The Five Worst Things the UK Is Doing to the Environment

We've somewhat moved away from treating the planet like there's a spare one to live on, but the country's still not reached 'net zero emissions.'

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11 February 2019, 12:00pm

Not sure if you’d heard, but the end – as brought on by climate change – is coming. According to official figures released on the 5th of February, the UK's greenhouse gas emissions fell about 3 percent between 2016 and 2017, continuing a downward trend stretching over three decades. "Greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 are estimated to be 42.1 percent lower than they were in 1990," says the report by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

But don’t rejoice quite yet: most of that just comes from the country using less coal for energy. There are still loads of ways – from fracking to how we deal with waste – where the UK’s contributions to global emissions nudge us closer towards the burning inferno of end times. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK is committed to reducing emissions of six key greenhouse gases to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. It’s a “very ambitious” target, says Bob Ward, policy and communications director at LSE’s Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. It’s also, let's be honest, one we can’t afford to miss. As kids around the world gear up for another Friday of school walk-outs this week, in protest against government apathy about the climate change crisis, we take a cheerful look at five ways in which UK still contributes to climate change more than it should.

BURNING UP NATURAL GAS (AND STILL SOME COAL)

Since 1990, the portion of the UK's electricity generated from coal has plummeted from 80 percent to less than 10 percent – definitely good news. But we still rely too heavily on natural gas both to generate electricity and heat our homes. "Natural gas is better for the environment than coal; per unit of energy produced, natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide," says Dr Michael Byrne, a lecturer in climate science at the University of St Andrews and research fellow at the University of Oxford. "But that said, the use of natural gas still puts lots of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and is a big part of the climate change problem." Bob Ward says there's "no obvious solution" to replacing the UK's gas central heating network with something greener, though hydrogen heating is among the alternatives being explored.

BREEDING LOTS OF LIVESTOCK THAT FARTS US INTO OBLIVION

By now, you know that livestock farts, and the methane they release, are bad for the planet. Agriculture accounts for 10 percent of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions, with nearly half of those due to methane. "Although UK agriculture is a relatively small player when it comes to climate change, there have been no reductions in emissions since 2008 and this sector is not helping to alleviating the problem," says Dr Michael Byrne.

Broadly speaking, every hungover Big Mac we order has an impact. "The whole world is going to have to confront the issue that eating animals and dairy farming have a very sizeable environmental footprint, and we're going to have to look at alternatives," says Bob Ward. "If the whole world adopted Britain's eating habits – even though we have a growing trend towards veganism and vegetarianism – it would be game over in terms of climate change." Food industry, take note – this change has to come from higher up than individual consumers.

FRACKING SO MUCH THAT NICE OLDER WOMEN ARE CAMPING OUT IN PROTEST

Fracking may be unpopular and a confirmed cause of earthquakes in Blackpool, but it isn't heavily affecting our environmental footprint yet. "Other than some small amounts of imported fracked gas, the UK has yet to start extracting and using gas from fracking at scale," says Dave Reay, Professor of Carbon Management and Education at University of Edinburgh's School of GeoSciences. "The estimated shale gas reserves in the UK are big though, so if we did extract and burn all this it would likely bust our national carbon budgets. And some fracking sites in the US have shown very large 'fugitive emission' – gas that escapes to the atmosphere before it can be captured. If wells in the UK hit similar problems it would seriously dent our climate change mitigation efforts." Consider us warned.

DRIVING, NOT SWITCHING TO ELECTRIC CARS AND INSISTING ON FLYING EVERYWHERE, EVEN WITHIN THE UK

"Emissions from transport have remained stubbornly flat over the last decade, and petrol and diesel cars are the big problem – they emit three times more greenhouse gases than [the production of] meat and dairy combined," says Dr Michael Byrne. We’re buying more environmentally-friendly electric cars, but not fast enough, according to Bob Ward. He says we should recognise there's a "double incentive" to phase out petrol and diesel cars given that UK air pollution could cause as many as 36,000 deaths a year.

Read advises we try to fly more mindfully, too – weighing up the environmental cost with tourism’s benefit to developing countries – until electric planes become a thing. Last year, Norway promised that by 2040, all of its short-haul flights will be on electric aircraft. You'll be needing those for the stag and hen dos, inexplicably booked abroad, in your future.

NOT STANDING UP TO OUR GLOBAL ALLIES WHEN THEY WON'T COMMIT TO LOWER EMISSIONS TARGETS

“The UK has a very good track record on climate change, but it doesn’t always act internationally in a way that shows it takes climate change as seriously as it needs to," says Bob Ward. “It should be much stronger at dealing with people like Donald Trump who are doing enormous damage through their denial of climate change.” Ward’s comments on Trump’s impact are backed up by stats: US greenhouse gas emissions rose by 3.4 percent in 2018.

Given that Theresa May has said she won’t fight another election, how would Read advise her successor to approach Trump’s climate change denial? “Even if they can't persuade Trump to change his mind, the UK should be trying to drive action in the parts of the US that do get [the enormity of the problem] such as California. But really, we want a Prime Minister who can take Donald Trump aside and say, ‘This isn't an issue for us. We're making decisions for our children and grandchildren. If we decide not to do enough now, we are making decisions that will have serious consequences for future generations.’”

@mrnicklevine

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