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What did we do about the climate crisis in 2020?

We're running out of time to change the course of the climate crisis. The Big Issue asked the experts to assess what progress was made in 2020 and tell us where our focus should be in the months ahead

It should have been a big year for the UK’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis. But the Covid-19 crisis meant that, like many things, the COP26 conference planned for Glasgow in November was postponed until 2021 and potentially planet-saving talks between international leaders delayed. 

Some progress has been made, though most experts agree it’s not enough. The Big Issue asked some of the UK’s most prominent climate campaigners what they thought had been achieved this year and what they believe must be done in 2021 to get the country — and the world — on the right track.

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Friends of the Earth: ‘End new fossil fuel-heavy projects’

Early in December, the UK Government announced it would end financial backing for overseas new oil, natural gas or coal energy projects, with “very limited exceptions”.

This is one of the most significant changes made for the environment in 2020, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth said, adding: “This is right because we can’t say no to fossil fuels here in the UK and back them elsewhere in the world.”

The environmental organisation also counted national parks, big businesses and councils such as Blackpool, Bristol, Hackney, Leeds and Wigan committing to plant more trees as a win. 

And thanks in part to FoE campaigns, a controversial mining application for an area of Northumberland coastland was turned down. Locals and eco protesters campaigned against the proposals to create an open cast coal mine for Highthorn near Druridge Bay, with the bid eventually rejected by communities secretary Robert Jenrick who said the plans were “not environmentally acceptable”.

What needs to be done now?

FoE wants to see an end to the fixation with new fossil fuel-heavy projects, it said. 

“It’s hypocritical having a government that talks the talk on climate change, but then spends billions of pounds on roads and won’t put a stop to airport expansion projects like Heathrow’s third runway,” the spokesperson told The Big Issue.

Recognising the vital role councils have played in rapid response to the Covid-19 crisis, the organisation wants them to be empowered to do the same for the climate crisis. Local authorities are key in the fight to save the planet thanks to their roles in areas such as transport, housing and managing green spaces, FoE said, but are underfunded and under-resourced.

Greenpeace: ‘Everything needs to be decarbonised’

The UK Government’s decision to phase out cars by 2030, instead of 2040, was the country’s biggest step forward this year, Greenpeace said. And BP’s pledge to reduce its fossil fuel production by 40 per cent, again by 2030, was the most significant move on an industry level.

Meanwhile Donald Trump’s departure from the White House “should remove the biggest block to climate progress” on a global level, the charity’s chief scientist Dr Doug Parr said. 

“All of these developments, and others, point to a clear direction of travel for the world – we are decarbonising,” he added. “But all of them are signposts, and not milestones. Not actual achievements, just aspirations. They would have been exactly what we needed twenty years ago, but what we need in 2021 is actual, real, rapid emissions reductions.”

What needs to be done now?

The cheap, easy way to make quick progress would be to improve energy efficiency, Parr added, particularly in housing stock, while continuing to expand the UK’s offshore wind sector.

“But we need to think holistically – everything needs to be decarbonised, and we don’t have much time left.”

The Climate Group: ‘All eyes are on the UK’ for action on the climate crisis

Helen Clarkson, chief exec of the international non-profit organisation, agreed that the 2030 phase out date for petrol and diesel vehicles was a “huge win”, adding that the impact of petrol-powered traffic on air pollution should not be underestimated.

What needs to be done now?

The Climate Group hopes COP26, now to be held in November 2021, will see “ambitious commitments” brought to the table by diplomats. 

“All eyes are on the UK to see whether we can deliver a moment in time as bold as that around the Paris Agreement in 2015,” Clarkson said. “This requires the UK Government to lead from the front – so we’re expecting a series of bold commitments which they can challenge others to meet. 

“This is particularly true for the US – which has trailed behind others under the leadership of President Trump. We need to see President Biden not just re-join the Paris Agreement, but accelerate to where they should have been had a climate sceptic not been in the White House.”

The Big Issue’s Today for Tomorrow campaign aims to tackle the climate crisis, poverty and pandemics with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill. Support the Bill by emailing your MP today: bigissue.com/today-for-tomorrow/