Change, fears, hopes and action

A new survey has found 85% of UK adults seriously worried about global warming along with warnings that we must learn to live with far less, calls for a climate change citizens’ assembly, a business-backed climate strike – but also SME opportunities.

Feeling the heat

August has not been a typical month. The UK saw the hottest bank holiday temperatures ever recorded – 33.2C at Heathrow. But with the heat sandwiched between rainstorms, the eighth month of the year was also the wettest on record too, according to the Met Office.

The Met Office also confirmed after checking measuring equipment that the UK’s highest-ever temperature of 38.7C was officially recorded at Cambridge University Botanic Garden on 25 July – the warmest month ever around the world.

Meanwhile, MPs have decided that even electric car ownership is incompatible with stringent new UK climate change targets. Similarly, the high carbon cost of manufacturing and using modern consumer “goodies” means that we must all get used to life without so many attractive “things”.

In fact, the UK should introduce a Sustainable Economy Act in parallel with 2008’s Climate Change Act to ensure that we live within the UK’s and planet’s means, one leading think-tank now believes.

But perhaps of even more practical importance in the immediate short-term is the Government’s launch of a new taskforce to help businesses decarbonise their supply chains.

Big role for small companies

Supply chain improvements are SME home turf. The Chamber Low Carbon (CLC) programme – a £4 million European part funded programme – helps small firms to build the very different and sustainable future the UK needs based on their ability to respond flexibly and innovatively to changing client demands, plus the high proportion of GDP that they generate.

Free CLC team advice and hands-on support is designed to help businesses improve energy, water, waste and environmental efficiencies, maximise renewable green energy and low-carbon technology use, minimise carbon footprints, save money and take new products and services to market. Please contact us via tel 01254 356 487, or for more information.

However, July survey figures published in August also reveal how members of the public are now actively helping to tackle carbon … and where people are not so keen to make sacrifices!

Attitude tipping point

When Ipsos MORI interviewed 1,007 adults between 16 and 30 July, levels of concerned were the highest since questions were first asked in 2005. Over the last five years, the proportion of “very concerned” jumped from 18% to 52%; some 55% of women and 48% of men now feel ‘deep alarm’.

Nearly 75% of Britons say the UK is experiencing climate change effects – up from 61% in 2017, 55% in 2014 and 41% in 2010. More than 25% believe recent hot weather resulted mainly from human-induced climate change; 15% think natural weather processes are the root cause. Overall, 57% say both humans and nature are to blame.

When it comes to meeting new UK 2050 net-zero emissions target, 55% now believe the Government should act more quickly to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, a belief held by 63% of adults aged 18-34, plus 70% of Labour and 69% of Liberal Democrat supporters.

The current awareness wave follows earlier 2005-6 peaks, Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, the Kyoto Protocol and the Stern Report, with climate fatigue setting in after the financial crisis. But Extinction Rebellion, school climate strikes, local authority climate emergencies and extreme weather events have raised the tempo once again.

The survey took place before Government chief environment scientist, Prof Sir Ian Boyd, warned that we must travel less, move away from red meat and buy fewer clothes. He says the public has little idea of the scale of the challenge ahead.

The difference between theory and practice

However, another summer survey of 2,010 UK adults commissioned by renewable energy company Pure Planet revealed that we still feel free to decide what we are prepared to do and not do.

While more than 90% generally agree with the Government’s net-zero emissions by 2050 decision in line with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recommendations, only 36% are willing to pay higher tax rates to fund the low-carbon transition.

More encouragingly, some 88% say they are now making one change or more to cut their personal carbon footprint. Some 53% are turning off lights, 46% are avoiding single-use plastic straws while 31% are now composting waste food.

The least popular action is changing over from petrol or diesel to electric cars – just 3%. Only 4% are opting to be car-free by cycling or walking. Only circa 3% are going vegan, although 25% report cutting their meat intake. People are also not keen to install home solar (6%) or take flight-free staycations in the UK (another 6%). Just 29% have bought a reusable coffee cup.

More dramatically, a relatively-high proportion of 10% say they have decided not to have children because of climate-related concerns.

RIP the car

However, we may have to forget the established idea of personal transport to meet the UK’s climate targets. MPs on the Science and Technology Select Committee believe technology alone cannot solve transport emissions problems.

A committee report says, “In the long-term, widespread personal vehicle ownership does not appear to be compatible with significant decarbonisation.” Substituting electric vehicles (EVs) for petrol and diesel will not do the trick; the personal car may have to be consigned to history.

Not surprisingly perhaps, the AA disagrees. AA president Edmund King responded, “Stating that widespread personal vehicle ownership isn’t compatible with significant decarbonisation seems to be giving up on emerging science and technology.”

