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Climate rebels and local authorities pile pressure on UK government

More than 70 local authorities, including several London boroughs and the city of Newcastle, have set ambitious targets for reaching carbon neutrality, while the University of Bristol has become the first to declare a climate emergency.

In October 2018, UN scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that drastic action was required to keep global average temperature rises below 1.5°C, given that the world is currently heading towards devastating rises of upwards of 3°C.

Under a rise of this magnitude, multiple cities could be swallowed by rising sea levels (including Shanghai, Miami and Rio de Janeiro), while the rest of the planet should expect extreme heat waves, frequent wildfires, permanent droughts and annual food crises, resulting in millions of deaths and a severe refugee crisis.

Restricting global average temperature rises to within 1.5°C could be achieved by almost halving carbon emissions from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. The 2015 Paris Agreement – to which almost every UN member is a signatory – requires countries to mitigate climate change and regularly report on its efforts.

A declaration of a climate emergency involves acknowledging the severe and urgent threat posed by climate change and committing to take action to curb the excesses by whatever means necessary.

The first principal authority in the UK to declare a climate emergency was Bristol City Council in November 2018, following road-blocking protests in the city centre by environmental activists. The city authority pledged to aim for net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Green Party councillor Carla Denyar told BBC Radio 1 at the time that the council had acknowledged that “we are in an emergency situation”.

Extinction Rebellion – one of the groups responsible for piling pressure on Bristol City Council – has made headlines around the world this week as it blocked roads in London and other cities.

For three days, protesters have occupied four key sites in London: Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch, Oxford Circus and Parliament Square. On Waterloo Bridge, protestors laid out trees, flowers, hay bales, astroturf and erected a temporary concert stage, skateboard ramp and welcome centre. Protesters and their young children handed out flyers and drew colourful messages on the road. The mood among protestors, police officers and passers-by has remained largely cordial, despite disruption to at least 500,000 Londoners, resulting in at least 300 arrests so far (including of protestors climbing on top of a DLR train and causing damage to Shell’s London headquarters). The protests are also estimated to have cost West End shops £12 million in loss of business, according to the New West End Group retail alliance.

Extinction Rebellion has been calling on the UK government to acknowledge the climate emergency, pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and to establish a “Citizen’s Assembly on climate and ecological justice”.

As well as Bristol City Council, a number of other local authorities had already declared climate emergencies before the ‘rebellion’ began. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, declared a climate emergency in December 2018. Manchester City Council declared it an emergency in November, with Bristol, Lancaster, Leicester, Nottingham and Oxford City Councils following in January; Durham, Sheffield and Cambridge in February; Plymouth, York and Sunderland in March, and Newcastle in early April. Most of these cities are aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

The city authorities are joined by many dozens of towns, parish and district councils in declaring emergencies and pledging to sharply reduce their carbon emissions within approximately 12 years. In total, at least 72 local authorities have declared a climate emergency.

All these local authority targets are more ambitious than the UK’s national target of an 80 per cent carbon emission reduction by 2050 (against the 1990 baseline), in line with the 2008 Climate Change Act.

Since the Extinction Rebellion protests took over major London sites, the London Borough of Newham has joined the Boroughs of Haringey, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark and Tower Hamlets in declaring a climate emergency.

Additionally, today, the University of Bristol became the first UK university to formally declare a climate emergency following a student-led campaign and petition, coupled with pressure on leadership from university staff. The university had made a pledge to go carbon neutral by 2030 as early as 2015 and has already reduced its carbon emissions by 27 per cent.

“Calling a climate emergency highlights the urgency of the task we are engaged in and I hope others join us in increasing their action on this, the biggest challenge we face,” said Professor Judith Squires, deputy vice-chancellor and Provost of the University of Bristol.

Multiple local authorities in Australia, Canada, the US and Switzerland have also declared a climate emergency. In the US, state leaders have been forced to take the lead in climate mitigation efforts after President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement in June 2017.

The widespread support of UK local authorities for much more ambitious carbon reduction targets puts significant pressure on the UK government, which is yet to respond to demands to declare a climate emergency and intensify its carbon reduction efforts.

As civil disobedience continues on the UK government’s doorstep, further pressure was piled on Europe’s politicians from a markedly different source today when Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, Frank Elderson, executive director of supervision of the Netherlands Bank, and Villeroy de Galhau, governor of the Bank of France, wrote an open letter in The Guardian calling for the financial sector to join governments “at the heart of tackling climate change”.

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