By Olly Frankland, Madeleine Greenhalgh, Frankie Mayo, Emma Pavans de Ceccatty and Hannah Stanley
Many of us at Regen attended the protests organised by Extinction Rebellion on Monday last week, with Olly putting in a full-on day of stewarding. Regen encouraged and supported us to attend in a personal capacity which gave many of us the confidence, particularly on a working day, to participate in the wider debate on climate change. As an organisation, Regen has been working for over 15 years to help the UK decarbonise its energy system, but many of us know that the radical change necessary to decarbonise other parts of our society requires more direct action.
We all felt inspired and moved by the scale and enthusiasm of the protesters – the atmosphere was friendly, open, and determined. Veteran campaigners, first-time protesters, families, retirees and teenagers all showed up. They were diverse, but unified, and their message was written on the streets, placards, banners and a boat. These protests mark a turning point as we enter ‘decade zero’ for climate action and what we do in the 2020s will determine the warming we see in the centuries to come. We have only 10 years left of current emissions within the 1.5˚C carbon budget. Will we have passed that after this decade? Or halved our emissions like we need to?
The youth strikes, the warnings from the IPCC and these recent Extinction Rebellion protests have already changed the national conversation. The BBC is now showing prime-time, hard-hitting climate change documentaries and many high profile industries are warning about the effects of climate change and what must be done to mitigate them. Most recently the governor of the Bank of England has warned that the financial sector must play a pivotal role in meeting the goals of the Paris agreement – a huge step forward.
When will the UK be net-zero?
Many protesters and campaign organisations are calling for much swifter decarbonisation and 59 councils across the country have declared a climate emergency, setting radical decarbonisation targets. Many say these targets are unrealistic, but how do they compare? Extinction Rebellion are calling for zero-carbon by 2025, Bristol City Council, along with 42 councils, has set a target of net-zero by 2030 and a report for WWF gives Scotland a 2045 target.
Regen has worked with Bristol City Council and regional electricity and gas network operators across the country to prepare scenario forecasts for the decarbonisation, decentralisation, and democratisation of the energy network. All the forecasts point to massive changes in the energy sector, and work by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and others has shown how all aspects of society will need far reaching changes if we are to limit warming to well below 2˚C. Through evidence-based projections and policy, we work to support our members, and others, to take decisive and positive climate action.
Virtually all fossil fuel power, transport and heating technologies will need replacing with low or zero carbon alternatives before the middle of the century. The evidence from academics, research institutions and bodies including the IPCC does not need to be any clearer, and many of the technologies needed for this transition are already available to us, given that costs of new technologies, such as energy storage and electric vehicles, are expected to fall in time. Our forecasts, along with several other projections, have shown that decarbonisation will be fully possible and feasible, though it does require transformational change.
The UK government meanwhile is bound by the Climate Change Act to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. The UK was a global pioneer in climate action when it passed the Climate Change Act in 2008, but the ten years since have changed the scientific and societal landscape and we now know that much more rapid change is not only necessary, but is feasible and has public support. The government has asked the CCC to provide a recommendation for a feasible date for net-zero, giving the UK the opportunity to once again be a global pioneer and set an ambitious target.
While 2025 may not be a realistic goal, it’s certainly reflective of the ambition that many different parts of society are calling for – the environmental protest movement has a long history, and the recent protests are building on this to demonstrate the scale of change needed, and how popular it can be. The gulf between the targets set by local authorities, those that campaigners are calling for and that of the government warrants attention and the CCC should take note as they make their recommendations.
Engaging beyond our circle
In our day-to-day work, Regen engages regularly with communities and local groups, helping demystify and translate the complex energy policy and terminology and bring people into the energy world who wouldn’t normally feel comfortable engaging. These protests are a way to bring the broader conversation on climate change to the wider public for whom this issue can be remote and detached.
During the protest on Monday, we took part in a citizens’ assembly in smaller groups to address some of the more difficult issues. A central point that came up for us was around the difficulty of engaging those people who disagreed and complained about the actions of protesters. How do we bridge these opposing sides, if actually occupying a bridge isn’t succeeding? For two of our group of eight, this was their first time at a protest. Something about this action had felt safe enough to attend, to step out of their comfort zone and speak out. We realised that the more we spoke about these events, shared them on our social media platforms and got them into the news, the more we could normalise these actions. By ‘publicly caring’ we could encourage others to consider joining for themselves.
Publicly caring will look different for everyone; we don’t all have to be willing to sleep at Marble Arch for a whole week, or be on the front lines glued to a truck. Some of us will, others can’t, but everyone should feel comfortable to participate in one way or another. The important thing is to validate these acts of dissent as a rational option.
Showing our support is not only an act of giving on our part; going to the bridge also served to strengthen our commitment to a greener, more inclusive future. Being surrounded by other people that cared was an incredibly inspiring place to be, and reminded us why we’re doing this. We are not islands – we are like beavers, dynamic engineers of our ecosystem, and a potentially vital part of a whole. Sitting on the reclaimed bridge, listening to a recording of different bird songs from endangered species, we settled into the powerful serenity of a city being forced to slow down and reflect. What can we take away from this day to help us be positive forces for change and how can we learn from this experience at Regen?
Our work is constantly expanding into new fields such as heat, digital technologies and storage – industries that may not be as used to engaging in the decarbonisation and climate worlds. Finding common ground and making those people feel comfortable enough to join the conversation is how Regen will make progress in decarbonising the whole energy system, not just electricity.
Change is no longer on the horizon – it’s here
The actions of Extinction Rebellion might be controversial, and yes, an inconvenience to some, but the fact that so many people are out on the streets and prepared to take those risks and that climate change has been at the top of the news agenda all week, feels like a turning point in the debate and a sea-change in public sentiment. Protests are taking place all over the world, the youth strikes are still going strong (particularly here in Exeter) and a 16 year-old girl is prepared to face down those in power in the EU and in the UK parliament. Climate action, whether through protests or hard graft in the industry to change the status quo, is gathering momentum; those who want serious, radical and swift change are becoming too loud for the government to ignore.