If you’re not an emergency call handler, or a fan of the television documentary Ambulance, it’s likely that you haven’t heard the phrase ‘emergency disconnect’.
To explain – at times of crisis, when call volumes are exceptionally high, call handlers are instructed to arrange help and disconnect from each call as soon as possible so that they can deal with the next in the queue; a little less conversation, a little more action – if you like.
Across the UK, our focus on climate change is intensifying – in the media, in politics and in our hospitals, clinics and surgeries. There has been a lot of climate conversation in recent weeks – not least during London’s first ‘Climate Action Week’1.
But are we facing a different kind of ‘emergency disconnect’ as a country? Is there a disconnect between the urgency of the situation we’re declaring, and the speed and scale of action?
Important steps like the legal adoption of net-zero emissions targets have been taken, but many climate scientists, activists and health professionals think that, so far, our government, our institutions and we ourselves as individuals are not taking the crisis seriously enough. The independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) supported this view in their 2019 progress report2, stating:
“Despite some important foundations, progress is insufficient even for previous targets, and a major ramp-up is now needed for the net-zero target.”
Even if we were on course for the 2050 target some don’t think that’s good enough. As Caroline Lucas of the Green Party put it in parliament3:
“You don’t call 999 and request a fire engine in 30 years’ time.”
But no one likes bad news. When it comes to personal health issues, many of us have an incredible ability to ignore unpalatable problems – sometimes even until it’s too late.
Why should we do more?
With that in mind, the only arguments will win people over are those which present incentives, opportunities and benefits – not blame, cost and compromise. At the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change (UKHACC), we agree with the Lancet’s assessment that tackling climate change could be “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”4
But it’s not just health benefits that we’d be reaping. To convince government and business, we need to emphasise the whole package of rewards that stronger action on climate change could deliver. As the CCC put it, policies to tackle climate change must be “business-friendly”2.
Consequently, we’re encouraged by two recent findings from Carbon Tracker, in The political tipping point: why the politics of energy will follow the economics5:
- By 2021 investing in new solar and onshore wind energy generation will be cheaper than investing in new coal power plants.
- By 2022 it could be cheaper to build new solar and onshore wind systems than it is to operate existing coal plants.
So, what more should we do to respond to this emergency, and to maximise the benefits of a healthier world? With Carbon Tracker’s findings in mind, the benefits to the UK will surely be even greater if we can get ahead of the curve in zero-emissions technology.
We welcome the governments’ commitment on net-zero but believe that some of the targets identified – particularly on agriculture and transport – are not sufficiently ambitious.
The CCC itself has confirmed that even if its recommendations are followed, some sectors, including agriculture and aviation, will still be “significant emitters” in 20506.
This year we’re releasing a paper on sustainable diets, looking at how food can be produced and consumed in a way that is healthier for us and the planet. We hope to provide food for thought for individuals, healthcare bodies and government by reconsidering what it’s possible to achieve by taking emergency action on food – showing how sustainable diets can actually make us socially, economically and environmentally better off.
By addressing new issues and strengthening existing commitments – e.g. fossil fuel phase out – we could bring forward our net-zero target by five or ten years. Why wouldn’t we want that, in an emergency situation?
In the Road to Zero strategy7, the government has committed to all new cars being “effectively zero emissions” by 2040. UKHACC believes that these plans – which have been called “vague and unambitious” by the Business Select Committee8 – do not go far enough.
For context, Norway has pledged to ban new petrol and diesel cars by 2025, while Denmark, India, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands will do the same by 20309. It’s hard to imagine the UK as a big player in electric vehicle technology when we’re competing with countries that are so committed to decarbonising transport.
On behalf of health professionals across the country, we’re calling for the ban on diesel and petrol vehicles to be brought forward to 2030. Alongside this, it’s important that more Clean Air Zones are introduced, and that local authorities are empowered to charge polluting drivers. Currently the cost of transport pollution to society greatly outweighs the cost paid by drivers.
Addressing the transport contribution to the climate emergency isn’t just about reducing pollution by driving electric cars. The Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions’ (CREDS) recent report makes it clear that electric cars alone won’t solve the problem10. CREDS urge “demand-side solutions”, saying:
“A stronger focus on demand will be required to address the greater action implied by a net-zero carbon target… Addressing energy demand is more likely to promote sustainable development than increasing energy supply.”
The CCC has added their voice to the call for policies that encourage attitudinal change, stressing that:
“Over half of the emissions cuts to reach net-zero emissions require people to do things differently.”2
These claims support our own recommendations on investment in active travel. UKHACC is advocating for an ‘Active Travel Scheme’ to reduce domestic and business reliance on polluting vehicles – including at least £10 investment in by active travel per capita per year 2020.
Healthcare leading the way
As an institution of respected professionals, and the largest contributor to public sector emissions (40-50%11,12), it’s vital that the NHS leads by example.
Recent developments in healthcare are encouraging; in June, the Newcastle Hospitals Foundation Trust became the first trust to declare a climate emergency, and – more importantly – committed to becoming carbon neutral by 204012.
Several of our members, including the British Medical Association, Royal College of General Practitioners and the Faculty of Public Health have committed to divestment from the fossil fuel industry13.
When the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) recently announced that they have done the same14 the move made a big impact in the sector, and rightly so. We hope more medical bodies will join RCEM, because if anyone should be able to recognise an emergency, surely, it’s them.
Communications Manager, UK Health Alliance on Climate Change
- E3G – London Climate Action Week
- Climate Change Committee, 2019. Reducing UK emissions 2019 Progress Report to Parliament. https://bit.ly/2Lv3iLJ
- Caroline Lucas, 2019. https://bit.ly/2GhJMOT
- Watts et al., 2015. Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health. The Lancet. https://bit.ly/2SqrPCv
- Carbon tracker, 2019. The political tipping point: Why the politics of energy will follow the economics. https://bit.ly/2Gki8k7
- Climate Change Committee, 2019. Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming. https://bit.ly/2DKIyds
- Department for Transport, 2018. The Road to Zero: Next steps towards cleaner road transport and delivering our Industrial Strategy. https://bit.ly/2DvPWM7
- BBC, 2018. https://bbc.in/2S6cSoG
- UKHACC, 2019. Moving beyond the air quality crisis.
- Eyre, N and Killip, G. (eds.), 2019. Shifting the focus: energy demand in a net-zero carbon UK. Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions. https://bit.ly/2xvEeey
- UKHACC, 2018. Greener Hospitals, Healthier Communities.
- Channel 4 News, 2019. https://bit.ly/2xVLJMk
- UKHACC, 2019. Royal College of Emergency Medicine fully divests from fossil fuels.
- RCEM, 2019. https://bit.ly/2Yf4jgY