As 2017 came to a close, warnings of the catastrophic impact of climate change intensified. Devastating floods and hurricanes have highlighted the vulnerability of some communities around the world and the rise of carbon dioxide levels in the atmospheres shows efforts to tackle climate change urgently need to be ramped up.
In the UK, ongoing Brexit negotiations have brought no more certainty on the future of environmental regulation, while the government continues to support new and old fossil fuels industries.
Here are some key events to look out for in 2018.
As the new year kicks off, Parliament is expected to vote on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which will effectively export EU laws to the UK avoiding a legislative gap when the country will exit from the union.
But the bill has already been mired in controversy with more than 300 amendments from both parties and a humiliating defeat for Theresa May. In December, Tory rebels backed an amendment that would limit powers granted to ministers to change the law without parliamentary scrutiny and allowing the Commons a decisive vote on a final Brexit deal.
As the political manoeuvres continue, the impact of Brexit on environmental regulation has clearly taken a back seat. A defeat of the bill in the Commons could cost May her seat as Prime Minister and possibly trigger a new election. But the prospect of more powers being handed to hard-line Brexiteers or EU sceptic Jeremy Corbyn does not give any further guarantees for climate and environmental issues.
The will also need to negotiate a new series of trade deals with countries around the world and there are concerns environmental regulation may not be a priority.
It has already been revealed that trade minister Greg Hands’ lobbied on behalf of oil companies Shell, BP and Premier Oil, which has cast doubts over the nature of new trade deals. Meanwhile, Secretary for International Trade Liam Fox has ties with the American think tank Heritage Foundation, which is known for pushing climate science denial and being influential in shaping the Trump administration.
Chancellor Philip Hammond admitted the government has not yet decided what it wants for a final Brexit deal. And after months of speculation, UK negotiator David Davis also admitted no impact assessments had been carried out to evaluate how Brexit could affect different sectors of the economy. Towards the end of December however, after the mounting criticism, Davis released 850 pages of “sectoral analyses”. One Labour MP described the papers as a “rush job”, saying they are “describing what exists on Wikipedia”.
But while Brexit dominates the political debate, the UK government needs to continue to scale up climate action in 2018. As the UK enters its third carbon budget this year, the Committee on Climate Change warned it was not on track to meet its 2025 target to reduce emissions by 51 per cent on 1990 levels and that “challenging measures” needed to be adopted now in order to reduce emissions by at least three per cent a year.
With little time before the October 2018 deadline set by EU negotiator Michel Barnier for a final Brexit deal to be agreed by, there are real concerns environmental issues will not get the attention they deserve.
Fracking company Cuadrilla previously announced that it would be “fuelling Lancashire homes and businesses mid-2018” with energy from fracked gas. Fracking at the Preston New Road site in Lancashire is expected anytime now despite active protests from campaigners since last January. This will be the first time in six years that fracking takes place in the UK.
But plans for fracking in Lancashire do not stop there. Cuadrilla also has an application for exploratory fracking at a second site in Lancashire called Roseacre Wood and a public inquiry on the application is due to take place in April 2018. And in nearby North Yorkshire, fracking for shale gas is also expected to start early this year at the Kirby Misperton site.
INEOS, the UK’s largest holder of shale gas exploration licences, took out a national injunction against “persons unknown” in July 2017 to prevent protests at its future shale gas sites after seeing months of action targeting Cuadrilla’s operations in Lancashire. Campaigners challenged the legality of the injunction but a High Court judge ruled in November2017 that the injunction should continue in a case which has largely been seen as setting a precedent limiting the rights of protesters.
While companies, police and local authorities are increasingly trying to restrict how campaigners can protest against fracking, police watchdog Netpol has called for reviews of police tactics into the handling of anti-fracking protests, singling out police operations in Lancashire. Its report denounced “intimidating and confrontational police tactics” at the Preston New Road site, where protesters have also criticised “aggressive” police operations with people forcefully dragged off site and nearly 100 arrests.
And yet, anti-fracking campaigners are showing no signs of giving up their fight. With fracking operations expected to start this year protests could intensify still.
Air pollution court cases
The UK government is to face a new wave of court cases over illegal levels of air pollution despite being forced to draw up new air quality plans after being defeated twice before.
Environmental law firm Client Earth is taking the government to court again over the new plans released in July, which it accused of being “too weak and too vague”. A court hearing is expected before February 23.
