Climate Change


Post-COP28: Where does national climate action go from here?

Welcome back to UCL Generation One: The Climate Podcast. Introducing episode 3 of season four.

Introducing episode 3 of season four! Our hosts Mark and Simon continue this series with a discussion on the fallout from COP28 for the UK, and what needs to be done on a national, governmental and local level. Joining them are our guests Ian Townsend (ONS Climate Lead), Robbie Macpherson, (APPG lead at Uplift), Annabel Rice (Political Advisor at Green Alliance) and Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy at Greater London Authority, Shirley Rodrigues, to talk national feeling and climate policy.

Views expressed by our guests are their own.


UCL Minds  0:02 

We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.

Annabel Rice  0:11 

We're getting into a sort of race to the bottom in terms of climate action.

Ian Townsend  0:15 

But one in 10 thought that the effects of climate change were exaggerated and about 7% of the group that they didn't believe in climate change.

Robbie Macpherson  0:23 

The oil and gas piece is quite worrying. So the government's approach to max out the North Sea, that's not going to do anything for energy security.

Shirely Rodrigues  0:30 

When we looked at the cost of getting London to net zero, it's going to cost we think in the order of about 75 billion pounds.

Mark Maslin  0:41 

This is Generation One from University College London, turning climate science and ideas into action.

Simon Chin-Yee  0:54 

I'm Simon Chin-Yee from Political Sciences here at UCL, and I've been thinking about climate change for far too long.

Mark Maslin  1:00 

I'm Mark Maslin and I am a professor of Earth Systems Science here at UCL. And as you all know, that means that I study climate change in the past the present, and future. Simon, what have you been up to recently, anything exciting?

Simon Chin-Yee  1:17 

Well, I don't know about exciting, Mark. But we've been already starting to prep and prepare for a year long’s worth of negotiations. For example, last night, I spent four hours with four of our country parties from the Caribbean, looking and trying to work towards the next set of negotiations, which will take place at the International Maritime Organisation in March coming up, so we're prepping them already. What about you? What have you been thinking about?

Mark Maslin  1:42 

Well, I love the fact that you are externally facing, you're engaging with the world, my week was much more internal. Because I'm now the Pro Vice Provost of the climate crisis, joint with the wonderful Professor Lisa van Heller, we're internally focused, we're trying to organise the troops, get everybody together, and actually showcase how much wonderful work we do on climate change: from the Slade School of Fine Art to engineering, from medicine, to geography. And that's my role at the moment: internally facing to help the external profile of UCL.

Simon Chin-Yee  2:23

You forgot about Political Sciences, Mark.

Mark Maslin  2:25 

Well, you know, you're on the podcast, so Political Sciences is always on my mind.

Simon Chin-Yee  2:30

Very good.

Simon Chin-Yee  2:36 

In this episode, we're going to be focusing on UK climate action: what the fallout from COP28 means for us in the UK and what needs to be done on a national and governmental level.

Mark Maslin  2:46 

We'll be hearing from a range of people today to discuss national feelings and policy in relation to climate action. First, we'll be talking to Ian Townsend, from the Office for National Statistics: the UK’s largest independent producer of official statistics. He sets out the facts and figures and the evidence, which for scientists and researchers are vital to be able to establish what is happening to the climate here in the UK, and what people think about it. Later in the podcast, we'll hear from political activists who take data from sources like the ONS and use it to try to influence policymakers in government. And we'll also be hearing from the Deputy Mayor of London, Shirley Rodrigues, who talks about the political challenges of implementing climate measures in the capital. But first to the ONS, which produces a range of economic, social and population data, as well as stats relating to climate change. This includes producing estimates of greenhouse gas emissions aligned with particular economic sectors, estimating the value of natural capital and habitats within the UK, and understanding people's level of environmental concern and action. Or, of course, inaction, by both people and businesses. Ian Townsend leads the ONS environment division, and we are delighted to have him with us. Ian, welcome. Would you be able to tell us a little bit more about what you are working on?

Ian Townsend  4:26 

Absolutely, sure. So I have the very good fortune to lead a team of statisticians, researchers and analysts working on environmental issues here at the Office for National Statistics, or ONS. So environment is a really big topic with links to many other issues, as I'm sure you guys know, but there are a lot of different national and devolved government departments and related bodies working on statistics in this area. Partly because there are so many different organisations working on this, our focus at the ONS tends to be on the kind of intersections between the environment and our economy and society. And so that includes things like measuring the environmental economy, measuring green jobs, estimating greenhouse gas emissions by different economic sectors. We also work to value services that nature in the UK provide to us, as well as providing insights into kind of concerns, or otherwise, about the environment and climate change, and also actions or inactions by people and businesses which we might get into.

