In February, school students across the UK joined a growing international movement of school ‘climate strikes’, which has seen children skip their Friday lessons to protest over a perceived lack of government action against the threat of climate change.
The movement was launched last August by then 15-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg and has since spread across Europe and to the US. In October, it was given major impetus by the high-profile report released by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned that we have only 12 years to prevent global temperatures rising by more than 1.5°C, while detailing some of the dramatic changes to the environment should we fail. A group representing the protestors in the UK, the Student Climate Network, has laid out a series of demands which largely call on the government to wake themselves and others up to the sheer scale and urgency of this ‘climate emergency’.
While the frustration of idealistic young people over the actions of their elders is a familiar sight, the climate strikes are given more poignancy by the fact that this generation may be the first to truly feel their lives will be affected by climate change. In the past, the contradiction between the population’s general belief in the issue and a lack of willingness to do much about it has been attributed to the slow, imperceptible nature of the threat – it will always be somebody else’s problem.
Now, as the IPCC and other high-profile voices are increasingly emphasising the immediacy of serious climate change, it is not surprising that today’s school children are beginning to feel visceral concern for their futures in place of the more principled stance towards saving the planet which has characterised earlier movements.
The UK government can perhaps feel aggrieved to be accused of inaction on climate change, given the country’s record on the issue is pretty good relative to many other industrialised countries. With the 2008 Climate Change Act, the UK became the first country to set legally binding targets for CO2 emissions, in the form of ‘carbon budgets’ which are ramped down every five years. A rather rapid phase-out of coal power – replaced by offshore wind power and natural gas – has helped meet the first two targets, and the UK is well on track to meet the third in 2022.
In comparison, despite its strong support for renewable energy, Germany has failed to reduce CO2 emissions in the last decade, held back by a determination to phase out nuclear power and the lack of a strong carbon price signal to force a switch from coal to gas. However, the UK will also struggle to meet its carbon budget for 2027 without a significant acceleration in activity. Recent renewed interest in carbon capture and storage technology is evidence of the government’s interest in reaching emissions from beyond the power sector, in heavy industry and even residential heating, but progress remains slow. Unfortunately, such is the scale of the climate change challenge that it dwarfs most well-intentioned efforts of this nature.
While awareness of the severity of the situation is undoubtedly growing worldwide, the numbers tell a strikingly different story. CO2 emissions reached an all-time high in 2018, and fossil fuel’s share of the global energy mix is roughly the same as in 1990. Under the international community’s current obligations to the much-celebrated Paris Agreement, emissions will keep increasing for the next 20 years.
Analysis by the International Energy Agency has shown that emissions from existing energy infrastructure alone will blow 95% of the CO2 we can emit until 2040. Contributing just over 1% of global CO2 emissions, the actions of a country like the UK can be seen as little more than symbolic on a worldwide scale. But it may be vital symbolism, as developed countries have the power to demonstrate an alternative pathway to emerging economies in Asia and Africa, which will otherwise turn to unabated use of fossil fuels.
The climate strikers have met with a mixed, but mostly positive response. Large numbers of scientists have backed the movement, while the City of Edinburgh Council recently gave formal approval to students to miss school. The official response from the UK government acknowledged the importance of engaging with the issue, whilst disapproving of the disruptive approach. Among others, Prime Minister Theresa May made the point that education should be respected as key to solving the climate crisis. On the other hand, opposition politicians in the UK, the current UK Energy Minister Claire Perry, and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all expressed sympathy for the cause.
This fairly supportive reaction from most quarters is itself an indication that there may not be such a gulf between the views of the young protestors and those in power. Unfortunately, a true realisation of the scale of the problem can lead not only to the genuine alarm of the protestors but to a feeling of helplessness which may lie at the heart of the currently inadequate political efforts.
Real change will take more than raising public and political awareness, but a willingness to take dramatic steps, most likely requiring uncomfortable sacrifices to our current way of life in the developed world. For a politician to lead any democratic country into this unknown realm would take serious conviction that the population backs them in both spirits as well as words. These climate strikes may, at the very least, be the first signs of a new generation prepared to lead this charge.