Earlier this month, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham reaffirmed in the Scottish Parliament the First Minister’s declaration that we are facing a “climate emergency”. It’s a phrase that’s suddenly in vogue among political leaders from Edinburgh to Cardiff, London, Dublin and beyond. It’s not hard to see why.
Politicians are feeling the climate heat after schoolchildren went on strike and campaigners brought prominent locations, including in Edinburgh, to a standstill. A recent poll by Stop Climate Chaos Scotland shows 70 per cent of people in Scotland support further action on climate change. It follows dire warnings by climate scientists that we have until 2030 to avert a climate catastrophe. Political language is, it seems, catching up with reality. And not before time.
When I hear the words “climate emergency”, I picture Jenipher, a young woman from the Mulanje district of southern Malawi. When I met her in 2016, Malawi was suffering from the worst drought the country had experienced in over 30 years, one made worse by climate change. Jenipher’s crops had withered; her family was starving; her life depended on the rain coming next season.
The declaration of an “emergency” reflects the reality that climate change is no longer a distant threat; it is a crisis right now. UN figures show global hunger has risen for three years in a row with “more complex, frequent, and intense climate extreme” a leading cause. It’s also undermining wider development efforts. During my visit to Malawi, smallholder farmers near the capital, Lilongwe, proudly showed me their new solar pumps installed with Scottish Government funding to help them use water from the Lumbadzi River to irrigate their crops. However, as one of Oxfam’s local partners told me: “We can talk about irrigation, but to irrigate you need to have water.”
It is an exceptionally cruel irony that those paying the appalling human price for climate change have done barely anything to cause it, unlike those of us living in industrialised countries like Scotland. In the last year, Oxfam has delivered humanitarian help to hundreds of thousands caught up in floods, storms and droughts made worse by climate change. We have done so in a world in which temperatures are 1 degree above pre-industrial figures. On current trajectories, we are on track for 3 degrees, or more, of warming.
Declaring a “climate emergency” will achieve little without an emergency response to match. A new, far higher bar for climate action has been set. Encouragingly, the Scottish Government has now committed to updating the Climate Change Bill going through Parliament to include a target of net-zero emissions by 2045. This reflects new advice from the UK Committee on Climate Change that we can achieve the target – which means Scotland will capture, though things like forestry, as much greenhouse gases as we emit – five years earlier than the UK.
The emission reduction targets agreed by the Scottish Parliament back in 2009 made us the first country to set legally binding annual emissions targets. Only by updating our ambition and quickly re-focusing to cutting our emissions in the next handful of years can we remain a credible climate leader.
There are some promising signs. By scrapping plans to cut Air Departure Tax, Scottish ministers have shown a willingness to re-think existing commitments, even amid opposition. Innovative proposals like the deposit return scheme for some plastic drinking containers, cans and glass are also emerging.
But Scotland’s response can’t be confined to one government minister, or department. Nor can it be left to government alone. As the Cabinet Secretary rightly noted: “Scotland’s response to the climate emergency must be hardwired into our national psyche”. Last week, council leaders in Glasgow and Edinburgh announced their ambition to become the UK’s first “net zero” cities. This ‘race to zero’, as it has been dubbed, is one we should all welcome.
However, listening to callers on a recent radio phone-in, it was clear we must do more to persuade people that responding to this climate emergency doesn’t only mean ‘giving things up’. We can gain too. We can make our homes warmer, our bodies healthier, our economy fairer and protect the diversity of our natural world.
Current momentum cannot stall. It must spread and deepen. We must apply a climate test to every policy and spending decision while accelerating a just transition away from fossil fuels and targeting emission cuts in sectors like transport and agriculture.
We will all need to change the way we live our lives if Scotland is to genuinely blaze this trail.
Jamie Livingstone is head of Oxfam Scotland