Simon Chin-Yee  5:19 

I guess my first thought is then how are people then feeling about climate? Can you give us a pulse check on the state of the nation in the UK by sharing with our listeners, how Brits are feeling about climate change, and 2024?

Ian Townsend  5:33 

So we run a regular survey asking adults in Great Britain a range of questions, and they include one about what the important issues are facing the country today. So our very most recent figures on this, from the second half of January, have climate change and environment at about 50% of GDP adults saying that that is an important issue. That's the fourth most commonly reported issue. And it comes just ahead of housing and after the cost of living, the NHS, and the economy. And we've been asking that question for about the last 15 months, or so and we find that the figure has, broadly speaking, been around 60%. And it was I think, fifth biggest issue only once over that 50 month period as well. And we've got some new figures coming out on the first of March. So listeners might want to watch out for those and we can share a link for the show notes. But also looking over a bit of a longer period, where we look at survey data for July to October last year, we find things like a higher proportion of females reporting climate change and environment as an issue than did males. We have found the figures are quite similar for England, Scotland and Wales as a whole, but then within regions of England, but there's a bit of variation. So we have highest figures in the southwest and lowest in the northeast. Looking at ethnicity, those in mixed or multiple ethnic groups have the highest proportion. And those in black African Caribbean or black British ethnic groups have the lowest, with the white ethnic group in between. And looking at educational attainment levels, which might be of interest given you work for UCL, those with a degree or equivalent have the highest proportion reporting this as a big issue, as a main issue, and those with no formal qualification the lowest. We do have other cuts of data on our website, and we'll share the link so that interested listeners can have a look at those two.

Mark Maslin  7:13 

So Ian, what can your data tell us about what people and businesses are doing, or not doing, to help the climate crisis?

Ian Townsend  7:20 

So yes, we do have some national level data on climate change action or inaction for both. So thinking first about individuals. So around the time of last year's UN climate conference, COP28, we asked adults in Great Britain whether they'd made any changes to their lifestyles to help tackle climate change. And we found around three quarters said that they had made at least some changes. And that includes the 8% of all adults that say that they've made lots of changes. It's worth highlighting here that this is people self-reported actions through the survey, so we aren't able to assess the impact of any changes that they may or may not have made. So we also asked those that were making changes why they were doing so. And we found the most reported motivating concerns were for the effect on future generations, by about 69%, and the loss of natural habitats and wildlife at 66%. About half pointed to the direct effects of climate change on other people, followed by about a third saying it was because of the direct effects on themselves. We also note that 20% of people said that they had not made lifestyle changes and the most reported reasons among this group, were thinking that such changes would have no effect. So about two fifths. And about a third of people, each thinking that either large polluters should change before individuals do, and that making changes is too expensive. Also, about one in 10 of this group thought that the effects of climate change were exaggerated, and about 7% of the group that they didn't believe in climate change. We also asked occasionally about the changes that people have made. So most recently, in July, when we found that changes to shopping habits were the most reported by about half, followed by changes to travel, about 37%, and diet, about a third. Then changes in gardens and homes and around 8% supporting an environmental charity or local action group. So we regularly ask UK businesses about climate change as well. So most recently, in the first half of November, about half of the surveyed businesses were at least somewhat concerned about the impact climate change might have on their business, including about a tenth of all businesses reporting being very concerned. Just over a third of businesses were not concerned and about a fifth were not sure. One thing to highlight here is this survey covers most business sectors, but it doesn't cover some sectors, including important ones for emissions. So oil and gas and energy generation and supply, but also financial and insurance and agricultural sectors, but it does cover all the others. So looking at actions at a strategic level, about 14% of businesses report having a climate change strategy. About a tenth some kind of greenhouse gas emissions target, and a similar proportion report monitoring climate related risks. On sort of more practical actions to reduce emissions, we find that two fifths of businesses report switching to more efficient LED light bulbs. About a third have adjusted their heating or cooling systems, about a fifth report electrifying their vehicle fleet, about a sixth report introducing cycle to work schemes or installing a smart metre, and a tenth insulating their buildings or installing their own renewable energy or heating. In terms of barriers, the main one is cost, about a third, followed by a lack of access to infrastructure, about 10%, or lack of information or guidance, and also a lack of skills needed to implement that change.

Mark Maslin  10:29 

Ian I have to say, I find that really depressing that all your numbers are less than 20%, sometimes 10%, of UK businesses actually taking the green economy seriously. I have to say, that for me, is one of those “Oh, we've got a lot of work to do”.

