People watch in silence as the devastating impact of climate change is laid bare during a preview of the BBC’s new wildlife documentary series in Bristol.
It’s a stark reminder that the effects of rising sea temperatures are already being felt across the globe, as David Attenborough’s familiar voice fills the Cinema De Lux in Cabot Circus to warn of the danger of inaction and uncertain futures of the creatures in the episode.
If the current trend continues, we can expect to see entire ecosystems wiped out, habitats lost and hundreds of millions of people, especially in poorer countries, thrown into climate-related poverty, chaos and starvation, as documented in a 2018 IPCC report.
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“We are on a knife edge,” says Lizzi Testani, CEO of Bristol Green Capital Partnership, reflecting on the current situation during an environmental panel discussion at Babbasa’s Youth Conference in October.
“We either won’t solve the problem, or we will, and the world will be a much better and more equitable place to live.”
In the last year, we have seen the rise of Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Climate Strikes that have seen thousands take to the streets in Bristol and around the world, in perhaps the most high-profile mass protest in recent decades.
Bristol City Council was the first in the country to declare a climate emergency in November 2018, a move that has been followed by other local authorities, as well as by Parliament on a national level.
A number of the city’s institutions, including the University of Bristol, We The Curious, Bristol Old Vic, Watershed and Colston Hall, have gone on to make their own pledges and commitments to play their part in delivering significant change.
For Carla Denyer, the last year has been a positive whirlwind of activity.
The Green councillor for Clifton Down and parliamentary candidate for Bristol West put forward the motion to declare a climate emergency and pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030, which was unanimously agreed by Bristol City Council.
She has gone on to speak at national rallies about the environmental crisis facing the globe, and what can be done about it.
“It feels fantastic,” says Carla, speaking about the environmental movement taking off across the country and beyond.
“When I wrote and proposed the motion just under a year ago, I had no conception it would be anything like this big.
“I hope I can claim some of the credit for writing something that sparked the imagination, but I think there was an element of zeitgeist; Extinction Rebellion were forming and then the IPCC report came out. That was actually luck – I had already started writing the motion when the report came out, so I added it in.”
She adds that Green councillors have been putting similar motions forward for years and not getting them voted through, so to receive unanimous support was as unexpected as it was a big step in the right direction.
Other councils soon followed suit, and then the British Parliament declared a climate emergency in May this year. Although Carla is quick to point out that many Conservative MPs did not vote to declare a climate emergency, so those who did are not in a position to make the big changes required.
The IPCC report on the impact of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels was commissioned in a bid to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.
It warned that humanity now has 11 years to take emergency action in order to prevent global warming greater than 1.5°C – a rise predicted to have catastrophic results.
With such a tight timescale, is it enough to declare a climate emergency?
“Definitely not,” says Carla. “It’s really important that people don’t think we are saying ‘we’ve declared an emergency, problem solved’.”
She voiced fears that some politicians and leaders have made the pledge because it was politically expedient to do so, while others simply don’t understand the nature of the change required.
“Declaring a climate emergency should be a first step,” Carla tells Bristol24/7. “It has to be followed up by bold steps and I’m worried some won’t do this. What the climate emergency declaration does mean is we can hold them to account over it.
“I wish it were more than just a stick to beat people with, but it’s something.”
She argues the situation must be treated like an emergency, with actions put in place now, and stresses that social and environmental justice go hand in hand.
Some of the citywide solutions, says the Green politician, could include a workplace parking levy – as in Nottingham – collaboration between authorities to train people with the skills needed to decarbonise the economy and lobbying against airport expansion and investment in fossil fuels.
Jazz Ketibuah-Foley shares the concern that climate emergency declarations could become just another “buzz word”.
“Bristol is a city where people really enjoy talking about issues and getting involved in conversations, and that’s positive, but sometimes we can be a lot of talk and no action,” she tells Bristol24/7.
Jazz is a Green and Black Ambassador, a pilot project developed in Bristol to improve inclusivity and diversity within the environmental movement and constructively challenge decision-making. She believes the mass mobilisation of people across the city willing to tackle climate change is positive and works to raise awareness – but warns there is still a need for solid action.
“People are happy to make changes where they can, but responsibility should be put on the organisations that produce mass amounts of carbon and those in power who make decisions that impact everyone,” says Jazz.
“There is a lot of jargon and the situation has required a lot of input from the scientific community, but people need to find a way of talking about these issues in a way in which people can connect.
“It’s talking about the climate change crisis and how negative environmental impacts are hitting people but looking at it as an opportunity to create an environment that works for everyone.
“This is also an opportunity to talk about social and economic equity. There needs to be genuine conversations around diversity and inclusion that are not patronising, and we need to make sure minority backgrounds are involved in the conversations.
“It’s such an opportunity to talk about all the other issues affecting people. We need to tackle these at the same time. There are so many things happening, it’s easy to think in isolation but unless we talk about these things in an interconnected way, we will not move forward as a city or a planet.”
What does carbon neutral mean?
Bristol City Council has made an ambitious pledge to become carbon neutral by 2030 – 20 years earlier than planned. This has been followed by a series of institutions making their own commitments to achieve carbon neutrality.
But what does this actually mean?
Carbon neutral is when harmful emissions are offset with actions elsewhere, such as tree planting, with a net result of no carbon emissions. This is as opposed to zero carbon, where there are no emissions at all.
To complicate things further, carbon emissions are divided into scope one, two and three.
- Scope one covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources, such as vehicles.
- Scope two covers indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling.
- Scope three covers all indirect emissions, such as purchased goods and services, travel and waste disposal.
Carla Denyer, who worked as a mechanical engineer in the renewable energy industry, warns there should be a degree of scrutiny around the pledges being made.
She points out that some sustainability plans fail to take into account scope three emissions, making them “as much use as a chocolate teapot”, because that is where a large portion of carbon emissions come from.
While admitting that carbon offsetting can be necessary, Carla says it should be as a last resort, with the key focus on cutting emissions completely.
She concludes: “I feel cautiously optimistic. We are in a moment of great change so there’s a huge potential for changing society in a democratic way and lowering our carbon emissions.
“And we have to do that if we want to continue the way of life we have now – but there is a risk we might miss it.”
Main photo by Peter Brooks