How successful has XR been?
In terms of XR’s three core demands, the movement has had mixed success:
1) “Tell the truth - Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.” On 1st May 2019, shortly after XR’s April actions in London, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn used an Opposition Day Debate in the House of Commons to ask MPs to declare a national environment and climate emergency. The motion was approved without a vote, and, while the Environment Secretary Michael Gove did not endorse a plan for the Government to officially declare a crisis, he did tell the Commons that “the Government recognise the situation we face is an emergency. It is a crisis, and it is a threat that we must all unite to meet.” This motion came just days after Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a "climate emergency" in her speech to the SNP conference on the 28th April, and a similar declaration by the Welsh Government on the 29th. Polling conducted by YouGov found that since XR’s actions, climate change has become a much higher priority for voters. Ahead of the 2017 General Election only 8% said the environment was one of the top three issues facing the country, but, in 2019, it was 26%, with 45% of 18-24 year-olds citing it as their second-biggest concern after Brexit.
2) “Act Now - Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.” On 12th June 19, during her final speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May announced a plan to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, arguing that there was a "moral duty to leave this world in a better condition than what we inherited". On 24th June, the Commons voted to amend section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008, replacing the existing target to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, to May’s net zero target. Emissions from homes, transport, industry etc will either be eliminated entirely, or offset by actions that remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere, e.g. by planting new forests. While this 2050 target falls far short of XR’s demand of net zero emissions by 2025, it is notable that the UK became the first major economy in the world to enshrine a net zero target in legislation less than a year after XR’s actions began. It is also notable that opposition parties went further in their net zero pledges ahead of the 2019 General Election. The Green Party came closest to XR’s demand, with a 2030 target, while Labour’s 2019 manifesto targeted a “substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030”, and the Liberal Democrats aimed to reach net zero by 2045.
3) “Beyond Politics - Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.” On 18th June 2019, Gail Bradbrook, one of the founders of XR, gave oral evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. During the session, which focussed on the Government’s net zero carbon target, Bradbrook repeatedly argued that a citizens’ assembly was the best means to agree a path for achieving a more ambitious net zero target, because “current political processes are failing us. We have to do something entirely different here.” Bradbrook argued, “Through a citizens’ assembly, you will come up with a package that people can get behind because it will have ordinary people on it who have been taught critical thinking skills and given evidence.” Two days later, six Select Committees, including the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, announced plans to form a Citizens’ Assembly later in the year to explore how best to reach the 2050 net zero emissions target. In November 2019, 30,000 invitation letters were sent out across the country, and from January to March 2020, 100 members gathered over four weekends to hear balanced evidence on the options available, and make recommendations for how the UK should become net zero by 2050. While XR “welcomes this first step” it has criticised the fact that members will only be discussing a path towards a 2050 target date, and that their recommendations will only be advisory.
What factors explain XR’s successes and failures? Aims – Whether or not a pressure group succeeds will depend greatly on what exactly it is trying to achieve. A pressure group with focussed, realistic goals will likely find it easier than one that proposes radical, complex and unpopular reforms. A common criticism of the international Occupy Movement, which emerged in 2011 to protest growing inequality following the late 2000s financial crisis, was that the movement lacked clearly defined goals and policy prescriptions. XR has arguably avoided this with its three specific demands. While many of XR’s leaders believe that preventing climate change will require a revolution that sees the world abandon neoliberal capitalism, the movement has focussed on the more limited and achievable goal of getting the Government to acknowledge that there is a climate crisis, and to follow the recommendations of a citizens’ assembly. XR has made considerable progress on both demands, and it is unsurprising that it has so far struggled the most with its demand of a 2025 net zero target - easily its most ambitious aim. Organisation - Anyone can quickly become part of an emerging social movement, helping it to easily spread and grow, but their informal nature can have disadvantages. Unlike pressure groups, which are generally formal organisations, with clear leaders, specific aims, and often fee-paying members, social movements are large, loose networks of people and organisations that wish to make significant, broadly similar changes to society. The 2011 Occupy Movement did not want to elect leaders, and preferred decisions to be agreed by a public vote from demonstrators. As the movement included a huge range of diverse groups, this made agreeing on a plan of action very difficult, and challenging the influence of extremely well organised and funded banks and businesses even tougher. The leaders of XR have taken a different path. While there are rules, and teams that work to coordinate the movement, XR’s guidelines stress that individuals and small groups should take the initiative in deciding on what actions they can take to further the cause. However, decentralising power like this can also have costs. XR’s leaders were quick to distance themselves from a small group that drew a public backlash for staging a protest on the roofs of London tube trains during rush hour in October 2019. XR said that while the “overwhelming opposition and consternation from those in our movement, both regarding the nature, location, and timing of the action” caused some to abandon the action, others went ahead regardless. Political climate/ public opinion – While XR has played a significant role in pushing climate change up the political agenda, the movement is unlikely to be the only reason why voters in 2019 were far more likely to cite the environment as one of their main concerns. Some voters may have become more sympathetic to XR’s cause after witnessing the wildfires that raged across California and Australia in 2019, or perhaps by being personally affected by flooding in the UK. Others may have been influenced by the release of the fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2018, which warned of the dangers of allowing temperatures to rise beyond 1.5 degrees, or by Sir David Attenborough’s 2019 documentary on climate change. Others may have seen the fact that even large multinationals have announced radical new environmental policies, with airlines pledging to offset their carbon emissions, and bankers pledging to switch their investments from fossil fuels to more sustainable industries. A 2019 Ipsos Mori poll found that 78% of Britons believe the planet is “heading for disaster”, up from 59% in 2013. This has certainly given the movement an advantage lacked by the activists who gathered at annual ‘Climate Camps’ around the country from 2006-2011 to protest carbon emitters. Status – XR’s mixed success might also be explained by the fact that, while it primarily relies upon civil disobedience, like an outsider group, members have at times used the more formal and traditional methods of insider groups, meeting with politicians and providing oral evidence in Parliament. Politicians do not normally want to be associated with groups that actively encourage law breaking. However, perhaps as a result of XR’s commitment to non-violence, and the growing public concern over climate change, members have at times been able to cross over, if not to work directly with the Government, but with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to secure a climate emergency declaration, and with House of Commons Select Committees to establish a citizens’ assembly on climate change