Ian Townsend  10:49 

I mean, those are the figures that we get. As I did mention, some of the sectors are not covered that you might think would be perhaps further in the vanguard of the change. So that might change the numbers a little. But we track this over time. So I think it'd be really interesting to see how the numbers are looking in the next round and the one after, etc, and see how things are changing.

Simon Chin-Yee  11:08 

You talked about the future Ian, and the UK’s green economy, green industry strategy, green jobs and green energy. So the ONS puts out these reports that cover some of this. Could you tell us a little bit more about what's going on in these areas?

Ian Townsend  11:21 

Yes, absolutely. So one thing I'd start with is, looking across the kind of whole of the UK economy, we do see a kind of greening in terms of emissions intensity. So that's greenhouse gas emissions for each unit of economic activity, excluding in this case, consumer spending, and that figure was down 68%, between 1990 and 2022. But I think people are also interested in that part of our economy that most people would regard as being quarter green. So we call that the low carbon and renewable energy economy. And we measure that. So our most recent figures show that total turnover and employment in these areas appears to have been fairly stable from 2015 to 2020. Then in 2021, we saw quite a shift with an increase in total turnover, about a third in that year, as well as a 16% increase in employment. Within that kind of headline, energy efficient products have tended to dominate both kind of turnover and employment in that low carbon economy. And while that area still represents about half of all UK employment in it, on turnover, low carbon electricity has started to catch up increasing by just over a third between 2020 and 2021. We’ve also done a lot of work recently on measuring green jobs. Previously, we had lots of different definitions for different purposes. And it can be quite a diversion to person around about which given job is green or not. So after intensive stakeholder engagement, we produced a definition about a year ago, which is any employment and activity that contributes to protecting or restoring the environment, including those that mitigate or adapt to climate change. So quite broad. We also released some initial figures based on that definition last year, and we found that total UK employment in Green Jobs was round about 526,000 full time equivalents in 2020. And that compares with about 507,000 back in 2015. And interested listeners can check out our latest figures for both the low carbon economy and green jobs, which are both coming out next month.

Simon Chin-Yee  13:13 

So thinking about the natural environment, the physical landscape of the UK has changed over some time. What can you say about the role of the nature in addressing climate change?

Ian Townsend  13:24 

Yes, so the UK’s net zero target is about not emitting more than we absorb, or sequester by 2050. And sometimes the net part of that, which is what remains after adding up all the amounts of greenhouse gas emissions that the UK produces and deducting those that are removed from the atmosphere, that gets a little less attention. So we do see that decarbonisation happening across the UK economy. But there are some sectors that will find it much harder to decarbonize, such as heavy industries. So there may be a need to have something outside of that ledger to balance out any remaining emissions. So as well as technological solutions, the natural world is generally expected to play a role in this and the ONS produces something called the natural capital accounts which look to estimate the economic value of the services that nature provides to us. And in those accounts, we estimated that in 2022, kind of wooded areas in the UK, removed almost 18 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. That compares with net emissions of about 400 million tonnes from UK territory in that year. And that service we valued at about 4.5 billion. But there are some challenges. So looking across all of the UK habitats, we found that rather than being a sink for emissions, nature was actually a source of emissions in 2021. Just over 1 million tonnes. And a substantial proportion of that comes from damaged peatlands. So peatland habitats, rich soils have secured carbon dioxide for 1000s of years. But as those areas degrade, for example, either from the extraction or drying out through farming or whatever it might be, this carbon storage is kind of going into reverse. So our latest accounts do indicate that at present, UK nature is not at that kind of net zero level itself, so not yet in a position to net off emissions from other industries.

Mark Maslin  15:04 

So Ian, can I just ask a question on the back of that? Do your stats go into government? Do they use this to actually understand what the implications of policy are and how to actually perhaps reverse that emission from the land? Is that how your organisation works? Are you feeding in this information to government?

Ian Townsend  15:33 

We work really closely with a number of different departments and the devolved administrations in all the work we do. But I think in this case, it's actually a bit more of a complex interaction. So we don't collect the data directly about natural capital that's in England, that's DEFRA, the Department for Environmental Food and Rural Affairs, leads on that. But what we do is we provide that kind of economic valuation. And we do have, you know, some evidence: there's a set of guidelines that DEFRA produces, which is all about how one can use natural capital accounting, in businesses, etc. And our work is certainly featured in there. So we do have various different ways to do that. And there is a kind of international process, something that the ONS is part of where look to, you know, gather case studies of how this can happen, and think about how it can be advanced in the future. And certainly, that's something that we work on, you know, over time. So yeah, I mean, certainly, I think we could always find our statistics being used more than they currently are. But it's something that we do work on. And we work really closely with a number of different departments. So yeah, it's definitely a key part of our work.

