We have a tendency these days to associate every hot day with global warming, a term that first reached the public domain in 1975 – just one year before Britain’s hottest summer on record up until this year. The famous summer of 1976 was sweltering hot with temperatures reaching 35.6oC that June, lasting for 18 days running above 30°C before finally cooling down. Wallace Broecker’s scientific paper had indeed already brought the issue of ‘global warming’ to our attention by that time and yet over forty years down the line, we are in an even worse position.
This August Bank Holiday and Easter Monday both broke temperature records, being crowned as the hottest the UK has ever seen[i]. On 25th July 2019, UK temperatures hit an all-time national high reaching 38.7oC, caused by a weather pattern that drew hot air from Africa across Europe. Given that parts of North Africa today are 2°C hotter on average than in pre-industrial times, the hot air was much hotter than it would have been without global warming[ii]. The heat wave which also set new all-time records in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany no doubt serves as a frightening reminder of the damage caused by what we have – and have not – done.
That’s not to say that we haven’t made some progress. In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed to assess climate change evidence, producing its First Assessment Report in 1990. The Earth Summit was held in Rio De Janeiro two years down the line, with developed countries agreeing to return their emissions to 1990 levels – a commitment that has been referred to in climate commitments ever since. However, these obligations have not gone far enough to reduce the impact of climate change. The Paris Agreement signed in 2016, and the UK’s announcement to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 were steps to further ramp up action. It is essential that we use this momentum to make up for the last forty years of missed opportunities.
We only need to look back at domestic energy consumption back in 1976 to see where things have fallen short. Back then, 22% of energy came from coal, 20% from electricity and 43% from natural gas[iii]. If we fast forward to 2018, its easy to note the significant reduction in coal generation which now sits at 1%. The issue, however, is that whilst we have moved away from coal, we have instead transitioned towards natural gas (which now sits at 64%). Of course, switching from coal to natural gas is a step in the right direction, but it is still a fossil fuel and we must reduce our dependency on non-renewable energy sources. The UK will need to transition away from traditional fossil fuels and switch to low carbon fuels or technologies such as heat pumps.
Electricity has massively decarbonized since the 1970’s with renewables generating more and more of our power. In August, the UK recorded a new grid carbon intensity low with renewables contributing a whopping 67% of overall electricity generation. Over the 24-hour period, the average carbon intensity was 72g CO2/KWh with a low of 39 CO2/KWh[iv]. This was not a one-off, the following day the carbon intensity fell further as coal was taken off the grid once again. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) state that power generation emissions must be between 50g and 100g CO2/KWh by 2032. We must therefore make this record-breaking day the norm and take advantage of the benefits low carbon electricity generation has to offer.
Whilst we have been proud to declare that we are leading the way, the Government must accept that we cannot lead by announcements alone. A recent report by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee states that if we are to meet these targets at all, improving the energy efficiency of buildings is essential. This is of course mirrored in recommendations by the IPCC and the CCC. Calling on the Government to set out a strategy for heat decarbonization and for energy efficiency to be a national infrastructure priority, the BEIS Select Committee[v] and the Science and Technology Committee[vi] state that ministers have ‘continued to sit on their hands’ when it comes to delivering policies to ensure clean growth and reduce emissions. They warn that the net zero target is undeliverable without the introduction of a supportive policy framework.
It’s been over forty years since the last sweltering hot summer in the UK and far too little has been done to prevent the impacts of climate change that hang over us today. If we are going to meet net zero emissions by 2050, we will need to pick up the pace and ensure that the next thirty years are far more productive. We have sat on our hands for long enough.
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