about these predictions.
However, it was also more certain that if we can reach net zero, some of the effects of climate change can be reversed within a couple of years, such as surface temperatures – although others may take much longer such as thawing of permafrost (decades), acidification of the deep ocean (centuries) and sea level rises (centuries to millennia).
While we have done a lot of damage to our environment, there is still cause for hope. The pandemic has shown what can be achieved if we all pull together and – as many activists are calling for – treat climate change as a global emergency in the same way as we have COVID-19.
Sir David King, chair of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG), for example, has said: “We need to combine efforts on a global scale now, much like the world has come together to tackle COVID-19.”
EHN Extra caught up with the authors of a report last year from Leeds University that listed some of the practical things everyone can do to help mitigate climate change.
Max Callaghan, researcher at the University of Leeds and the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin, said there are “lots of things” individuals can do and they are not always the obvious things people think of such as recycling or turning off lights:
“One of the things that our study showed was the really, really big things that you can do are about personal transportation: either not using the car, getting an electric car or replacing car journeys with active travel – so walking or public transport or cycling – [and the same with] flights.”
But he added: “Sometimes we look at these things as just kind of ‘all or nothing’ – and this goes for diet as well – and actually you don't need to necessarily give up your car if you want to make a difference.
“Every single car journey you make is a choice – every journey that you switch from the car to cycling, walking or taking a bus, is a positive thing that you can do. The same with meat: you don't have to go vegan for every meal that you eat, but every vegan meal you eat instead of a meat meal helps.”
Callaghan said one of the things that has changed a lot over the past few years is that there are very few people who deny climate change outright. “There used to be people who would come out and say, 'no, it's not happening', and then they would say, 'okay, it's happening, but it's not because of human influence’, and then the next tactic was to say, 'OK, it's because of human influence, but it won't be that bad'.
“I think where we've reached now is a stage where everyone says, 'yes, we've definitely got to do something about climate change', almost across the political spectrum.”
The focus, Callaghan added, can be on targets that are a long way away and it will be key to make sure we take action in the short term so we can meet those longer-term targets. He said there can be a debate around whether individuals should be taking action or big businesses that can be responsible for huge greenhouse gas emissions.
But, he argued, whether the government makes us take action or we do it of our own accord, there is no future without taking these measures. He added: “In the end, one way or another, we are going to have to change our behaviour – all of us as individuals.”
He also said the government needs to set the right rules and incentives to give us the opportunity as individuals collectively to make those changes.
He added: “One of the things about net zero is: in some ways it is a little bit fuzzy but in some ways it’s really clear because it brings into focus that by 2050 we can't emit any more fossil fuels.
“2050 is not a long way away and it becomes very clear that, in the near future, we're not going to be able to burn petrol anymore. We're not going to be able to have gas boilers anymore because we simply have to stop burning fossil fuels in the next 30 years.
“That's a huge thing to do but the nice thing is that everyone has agreed that that's the goal. What it comes down to now is simply putting into place the policies that will make that happen.”
Callaghan added that taking action against climate change also offered many opportunities to benefit individuals and society. He said EH officers know that renovating and insulating housing, for example, can hugely improve people’s health and wellbeing. Food and diet, which again EH officers are hugely concerned about, have a huge part to play.
Switching to active travel has huge health benefits for individuals, society and our health system, which is in addition to the health benefits of improving air quality by taking polluting cars off the road or reducing the number of journeys. But the right policies will be needed to ensure we benefit. Simply adding more cycle lanes isn’t enough, for example, and councils need to create the right environment and infrastructure so people feel safe to walk or cycle.
“If we replace all of our cars with electric cars, problems [like poor air quality and sedentary lifestyles] don't go away,” Callaghan said and we can miss out on the benefits: “We still have problems with congestion and some of the emissions from cars come from tyres degrading.”
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