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Met Office chief scientist makes urgent call for net zero as UK hits 40C for first time

The record 40C temperature is ‘virtually impossible’ without greenhouse gases, said Met Office chief scientist Professor Stephen Belcher.

Met Office chief scientist Stephen Belcher wears a white shirt and grey cardigan in front of a map showing record temperatures of 40C across the UK

Professor Stephen Belcher, the Met Office chief scientist, issued the warning on Tuesday. Image: Met Office/Twitter

The UK’s record temperature of 40 degrees Celsius would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change driven by greenhouse gases, the Met Office chief scientist has said, urging leaders to find a way to reach net-zero emissions sooner rather than later.

The new record high reached on Tuesday has caused havoc with the UK’s road and rail networks, fires, and a growing number of deaths. But such extremes could become a regular occurrence unless government and business take action, said Professor Stephen Belcher.

“If we continue under a high emissions scenario we could see conditions like this every three years,” said Belcher, who is also a member of the government’s chief scientific adviser network, in a video statement. “We’re already committed to a level of warming and these extremes will get more extreme in future.

“The only way that we can stabilise the climate is by achieving net zero and of course the UK has made some great strides in that direction already. But we want to stabilise the climate at a safe level and that means reaching net zero soon.”

The government has committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 but it is frequently criticised for not doing enough to achieve its goal.

On Monday evening, as temperatures in London hit 35C, the high court ordered the government to explain its position, insisting the current net zero strategy “lacked any explanation or quantification of how the government’s plans would achieve the emissions target, and as such had failed to meet its obligations under Climate Change Act (CCA) 2008”, according to the Guardian.

Conservative leadership candidates have also been criticised for not being strong enough on green issues in their race to be the next prime minister.

Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor and frontrunner in the contest, regularly pushed back against emissions targets during his time in government because of the short-term expense involved.

Recent research from the London School of Economics predicted that a transition to net zero would boost British coffers in the long term by around 4 per cent of GDP.

Nonetheless, the scientific community has expressed shock that temperatures have risen so high, so quickly.

The BBC meteorologist Nick Miller said: “There is an element of shock at reaching 40C in the UK but really no one should be surprised. Scientists told us this day would come because of climate change and now it’s arrived, it’s likely to happen again.”

It was a sentiment echoed by Professor Belcher, who said he “wasn’t expecting to see this” in his career.

“In some ways 40 degrees C is an arbitrary figure because we see the impact of heatwaves at lower temperatures,” he said, “but for me it’s a real reminder that the climate has changed and it will continue to change.

“Research conducted here at the Met Office has demonstrated that it’s virtually impossible for the UK to experience 40 degrees C in an undisrupted climate. But climate change driven by greenhouse gases has made these extreme temperatures possible, and we’re actually seeing that possibility now.

“If we continue under a high emissions scenario we could see conditions like this every three years. We’re already committed to a level of warming and these extremes will get more extreme in future.

“The only way that we can stabilise the climate is by achieving net zero and of course the UK has made some great strides in that direction already. But we want to stabilise the climate at a safe level and that means reaching net zero soon.”

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