Our climate change act turns 10 this week... and already it’s too old

Flames consume a car dealership as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, California, on Thursday, Nov 8, 2018.
Flames consume a car dealership as the Camp Fire tears through Paradise, California, on Thursday, Nov 8, 2018.

Some of the worst wildfires in California’s history blazed across the state this month claiming at least 85 lives and destroying an estimated 14,000 residences. The resultant cost to the insurance industry has been estimated at $13 billion.

Months of preceding drought in California made the forests particularly susceptible to these wildfires. Scientists predict that increased temperature and changes in rainfall due to climate change will cause wildfires to become more frequent and more intense. The cost of ignoring climate change is mounting.

In many other parts of the world, whilst the financial cost of climate change may be lower because so few people can afford insurance, the cost in terms of human life is incalculable. In 2016 Hurricane Matthew battered the Caribbean island of Haiti leaving 1.4 million in need of aid and more than 1,000 dead.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an independent international body that analyses the most current and reliable climate science from around the world, predicts that global warming will cause tropical storms to become more powerful and to occur with more regularity.

It is becoming increasingly clear that our changing climate will not tolerate procrastination. Climate change is not a problem for some distant date that we can leave for future generations to deal with. It is affecting us now and the cost of inaction, both financial and in lives lost, will far outweigh the cost of effectively tackling it.

Ten years ago this week, the UK Government passed a ground-breaking climate change law, one of the first of its kind in the world. The 2008 Climate Act committed the UK to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. At the time this was an ambitious target which, if met, would avoid the worst impacts of climate change by helping to keep the global average temperature rise below 2C above pre-industrial levels.

However, over the last decade the evidence from climate scientists and the experience of vulnerable communities at the frontline have pointed to the reality that change is happening faster than previously expected.

In their 2018 report, the IPCC concluded that even 2C warming would result in long-lasting and irreversible changes, such as the loss of coral reefs, sea level rise and loss of Artic sea ice.

These impacts could be avoided by limiting warming to 1.5C, which would require countries to reach ‘net-zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Effectively net-zero means that the amount of greenhouse gas emitted is being exactly matched by that absorbed. Achieving this target would require far-reaching and urgent changes, the first of which must be to update the 10-year-old target in the UK Climate Act which is no longer fit for purpose.

The UK needs new legislation which commits it to reach ‘net-zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Ten years after the UK Climate Change Act was passed, it is high time we take seriously the urgent challenge of climate change and act in line with what science tells us is required.

The good news is that it is not too late. There is still time to change direction and so to protect some of the poorest communities in the world from increasingly devastating storms and rising sea levels. There is still time to save some of our planets most diverse ecosystems from destruction. There is still time to protect many of the world’s precious endangered species from extinction. But time is in short supply. We must act now.

• David Thomas is the Belfast-based campaigns manager for Christian Aid Ireland