The climate crisis has been big news in 2021. With extreme weather events dominating the news cycle all year and the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference returning after a two-year COP hiatus, the topic is at the top of the world’s agenda, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
As the host nation of both the G7 Summit (an annual meeting of the leaders of seven of the world’s largest economies) in June, and COP26 in November, the UK has played a particularly important role in attempting to shape climate policies globally — though campaigners would argue with limited success.
Between the formal events where world leaders have gathered there has also been an uptick in post-lockdown climate activism out on the streets.
The global Fridays for Future movement returned in full-swing, and in the UK there have been a number of specific actions targeting fossil fuel projects in the works, including the Stop Cambo campaign to stop a new oil field opening off the coast of Scotland.
Here are some of the biggest moments in the fight against climate change in the UK this year.
1. Incredible Activism at COP26
One of the defining moments in climate news in the UK this year was of course the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, which was hosted in Glasgow in November. It put the UK’s climate leadership under intense scrutiny, while climate activism and attention on environmental issues was ramped up.
In response to its role as host, the UK government made more climate commitments, such as accelerating its carbon emissions cutting targets. In April the UK set a new legally binding and world-leading target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels.
But while this was a positive direction for the UK to take in 2021, the government’s independent climate advisors on the Climate Change Committee issued a report in the summer warning that the country is a long way off from achieving its ambitious goals, and recommending over 200 policy changes needed to actually see goals met.
The COP26 summit itself had its disappointments, alongside some successes. Among the positives was a global pledge signed by over 100 countries to end deforestation by 2030, while India committed to a net zero pledge for the first time.
Youth delegates and activists were left frustrated by access issues at the summit, with some finding they couldn’t access sessions that they had a pass for. Still, this didn’t stop them from making their voices heard — activists from all over the world stayed in the city for two weeks and raised the roof about the urgency of the climate crisis.
There were blistering speeches from the likes of Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate, impactful poems recited to cheering crowds, and plenty of performance art including an activist drinking “oil” on the street.
On Nov. 6, an estimated 100,000 people marched through the city as part of a Global Day of Climate Action, which saw sister demonstrations all over the world. Global Citizen spoke with protesters about the hope that seeing the crowds of people and the positive atmosphere at the protest had given them.
2. Stop Cambo
Another important show of activism and rallying of public opposition about a climate issue was the fight against the Cambo oil field proposals this year — a fight that, at least for now, has been won.
The site in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland was ear-marked for development by two companies, Siccar Point Energy and the oil giant Shell, but it was announced last week that the plan was now “paused” for the foreseeable future after Shell withdrew its backing.
Campaigners estimated that, if it goes ahead as planned, the Cambo oil field would produce pollution equal to 18 coal-fired power plants per year and would release 132 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over its lifetime. The plan was for the site to extract oil until at least 2050, so the scheme would also be at odds with the UK’s target to be at net zero carbon emissions by that year.
Global Citizen joined environmental organisations like Greenpeace UK, Friends of the Earth, and the Stop Cambo coalition of activists, to petition the government to halt the plans while awaiting a decision from the government's energy oil and gas regulator on whether the drilling should start.
Amid all the lively campaigning Stop Cambo youth activist Lauren MacDonald made international headlines in October when she confronted Shell CEO Ben van Beurden on stage at a climate event about the company’s role in contributing to climate change.
3. Attention on Plastic Waste
More details of the UK’s record of sending thousands of tonnes of plastic waste to other countries where it is usually dumped and burned, rather than recycled, came to light this year.
It was reported in January that a loophole created by leaving the European Union meant Britain could avoid an EU directive to ban exporting plastic waste to low-income countries that are not part of the OECD. The UK was typically sending plastic waste to countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, and Pakistan.
After finding out about it, 9-year-old Lizzie from Devon decided to do something and managed to get over 80,000 people to sign a petition addressed to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, urging him to stop the practice of dumping the problem of plastic waste on some of the poorest parts of the world.
A Greenpeace UK investigation in May revealed more shocking details, finding that Turkey — a country that is in the OECD — is now receiving the most amount of plastic waste from Britain, with over 200,000 tonnes sent to its shores in 2020, and investigators found evidence of mountains of it piling up in areas near the coast.
In total, 790,000 tonnes of plastic was exported worldwide, with just 486,000 tonnes actually recycled in the UK in 2020, the report’s figures show.
4. A Net Zero Strategy
Another important moment for the forward direction of the UK in terms of its response to climate change was the publication of a net zero strategy in October.
The long-awaited strategy, coming over two years after Britain legally enshrined its net zero by 2050 goal in law, included plans for more investment in electric cars and grants to help households phase out gas boilers.
It focused on encouraging more investment from the private sector — claiming that the plan would create “440,000 new jobs and leverage up to £90 billion of private investment” in green industries. There was also more funding promised for tree-planting.
Climate groups said the plan was a start but not transformative enough — and crucially, it did not come with a promise to stop granting new licences for oil and gas extraction. Another key issue: there was not much mention of diet or lifestyle changes, such as driving less or eating less meat, or any strategy to engage the public on cutting emissions.
5. The Campaign Against the Cumbria Coal Mine
As well as Stop Cambo, another major fight this year has been in response to plans to open a new coal mine in Cumbria, north west England.
Cumbria County Council supported the opening of the mine because the project is expected to create jobs and the coal would be used for the steel industry, however amid fierce opposition from locals and climate activists nationwide, it decided to review its decision on the coal mine back in February. A decision won’t be made until the New Year, the BBC reported in November.
If it goes ahead the mine would be the first new coal mine to open in the UK for 30 years — something that critics highlight would seriously undermine aims to phase out fossil fuels.
Pressure has been mounting for UK politicians to take a stance and, during the COP26 summit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “not in favour of more coal.”
The issue has ignited Fridays for Future activists including 17-year-old Elijah McKenzie-Jackson, who along with the Coal Action Network, organised a petition calling for the government to step in and stop the mine, which garnered 111,475 signatures in February.
We’ll watch this space to see what happens next for the Cumbria coal mine in 2022.
6. Extreme Weather Warnings
Unfortunately, extreme weather has continued to be an increasingly alarming issue globally in 2021, and the UK was no different.
The month of July saw unusual and severe flash flooding in London — causing some underground stations to be filled with water. And this November the country was told by the Met Office, the UK’s meteorological agency, to prepare for a wetter than average winter.
The Met Office issued a warning in July that the country was not sufficiently prepared for its changing weather conditions in future. Its analysis of the year before found that 2020 was the third warmest year, the fifth wettest, and the eighth sunniest on record.
7. Insulate Britain Protests
One of the most headline-grabbing climate movements in 2021 has to have been the direct action Insulate Britain protests that started in September.
The group, which was founded by six members of another direction action group, Extinction Rebellion, are calling for the government to ensure all homes are better insulated to save energy. Around 15% of the UK’s carbon emissions come from heating homes.
Their main demands are for all social housing to be fully insulated by 2025, and for the government to lay out a legally-binding plan to retrofit all homes to low-carbon standards by 2030.
They’ve used civil disobedience — mostly by blocking major roads around London — to draw attention to their aims. This controversial tactic led to a heated debate about the effectiveness of this strategy for a campaign.
It certainly did get the issue pushed to the top of the media agenda, but the group has seen consequences and, in November, nine members of Insulate Britain were jailed for the road blockades.
Activists have said that legal action will not stop them and they plan more protests for spring 2022.