A story written in carbon

Over the last few weeks I have been helping to run Tearfund’s Christianity and Climate Change course at my church, along with friends in our eco-team. While the course itself is quite positive in tone, and well presented by Katherine Hayhoe, our discussions have brought up some difficult emotions around the challenge of the climate crisis. Some feel dis-empowered and even hopeless, painfully aware that their small actions seem meaningless.

This week we were looking at the question of whether a better future is possible, and I thought I would try and locate us in a wider story. Facing the climate crisis can feel like staring into an abyss sometimes. But if we step back and remember where we have come from, it can bring some perspective.

Using a graph from Carbon Brief, we can tell the story of Britain’s carbon emissions. This isn’t a comprehensive record of the UK’s climate impact, which would include wider consumption emissions from exports and international transport, but it will do for today’s purposes. Here are 170 years of emissions from 1850:

1 – On the far left we see the industrial expansion of the Victorian age. Factories, railways, all powered by coal, drive up a century of rising emissions.

2 – The up slope of emissions is interrupted by the First World War, as consumption falls and rationing comes in. Another blow follows in the form of Spanish Flu in 1918. Just as we saw in the Covid-19 pandemic, this led to shuttered factories and a temporary fall in pollution.

3 – There was no bounce-back from these two major events, and the 1920s were difficult years, marred by high inequality and persistent unemployment. The carbon record shows two dramatic downward spikes, marking the miners’ strike of 1921 and the general strike of 1926. Then came the Great Depression. These were the early years of my grandparents’ childhood, and as a society it marks the outermost edge of living memory.

4 – The economy begins to recover in the mid-thirties – and with rising prosperity comes rising emissions. This is soon interrupted by the Second World War, but post-war re-construction drives a rapid increase in carbon. Throughout the 1950s and 60s more people gain access to central heating and hot water, household appliances and private cars. It adds up to a mountain of emissions.

5 – The peak of that mountain is 1973, which marks a turning point. This was the beginning of the oil crisis, when an embargo on oil from the Middle East led to sky-rocketing oil prices and economic slump. This disruption prompted a rethink in energy. Government policy began to consider efficiency. People began to choose smaller cars. The environmental movement began in force, and while it would take a long time to deliver fruit, the first serious investment and research into renewable energy began. In the meantime, there were gains as coal use began to decline, replaced by nuclear power and then rising North Sea gas through the 80s and 90s. Changes in the economy brought the closure or off-shoring of heavy and polluting industry. We were on our way down the mountain.

6 – Moving towards more recent history, we see the gentle curve of emissions take a sharper turn downwards in the last decade or so. In 2008 Britain put climate targets into law for the first time, committing us to an accelerated green transition. The financial crisis gave us an accidental headstart on emissions reductions, but in the last ten years we can see the effect of renewable energy chasing coal off the grid. Emissions have now fallen all the way back to what they were in the Victorian era.

Extending this graph by a couple more years would show the dip from the Coronavirus pandemic, and the conflict in Ukraine will leave its mark too. Global events notwithstanding, the rest of the story is ours to write. Our actions from here will draw the outline of the foothills of Mount Carbon, as we sketch our way towards net zero.

The climate crisis remains urgent. There is so much more to do. But I find it encouraging to remember how far we have come already. So much depends on good decisions made by this generation, but we are also the inheritors of decisions made in the past. I am grateful for that, and for the progress made so far. Now, with a last look back at the summit, let’s carry on down the mountain.

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