In light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s sobering report released in August 2021, it is worth reflecting on the impact and success of Extinction Rebellion’s international protests in 2019 on changing climate policy, which followed their previous major publication.

Last month, Extinction Rebellion (XR) held a two-week-long protest in London and towns in the UK in response to the IPCC’s latest report. Activists held ‘die-ins’, glued themselves to pieces of infrastructure, and marched to Trafalgar Square in protest against the UK government’s inactivity in relation to the climate crisis. The impact of this set of protests remains to be seen, but 2019 saw the first wave of their major public disruptions.

In April and October 2019, Extinction Rebellion (XR) held street protests in 80 cities around the world, calling for governments and citizens to recognise the climate emergency and act accordingly. In London, the ‘climate rebellions’ lasted for several days, blocking major roads and bridges across the capital. But what did the protests achieve, and was the tool of blocking streets and holding the city hostage effective?

Public opinion of XR is divided, with polls immediately following the April protests showing alignment with the protest’s goals – two-thirds of people in the UK agreed that there was a climate emergency, and 76% of people would change their votes to protect the environment. However, the government pitted the protesters against the public, stating that ‘hundreds of thousands of hard-working Londoners’ had their lives disrupted, police rest days were cancelled over the Easter bank holiday, and tactics used by the XR protests can be deemed to be too extreme (blocking of bridges and the spraying of fake blood on buildings for example). 

Can social movements achieve change within the narrow margins of what is deemed to be a publicly acceptable protest? Protests are after all, acts of dissent with the intended intention to cause disruption.

What Can We Learn from the XR Protests?

The direct action, which occurred in April 2019, saw coordinated protests take place across London. Bridges and roads were blocked in the centre of the city, disrupting traffic, businesses, and commuters; and activists glued themselves to the London Stock Exchange and public gallery at the commons. Over 1,000 arrests were made, and the policing cost the Met £16 million. The protests coincided with Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK parliament, with celebrities such as Dame Emma Thompson and Olympian Etienne Scott joined in the action.

2019 was the 11th year since the UK Climate Change Act was introduced. The Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) reported that whilst the Act was ‘instrumental in advancing climate action’, greater climate policy would be required to meet international obligations. The act saw the establishment of the Committee on Climate Change, 5-year carbon budget targets, and a goal to reduce emissions by at least 80% on 1990 levels by 2050. LSE’s report finds that there was a lack of safeguards to hold the government to account on its climate policy, and a key recommendation suggests that a target should be introduced for achieving net zero emissions. The Committee on Climate Change’s 10-year report released in 2018 identified that UK emissions were down 43% compared to 1990, largely as a result of shifts towards renewables in electricity generation. Their key recommendations were to create a long-term plan with consistent policies for reducing emissions, rather than contradictory short-term climate policymaking; introduce effective regulation and enforcement across all sectors; and invest early in infrastructure to prevent higher costs and fewer opportunities to reduce emissions later down the line. 

Considering this climate policy context, Michael Gove’s net zero pledge to XR activists who met with the Environment Minister in the weeks after the protest, were not particularly impressed as it had been a policy without any timeline. However, days after this meeting, the UK government declared a Climate Emergency – becoming the first national government to do so. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn put forward the motion to declare an environment and climate emergency and won unanimous support in the House of Commons. The declaration set a legally binding target that the UK reach net-zero targets by around 2050, with a 45% reduction from 2010 levels by 2030. This motion went some way to meeting one of three of XR’s demands (zero emissions by 2025), with the outstanding two being to establish a Citizens’ Assembly on climate, and the less defined task of the government being honest about environmental issues. 

What the UK Climate Policy Means and XR’s Real Impact 

The most direct and tangible result of XR’s two-week barricade was the declaration of a Climate Emergency. However, this piece of legislation on its own will not break ground. As Leo Barasi outlines, the net-zero target will make the UK compliant with Paris Agreement goals, yet the government wasn’t on course to meet its old targets set in the UK Climate Change Act, and certainly isn’t close to the new ones. In addition, the fixation on the Paris Agreement’s non-binding emissions targets often omits the reality that the targets agreed by governments internationally would only limit global warming to between 2.5 and 4 degrees Celsius. Further, the declaration itself is rhetoric, and must be backed by concrete actions to meet targets. The Climate Change Committee’s 2021 progress report to parliament shows that since the Emergency was declared, the Government’s ‘historic promises’ and climate policy have not been followed up with delivery. A Net Zero Strategy has been introduced for the power, industry, transport, and housing sectors, but its implementation is yet to be seen. In addition, only five of the UK’s 34 sectors have shown ‘notable progress’ since 2019. Thus, the most tangible impact of XR’s protests was a ground-breaking piece of legislation, which so far is without much of a follow-through.

However, there are arguably a number of more intangible outcomes of the Rebellion in 2019. Political discourse has been shifted both in the heights of Westminster and in local communities. Quartz has noted that between 2006 and 2014, climate protests led to no debates in the British parliament. Yet the Extinction Rebellion’s direct action has seen debates and a national motion passed by the government. In addition, Vox states that if a protest’s success is dependent on the level of attention it draws to itself and the disruption it causes, then XR actions were monumental. Bringing climate to the political table as a topic for serious discussion was a major success, and conversations have continued at a local and national level. Following the government’s declaration, 310 local councils have also announced a Climate Emergency across the UK. Although many have not set binding targets associated with their statements, awareness raising is a key first step.

