Few nature documentaries have captured my imagination like Sir David Attenborough’s A Life on Our Planet. The 93-year-old’s “witness statement”, now streaming on Netflix, is an emotional but factual telling of the human impact on the natural world during Attenborough’s lifetime. Now that our imprint is truly global, he warns unequivocally, it is bound to effect irreversible change through one-way doors that will make our world a more inhospitable place to live.
Attenborough is essential viewing yet again as he makes a call to arms on behalf of our planet, to restore the biodiversity we have removed and become a species in balance with nature once again. The extent to which this is attainable will ultimately (and partly) depend on the ability of leaders to see beyond short-term political gain.
Boris Johnson’s speech to the virtual Conservative conference yesterday was an attempt at that. In it, the prime minister pledged to make the UK the “Saudi Arabia” of wind power and a world leader in green energy, promising £160m of investment in ports and factories to increase electricity generation from offshore wind.
Meanwhile, on the continent, lawmakers at the European parliament will vote today on a landmark bill to make the European Union’s climate targets legally binding. It comes after the European commission proposed a 2030 emissions cut of “at least 55%” against 1990 levels – an economically feasible target which would require tougher policies for many sectors, including tighter car emissions standards and higher carbon costs for industry and airlines.
Further East, the world’s biggest climate polluter, China, recently vowed to reach “peak carbon” before 2030 and to drive down emissions to virtually zero by 2060. According to calculations by the Climate Action Tracker research consortium, if China were to succeed, it would effectively reduce global heating forecasts for 2100 by between 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius.
The question as to whether the US will accept the challenge implicit in these commitments elsewhere remains unanswered, however. Last week’s noxious presidential debate saw Donald Trump and Joe Biden at odds on this issue as with all others, albeit neither candidate favours adopting the ‘Green New Deal’. Biden’s vision for tackling climate change is tied to the economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, via a $2tn plan for clean energy infrastructure and other climate solutions, to be spent as quickly as possible in the next four years.
While these are all welcome pledges, the fact remains that the cash promised by world leaders to pay for the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals falls short every year, by some $2.5tn. In the words of Sir David Attenborough, “anything that we can’t do forever is, by definition, unsustainable”. Failing to recognise that now will be our greatest mistake.