Mark Maslin  16:36 

Well can I thank you, Ian, because for me, as a scientist, if you don't measure something, if you don't have the data, if you don't have the stats, then you have no idea what's happening, you have no idea what the implications are of any policy or action. So for me, the ONS is absolutely central to good policy.

Simon Chin-Yee  16:57 

And for me, Ian, as a Political Scientist over here, if you don't understand the stats, if you don't understand what's missing, what's working, what's not working, then you're never going to fix the problem. So even though it seems like we have a massive problem here, it looks like we can look at your stats in order to progress it anyway.

Ian Townsend  17:14 

Yes, it's certainly a key part of our role to inform policymaking and the public.

Speaker 5  17:22 

You're listening to UCL Generation One, turning science and ideas into climate action.

Mark Maslin  17:27 

That was Ian Townsend from the ONS setting out some fantastic data on attitudes, and actions on the climate issue here in the UK. As the UK’s largest producer of official stats, the ONS is independent of ministers and free from political influence. We spoke to Annabelle Rice and Robbie McPherson, at the UCL Love Your Planet event on national policy and campaign action. Robbie is the Political and Climate Change All-Party Parliamentary Group lead at Uplift, while Annabel is the Political Advisor at the Green Alliance.

Simon Chin-Yee  18:08 

Robbie starts with his take on what governments have achieved, or not, in addressing the move away from fossil fuels in the UK.

Robbie Macpherson  18:16 

For people that might not be familiar with all-party groups, or APGs, as they're often referred to: they are essentially informal groups of parliamentarians who share common interests and are committed to working together to find policy solutions, or political solutions to complex challenges. So a big focus of the group I coordinate is reimagining the UK’s approach to oil and gas and thinking about how we can phase out oil and gas from our energy mix. And in the process, reassert ourselves on the world stage as a climate leader, and specifically just fixing Britain. To our credit, as in: the UK, I think that we have done a large amount in terms of showing leadership – we were the first country in the world to pass a legally binding Climate Change Act. And that was something that was introduced under a Labour government, made stronger by Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians in opposition. We were the first major economy to enshrine net zero into law. And as COP26 hosts at Glasgow, we speared through the Glasgow climate pact, which, for many of its critics, did make progression in terms of global climate policy. And I think that the really unique thing there is that that's all underpinned by a really strong political consensus on the need to act on climate and nature. And supported largely, well, overwhelmingly in fact, in many ways by the public when policies are done right. But on the specifics of oil and gas, I think that whilst yeah, there has been huge steps taken forward on the renewable side, although, you know, there's been flags over the past year, the oil and gas piece is quite worrying. So the government's approach or high level policy is to max out the North Sea – that's not going to do anything for energy security, because the majority of what's left in the North Sea, which is a declining basin, is oil. 80% of the oil is shipped overseas, sold on and such to market to the highest bidder, and then the gas that's left, well, estimates show that new licencing will only provide 103 days of gas between now and 2050, or four days a year. So there's not really much energy security in it. And so what we need to do is move away from the approach that is currently being adopted by the government and think about how we can scale up renewables in that region and across the country instead.

Simon Chin-Yee  20:22 

That was Robbie McPherson from the environmental lobby group Uplift. We asked former UCL student, Annabel Rice, to explain her work at Green Alliance: an organisation which works with politicians and NGOs on climate and sustainability issues.

Annabel Rice  20:36 

So Green Alliance mainly works as a convener. So we are our own organisation, but a lot of our role is to bring together groups that might otherwise not be connected or work on really disparate issues. And part of the reason for that is to try and combat some of the regular negative narratives we see around net zero and climate change more broadly. Where, for example, on the cost of net zero, we can bring in groups where we can make sure that the policies that we advocate for and represent are socially just, and actually incorporate the voices of those groups. There’s 55 of us, which ranges from really big environmental groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, but also to much smaller, local groups like Disability Rights UK, or Med Act. The basic premise: we were founded during the midst of the energy crisis, under the recognition that our broken energy system was the reason for rising prices and the reason why so many houses being plunged into fuel poverty. Our basic message is that we've got four campaign demands. Firstly, support for low income households, secondly, renewable energy, third, energy efficiency in homes, and fourth, for oil and gas.

