Ongoing droughts and famine in Ethiopia, floods in Mexico, forest fires in Greece and hurricanes in the US  - the media is full of stories that highlight the environmental and social destruction that is increasingly being associated with accelerating climate change.  The combined effect is to make it ever clearer that change on a massive and global scale is urgently needed.  Whilst philanthropy has a key role to play in tackling the challenges facing us, there must also be a new policy framework to direct and facilitate action, so that we can address the underlying causes of environmental destruction, rather than just dealing with the symptoms.

Individual action is, of course, important: taking personal responsibility for our own carbon footprint is essential, yet sometimes the choices we want and need to make simply aren’t available.  It’s no good exhorting people to use public transport if their local bus services are expensive and unreliable, for example.   Promoting the advantages of buying local food from local producers won’t be very effective if giant supermarkets have already forced the small shops out of business.

Voluntary measures by business also have a role to play but, considering that less than half the top 100 companies trading on the UK stock exchange have even published a plan to reduce their carbon emissions, this approach can evidently not be relied upon either.

Instead, we need a binding legislative policy framework, based on both fiscal measures and regulation, so that all businesses and all citizens – not just those most environmentally aware – play their part in emission reduction.   In our efforts to combat climate change, we must be willing to intervene in markets, stand up to corporations, and regulate economies for the greater public good.

We also need to recognise that that we cannot successfully deal with climate change using the same dominant economic paradigm of progress through ever increasing exponential economic growth at any cost, that got us into the problem in the first place.

Technological innovations to ensure we use resources more efficiently will be essential, but not on their own sufficient, since they risks being fatally undermined if they are offset by an ever-increasing overall volume of traditional resource-based growth. The British government’s Sustainable Development Commission reported recently: “The overwhelming consensus amongst academics is that resource productivity will not, on its own, deliver the desired reconciliation between the pursuit of economic growth, and the imperatives of learning to live within the Earth’s biophysical constraints and carrying capacities.”  In other words, more efficient planes or cars will not solve the problem, because their impact will be more than cancelled out by the increasing total volume of planes in the sky and cars on the roads. 

Crucially, we must not be side-tracked by strategies that are essentially concerned with business as usual, including trading schemes based on carbon sequestration, or carbon offsetting, when the spotlight should be on doing things differently - and better. We need a behavioural and cultural revolution, as well as a technical revolution – and this is only possible if the right policies are in place.

For example, energy efficiency, including much stricter building regulations, zero carbon construction, and much tougher efficiency standards for a whole range of appliances must be given top priority. Coupled with a huge investment in renewables, especially decentralised technologies, and a range of demand reduction strategies, such policies can deliver considerable emissions reductions.

Climate change is not just an environmental issue – it has social, economic and cultural implications. So, any policies we bring forward must not simply be quick fixes that, like the behaviour that has brought us to this crisis point, disregard the interconnectedness of our planet and all who live upon it.

Transport is currently responsible for over ¼ of the UK’s CO2 emissions and the EU hopes to bring this contribution down through the wide-scale use of biofuels. Yet this policy is being promoted without recognition that using land for first generation biofuels instead of food will exacerbate both hunger and environmental destruction. The UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food refers to biofuel production as a ‘crime against humanity’ because it has created food shortages, sent food prices soaring, and left millions of poor people hungry.

Instead of looking for ways to meet current levels of demand for transport - an approach that has led us towards biofuels - we must focus on polices that reduce the need to travel, including a massive investment in public transport and changes to our planning system.

Market mechanisms, like carbon emissions trading, are not the panacea many governments would have us believe.  Emissions trading has a role to play, but only if it is designed rigorously.  The EU’s current trading scheme is fundamentally flawed: the upcoming revision of the scheme must ensure that the allocation of permits be much more tightly controlled, and that permits are fully auctioned, not simply given away.

Policy aimed at reducing C02 emissions is also needed beyond the traditional areas of energy and transport – climate change touches on everything from agriculture to defence, from trade to employment.   The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation recently reported, for example, that livestock emissions are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the whole of the global transport sector. 

Measures for tackling climate change across the spectrum can deliver a positive future and not a bleak one, if developed and implemented sustainably. The wrong policy mix, or avoiding the need for a legislative framework altogether, means agriculture collapse, water shortages and floods, and the consequent trauma and suffering of millions. It means opting for a future that is devoid of humanity, devoid of conscience.

The right policy mix, on the other hand, can bring social justice centre stage, create job opportunities, make us safer, build stronger communities and even make us happier. There is still a need to overcome significant complacency surrounding policy making with respect to climate change. Yet, in rising to what is essentially a moral challenge we can deliver a zero carbon world, where the objective of ever-increasing economic growth has been replaced by that of environmental sustainability and poverty eradication - a world marked by greater levels of well being and greater social justice.


 

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