Greece burns, Antarctica thaws, UK Government ‘pays arsonists’

With unprecedented evidence of climate change unfolding with ferocious intensity this summer, Environment Journal asks why Westminster still doesn’t seem capable of a unified, committed response.

A new logo isn’t the only alarming thing about Twitter this week. An apparent once-in-7.5million years event is being documented in 140 characters, or less, various charts and graphs. In reality, the terrifying truth is easy to convey.

This year sea temperatures have been making headlines for all the wrong reasons, which is food for thought in the midst of Marine Week. There was the North Atlantic heatwave, and now swathes of the Antarctic coastline have become visible in winter for the very first time on record. Sea ice levels can no longer recover during colder months, and reports suggest there is a five standard deviation between the overall sea ice mean since we began documenting it, and what we see today.

Thousands of miles north, the Greek islands of Rhodes and Corfu have been evacuated due to raging forest fires. Infernos are now raging on the mainland, too. Arrests have been made and at least some of the carnage looks like arson. But conditions required for blazes of this intensity are another story. Increasingly dry land is a symptom of climate change, as are soaring thermometers. Put both together and you don’t need much expertise, or many matches, to know what happens next. 

The Cerberus Heatwave, named after the hell hound from Greek mythology, began in Europe on 10th July and has broken all records for the continent. Sicily reached a whole two degrees higher than its previous ‘best’, when mercury hit 48C. Now the Charon Heatwave has taken hold, promising more of the same, for longer. Elsewhere in the world, signs are also prescient. June saw a mass die off of fish in the Gulf of Mexico, with tens of thousands washed up on coastlines in Central America and Texas due to oxygen starvation. That happens when water becomes too warm to hold the gases it normally would. 

The locations of these recent events emphasise how global our changing climate is, and reiterate the need for a rapid unified response. Domestic policy is often a good starting point, and while chaos has broken out in the atmosphere, UK corridors of power seem unresponsive. 

Last month, news hit of a plan to remove the ban on new coal mine developments from the Government’s Energy Bill. This is despite independent climate advisors to Westminster, and the United Nations, insisting fossil fuel projects should no longer be greenlit years ago. The ban, introduced through an amendment to the bill tabled by the House of Lords, marked a visible decision to finally abandon the grid’s most polluting fuel. To abandon this would send out all the wrong signals, even if no new facilities were actually built. 

Less than a week ago, the cabinet landed in hot water again as Michael Gove was forced to insist a forthcoming 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel car sales was ‘immovable’. His statement followed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s failure to reassure people the policy would not be lost, even as several net zero pledges are scrutinised, again, to ensure a ‘proportionate and pragmatic’ approach. The financial impact of transition is apparently too great for nations in the throes of a cost-of-living crisis, despite the price of inaction.  

The past few weeks have also seen the much-hyped Extended Producer Responsibility scheme stall. The idea is to encourage companies to use less packaging, in turn creating less waste and — ideally — helping reduce plastic and other forms of pollution. Now, rather than introducing fines from 2024, the system will begin on time, but it will be another 12 months before there are any financial incentives for producers to take significant action. Meanwhile, the Deposit Return Scheme, first proposed for Scotland, as well and truly hit the skids. 

According to The Times, both the Conservative government and opposition Labour are considering abandoning a number of environmental policies to win more votes next year. The fact this is happening at a time Environment Journal reports rising ecological concern among Britain’s workforce accentuates the difficulty of gauging sentiment. Nevertheless, according to the Bupa Wellbeing Index Report, almost half of British staff would now take a pay cut to work in more climate-positive jobs

Last week, The Guardian‘s Dharna Noor wrote compellingly on how Big Oil has been quietly walking away from climate promises made in the wake of the energy crisis, and insane profit margins. ExxonMobil has withdrawn funding from its low-carbon fuel development programme. Shell has decided not to increase renewables investment. And BP has lowered its target to a 20-30% reduction in emissions by 2030, not 35% as first announced. This week, Norwegian oil monolith Equinor posted £5.8billion in profits for the last three months alone. The firm could also receive a £3.75billion tax break for the controversial, 500million barrel Rosebank oil field development. The fact 80% of production at the facility will be exported – contributing little to the UK economy – apparently means little.

‘Grant Shapps and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero are blatantly ignoring the devastating impacts of climate breakdown, exemplified most recently in the terrifying wildfires in Greece. By cheerfully inviting oil companies to drill for yet more polluting fossil fuels, they are effectively denying the reality of the climate crisis. The world is burning and the UK Government is helping the arsonists pay for the fuel,’ says Freya Aitchison, Friends of the Earth Scotland’s oil and gas campaigner. 

The potential tax break is particularly offensive, and counterproductive, when you consider this country has been criticised for not finding enough cash to fuel rapid transition, net zero, and the green economy. Let alone free school meals. There’s also the question of legally-binding targets we must meet in the next quarter century. A decision over whether to press on with Rosebank is rumoured to be due at the end of parliamentary recess in autumn, with delays on that process directly linked to rightful concerns the scheme ‘may not meet net zero commitments’. The fact authorities are even considering granting permission is an example of the confusion, u-turning, uncertainty and lack of determination that pose the greatest risk to our chances of slowing the environmental crisis down to a manageable pace. A shameful position for a nation that keeps self-declaring as environmental leader.

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