Simon Chin-Yee  21:39 

Despite much agreement between Robbie and Annabelle, Annabelle did push back on the idea of political consensus.

Annabel Rice  21:45 

We're getting into a sort of race to the bottom in terms of climate action. And I don't think that we've got really any of the major parties presenting a really positive agenda for climate. I think that obviously there's some who have better policies than others. But I think the positive vision is what's lacking. And I hope that this election has a climate framing, but I think realistically, it's going to be fought and lost on the cost of living, and the money in people's pockets. I mean, we've talked a little about the energy crisis – I've said before, but you know, 6.5 million homes in fuel poverty, that's not a small number. And that is really, really impacting people's day to day lives.

Simon Chin-Yee  22:22 

That was Annabelle Rice from Green Alliance.

Mark Maslin  22:24 

We also had a discussion with Shirley Rodrigues, who is the Deputy Mayor for Environment and Energy at the Greater London Authority, about London's climate policy and the challenges ahead.

Shirely Rodrigues  22:38 

So when the mayor was elected his first term, he inherited a city where environmental ambition was quite low, and environmental action was very low. So he wanted London to be the greenest city in the world. And we created a new strategy that was the first of its kind that integrated, not just climate, air pollution, waste, you know, all of those various environmental issues, and set a sort of framework of ambition for what we should be doing in London. And out of that, if you look at that strategy, it's on our website, it had a whole host of issues about what we're going to do on reducing air pollution. And we've introduced a whole range of policies, like probably you've heard, the Ultra Low Emission zone, which has had a huge impact in reducing pollution by almost a half, for example, in central London. But we also wanted to tackle the nature emergency. So we've been doing some work on how do we bring back species into London? How do we protect the Greenbelt? How do we plant more trees – we planted half a million trees since 2016. We're looking at rain gardens, looking at resilience, a whole host of issues.

Simon Chin-Yee  23:42 

Despite that, Shirley set out the barriers to implementation.

Shirely Rodrigues  23:46 

We would definitely like more powers over many things. But in terms of how London is structured, the mayor is a strategic authority, has responsibility for transport, planning, policing, housing, and so on. But we don't actually own the houses, for example. So we're not able to deliver for example, retrofit programmes, we have to work with those who do – local authorities or social housing providers. So that's a really important role for the mayoralty is to work in partnership with those organisations. We have a huge problem. So when we looked at the cost of getting London to net zero, it's going to cost we think in the order of about 75 billion pounds. Obviously, we don't have that money, nor does the government, but you know, we know that it's the private finance that needs to come in. So what can the mayor do, we can try and attract green finance, you know, the City of London is a major green finance centre. So we've set up a mayor’s energy efficiency facility, a green financing fund, we put some money into sort of pump prime and attract financing from the private sector, which we're doing really well. And then using that to help finance retrofit programmes on some of our estates or some of our hospitals or some of our universities. So this is just a start. It's just a drop in the ocean, but it's a signal to people. People will look at what's important to them, is it air pollution, is that the cost of living, is it, you know, their ability to heat their homes and keep warm in their homes. And the solutions to those are the ones that tackle climate change. So energy efficiency, retrofitting that will help keep your homes warm in the winter, but also cool in the summer, and we're seeing increasing impacts of those climate impacts in London now, you know, heat waves, extreme heat waves, flash flooding, you know, impacting us all the time, on health, for example, you know, air pollution is killing people, literally killing people, and long term illnesses and diseases. And we know that fossil fuel use, largely from cars in London, are driving that. So they want action on that. And when they realised the solutions are things like ULEZ, or more walking and cycling, or public transportation, you know, if you get people focused on those solutions, then you get that engagement. If you just talk about things like that quite esoteric, like climate, or they're worried about it, they don't see the relevance, then they switch off. So you've got to talk to people in, you know, on the agendas that they want to talk about and show how climate action, Environmental Action, will help bring all those benefits to them.

Simon Chin-Yee  26:07 

Shirley Rodrigues, their Deputy Mayor of London. Talking about the huge cost that London faces to reach net zero and some of the practical steps to address the funding gap.

So that's it for this episode of Generation One from UCL, turning climate science and ideas into action. But stay tuned for the rest of the series, or listen on catch up to all of our episodes on your favourite platform. If you'd like to ask a question or suggest a guest that you'd like to hear on Generation One, you can email us at podcasts, with an s, podcasts@ucl.ac.uk. Otherwise, for more information about UCL’s work in the climate space, and what our staff and students, as well as our researchers, are doing to work towards a more sustainable future, head to the UCL Generation One website. Or follow us on social media: #UCL Generation One.