U.K. Parliament Declares Climate Emergency

British MP’s have approved a motion declaring an environment and climate emergency. The motion had been called by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who considered the motion “a huge step forward”.

The government’s action comes after Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests, which managed to successfully block off major areas of London in late April to highlight the escalating climate crisis. The declaration of an emergency had been one of XR’s key demands put to the government by the environmental activist group. The motion had also been encouraged by 16-year-old-student Greta Thunberg’s address to U.K. lawmakers demanding greater environmental action.

The proposal indicates government cooperation on the issue, and while it is a commendable step forward, does not legally compel the British government — nor other nations — to act on its declaration. Indeed, in response to the Labour Party’s declaration that “the U.K. just became the first country to declare an environment and #climateemergency”, Greta Thunberg’s stated in a following Tweet, “Historic and very hopeful news. Now other nations must follow. And words must turn into immediate action.”

Without dismissing the significance of the U.K.’s declaration, too much praise should not be granted to a rhetoric that does not legally bind the U.K. to action. While the motion signifies a positive step in the right direction towards progress, it is hard to recognize whether the declaration is simply government rhetoric to please the masses, or may actually be a marker for change in future environmental policy.

As a wealthy nation, the U.K. has a huge role to play in the destruction of the natural environment and exhaustion of fossil fuels. Wearing the badge of honour as the first nation to declare a climate emergency should not be lauded unless radical change in environmental and climate policy is actualized immediately. Declaring an emergency is simply not enough, unless drastic change is made to combat the current climate crisis. As Thunberg stated, words must turn into action.

The government’s move implies increased recognition to environmental activism in the U.K., and the recent efforts of climate activists — including XR — Youth Climate Strikers and David Attenborough, have very likely influenced the British government’s decision. Public opinion likewise demonstrates increasing awareness of the current ecological breakdown. A Greenpeace poll recently reported that 63% of respondents in U.K. recognize that the planet is currently in a climate emergency, 76% would cast their vote differently to protect the planet, and that 64% say government is responsible for taking action on climate breakdown.

Yet, although the public seem to understand the current severity of the issue, the U.K. elite are arguably a step behind. During the protests, Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted that London should return to “business as usual”, receiving great backlash as many reasoned that “business as usual” is destroying the planet. Adam Boulton of Sky News, in a similar vein, publicly attacked a member of XR, stating on live television that, “So, half term week, when Parliament isn’t even here, you come here and you cause disruption in Westminster — you’re not even getting your message across, you’re a load of incompetent, middle-class, self-indulgent people who want to tell us how to live our lives, that’s what you are, isn’t it?” Boulton ended the report labelling XR protestors as “criminals”.

Irrespective of Britain’s elite’s derisive stance about XR’s successful transport blockages, climate protest has proved effective in persuading the government to declare a climate emergency, setting a target of reaching net zero emissions before 2050. If the U.K. government are serious about tackling the current climate emergency, then rhetoric must become action, immediately.

Olivia Abbott