On a community level, thousands of individuals have begun to get involved with local XR ‘cells’ or other environmental groups, such as Green New Deal UK and Friends of the Earth. Statistics show that participation in environmental organisations has increased by nearly 100% between 2013 and 2020. Whilst this increase cannot be directly linked to the impact of the 2019 protests, the severity of the environmental crisis alongside events of public disruption have combined to raise hopes for the possibility of achieving change. 

extinction rebellion, xr protest, climate policy

The combination of tangible and intangible effects of XR’s protests raises the question of how we should measure the success of their methods in attempting to win change. Academics such as Craig Jenkins, and popular media platforms such as Vox have asserted that the level of disruption can be equated to the success of a social movement. Alternately, Tsutsui and Shin have argued that when social movements combine local activist pressures with international campaigns and forums on a particular issue, they are more likely to be successful.

Further, a Chatham House piece promotes prioritising dialogue between citizens and government, participatory protesting through digital means, building broad international coalitions, creating inclusive working groups, professionalising interactions with the traditional media, including young people, and using non-violent protest methods. 

The research above points to four measures of success for a method for achieving change: 

  1. Achieving material improvements to citizens’ lives
  2. Convincing the public of the possibility of a positive alternative future
  3. Building broad coalitions and aligning with international movements
  4. Creating mass support for the movement and its goals

In terms of winning success in these areas, XR’s April rebellion came out with a mixed result. There have been little to no material improvements to citizens’ lives. Indirectly, XR’s demands from the UK government would improve the lives of citizens over the next 50 to 100 years, but their climate policy recommendations offer no material change to continued issues of growing inequality, insecure employment, and soaring house prices experienced by millions around Britain today. As far as convincing the public of the achievability of a positive alternative future, XR’s protests and demands were heavily focused on problems rather than solutions. Sounding the alarm on the severity of the problem is arguably an important first step. However, without proposing positive alternatives, a focus on negatives can lead to despondency and cynicism. The Rebellions did not build particularly broad coalitions, and were often deemed to be too extreme or criticised for their claim to being apolitical. Lastly, although mass support for XR has been conflicted, the organisation has effectively mobilised thousands around a common cause. 

Professor of organisational behaviour, André Spicer, wrote in the Guardian that XR’s tactics were incorrect – too extreme and exclusionary. In his opinion piece for the paper, he argues that tea parties and language tailored to bridge across the Left-Right divide should be the focus of their efforts. Building a mass movement from disruption not moderation is, according to this author, misplaced. Yet, disruption is at the heart of protest, and moderation will do nothing to effectively tackle the combined economic, social, political, and environmental crises advanced industrial democracies are currently living through. 

Further, individuals across political and class divides can participate together in protests, from workers to parents to neighbours. XR’s protests threatened the status quo. They demonstrated in the UK that a group of thousands can cause serious disruption, get the attention of the media (good or bad), change public discourse, start conversations, and move the Overton Window. Although many of their tactics are imperfect – the ‘rebellion’ of activists gluing themselves to the DLR at Cutty Sark was classist and unthinking – they have done a significant amount of good for raising and bringing environmental issues to the political and public attention and agenda. 

XR’s Tactics: Effectiveness and Improvements

The continued insistence on demonstrating the problem, rather than offering a serious positive alternative is more likely to invoke cynicism or despair than inspiration and hope. XR needs to present what the viable alternative is to our current path, and make people believe in a better system, rather than ceaseless criticism. To both tell, and show (how to better ahead go). This links directly to achieving material improvements to people’s lives, addressing inequality and job insecurity, at the same time as tackling the climate crisis which is achievable and desirable. In addition, mass support can be built through inspiring and empowering people around positive alternatives and collaborative working.

Building coalitions within and outside of the UK should’ve been prioritised, to generate widespread solidarity and support, and to connect XR’s activists with other organisers and their communities. We are stronger together and working in silos of campaigning will only ever get us so far. International coordination is of the utmost importance, due to the international scale of impending environmental disaster. We need to work across borders to achieve the systemic change needed to re-stabilise our planet and prevent further social and natural loss. 

Media coverage of XR’s latest protests has been more critical than previously, and the police were better prepared and more willing to use violence against the activists in this year’s direct action. No major climate policy announcements have been made, and Labour barely acknowledged the events. This raises questions about the future of protest as a tool of XR’s climate activism, but there remain important lessons to learn from previous rebellions. In sum, the April 2019 protests were an unprecedented event of climate activism in the UK in the 21st century, leading to a national declaration of a climate emergency and inspiring many to actively get involved in addressing climate change. Yet the tool of mass protest through shutting down a city centre in this context left much to desire. The work in preparation – coordination with other campaigns and organising groups; the message – providing a hopeful alternative to our crisis-inducing economic system; and working to achieve material improvements to citizens’ lives as well as tackling the climate crisis are all central to campaigns with more of a political impact.