According to the firm, the latest air quality plans backtrack on previous commitments to order five cities to introduce clean air zones by 2020, fail to require 45 local authorities in England to take action over illegal levels of air pollution and do not require any action by Wales to bring down its air pollution as quickly as possible. An investigation by DeSmog UK in 2017 revealed many local authorities are also failing to fulfil their legal requirements on air quality reporting because of a lack of resources.
Client Earth is also separately taking legal action against the Welsh Government for “failure” to produce concrete plans to tackle air pollution.
Some are determined to undermine the science with clean air becoming something of a new frontier for climate change sceptics. While air pollution denial is likely to find support in parts of the Trump administration, the science is also being undercut by some of the big oil lobby. Evidence for the trend is not only contained to the US, with reports of pollution denial also in India and Poland. This is certainly something to watch out for in 2018 – and not only in the UK.
It is not only air pollution which will hit the UK courts.
An appeal by a Nigerian community is trying to get oil giant Shell trialled in the UK over extensive oil pollution and environmental damage in the Niger Delta. The case is due to decide whether Royal Dutch Shell, which is headquartered in London, can be held responsible for the action of its Nigerian subsidiary.
A ruling on the case is expected during the first quarter of the year. If the case is brought to UK courts, it could set an important precedent – opening the door to many more cases against multinationals headquartered in the UK but operating abroad through subsidiaries.
In September 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is expected to release its much-anticipated report on how we can limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. The report could have major repercussions on global climate policy.
Indeed, while 170 countries have ratified the Paris Agreement and agreed to limit global temperature rise to “well below two degrees” above pre-industrial temperatures, current emission reduction pledges by countries still add up to above three degrees.
The IPCC report findings will be significant for the oil and gas industry. Indeed, all previous IPCC scenarios have included the use of negative emission schemes and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.
Environmentalists have previously accused the oil and gas industry of using the CCS technology as a “shield” and “an excuse” to delay action while continuing to profit from burning fossil fuels. And while CCS is still expected to play a role in the IPCC’s scenarios, rolling out the technology is likely to play a bigger part in the debate on climate action.
Despite alarming scenarios by scientists, forecasts for fossil fuel demand and consumption by big oil companies such as Shell and BP have previously fallen short of being compatible with the Paris Agreement’s two-degree target. The release of the new report should shift back the attention on multinational fossil fuel companies to update their energy outlook and strategies.
The last IPCC report, published in 2015, found that for the 1.5-degree target to be met, 80 per cent of the world’s coal reserves had to be declared “unburnable” and stay in the ground along with a third of the world’s oil and half of gas reserves. This year’s report is likely to update these findings and send a strong signal to fossil fuel companies that business cannot continue as usual.
The next UN climate talks – or COP24 – will take place in Katowice, Poland. The southern city is located at the heart of the country’s traditional coal land, a stark reminder of Poland’s continued dependence on the world’s dirtiest fuel for energy.
Yet, as the new IPCC report is likely to emphasise, most coal will have to stay in the ground if we want a chance to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.
As the global community makes further announcements on a coal phase-out, COP24 will also be a time to review the strength of the UK-Canada led ‘powering beyond coal’ alliance launched at COP23 in Bonn. The alliance was described by environmentalists as only a “starting point” for more ambitious climate action and will have to show it can rally some of the bigger coal consumers to its cause – not least Germany, Poland, Australia and China.
If the UK hopes to demonstrate it is serious about phasing-out coal for good, it must take a hard look at the climate consequences of opening two opencast coal mines on the Northumbrian coast and in the Welsh Valleys from burning again – a decision which, if approved, would fly in the face of its phase-out pledge.
With coal still an important theme in 2018, much attention will also be directed to the Trump administration whose promotion of “clean coal” at COP23 was met with derision on the world stage. Weeks later, as world leaders met in Paris for President Macron’s One Planet Summit, Trump officials said the US was seeking to form an alliance of countries to promote “clean” coal with Australia, Indonesia, China, India, Ukraine, Poland and Japan expected to be asked to join.
COP24 is also expected to be a milestone for global climate action as countries will have to agree on the final rulebook to implement the Paris Agreement and take part in a global stocktake to boost ambition and reduce emissions in line with the 1.5-degree target.
Photo: Billy Wilson via Flickr | CC2.0