Media coverage of climate change is ramping-up in the UK ahead of the COP26 conference in November, prompting our government to start announcing targets – in this case a pledge to cut GHG emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.
Of course, the great thing about targets set two or three electoral cycles into the future is that the person(s) who announces them isn’t necessarily the person who has to live with the consequences of their implementation (or non-implementation). They will instead bask in the rosy glow of the announcement, content in the knowledge that they probably won’t need to make any difficult decisions that would risk their ‘glorious’ legacies.
Difficult decisions, however, will need to be made. For anyone with an interest in the natural world (which should be all of us, co-inhabitants on a single shared planet), climate change and the catastrophic degradation of the entire global environment are a cause for simultaneous depression and enragement. As a society we seem to be stuck in the ‘have our cake and eat it’ mode: no need to change our behaviours as we ferry our recycling to the bottle bank in our electric cars.
Is this sustainable? It seems unlikely to me, but that’s an opinion based on an imperfect understanding of the systems in play and the balances that need to be achieved. Targets are great – but there is little evidence that our government is capable of making meaningful change to ensure that they are delivered, let alone help society to transform itself and put it in a sustainable path.
The low-hanging fruits have been picked and consumed long ago, and progress in many areas has stalled over the past decade: whether this is on GHG reductions, recycling rates, air, water and soil quality. It seems highly likely that our patterns of behaviour and (particularly) consumption will therefore need to change for transitions to sustainability to happen. This could require a re-set of our entire economic and social structure.
How relevant are ‘sustainable’ lifestyles to those who rely on foodbanks for their nutrition, or those working zero hours contracts to support their families, or those in badly insulated, inefficient housing? I would argue that we can’t hope to address the climate crisis without also addressing wider socio-economic crises: systemic change is required at all levels.
It’s not a case of either-or; we really need to get a grip ‘on the whole’ thing at once. Electoral suicide for whichever party chooses to do it, but kicking the can down the road is no longer an option.
Written by Dr David Thompkins, Deputy Head of Strategy at CRES