The UK’s Legacy of Carbon Emissions – Extreme Heat in America is Our Responsibility Too

21st July 2021

With wildfires spreading across the west coast of North America in past couple of weeks, our climate emergency specialist Alex Massie explains why this is something the UK should feel responsibility for as a historical emitter of greenhouse gases and calls on society to act on that responsibility by being as ambitious as possible with our emissions cuts. Alex has been supporting organisations, local authorities, and cities around the UK with their Net Zero strategies and plans since the first climate emergency declarations in 2018, including the City of Liverpool, the City of Bristol and various London Boroughs. He recently led a review of carbon reduction approaches for the Environment Agency. He said:

Global Heating

Extreme heat is once again in the news, with the latest soaring temperatures of around 50 degrees Celsius on the West coast of America, following similar tales from Canada and New Zealand within the last month. This is but the latest chapter in a story of lives and habitats damaged or destroyed by the consequences of global heating. As a UK-based consultant, I almost always read of these catastrophic events happening in distant locations. While the recent shocking temperatures have been seen in richer countries, the consequences of global heating are most apparent in the global South, in countries where there is often minimal historical responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions that are fuelling the climate crisis.

Cumulative Greenhouse Gases

Climate change is caused by accumulated greenhouse gases, which are emitted into the atmosphere over a long period of time. It doesn’t matter where they come from, they all serve to heat the planet as a whole. Some countries have a longer history of emissions than others, meaning they have contributed more to, and therefore are more responsible, for today’s problem. In the UK, where we have to this point avoided the extreme events we see in other parts of the world, there is a tendency to feel as if the consequences of global warming in other parts of the world are not our responsibility. However, the UK has the fourth highest historical emissions, after the US, China and Russia. The coal-powered Industrial Revolution, when the manufacturing of goods moved from small shops and homes to large factories and the subsequent cultural changes, started in the 18th century in Britain, long before spreading to other parts of the world. Due to the UK’s ‘head start’ on burning fossil fuels, and the larger legacy of carbon emissions, we are significantly responsible for the suffering of people elsewhere who have usually done little or nothing to create this problem – it took until 2017 for Canada to reach the same cumulative emissions that the UK had produced by 1935. (See images below from Our World in Data)

Making amends

Rather than feel sorry for those impacted then look away, we need to feel responsibility. This responsibility needs to be fulfilled by being as ambitious as we can with our emissions cuts. We have a responsibility to cut deeper and faster than others who have not polluted as heavily as us – especially since our contribution to the climate crisis is making them suffer. This means running ahead of the curve by cutting emissions rapidly – achieving ‘net zero’ only by 2050 and through using a whole host of offsets is not good enough for major historical emitters. It is not realistic to expect those who have not created the problem to put as much effort into solving it as those who did create it. So, in the UK, let’s as a society together try our best to reduce our carbon emissions, reducing consumption, reusing more and opting for active travel. Businesses, decarbonise as far as you can before you offset. Local government, be as ambitious as you can in your climate emergency plans. And the UK Government, you have a mandate – I would request you use it to drive change through policies that support sustainable energy rather than fossil fuels, and that make the right decisions the obvious ones. The results won’t feel like sacrifice – carried out in a socially-just way this transition can bring a healthy and prosperous world into being for all.

Image: Share of global cumulative CO2 emissions in 1850.

Share of global cumulative CO2 emissions in 1850

 

Image: Share of global cumulative CO2 emissions in 2017

Featured image: Cameron Strandberg via Wikimedia Commons.