A message of hope: ‘Humanity may be on course to destroy the planet, but we know how to stop it, we can afford to stop it and we have the technology to stop it’

We know we’ve caused global warming, but we can stop making it worse, says John Gummer, chair of the Climate Change Committee. We simply need strong leadership to achieve it.

This article appears in the June 26 issue of Country Life magazine, our sustainability special which includes 60 simple changes that we can all make to live a more sustainable life.

In the English countryside, the fact of climate change is all too obvious, particularly the realisation that spring comes much earlier than when I was growing up. Torrential downpours are now a regular occurrence and we’ve grown used to news of flooding and drought. Of course, any individual incident can be put down to the weather, particularly in a country where the weather is so notoriously changeable. What can’t be ignored is the clear pattern that’s now become established.

In the UK, nine of the 10 warmest years have occurred since 2002; detailed measurements show that Kentish fruit trees begin to flower 17 days earlier than in 1960 and my own county of Suffolk is now classified as a semi-arid area.

These are huge changes in a very short time and the evidence suggests that they will gather pace, so that the children of today will have to cope with life-threatening heatwaves, serious water shortages and an increasing number of coastal communities abandoned because of the rise in sea levels.

And all that’s in the UK — a country protected from some of the worst effects of global warming. In the wider world, populations will be driven to migrate by drought and flood; now-fertile areas will become deserts and island nations will sink beneath the sea. The effects of even a 2˚ rise in temperatures will be enormous and we’re heading towards something more like 3˚ to 4˚.

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‘Britain has to commit to this journey first if we’re to expect others to follow. After all, we started the Industrial Revolution and, unknowingly, caused the problem’

These fears can’t be dismissed by one of Donald Trump’s tweets. This is not the normal pattern of change that we’ve seen throughout recorded history. Indeed, if you go deep into the ice and read each year as you would the rings of a tree, you can see that continuing pattern of warmer and colder periods. What’s entirely new is the rise in temperatures since the Industrial Revolution.

For more than 800,000 years, they have never risen as far or as fast. There is no parallel and, therefore, we should be really concerned.

However, at least we know the reason. It’s not like the Black Death, when no one knew why one in three of the population was dying of this new disease. We know that we have been reversing the very mechanism that helped keep our planet cool enough for human habitation.

Millions of years ago, trees and bushes took carbon out of the atmosphere and, over those millennia, stored it in the earth in the form of coal and oil. Those are the very fossil fuels that we’ve been burning, pushing the carbon back into the atmosphere from which it was taken. No wonder global warming is happening — it’s the reversal of the process that gave us life.

At least it means we can do something about it. We’ve caused it, we know how we’ve caused it and we can stop making it worse. That’s the good news. We are not doomed. We have the future of our planet and of humanity in our hands. That’s the message of the science, of the Extinction Rebellion protesters, and of all those young people who leave their classrooms to demand that we take action.

‘We can achieve the Paris Agreement goals, we can do it with the technology we already have and that the cost is entirely affordable’

Last month, the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) published a report that showed exactly how it can be done. It was 600 pages of the most careful research, using the best science in the world, and backed up by the most detailed analysis.

It shows how the UK can cease to contribute to ongoing global warming by 2050. It sets out a pathway and a programme that can be adopted by every nation on Earth, but Britain has to commit to that journey first if we’re to expect others to follow. After all, we started the Industrial Revolution and, unknowingly, caused the problem.

However, we won’t be on our own. Three years ago, every nation on Earth signed the Paris Agreement. We all agreed to take the measures needed to combat climate change. We’ve accepted that we have to keep the rise in warming down well below 2˚ and to do everything possible to pull it towards 1.5˚.

All are committed, but it was the British Government that first asked its expert advisers to chart the journey to reach that end. The report that the CCC produced has been welcomed throughout the world because it shows in detail that we can achieve the Paris goals, that we can do it with the technology we already have and that the cost is entirely affordable.

We simply need leadership to do it.

‘The CCC report doesn’t demand that we live on sparse rations, in cold homes. It simply demands that we live more sustainably’

The Government has been brave enough to ask the question. The CCC has provided the answer. It’s now for Parliament to make it happen.

However, of course, it’s not only Parliament — we all have a part to play. The CCC report doesn’t ask the impossible. It doesn’t demand that we live a different kind of life, on sparse rations, in cold homes and with little choice. It simply demands that we live more sustainably — that we stop wasting water, become really energy efficient, cut out food waste, eat 20% less meat, take all our energy from renewable sources and ensure our homes are properly insulated and ventilated.

That will get us most of the way. However, to reach net-zero, we’ll have to actually take carbon out of the atmosphere. That’s why we need to plant many more trees, why we must move away from agricultural monoculture to mixed farming that makes the soil more fertile and more able to soak up the carbon and why we need carbon capture and storage to put any carbon we do produce safely underground.

All this is a message of hope. Humanity may be on course to destroy the planet, but we know how to stop it, we can afford to stop it and we have the technology to stop it. We know the way — all we now need is the will.

The Rt Hon John Gummer, Lord Deben — who was Secretary of State for the Environment from 1993 to 1997 — is chair of the Climate Change Committee — www.theccc.org.uk.

What we need to do

The Climate Change Committee’s key points, as set out in its report published on May 2, are:

  • We need a 100% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050
  • Net-zero can be delivered at the same cost as the Climate Change Act by 2050
  • Carbon capture and storage is a ‘necessity’, not an option
  • Electric-vehicle targets should be brought forward to 2035
  • Clean energy should quadruple by 2050
  • We need to re-wild 20,000 hectares (49,420 acres) of land annually
  • Scotland should reach net-zero emissions by 2045