What we learned from Channel 4's climate debate
The haunting screams of a koala bear burning to death should be enough to make anyone sit up and listen.
This was just one narrative from the shocking video sequence that opened last Thursday’s Climate and Nature Debate on Channel 4 News.
Amongst the footage were shots of scorched, burning forests, landfills the height of skyscrapers, starving animals on the brink of death, and plastic bags polluting the ocean – all set to the soundtrack of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World.
Every major party leader was invited to explain what they’d do about the climate emergency and its far-reaching environmental issues, which are, in the words of host Krishnan Guru-Murthy, “the biggest issue on the planet.” That night, policies to tackle the climate emergency weren’t buried in manifestos, they took centre stage.
Guru-Murthy was joined by Jeremy Corbyn (Labour), Jo Swinson (Liberal Democrats), Nicola Sturgeon (Scottish National Party), Adam Price (Plaid Cymru) and Sian Berry (Green Party). They covered all manner of issues – from energy to transport, and food to housing.
Meeting the goal
Sian Berry set the scene by questioning whether the leaders’ plans will match the scale needed, asking, “if we don’t act now, when? We must do what the science demands, not what is politically convenient.” A 2050 target still leaves us with 50% chance of tipping into climate chaos, so what are the party’s overarching goals to go beyond this?
Corbyn challenged the current government, who are aiming for the latest date of all the parties at 2050 - a goal that with their current plans, they won’t meet it until 2099. He supplemented his statement with Labour’s position, saying: “I think we have to do everything we can to get to a 2030 net-zero emissions target.”
Nicola Sturgeon said Scotland’s targets are the “toughest in the world and go beyond what the Committee on Climate Change has required”, which are to cut greenhouse emissions to zero by 2045 and be carbon neutral by 2040.
Jo Swinson believes it’s “absolutely possible to do it by 2045, but we need to do it as quickly as we can. How much we cut right now will give us the best chance of saving planet.”
And finally, Adam Price said his party will “combine hope with urgency, making a trinity of zeros - zero carbon, zero waste, zero poverty – their common goal by 2030.”
Ultimately, all those present believe that we must cut emissions as quickly as possible.
What will need to change?
Sian Berry was clear about what action is necessary: “we need to look at every single layer of our society - homes, industry, energy, agriculture.”
Ideas ranged from taxing frequent flyers, to investing in more railways, rewilding farmlands and agriculture, and planting billions more trees.
But one of the issues that dominated the discussion more than any other was housing. This was heartening to see, as one-third of our carbon emissions in the UK come from our homes.
Guru-Murthy noted that the Conservatives have pledged to invest £9bn on energy efficiency, with the other parties also talking big on creating zero carbon homes but asked how they will make this a reality.
Berry said it needs to occur in a comprehensive way, street by street. She blamed each successive government for neglecting this issue and creating a massive backlog. She said the Greens will invest 100bn per year into green new deal, of which £38bn would need to go into new homes. Berry also said that a deeper retrofit was needed for old homes, which the other parties also touched upon.
In Scotland, Sturgeon pointed out that they already have a home energy efficiency programme that provides financial support to help people better insulate and heat their homes, and that they will have a new building standards policy in place by 2024.
Corbyn said that widescale retrofit could be achieved through a large green transformation fund, providing government help for those in social housing and on low incomes, with everyone else getting an interest free loan to transform their homes.
In terms of new-build housing, Swinson pointed out that the technology is already available – “we know how to build zero-carbon homes – all new homes should be, but they’re not” citing that sadly, the zero-carbon homes standard that was scrapped in 2016.
Check out how we propose the industry gets started on zero-carbon homes again.
Making the green choice the easy choice
It’s not just about making our homes sustainable – we need sustainable lifestyles too. But individuals cannot do this alone – we need governments and businesses to make sustainable choices the easy choice: from our transport options to the goods we buy.
This was something that resonated throughout. All the leaders touched upon the fact that people’s lives should not be made worse with these policies. A holistic approach is needed.
Guru-Murthy asked the leaders what they are doing in their own lives to help the climate crisis, but Sian Berry called for moving the discussion from personal actions to systems change saying, “the science demands it, the emergency demands it…it’s about changing the way things work for good.” Make going green the easiest and cheapest option.
What will the debate lead to?
It’s not clear how the Channel 4 debate might change voters’ opinions. But it was clearly a historic moment for the climate emergency. For the first time, political leaders were being asked to put the issue at the forefront of people’s minds ahead of the UK’s upcoming general election.
In a way, calling it a debate was perhaps somewhat of a misbrand; it was one of those rare instances in politics that everyone agreed on a consensus: we must act now. Without immediate action, we won’t reach the legal target of delivering net zero emissions by 2050.
But one thing we can all take away from it was that Channel 4 News thought it was appropriate and crucial enough to put the climate on a national platform.
And this gives me belief that we can make a difference.