The climate challenge – and how we can rise to it in Yorkshire and Humber

Wed, 04/05/2023 - 16:40


Liz Barber, Chair of Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission, reflects on the findings of the latest global assessment on climate change and the part we can all play in it.

Reacting to the publication, on 20 March, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Sixth Assessment Report, one of the UK’s more climate sceptical national newspapers commented that scientists’ previous warnings of floods, heatwaves and famine ‘often fall short of reality’. This downplays the experience of people affected directly by climate disasters, whether they struggled with their health in the UK’s heatwave last summer or were hit by devastating floods in Pakistan. Wherever you are in the world, both slowing down global warming and building resilience – being better prepared for the shocks we face – are two sides of the same coin of climate action.

This is no time to be downplaying the urgency or the scale of the challenge. Last week, the National Infrastructure Commission reported that progress on climate action is too slow and that ‘the risk of delay is now greater than the risk of over correction’. And the UK Climate Change Committee’s latest assessment ‘found very limited evidence of the implementation of adaptation at the scale needed to fully prepare for climate risks’. There appears an increasing consensus that the UK is asleep at the wheel at precisely the wrong moment.

The IPCC report finds that the consequences of global warming appear worse than previously thought. Losses and damages increase with every increment of temperature rise, creating “compound and cascading risks that will become more complex and difficult to manage”. Its message is stark but not without hope: deep, rapid, and sustained reductions in emissions would slow the warming within 20 years.

The Paris Agreement target to contain warming to 1.5°C is not arbitrary: there is clear evidence of how natural systems face increasing stress, with the risks of crop failure and species extinctions rising sharply once 1.5°C is passed. The IPCC considers that currently implemented policies will produce warming within the range 2.2 to 3.5°C. Species loss, crop failure, and people’s exposure to extreme heat will all be hugely worse at those temperatures, but the more we can slow the warming down, the better the prospects for adaptation.

Research for the UK Climate Change Committee shows the need to invest between 1 and 2% of GDP in climate action to reach the UK’s Net Zero target. Environmental organisations have grappled for decades with how to make the hard-nosed business case for climate action. It is frustrating that Sir Nicholas Stern's landmark report, showing the clear economic benefit of acting sooner than later, is now 17 years old, and crucial time has been lost in implementing his findings. However, whilst it’s true that the best time to act was years ago, the second-best time to act is always now.

The IPCC restates this need to act now in unequivocal terms. The report finds that the consequences, and therefore the costs, of delaying are getting worse as evidence of irreversible tipping points grows. The report states that all scenarios that could still limit warming to 1.5 or 2°C involve “rapid and deep, and in most cases, immediate greenhouse gas reductions in all sectors this decade.”

The IPCC naturally presents the imperative of decarbonisation as a global challenge, and it’s easy to feel small against that backdrop. “What difference can we make here?” people ask. The good news here is that the impact we can have is huge.

Our region already has plans to achieve rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. We have a net zero target of 2038, and several local authorities are aiming as early as 2030. And it is not just about carbon: Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission are working to build momentum for our Climate Action Plan around a much broader suite of targets, because we must know that we are progressing towards a low-carbon future in ways that are beneficial for nature, for people’s wellbeing, and for reducing social inequalities.

On the production side, Yorkshire and Humber has a high-carbon industrial heritage and is still home to some exceptionally large emitters, including power stations as well as many chemical industries around the Humber. These emitters have their own decarbonisation programmes.

On the consumption side, about one in every 1,500 people on the planet live in our region and we consume more than our global fair share of resources, so our direct contribution as individuals is certainly significant.

The area of land we inhabit may be small, but it’s the only land we have, and we must put it to good use. The UK is very ecologically depleted, but our region has some globally significant ecosystems, especially our peatlands. The fact that we live so densely and yet still side-by-side with amazing habitats makes the Yorkshire and Humber region an ideal testbed for developing a coherent multifunctional approach to land use at scale, in which human development, food production, nature recovery and climate adaptation can be done in more integrated, harmonious ways. To be successful this needs a level of integration in decision-making that we have yet to see.

Every new report about the climate challenges facing us and the action we can take as individuals and organisations produces a flurry of media stories: some are earnest and urgent, others sceptical and dismissive. This happened again on 30 March, when the government published a daunting 2,840 pages of documentation setting out its plans to deliver on its legally binding carbon budgets.

Mixed messages can be confusing and disempowering. Communications that ridicule climate action are plainly irresponsible and fly in the face of the science, but doom and panic are not a good response to this kind of emergency either because they don’t motivate people to act. We need our colleagues in the media industry to use their messaging in a way that really enables the changes we need to see. We need to be determined but also optimistic because without hope we really will be in trouble.

Changing the minds of climate sceptics would be great, but it’s a sideshow. Much more important is that so many people and organisations already care and already want to act, but they face a frustrating series of barriers. What they need is practical help – finance, training, regulatory backup – and confidence that there is a pathway they can take that will work for them, as individuals or as organisations, and that will make a difference.

Tackling climate change is about making action the better option compared to inaction, about making it easier to do the right thing than the wrong one. That is what we are trying to do here in Yorkshire and Humber. Scaled up, it is what needs to happen worldwide.

Liz Barber, Chair, Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission

This article was also published in the Yorkshire Post on Tuesday 11th April 2023.