He added, “The fastest growth in traffic is by vans due to internet deliveries so more technological effort should be put into decarbonising that sector as a priority.”

But MPs are adamant that electric cars still create pollution through tyre and brake wear and warn that more research is needed on the environmental impact of EV batteries. Their report adds, “Hydrogen technology may prove to be cheaper and less environmentally damaging than battery-powered electric vehicles. The government should not rely on a single technology.”

Instead, the committee members want improvements in public transport, with more walking and cycling and a Government strategy to reduce the overall number of vehicles.

However, they also criticise the Government’s recent policies on transport costs, pointing out that most of the increase in average new car emissions in 2017 resulted from consumers opting for more polluting models because of poor financial incentives to buy cleaner cars.

Positive and negative

More optimistically, the UK energy consumption is now roughly equal to 50 years ago but in an economy triple the size. This is partly due to the UK changing from energy-intensive industries, such as cement and steel, to services-based sectors like finance and consulting. Renewables are also more efficient than fossil-fuels which waste energy as heat.

More pessimistically, 29 July 2019 was ‘Earth Overshoot Day’, the annual marker where the Global Footprint Network (GFN) calculates humans out-pace the planet’s sustainable natural resources. The date in 1978 was 1st November; before 1970 there was no effective overshoot, although plenty of poorly-controlled environmental degradation.

UN data suggests the picture is more complicated with wider factors taken into account, such as water, land management and fishery. Other critics describe the day as a ‘nice publicity stunt’. GFN emphasises that it highlights humans removing more than the ecology can naturally renew annually.

Time to Act

During the summer, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) also called for a ‘Sustainable Economy Act’ with legal targets to protect wildlife, soil fertility, air quality, prevent environmental breakdown and ensure the UK lives within its natural means.

The IPPR envisages binding targets similar to greenhouse gas limits set in the Climate Change Act, plus a new committee advising the government similar to the Committee on Climate Change. Existing EU environmental safeguards could end without new legislation after Brexit, it says.

The institute adds that the Government’s draft Environment Bill to safeguard the environment post-Brexit may be one route. But it currently lacks legally binding targets needed to drive improvements. New targets should cover the wider impacts on natural systems of all economic activity, including by nations exporting goods and services to the UK, says the think tank in a new paper.

The paper’s lead author, Laurie Laybourn-Langton, comments, “We urgently need to rethink economics so that we can continue to live within the UK’s and the planet’s means – protecting the many natural systems that are crucial to everyone’s ability to lead good lives in a way that is just, sustainable and prepared.” Climate change is not the only environmental threat.

Adapting is not enough

Yet more research, this time from the University of Cambridge published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, predicts that on current trajectories an average global temperature rise of more than 4C will shrink global GDP by 7% by 2100 – including a 4% hit to the UK economy.

It warns that “business-as-usual” will see US GDP cut by 10.5%, while , Japan, India and New Zealand lose 10%, Switzerland 12% and Russia 9%, with an increase in severe weather events adding further stress to national economies, including major changes in wave patterns battering low-lying shores.

Supply chain sustainability taskforce

However, the Government has taken action on supply chain sustainability through the Global Resource Initiative (GRI) taskforce unveiled in July by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Department for International Development (DfiD) and Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The taskforce’s 17 leaders come from the private and public sectors, plus NGOs, via companies such as Tesco, McDonald’s, Legal & General, M&S and Cargill, the new Green Finance Institute, plus the NGOs WWF and Forest Coalition.

The taskforce is due to release a 2020 report outlining how British businesses of all sizes and sectors can minimise their global supply chain footprints by controlling carbon emissions, water consumption, soil degradation, deforestation, plus beef, palm oil and soy production.

The plan is to empower businesses to help make the UK net-zero carbon-free, meet its 25-Year Environment Plan commitments and inspire other countries.

Citizen assembly and businesses on the picket lines

If governments around the world can’t take meaningful action because of the restraints of representative democracy – the need to be re-elected every few years – one alternative gaining ground to take the climate crisis out of the hands of politicians is that of a citizens’ assembly.

This has a Irish precedent where 99 citizen members heard from expert witnesses in orchestrated 2016 roundtable discussions spread over five weekends across five months on intractable abortion issues before making recommendations to parliament that resulted in a decisive referendum.

In another unusual move to show solidarity with protesters, the major American companies Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, Lush Cosmetics and Seventh Generation will shut their stores on 20 September. The aim is to support the Global Climate Strike organised by green groups including, Greenpeace, SEIU, March On and Extinction Rebellion ahead of the UN Climate Summit in New York the following week.