It’s pretty clear what the UK government shouldn’t do to make the climate crisis any worse. It’s things like: don’t build a new oilfield in the North Sea; approve plans for more coal mines; build new airport runways; or cut the aid budget by billions. Things that look like they’re happening.
But we hear about this quite a lot. Perhaps less common is a positive vision for the future — what do we need to do, and what can we do, right this second, to slash carbon emissions and do our bit as a nation to slow potentially catastrophic rises in global temperatures.
That’s why a new report from the nature nonprofit WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature), published on Tuesday, was so welcome. It sets out a clear blueprint for what the UK government needs to do to slash its worldwide environmental footprint by 75% in the next decade.
The report looks at something called “per capita environmental footprint” — meaning the impact the country is having on the world through its imports, production, and consumption habits according to its population size— and outlines what needs to change to ensure that footprint is safely within planetary limits.
Researchers assessed the level of damage being done across “10 key drivers of environmental impact”, the report explains, including things like fossil fuel emissions, use of fertilisers such as nitrogen and phosphorus, water use, and material consumption.
WWF argues that taking steps to bring the UK’s environmental footprint to a safer level does not mean the economy has to shrink but it does mean doing things differently.
For example the country’s footprint can be reduced by “reducing waste, increasing recycling, eliminating the most egregious environmental impacts of UK production and consumption at home and overseas, increasing efficiency, and shifting towards production systems that work with nature.”
To fix some of the issues, Tanya Steele, the chief executive of WWF, said stronger legislation is needed, referring to the Environmental Bill which is currently being read by the House of Lords.
“The things we buy and the foods we eat are fueling nature loss, including the destruction of precious habitats like the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado, and current legislation does not go far enough to prevent this,” she says.
“If the UK is to stand as a global green leader at the COP26 climate summit, we must pull our weight,” she continued. “Adding a legally binding target to the Environment Bill to slash our environmental footprint at home and overseas by 2030 is an essential step.”
Here are some more ways the UK government and industry can drastically reduce its environmental impact, according to WWF – and some ways you can help too.
1. Banning products linked to deforestation
One of the major calls to action from this report is for the government to ensure the UK’s imported commodities are not linked to any deforestation at all by 2023 at the latest. The government has legislation to try and clamp down on imports linked to illegal deforestation — but campaigners say this doesn’t go far enough because legal deforestation is still widespread and damaging.
An investigation by Unearthed and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism last November found that brands like Tesco, Asda, Lidl and Nando’s were selling chicken raised on soya grown in a massive area cleared of woodland in Brazil, known as a the Cerrado region, as a result of their complex and opaque supply chains.
Major food companies, including Tesco, have indicated that they agree that this is a problem — and wrote an open letter in October saying they want the government to introduce stricter legislation affecting all food companies to ban deforestation-linked products from the supply chain.
They argue that if such a law came into force, affecting all companies, it would create a level playing field across suppliers and make it easier to comply.
One way you can help is by writing to your MP arguing for stronger UK legislation that will ban products linked to deforestation or joining campaigns such as those by WWF by signing petitions that put pressure on the government.
Another way is to eat more sustainably, research the brands you buy from, and cut down on meat, for example, to put consumer pressure on brands.
2. Shifting to a more plant-based diet
The WWF report says, in technical terms, that the UK needs to reduce its “biomass consumption” footprint by 50% by 2030. That means cutting our consumption of “agricultural products, animal products, and forestry products” and increasing the consumption of plant-based foods in UK diets.
For consumers, becoming vegetarian, vegan, or even just “flexitarian”, meaning you cut meat out most of the time but still eat it on special occasions or a couple of times a month, can help drive this shift. Global Citizen has some tips and advice on how to be vegetarian to help get you started.
3.Process recycling properly — and reuse materials
The UK isn’t going to reduce its impact on the world without improving its recycling rates and using the material saved to make new products, rather than constantly sourcing new plastic for our everyday items. WWF calls for improvements to municipal waste management here in the UK so that less waste is sent to landfill, or sent abroad — and instead is actually reused.
While lots of plastic is recycled — in 2020 around 486,000 tonnes was recycled in the UK — far too much is going abroad unprocessed.
Britain is sending thousands of tonnes of plastic waste to other countries where often it is not actually recycled and sometimes just burned — and in May it was reported that almost 40% of the UK’s plastic waste, over 200,000 tonnes, was sent in 2020 to Turkey alone.
The science is clear – we must reduce the impacts of our consumption and production if we are to save our #OneSharedHome.— WWF UK (@wwf_uk) July 5, 2021
Our new research with @3KeelLLP found that as a nation we need to reduce our global footprint by three quarters if we are to live within our planetary means. pic.twitter.com/K2snDeN0YR
Greenpeace UK is currently campaigning for the UK government to crack down on this practice and fix its plastic waste crisis by cutting single-use down by 50% by 2025 — you can sign the petition here.
Another way to ensure materials are used wisely, is by putting the “polluter pays” principle into law, WWF argues, to ensure businesses take responsibility for a product’s impact, “from production right through to end of life material recovery.”
4. Only eat sustainably sourced fish
WWF calls for the UK’s fishing practices to become “unambiguously sustainable” as quickly as possible. Its research from 2019 estimated that over 60% of the UK’s commercial fish stocks were being unsustainably exploited or were at high risk of being so. Overfishing poses an existential threat to fish stocks and the ocean’s ecosystems.
It’s up to the UK government and the fishing industry to bring about more sustainable practices in the industry and clamp down on imported unsustainably sourced fish. However, something we as consumers might want to do is thinking of including more marine food in our diet that it is easier to source sustainably.
That might mean eating more seaweed for example, which is an excellent source of nutrients and much easier to farm sustainably. The WWF report says: “Consumption of marine resources has the potential to contribute significantly to healthy and sustainable diets, particularly on the promotion of plant-based seafood like seaweed or low trophic seafood like mussels.”
5. Reduce carbon emissions
It’s vital that all sectors of industry in the UK, from agriculture to manufacturing, cut carbon emissions, the report says.
It also points to the carbon emissions related to the UK importing goods from overseas and says there needs to be a 39% cut in the emissions generated by aviation and shipping by 2030, compared to 2019 levels in order to meet overall carbon targets.
The UK has a world-leading target to cut emissions by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990 levels, but experts have said that means it needs to take serious action now to achieve that aim.
For example, massively increasing the number of electric cars and phasing out fossil fuel transport, only building low carbon new homes, and bringing back the green homes grant so people can make their homes more energy efficient, are just a few examples.
Ahead of the UN’s COP26 climate change conference happening in Glasgow this November, make your voice heard and join Global Citizens in calling on the government to show leadership and make changes now so that other world leaders at the conference will be more inclined to follow suit.
You can also take action calling on UK politicians to back a green recovery from COVID-19 — helping to set in motion the changes needed to reach the 2035 target.