Climate change: The hurdles Boris Johnson faces in tackling the crisis in the UK and globally

These are the human stories behind the UN's landmark science report, ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthana reports

Monday's landmark scientific report into the climate crisis – the culmination of eight years of work, pulling together the expertise of hundreds of scientists – makes for deeply depressing reading.  

And its 'code red' warning is not related to obscure predictions for the future.  

The “unprecedented” impact of human activity, which it outlines, can be seen everywhere – from the underground rail passengers shoulder deep in flood water in China, to the people in Greece, Turkey and America watching their homes devoured by wildfires to the dramatic flooding in Germany and Belgium

But there is one thing in this report that could be seen as hopeful.  

I recently had a conversation with a senior figure advising the UK government on the question of climate change and they said that the chances of keeping heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels had now virtually disappeared. Instead, they argued that 2C would be a good outcome and that we, as a country, should start to prepare for it.  

There are a lot of politics that will make it difficult for Boris Johnson to tackle the climate crisis, including worries that the poorest people will bear the brunt of the cost, Anushka Asthana says

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is not ready to let go of the original target of the Paris Agreement. It says that while temperatures are now likely to rise by 1.5C a decade earlier than expected (by 2040), it is still possible to prevent us crossing that tipping point.  

However, to do so will require “immediate, rapid and large-scale” reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. To put the scale of the challenge in context, one of the authors of the IPCC report, Dr Amanda Maycock, said last year’s global lockdown achieved a 6% reduction in emissions. What is now needed is a 5% reduction in emissions year-on-year for decades. 

So, is that possible? Well, Cop26 – the next major climate conference to be hosted by Britain in November- is going to be key. This report makes clear that what emerges from those few days in Glasgow could ultimately decide whether the world can remain within that target - or not.  

As Doug Parr, Greenpeace's UK chief scientist, puts it: “We're running out of road to tackle the climate crisis."Few governments have greater responsibility for making that happen than the UK. As hosts of this year's Glasgow climate summit, senior members of government need to pull out all the stops in making sure we have the best chance possible that the world grabs this precious opportunity, otherwise UK goes down in history as the hosts on whose watch the world squandered its last best chance." 

Boris Johnson certainly sees it as his opportunity to show leadership during this global crisis.  

Weather extremes are to increase according to a UN report Credit: Peter Byrne/PA

But he faces some major hurdles. 

First the international response falls well short of what is needed. According to Maycock, just the ambitions being put forward by countries across the world are not enough to prevent catastrophic heating.  

But even in countries with big pledges – like the UK itself with its 2050 net zero target - there are huge potential issues. 

First the gap between rhetoric and reality. The heavy lifting to get to those targets must be done now - this decade – but campaigners say the rate of change is still too slow.  

To give one example, the rate at which the UK is switching gas boilers for more energy efficient heat pumps is twenty times slower than the government itself thinks is needed, according to Greenpeace.  

And while the IPCC is calling for an end to fossil fuels, the UK government is yet to decide on a new coal mine in Cumbria and whether drilling in a new oil and gas field in Scotland can go ahead. 

Climatic changes will worsen after the world exceeds temperature rises of 1.5C Credit: Peter Byrne/PA

But beyond any of that is the domestic politics facing Johnson and his team. First are the members of a new net zero grouping of backbenchers – including Steve Baker - who are planning to launch sometime before Cop26 to warn of the costs to consumers of getting to net zero. 

They will be led by MP Craig Mackinlay who is asking why the UK should do so much – when key countries like China are not doing more and warn that the poorest could bear the brunt of the cost.  

But it is not just them. There are others from very different wings of the party who are also planning to speak out on this. One MP - who would describe themselves as One Nation – and sit more to the left of the Conservative party – warned that net zero cannot be achieved by piling costs onto lower income families. 

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

They argued that asking their constituents to switch from diesel to electric vehicles, and swap out dirty gas boilers for more expensive heat pumps, was only acceptable if the government was funding financial incentives to make it possible.  

Those in cabinet are certainly aware of the growing unease on the backbenches and are starting to respond. One argument from Alok Sharma – the cabinet minister responsible for Cop26 - is one we are likely to hear more and more frequently.

He says the cost of inaction on climate change is far greater than the cost of action.”

The IPCC would certainly agree.  

What are the key findings from the UN climate change report?