While there is debate about whether or not a second wave of the COVID-19 crisis is rolling in, the far bigger waves of the climate and ecological crisis are looming large on the horizon. For too long, governments have largely ignored the scientific evidence and now time is running out to avert catastrophic damage.
And while the UK government is still doing too little too late, an alliance of campaigners, legal experts, leading scientists, MPs and academics has stepped up to propose a new bill that is designed to tackle these crises – and tackle them in a safe, fair and democratic way.
The “Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill” would significantly expand the remit and scope of the Climate Change Act 2008, assigning new duties to government, parliament and the advisory Committee on Climate Change to enact a strategy that meets more ambitious targets for both climate change and biodiversity loss, as well as stronger criteria of justice, responsibility and safety.
A new citizens’ assembly would put people at the heart of that strategy through a process of deliberative democracy informed by expert advice. The bill, recently tabled in parliament as a private member’s bill by a coalition of MPs from six political parties, now needs to gain the support of a majority of MPs to be passed into law.
Since last week, thousands of people have been on the streets across the UK to protest government inaction and campaign for the bill. As a contributor to the discussions and early drafts that led to this bill, let me explain why we need it, and why it would be a huge leap forward.
Ten reasons for the bill
1) It addresses two emergencies we cannot ignore. While the climate emergency has received at least some attention, the ecological emergency has been almost entirely ignored. Ignoring a planetary emergency is a very bad idea, especially one that is wiping out the ecosystems we depend on for our very survival.
2) It is equal to the challenge. The government’s current climate strategy allows the UK to release more than double its fair share of emissions. That means either aggravating the crises, or hoping for other countries to carry the burden. The bill would stipulate that the UK does its fair share.
3) It relies only on reliable measures. The government’s current climate strategy relies heavily on speculative and unproven technologies with large impacts on food production and water availability, and likely other yet unknown side-effects. The bill would make sure that the UK meets its climate targets based only on safe and reliable measures.
4) It takes full responsibility. Currently, the government takes responsibility for only half of the UK’s actual carbon footprint, ignoring the vast emissions generated abroad to produce goods and services that are imported and consumed in the UK. The bill would make sure the UK takes responsibility for its true carbon footprint, and reduce the climate and ecological impact generated by supply chains.
5) It puts real democracy at its heart. Everyone should have a voice in deciding how we tackle these crises. The bill would establish a citizens’ assembly, a randomly selected group of people that would reflect the diversity of the whole population. Drawing on expert advice, this assembly would recommend measures for tackling the crisis, before they go to parliament for scrutiny.
6) It protects vulnerable communities. Deprived and marginalised communities are particularly vulnerable not only to the impacts of the climate and ecological crisis, but also to the impacts of poorly designed “solutions” such as the rise in fuel taxes that sparked the Gilets Jaunes protests in France in 2018. The bill would rule out policy solutions that disproportionately impact vulnerable people.
7) It facilitates a just transition. Some sectors with high emissions or high ecological impact cannot be sustained in their present form. The bill would ensure a just transition for workers in impacted sectors by providing financial support and retraining.
8) It can help achieve climate justice. Injustice is at the heart of the climate crisis, and justice has to be at the heart of the solutions. Doing at least our fair share (2), accounting for our imports (4), cleaning up our supply chains (4), making everyone’s voices heard (5), and protecting vulnerable communities (6) and impacted workers (7) are all key to climate justice. So is making up for the UK’s disproportionately large historical emissions, and providing financial and technological support for less affluent countries. The bill covers all of them.
9) It is serious and based on expert advice. The bill is a serious tool that works within the given structures of government and the constitution to deliver what is necessary and fair, based on advice from leading experts on climate, sustainability, ecology, law and democracy.
10) It could supercharge international climate collaboration. The bill would make the UK the first affluent country to fully embrace the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” adopted in the Paris Agreement. While this might be a long shot, the bill could thus potentially initiate a new international climate regime that would be much fairer, in particular to less affluent countries but also to large exporting countries like China (by reassigning responsibility for emissions). With the UK set to co-host the next round of international climate negotiations (COP 26), this would certainly be the right moment for real UK leadership.
Imagine it is autumn 2019, and a bill has just been tabled that would decisively mitigate the looming COVID-19 crisis. Such a bill could have saved more than 40,000 lives just in the UK. The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill is a real chance to save even more lives and livelihoods that are threatened by the looming climate and ecological disaster. It is not yet too late.
Jefim Vogel receives funding from the Leverhulme Trust through the 'Living Well Within Limits' project. He contributed to early drafts and discussions around the bill presented in this article on a voluntary, pro-bono basis. Vogel is a volunteer for Our Future Leeds.