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The science behind Extinction Rebellion’s three climate change demands

Extinction Rebellion activists blocked streets outside the Bank of England in London on 25 April

Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

Hundreds of climate change campaigners will leave the streets of London today, following 11 days of protests that brought parts of the capital to a standstill and led to more than a thousand arrests. In a parting shot, protestors glued themselves to the London Stock Exchange this morning.

Attention will now swing towards the demands of the group behind the protests, Extinction Rebellion, who are hoping for negotiations with the UK government. Meetings with environment secretary Michael Gove and energy minister Claire Perry are expected next week.

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Any government talks will follow an extraordinary fortnight that saw thousands of schoolchildren strike for climate action for a third time, Greta Thunberg meet MPs and party leaders, and Sir David Attenborough warn of climate change’s grave threat on primetime TV.

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Extinction Rebellion has three demands for the UK. It wants the government to “tell the truth” about climate change, create a citizens’ assembly to guide action, and set a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.

Rupert Read, who is part of the movement’s political strategy group, says Extinction Rebellion’s founders wanted a set of clear and unassailable asks, rather than a detailed manifesto. “To not get bogged down on a detailed programme, but to have something everyone could agree on,” he says.

2025 challenge

To call a 2025 net zero greenhouse gas target radical would be an understatement. The UK’s current goal is to, by 2050, emit 80 per cent less than the country did in 1990 – a target the country is not currently on track for. Next week, the government’s climate advisers will likely recommend the 2050 target is upgraded to net zero.

Global Warming has affected many places. Venice, The Dead Sea, Cape Town, The Maldives, Key West, The Rhone Valley, Mumbai, Alps, Napa Valley, Rio de Janeiro, Alaska, Sudan, Lagos, Northern Italy, Osaka are the places which have been most affected by the Climate Change.

Mark Maslin of University College London, UK, thinks acheiving net zero emissions in six years’ time instead is unrealistic. “2025 is too close as many of the changes require changes to infrastructure, ownership and of course replanting trees and rewilding, all of which take decades,” he says.

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Read concedes that some in the group thought a later date, of around 2029, would be more credible. “I’m 100 per cent behind the 2025 demand myself, as are most people in Extinction Rebellion, although there were some people who were in disagreement,” he says.

Some in the group told New Scientist that, while challenging targets are necessary, it is naïve to suggest that 2025 could be achieved.

But Read says 2025 could be met by a “green new deal” to replace gas boilers in millions of homes. He adds that old cars would have to be permanently taken off the road, and not be replaced by electric models.

Ecological emergency

Telling the truth would help reach the 2025 goal, he says. Extinction Rebellion is demanding that the government “must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency.” Perry responded this week that “what counts is actions”.

Read says one facet of this demand is about language and conveying the scale of change required to tackle climate change. “It means declare a climate emergency. Tell the public this is an existential threat. This is not just about the environment, but about everything. That we will have to change an awful lot,” he says.

About 1 Million species have become extinct due to ocean acidification. Due to disappearing habitats, the effects of global warming on ecosystems acidic oceans (also called climate change’s equally evil twin), nearly 1 million species have become extinct. Such a relatively quick change in the ocean chemistry is making the shells of some animals dissolve in the more acidic seawater. The increasing level of CO2 has made the oceans 100 times faster leading to negative impacts for marine ecosystems.

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A second aspect of the movement’s “truth” demand is accounting. Official figures state that the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen 44 per cent since 1990. But this does not include the emissions of the goods and services we consume, nor those from international air travel or shipping.

Thunberg attacked that omission in her speech to MPs on Tuesday, which she described as “very creative carbon accounting.”

Ask the people

Extinction Rebellion’s last ask is for the creation of citizens’ assemblies to guide action and policy. Oxford City Council has become the first local authority to promise one.

But what if such forums reveal that many people are actually quite conservative about action on climate change, as some studies suggest? “We don’t know. We’d be very disappointed and would have to think again,” says Read, though he believes it highly likely the assemblies would demand radical action.

Even if none of the demands are acquiesced to, the group has already arguably had an impact. The Labour party has endorsed them, and various politicians are suddenly talking about climate change and the action needed.

“One way of putting what Extinction Rebellion exists for is: ‘to make the politically impossible, politically possible’,” says Read.

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