2018 was officially the year of young people. It might be fading into the distance now, but 2019 is when their voice is truly being heard. Most visibly, the school strikes for climate are a global movement, with the last day of action in May involving over 130 countries, and a large march on Parliament here in Edinburgh.
The school strikes have been an impressive example of young people taking the lead on an issue they care passionately about, and their pressure has had an impact. The European Union has said a quarter of its budget should tackle climate change, and both the UK government and the Scottish Government have signalled a willingness to declare a climate emergency, and move more quickly than current climate targets suggest.
I defy anyone to be present at the school strikes and fail to be moved. Their passion can be clearly felt. The ask is a big one. They are asking the adults of today to take action in a way and at a pace they haven’t done before. It is unashamedly ambitious.
But the climate science is clear. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were measured at 415 parts per million in May. Scientists have warned that concentrations of more than 450ppm risks temperature rises as high as 2C, beyond which the effects are likely to become catastrophic and irreversible. A new Australian report predicts that if action is not taken now, 35% of global land area and 55% of the global population will be subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, ‘beyond the threshold of human survivability’ and that ecosystems will collapse, including coral reef systems, the Amazon rainforest, and the Arctic, with a massive die-off in the insect population. No wonder young people are scared.
So how should the city council in Edinburgh respond to this call to arms from the next generation?
Some councillors choose to patronise young people, saying they should be in school, or campaigning against China or India, or focusing on individual lifestyle choices like food or travel. Young people at May’s council education committee brilliantly dealt with such platitudes which really have failed us over the last 30 years.
Most councillors, thankfully, seem willing to take the climate science and climate activists seriously. They have backed my proposals to grant climate strikers two days of authorised absence to allow them to put their case to the Scottish Parliament. The council has declared a climate emergency and a target for Edinburgh to be carbon neutral by 2030.
However, the test is always about translating good principles into action. Edinburgh needs a radical transformation of its homes and other buildings: insulating them from heat loss, supplying renewable energy through district heating and building to “passivhaus” standards. Pension investment needs to get out of dirty fossil fuels and into the high-value circular economy of repair and renewal. We need to be investing in our natural environment, massively increasing the amount of trees planted and spaces supporting more species. Public transport, walking and cycling need to be the norm, with extra benefits for congestion, air pollution and safer neighbourhoods. As a city, we need to be looking seriously at our international strategy, centred around regional tourism rather than chasing ever-rising volumes of footloose visitors on long-haul flights.
Is it ambitious? Yes, in one sense. But young people are not really asking for much: a liveable planet. The steps to take us there will make us healthier, happier and more connected to the natural world.
We need to make this happen, or we will never be forgiven.
This blog was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News on Monday 10 June 2019