The UK and the world must work to make climate change campaigners increasingly disruptive protests redundant by cutting emissions to zero, writes Christine Jardine.
My two political worlds collided this week in Parliament Square, and it was nothing to do with Brexit.
Amidst the eerie near silence created by the Extinction Rebellion protests, it seemed not only that the traffic-free air was easier to breathe but that there was also more space to think.
It was last week that the environmental campaign group began their fortnight-long string of protests and sit-ins at various locations in central London.
Now this is something I want to make clear: I am 100 per cent supportive of the aims of Extinction Rebellion to start meaningfully dealing with the climate emergency, and I of course support their right to peaceful protest and draw attention to this important issue.
However, some of their actions have been completely counter-productive. Disrupting public transport surely seems to contradict the aims of cutting emissions and tackling climate change?
And yet there was for me an added dimension which brought their high-profile, international-scale protest into line with the same issue much closer to home.
I have often remarked that the air around Parliament can feel easier to breathe than that outside my office on St John’s Road in Edinburgh – one of the three most polluted streets in Scotland.
That was even more noticeable this week when the roads at the heart of Westminster were stripped of all vehicles save bicycles.
Not only could you hear yourself think but it felt as if there had been an instant improvement in air quality.
The highlight was when I went out on to the street in front of Parliament to meet and talk with some of the protesters, and as part of their ‘reforest the earth’ initiative I was given a beautiful field maple sapling to bring back and plant in Edinburgh West.
Tories’ disappointing record
Like all things in my Westminster world these days, there was, of course, an international media presence. Ironically it was Brazilian TV who wanted to know what I thought about this idea of us all planting trees.
Once I had got out of my system how distressed I was at the damage done to the rainforest, I stressed that politicians must take the issue more seriously and take more steps to meaningfully engage with the public. And for me that means elected representatives not just in Westminster, but at Holyrood and in local authorities as well.
My party, the Liberal Democrats, has a detailed plan to tackle the climate emergency, achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2045 at the very latest.
That should be accompanied by an emergency ten-year programme to do what we can now and cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2030.
We also want to see net-zero across the EU, with a binding target of 2050 for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the 28 member states.
Compare that to the Tory Government’s disappointing record on climate change. They have effectively banned the cheapest form of renewable energy – onshore wind.
They slashed subsidies for solar power, scrapped zero-carbon homes, ended the Green Deal intended to improve the energy efficiency of homes, and set meaningless targets on phasing out petrol and diesel cars, and all while pursuing new fossil fuels like fracking.
And let’s remember, climate change doesn’t respect borders. We must help other countries reduce their emissions.
Two of UK’s most polluted roads
The UK has been through an industrial revolution and pumped millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, so we need to be at the forefront of helping other countries develop while also being friendly to the climate.
We should capitalise on our global influence in partnership with our allies in the EU, particularly given the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
But what about closer to home? What about that Low Emission Zone (LEZ) in Edinburgh? Last week I was delighted to learn that the City of Edinburgh Council has agreed to review the results of the consultation exercise on its planned LEZ.
Although I am the first to say that they are on the right track, the existing LEZ proposals seriously risked concentrating even more pollution – and parking problems – by spewing cars along hotspots in my constituency, such as St John’s Road and Queensferry Road, which are already two of the most polluted routes in the country!
I hope their review looks at the proposed boundaries and takes into account the health of those living along those roads.
The children who walk to school along both routes regularly have to breathe in toxic fumes which cannot be good for them.
That concern has been central to my own campaign here for cleaner air in which I have been to meet and listen to the views of classes at both Cramond and Corstorphine primary schools amongst others.
How to make protests redundant
Like their peers who have taken to the streets in the protests prompted by teenage activist Greta Thunberg, their concern for the planet is also an expression of a concern for their future.
And we would do well to pay attention. But not just by restricting traffic within cities but by also taking into account the needs of those in suburbs, towns and villages like Cramond, South Queensferry and Ratho who are currently given no option but to drive.
They need better, linked-up public transport so that they are not just threatened with penalties but positively encouraged by a system which makes it possible for them to get into the city without having to bring a car.
And better cycle paths so that those who have chosen active travel and are already making a positive contribution are given a safer, specially designed alternative.
I’ve never seen myself as a fundamentalist when it comes to green issues, but as time, and inaction, has moved on, I have become more determined.
So that when I plant my newly gifted maple tree I shall do it with the commitment that, by the time it has grown to maturity, there will no longer be a need to silence or bring to a halt the traffic on Parliament Square or in Edinburgh.
The protests will have succeeded in making themselves redundant. The alternative is unthinkable.