In the fight against climate change, where does the UK currently stand?

Last week, I criticised the inaction of states to combat the climate crisis, prompting a need for closer analysis of where the UK currently stands in the fight against climate change, and as a result, a discussion of policies the UK should implement. Ultimately, the UK should look to its European neighbours, including Germany, to inspire more proactive policies that our planet desperately needs. 

Where does the UK stand on recycling and waste? 

Recycling is one of the mechanisms states can use to reduce their methane emissions. The UK’s recycling rate (as a collective whole) stands at 44%, excluding Wales which has the second best recycling rate in the world. Considering the example Wales has set, we must ensure that the UK as a collective whole has thorough standards of recycling to protect our resources, and thus our planet. To improve our recycling standards, we can look to Germany for inspiration. It utilises an effective, colour-coded system to ensure that all its recyclable materials are effectively reused. For example, it has a different coloured bin for separate materials, rather than the single recycling bin that UK households currently use. This effective German system of recycling has enabled the country to have one of the highest recycling rates in the world (at 66%) which enables it to reuse its materials and reduce its methane emissions. The British state can similarly look internally to the success of Wales, which has achieved a higher recycling rate compared to the rest of the UK because it has “set statutory recycling targets” which has “increased household recycling from 5.2% (1998-99) to globally leading figures of 60.7% (2018-19)”. 

Many will say: we already have separate bins for recyclable materials – why do we need more? The answer to this question is relatively simple: it has been established that some materials are not effectively recycled, with some sent abroad to be recycled, and others ending up in landfill. If sent to landfill, this increases our (indirect) methane emissions which are known to be a contributory factor to climate change. Oliver Franklin-Wallis at The Guardian reports that even if the UK has one of the relatively higher recycling rates globally, it still does not guarantee that these materials will be recycled effectively. Even in these comparative terms, Germany still maintains an overall higher rate of recycling compared to the UK, meaning there must be infrastructural change directed by the state. The British state must adapt its recycling system to one in which the individual is incentivised to recycle. In comparison, the German state promotes higher recycling rates by requiring the direct cooperation of its citizens, and a potential fine if they fail to adhere to its recycling guidelines. Given the desperate nature of our climate crisis, governments should implement strict policies for the greater good, regardless of popularity. If the risk of a financial penalty is the only way to increase the UK’s overall recycling rate, then this is the route we must pursue. 

What about the UK’s energy mix? 

The UK has taken steps to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, but these do not go far enough. Fossil fuels still take a majority share of the UK’s energy generation, with the government reporting that: “In Quarter 2 2021, renewables’ share of generation was 37.2%; this is 7.2% points down on Quarter 2 2020 and lower than the generation of fossil fuels.” (September 30, 2021). The UK has a long journey ahead until it can call itself a renewable superpower, and thus, a leading state in the fight against climate change. However, there are actions that the UK can use to decrease its reliance on fossil fuels. The government must take dynamic action to support the reduction in emissions from households – for example through solar panel installation in lower income households. Those in lower income brackets with little or no disposable income must be supported by the state to create a cohesive strategy to reduce emissions. No one should be left behind – climate change requires the cooperation and dynamism from all actors in society to create positive, impactful change. 

The initiative for the German state to create legislation to change its energy mix is a strategy the UK should implement. Its Renewable Energy Act 2021 has allowed the state to shift its reliance from fossil fuels to renewable energy which reduces its carbon dioxide emissions. In the UK however, it is difficult to ensure that action is taken because there currently is no legal obligation to do so. It is reported that “Germany is unique in terms of its advanced renewable energy policy”, meanings that other states have yet to implement legislation in this capacity. The closest UK achievement is its Climate Change Act 2008 and its legal obligation to achieve net zero by 2050. On the other hand, regardless of this Act, to limit global warming to 1.5C, net zero must be achieved by 2030. Many have called this a critical decade in the fight against climate change. However, there are looming concerns about the ability for the UK to achieve these goals. The Carbon Brief states that: “To meet the UK’s carbon budgets, CO2 emissions would need to fall by another 31% by 2030, whereas government projections expect just a 10% cut, based on current policies.” The UK’s current approach to renewable energy clearly lacks the rigor required to significantly reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, in reference to the UK’s carbon budget (laid out in the Climate Change Act) there is wider consensus from the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit that the UK “is not on track to meet the fourth (2023-27) or the fifth (2028-32)”. In this pivotal decade, then, there is still relative inaction by the British state to commit to its carbon budget. 

However, there are some positives – many argue that the UK is in a good position to utilise wind power more extensively. For example, Energy UK highlights that: “The UK is well placed to take advantage of wind power, with some of the best conditions in Europe and high average wind speeds.” This would allow the UK to diversify its energy sources and thus improve its energy security. Energy UK also states that “renewables produce more than 20% of the UK’s electricity”, demonstrating that some steps have been taken, albeit not to the extent the planet needs. 

How high is meat consumption in the UK? 

There are debates whether the state should control its citizens’ meat consumption. In comparative terms, “the average amount of meat eaten per person in the UK is almost double the world average”. This is quite a drastic statistic – it is still the wealthiest states which appear to be having a disproportionate impact on the climate in terms of diet. However, this is a highly contentious political issue because “daily meat consumption in the UK has fallen by 17% in the last decade”, with the controversy being further complicated due to the disparities in its environmental impact. The BBC refers to Dr Stewart, who states that “’Locally produced meat has a much lower impact than meat that has been imported’”. Yet, we cannot ignore the role of meat consumption in terms of its methane emissions. 

However unpopular it may be, if the UK wants to achieve net-zero by 2050, it must consider the impact of meat consumption to mitigate anthropogenic emissions. To combat concerns over state intervention in its citizens’ private lives, it should consider a tax on meat products – the same as it does for drinks with high sugar content. This would alleviate both some concerns of state intervention in its citizens’ private lives, acting as a kind of nanny state, and encourage significant behavioural shifts. The impact of a meat tax and a downward trajectory in meat consumption will be a significant step forward for the UK to take in its fight against climate change. 

There are many ways for the UK state to improve its cohesive fight against climate change. There are positive examples even within the UK that can be applied more broadly, particularly if we look at the case of Wales and its successful recycling programme. Furthermore, if the UK increases its investment in renewable energy, this will aid our fight against the looming climate catastrophe.

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