John Hyslop: Doctors declare climate emergency

Last week at the BMA Annual Representative Meeting I proposed that the BMA declare a climate emergency and campaign for carbon neutrality by 2030. The motion was passed overwhelmingly into BMA policy. In response Parveen Kumar, BMA board of science chair, contrasted doctors’ move to declare a climate emergency with the UK government’s commitment to reducing UK carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, saying that the government needs to be more ambitious, as shown by a 2018 IPCC report, which makes clear the need for immediate action

But what does declaring a climate emergency mean?

It brings the target date forward to 2030, leaving us just over a decade to deliver the second industrial revolution, to strive for clean air, to cut CO2 emissions, and to deliver a new transport infrastructure. I believe that it is entirely possible.

We have already seen some progress towards this. For example, Public Health England’s advice to walk not drive to school in London, and the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan putting hybrid buses on Brixton High Street. These are both responses to the documented poor air quality. But is it enough just to respond to the effect, when the root cause is left untreated?

Declaring an emergency is about developing a new strategy. This needs to be our first priority. Knowing that we only have a decade left in which to limit a climate catastrophe, should be a strong driver for change. There are many councils across the UK which have declared a climate emergency. For example, in Cornwall, community and business partners are working together to bring a radical new strategy forward for the county to deliver. 

This will challenge existing diesel train and air connections, seek a sustainable electric infrastructure and power generation; consider how best we can use nuclear energy, and build upon already existing infrastructures to generate energy using solar and wind capacity.

Could we achieve a wind turbine in each parish? Electric car hire hubs networked across the country? Or separate bike/e-bike lanes universally? In other municipal centres citizens assemblies are being used to address the climate emergency.

What’s needed is political support to turn transformative ideas into reality. The BMA and the medical colleges need to use their standing to influence government policy and make climate emergency a priority.

Industrial power is wielded through the lobby and via access to ministers. By contrast, action on the climate emergency is being driven by the people, especially the younger generation. We must support them at every level. Greta Thunberg gained some ground with an opposition day debate, but the motions which declared a climate emergency are not binding on the UK government.

We all need to feed in ideas to develop our strategy. In my opinion, we need to investment in new town networks linked by Maglev trains, with e-car hire hubs, and separation of cars from bike lanes within new solar carbon neutral housing. 

We should be the last generation to use oil for cars, trains, and heating; coal should be limited to industrial steel production, and aluminium used where possible, with reduced concrete production. A new architecture based around carbon neutral material technology is the order of the day.

The gauntlet has been thrown down, we all need to act now. It is the time for a second “industrial” revolution.

John Hyslop is a consultant radiologist living in Cornwall. He provides teleradiology for the NHS acute care out of hours in Sydney, following a full NHS career in Cornwall. 

Competing interests: None declared.