Climate change: Despite 30 years of progress, the world is still heading towards disaster – Dr Richard Dixon

Today is my last day at Friends of the Earth Scotland, after 30 years in the Scottish environment movement.

There has been good progress in those three decades and the environment and climate change have moved from fringe concerns to mainstream issues. But we are still not doing enough.

This is my second stint at FoES, after ten years away leading WWF Scotland. It has been an exciting time, with two Climate Acts, low-emission zones for air pollution in four cities, the fracking ban, seeing off new nuclear plans and a coal-fired power station proposal for Hunterston, the end of the Cambo oil proposals and getting government to start taking a ‘just transition’ seriously.

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But all this progress has only slowed our slide towards disaster.

When I started at FoE, average carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were 25 per cent above the levels before humanity started seriously burning fossil fuels. Today levels are 50 per cent higher than pre-industrial levels.

Despite the Earth Summit in 1992 agreeing the first plan to stabilise and then reduce emissions, and nearly 30 UN climate meetings since then, global emissions of all climate change gases have increased by 60 per cent, because we keep burning fossil fuels.

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Since 1970 the number of animals on the planet has declined by about 70 per cent, with a million species threatened with extinction. In Scotland we rank 28th from the bottom of 240 countries and territories for the intactness of nature.

Climate protestors march in Glasgow during the United Nations' COP26 climate summit in November (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Climate protestors march in Glasgow during the United Nations' COP26 climate summit in November (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Climate protestors march in Glasgow during the United Nations' COP26 climate summit in November (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Of course, there has been some good progress.

Acid rain from industry and power stations has gone from wrecking forests across northern Europe to a minor problem today. The 1987 Montreal Protocol phased out chemicals which were destroying the ozone layer.

In Scotland 30 years ago, we had two nuclear power stations, three coal-fired power stations and a gas-fired station. Now only the gas station at Peterhead and the reactors at Torness remain, with renewable electricity filling the gap. The equivalent of 98.6 per cent of the electricity we use was generated by renewables in 2020.

The two Climate Acts had many strong elements, the youth climate strikes saw 25,000 people marching through Edinburgh in 2019, and 150,000 people from across the world marched through a storm at the UN climate conference in Glasgow last year, the biggest climate demonstration the UK has ever seen. Some 60,000 people said no to fracking, with nearly 40 protest groups across the country, resulting in a ban.

On air pollution, a low-emission zone is up and running in Glasgow and three more cities will have them soon, along with other ambitious commitments on changing road transport.

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The politics of the environment has changed markedly. In the 1990s, life was simple but frustrating. There was no-one but us talking about climate change. Scottish ministers were MPs who spent most of their time in London. The government announced something and we said it was rubbish.

Now we have a Scottish Parliament and every political party says they are serious about climate change.

But saying you are serious is not enough. The progress so far is welcome, but it is not enough. We need much more action if we are to head off climate disaster.

Dr Richard Dixon is director of Friends of the Earth Scotland (until the end of today)

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