The narrative around sustainability appears to be changing in 2019. Concerns over climate change and ecological collapse seem more tangible in the public psyche than in the past. Over recent months, one word has repeatedly been referenced in the media’s discussions of sustainability: “emergency”. Current events and public discourse are re-framing sustainability, giving it more urgency and placing it higher on political agendas. This may be making way for significant changes to public policy. On 1 May, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the top advisory body to the UK government on climate change, recommended that the UK target net-zero emissions by 2050. This change was originally put forward for the CCC’s consideration last year and tightens the existing commitment of an 80% reduction below 1990 levels by 2050. The same day, Parliament declared a “climate emergency”. Any policy changes this declaration represents are not yet clear. However, the stance is the first to be adopted by any national government. This did not happen by accident. Public policy responds to pressures exerted by the public. Policy can appear stable for long periods of time, before being disrupted and changing form significantly. Policy responds to crises: real or perceived. An important role is played by discourse in shaping the perception of crises. Examples of discursive strategies being used to shape the narratives surrounding sustainability and give rise to the notion of an emergency or crisis are abundant in 2019.
In April 2019 for two weeks, several sites in central London were occupied by the eco-activist group Extinction Rebellion. The group is young. It built momentum following its launch in October 2018, organising acts of civil disobedience that drew support from journalists, academics, and activists. Over the course of the protests, half a million Londoners were disrupted in their access to public transportation and to shops. The non-violent direct action and arrest tactics used by Extinction Rebellion are not new. They have been the bedrock of some of the 20th century’s greatest social movements: civil rights, gender equality, and gay marriage rights. One of Extinction Rebellion’s core demands in April was that a climate emergency be acknowledged by the UK government and be adopted as a primary policy issue. Greenpeace currently reports that two-thirds of Britons agree that the planet is in a climate emergency. This year, hundreds of local governments across the world (dozens in the UK) have moved to declare climate emergencies that affect their own policymaking. Many have occurred in the week since the Extinction Rebellion protests. Pledges as part of these declarations include targeting carbon neutrality in the next 20 years, establishing electric car clubs, and improving the energy efficiency in buildings. The Welsh government has declared a climate emergency, as has the Labour party, while pressuring Parliament to vote on adopting a national stance on the climate emergency. Parliament has now done so. This result can be attributed to the months of increasing pressure on the UK government, originating at the bottom. Pressure from many local actors acting in parallel can escalate issues up political ranks and force a response from national governments. This is the essence of a grassroots movement.
Greta Thunberg, a Swedish eco-activist famous for inciting student strikes against governmental inaction on climate change, attended the Extinction Rebellion protests. Thunberg was invited to speak to both protesters and to senior members of government, including Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary. Another timely example is found in the two new BBC documentaries on sustainability (“Climate Change: The Facts” and “Our Planet”) launched by Sir David Attenborough, a cultural icon perceived as one of the most trustworthy figures in the UK. Attenborough has been criticised for his previous coverage of sustainability, suggesting that coverage of the climate emergency does not belong in nature documentaries. The new BBC programmes portray a comparatively stark picture of the state of the climate and the planet’s ecosystems. Influencers such as Thunberg and Attenborough are playing their own crucial roles in sustainability awareness by aiding grassroots movements and helping introduce it into our cultural paradigm. This places the climate emergency higher on political agendas and makes it more likely to result in a policy response from the top.
With individuals, corporations, and subnational entities becoming increasingly aware of a climate emergency, what concrete steps might be taken by national governments? The UK is already considered a leader in sustainability policy and has shown itself to be effective in meeting its climate targets. The Climate Change Act of 2008 saw the UK make commitments under law to reduce its emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050 and establish a system of five-year carbon budgets to reach that target. The UK is outperforming against its planned budgets to 2022, though is at risk of not meeting its 2027 budget. Most of the UK’s existing emissions reductions are found in its power sector, which will need to continue to undergo deep decarbonisation. A quadrupling of current clean power capacity could be needed. However, the UK will be less able to neglect the stalled progress in its transport and heating sectors. The Climate Change Act came seven years before more than 190 countries came together with non-legally-binding contributions to sustainability under the Paris Agreement. The targets set by the 2008 Act were derived from a report by the CCC, a body created under the Act. The CCC has now recommended to the government that the 2050 target be changed to net-zero emissions and detailed how that target might be reached. The UK government typically follows the CCC’s advice. Extinction Rebellion demands that the UK go net-zero by 2025. While this demand is likely impossible to meet, there is a need for continuous raising of ambition in our sustainability policy if we are to meet the Paris Agreement goals. What 2019 has shown is that collective action is imperative in raising this ambition.