THERE could not have been a better occasion than May Day for Parliament to declare an environment and climate emergency.
This was a symbolic gesture — but an important one.
Getty – Contributor Brexit will affect our lives for many years to come but failing to tackle climate change will affect our lives for ever
Because this time our MPs got it absolutely right.
And it’s very encouraging that two thirds of the public, when polled by Greenpeace, say that they agree with them.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the world is teetering on an environmental cliff-edge, and that we need to make big changes right now to avoid a disastrous fall.
Whatever you thought of the Extinction Rebellion protesters in London — or the reaction from the police — the important thing is what they were saying is correct and scientists are telling us with a unanimous voice that global warming is a dangerous reality.
The report of the UK Committee on Climate Change, published last week, set out a range of practical and affordable actions that can be taken by the Government, companies and individuals to achieve net zero carbon emissions from the UK by 2050.
We know what is needed and we have the technologies to do it — including building green energy capacity at scale, creating viable alternatives to plastic and feeding the world with new types of protein. All this is vital if we are to restrict the further warming of the planet to 1.5C by the end of this century.
The consequences of failure include huge rises in sea levels, mass migration, famine, and extinctions of species.
As Sir David Attenborough said: “We’re facing our gravest threat in thousands of years, climate change.
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‘WE NEED TO TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION’
This disaster should be unthinkable — and it is avoidable, but only if we take immediate action.
Not focusing on this vital and urgent issue is a bit like debating what colour to paint the kitchen when your whole house is on fire.
To be fair, the Government has not been totally idle.
It has prepared a draft Environment Bill that sets out steps to deal not just with climate change but with other challenges including the scourge of plastic pollution and the loss of biodiversity.
It should be a historic moment — the first opportunity in a generation to deal with our growing climate and nature crisis.
The problem is that it is not bringing this before Parliament because it is obsessed with something else. Brexit.
Brexit is undoubtedly important. The outcome — whatever that may be — will significantly affect all our lives for many years to come. But failing to take urgent action on the environment will affect all our lives — and the lives of future generations — for ever.
We are used to being leaders in Britain — and unfortunately we have been right at the forefront when it comes to wrecking the environment.
We are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, having lost half of our wildlife over the past 50 years, and 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows.
PRIORITISE ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
We now have a duty to take a lead in starting to put things right.
The Government needs to change its focus to prioritise environmental health. Our tax system should stop taxing things we want (like jobs) and start taxing things we don’t want (like pollution).
Companies need to stop concentrating on the next quarterly set of profits and start thinking long term.
And all of us, individually, can take responsibility from choosing what we eat — witness the extraordinary rise of veganism — to how we heat our homes and where and how we travel.
Where once “caring about the environment” was monopolised by preachy celebrities, everyone now has a voice. And everyone wants to help.
At my company, Iceland, we know how much people care from their very positive reactions to our work on some “impossible” challenges — taking palm oil out of our own-label food to raise awareness of tropical deforestation, and pledging to remove plastic from our own-label packaging by the end of 2023.
But we also know that people shouldn’t have to pay more for their food to help the planet — so we are trying to deliver our pledges without increasing prices.
I’m sure that the Environment Bill has scope for improvement — notably by ensuring that the proposed new Office for Environmental Protection has real teeth. It needs to actually be both independent and able to act as a watchdog. It needs to be accountable to Parliament rather than the government of the day, and have the power to issue fines where these are needed to drive change.
To do this, the long-term targets to restore nature, improve air and water quality and cut down resource use need to be legally binding.
More effort should be made to incorporate all four nations of the UK, not just England. We can’t solve the environmental crisis in silos.
But the really important thing is that the Government just gets on with it and brings its legislation before Parliament.
The Government must govern — and it must do it now. Our children and grandchildren will not forgive them — or us — if we do not rise to this most urgent challenge.
Richard Walker is managing director of Iceland Foods.
Reuters What Extinction Rebellion was saying is correct and scientists are telling us with a unanimous voice that global warming is a dangerous reality
Getty – Contributor Not focusing on this vital and urgent issue is a bit like debating what colour to paint the kitchen when your whole house is on fire
Extinction Rebellion activists disrupt Canary Wharf trains and glue themselves to the London Stock Exchange in fresh climate change protests