08/10/2019 06:00 BST | Updated 08/10/2019 10:14 BST

This Government Cannot Afford To Ignore Extinction Rebellion

The activists' actions have brought climate change into the mainstream. Politicians cannot ignore that, former environment minister Tim Yeo writes.

PA Media
Extinction rebellion

It’s hard for anyone living on planet earth not to be aware of climate change and, indeed, the momentum behind action to prevent it. Nearly three-quarters of Britons believe the country is already feeling the effects of climate change and as the summer draws to a close, we’ve seen the hottest July ever around the world. Worryingly, tabloid headlines focus on “Britain basking” in heatwaves, rather than warning us that climate change is already here and will only get worse. This year, so far, seems to have been a tipping point for climate change – both environmentally and in terms of activism.

Movements such as Extinction Rebellion divided the country. Earlier this year, they occupied London for 10 days and, by dumping a pink boat at Oxford Circus, disrupted commuters and grabbed headlines. The group is now in the US and more than 50 other countries. At the heart of their activism is to “tell the truth”. This, their core principal, asks for lawmakers to be honest in confronting the realities of climate change.

Policeman preparing the boat "Berta Caceres" to remove it from Oxford Circus during the Extinction Rebellion Strike in London. An operation of hundreds of policeman was mobilized to remove the pink boat from Oxford Circus. Extinction Rebellion have blocked five central London landmarks for fifth day in protest against government inaction on climate change. (Photo by Brais G. Rouco / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

Their actions have brought climate change and the people fighting for action into the mainstream, and politicians cannot ignore it. In light of Extinction Rebellion’s actions, the House of Commons adopted a climate emergency resolution – a symbolic move, the government is not legally bound to act.  But act they must. And they must listen to groups like Extinction Rebellion.

If we are to meet the UN’s net zero emissions targets by 2050 we must act now and set out a ten-year plan to dramatically reduce CO2 output. 

This plan should include embracing and adopting alternative fuels, in particular the hydrogen economy. Moving towards hydrogen is inevitable and the government must wake up to this. Countries such as Japan and China already have and are investing in hydrogen fuel technology. China, the world’s biggest car market, is set to embrace hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles moving away from electric vehicles. If China has a vision to make hydrogen-powered vehicles a national priority, the UK should be doing the same. Hydrogen technology in the UK is ground-breaking and innovative. Yet, it will be China and Japan who benefit from these UK-first technologies, not us. The UK government must move aggressively towards a hydrogen economy. 

It’s not just new technology that the government must embrace but it must recognise the importance of a technology that we have relied upon for decades now – nuclear. This technology should not be sidelined in our attempt to reduce CO2 emissions, but accelerated and invested in. The development of small modular reactors (SMRs) in the UK could massively increase capacity. Nuclear is here to stay and, alongside renewables, it has a big part to play in meeting our emissions targets.

READ MORE: Extinction Rebellion’s London Protest Kicks Off With More Than 100 Arrests In First Few Hours

It’s not just the transport and energy sectors we must look to innovate either.  Livestock is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than emissions from transport. By putting large taxes on animal protein and by subsidising non-cattle protein we could see a less, meat-heavy diet in the UK, support farmers transition to less livestock and support sustainable meat producers.

The government should also consider a large CO2 tax but importantly coupled with much wider use of a ‘cap and trade’ approach.  With the government setting the cap across a given industry, or ideally the whole economy, the cap declines over time, providing a growing incentive for industry and businesses to reduce their emissions more efficiently. 

Lastly, if technology and innovation are to halt this climate catastrophe then we must create an environment in which businesses and organisations creating and trialling new technologies can thrive. The government must have a ‘can-do’ approach if we are to avoid missing our targets of zero emissions by 2050.  Relaxing so-called ‘red tape’, not placing unreasonable burden on businesses and organisations, fast tracking access to funds and grants and approving new technologies quicker would make the UK a leader in environmental revolution as it once was during the industrial revolution. 

As Extinction Rebellion say - ‘tell the truth’ but we also need a government that doesn’t just pay lip service to challenging goals. It’s time for Ministers to take the tough actions required to reach net zero by, or even before, 2050. By doing that Britain will regain leadership of the global response to climate change, a role it played with distinction in the last century.

Tim Yeo is a former environment minister and founder of Waste2Tricity