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The climate emergency is happening now and even if we turned off the taps on every oil well and gas pipe tonight, that is only going to slow the process down, not stop it.
An increasing number of climate scientists are now saying they got it wrong – things are going to be worse than predicted and will happen sooner than predicted. Our government was already struggling with the idea of having to adapt our way of life over several decades. It is totally unprepared for changing the design of buildings and towns and society in the next few years .
We are not prepared. That was the message coming from the awful tragedy of the flash floods in Germany and the shocking heatwave that has killed whole rivers of fish in Canada. Flash floods are not new, even the ones that hit west London this month and closed part of the tube system, but the scale of the deluge is growing as the atmosphere warms and increases the capacity of the air to hold water. Heatwaves happen, but their ability to bend the metal on bridges and take out power lines has taken whole regions by surprise.
In the UK we are still planning to build around a million homes on flood plains between now and 2050. Will any of them be built on stilts? I doubt it. The best our developers might manage is a free sand bag store in the back garden. Nor are we designing buildings that can deal with the heat without recourse to air conditioning. Until we get a carbon free grid, air conditioning just adds to the problem of the climate emergency and even after we get 100% renewable electricity, the air con in cities just adds to the heat island effect of all that concrete and tarmac soaking up the daytime heat.
Things are going to continue getting worse, a lot faster, until we start making the political choices that mean we can slow down the extent of the damage
Streets of trees can do an amazing job of cooling things down but councils like Sheffield have struggled to adapt to this new reality. Lots of people get it, but that hasn’t stopped huge swathes of front gardens being paved over for car parking with no permeable surfaces. The extra tarmac not only releases stored up heat all through the night, it also means that a sudden deluge has no ground to soak into and runs straight off into a drainage system that simply can’t cope with the sudden flood.
Of course, none of these problems compares to the absolute nuclear disasters we are planning to build on the sand dunes of the Suffolk coast and other such places. When you’re on the beach with buckets and spades this summer. Think Sizewell C. Think nuclear sandcastle, surrounded by a huge sea wall.
The National Policy Statement for the siting of nuclear power stations was finally passed in 2011, but was based upon the 2007 assessment of sea level rises by the Independent Panel on Climate Change. It’s a fairly reassuring document that talks about a worst case scenario of a half metre increase in sea level within the next hundred years. Sounds good, except it doesn’t include any impact from melting glaciers and ice sheets.
The evidence rapidly changed with each new report from a satellite or Artic monitoring station. Every IPCC assessment since then has shifted the worst case scenario upwards. The 7th assessment is due out next year and will undoubtedly shift everything upwards again, but the really scary bit is that due to the rigorous process of analysis, consensus building and governmental oversight, the conclusions will already be out of date.
The evidence shows the poles warming at twice the rate as the rest of the planet as receding sea ice reduces the ability to reflect heat back upwards and melting permafrost releases methane that creates a warming cloud of local gases. When you consider that the melting of the Greenland icesheet alone, would lead to an estimated 7m rise, this is a bad time to build a nuclear reactor with a 160 year lifespan on low lying coastland.
None of this is primarily a western problem. This week, hundreds of rail commuters narrowly escaped death as Zhengzhou, in China, saw the highest daily rainfall since weather records began, receiving the equivalent of eight months rain in a single day. The climate emergency is happening now and even if we turned off the taps on every oil well and gas pipe tonight, that is only going to slow the process down, not stop it.
All of this makes COP26 a make or break event with the UK government leading the process. We have interim targets for carbon reduction that are world leading, yet don’t go far enough or fast enough. Nor are they backed up with a solid plan. Even worse, we are still taking huge backward steps with Heathrow expansion, £27bn on road building and a dash to build incinerators across the country.
We are not building back better. The Institute for Economic Affairs believes that carbon emissions are heading for a new record in 2023. Things are going to continue getting worse, a lot faster, until we start making the political choices that mean we can slow down the extent of the damage.
Without a New Green Deal, we have no chance of making the huge changes involved in either adapting to the climate emergency or making the big switch to a carbon free future. The ideas and plans are already available, but it takes political will to make them happen.
Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb is a Green Party Life peer.
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