Neil Kitching is a geographer, former accountant and now works as an Energy Specialist for Scottish Enterprise. He recently published his first book, Carbon Choices, on the common-sense solutions to our climate and nature crises. Here Neil outlines his ten ‘building blocks’ which society needs to put in place to tackle climate change.
Have you ever wondered why it seems difficult to lead a low carbon and sustainable lifestyle? In my view, society and our current economics are stacked against it. Not deliberately but through historical practice and good intentions that today don’t help to tackle our climate crisis. Trying to ‘be green’ can be expensive, difficult and in many cases, you need to be strong to act against peer pressure. For example, buying an electric car is still expensive, choosing an electronic gadget that will last 10 years is difficult and following a vegan diet requires a real effort to stand up to societal peer pressure.
Not many of us will choose the self sacrifice of not owning a car, buying an expensive heat pump, or choosing not to fly abroad on holiday. But governments can incentivise businesses and individuals to innovate and invest in better options. They could tax ‘natural’ gas, and use the income raised to subsidise people to install heat pumps. All of this is possible, but it needs the right regulatory and financial conditions – which are simply not in place at present.
So, we need to make it easy for businesses to offer consumers green choices, and for this to be the default decision when we buy products. Only in this way will we get the majority of consumers to make sustainable decisions.
The Ten Building Blocks
- In the UK we live in a society dominated by periodic democratic elections. Our politicians are not good at thinking long-term – sometimes they react to events on a weekly basis! One rare example of long-term thinking is the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. This gives manufacturers time to design and manufacture electric cars and for the necessary charging infrastructure to be installed.
- Governments need to ‘tax the bad‘, and ‘subsidise the good‘. Price signals are one of the most effective means to encourage sustainable purchasing. The plastic bag charge of 5p resulted in a 90% reduction in the manufacture, use and disposal of single use plastic bags. So, sensible taxes and subsidies can be designed to ‘nudge’ our behaviour, for example towards electric cars or healthier foods.
- Governments need to introduce sensible regulations on businesses that create a level playing field but encourage innovation and long-term investment. Energy efficiency labels on large household appliances encouraged manufacturers to design and sell far more efficient fringes and freezers which benefitted consumers and the environment. We need a wide range of new regulations including 10-year product guarantees and bans on products that have a disproportionate impact on the environment such as plastic disposable wipes or helium filled balloons.
- Businesses need to think about good design. Products should be manufactured efficiently, using as few resources as possible, they should be built to high quality standards, they should be energy efficient to operate and they should be easy to repair and recycle. Good design also applies to the places where we live – our buildings, our streets, our urban open spaces. Cities should be designed for people and communities, not for cars. Children should be able to walk safely to school.
- Governments and businesses should build on the success of innovation on bringing down the price of solar and wind power. Batteries, hydrogen technology, carbon capture and storage, more efficient solar panels, lighter materials, crops that can grow with fewer fertilisers…. a never-ending list.
- Similarly, governments and businesses should invest in infrastructure for a better and more sustainable future. Electric car charging points, energy efficient streetlights, electric buses and trains, cycle lanes, greenspaces in cities and nature reserves. Unfortunately, we will also need to invest to adapt to the inevitable consequences of climate change – flood defences, pest control, new crop varieties and resilient infrastructure.
- We need to educate our children as well as the adults and decision makers who were not taught about climate change at school. We need to re-skill and retrain our workforce. We should invest in retraining programmes to avoid the adverse impacts on communities that suffered from the closure of coal mines. A low carbon future should not be seen as a threat to jobs.
- Our excessive consumption of the clothes, furniture, cars, and electronic equipment is the primary cause of climate change. We need to encourage behaviour change away from our throwaway culture. We should not pressure people to feel the need to constantly change their wardrobe – fast fashion is incredibly wasteful. Encourage repair and reuse. Be willing to pay more for quality purchases and experiences that do not deplete the Earth’s resources.
- Communities can be passionate ambassadors for change to improve their local environment. They can tackle issues that governments or the local council will never put sufficient time or money into. Examples include local play parks, litter picking and tackling invasive species. Community involvement in eco-tourism provides locals with a vested interest to protect nature.
- Invest in resource efficiency of energy, materials and water and reduce waste. This enables us to enjoy a higher quality of life for less impact on the environment. Invest to save is common sense, yet not all businesses or individuals are willing to pay a bit more now to save later. Targeted government grants or loans can help.
Up in smoke?
A good analogy is how society has successfully tackled smoking in the UK. The tobacco companies and government used to provide soldiers with free cigarette rations. Smoking is now taxed and heavily regulated. There are regulations on the marketing of cigarettes, restrictions on who can sell, age restrictions on who can buy, a ban on smoking indoors and health warnings on packets. Cigarette companies have invested in alternatives such as e-cigarettes and the government has invested in health research, nicotine patches and in campaigns to encourage people to quit smoking.
After a slow start, a tipping point was reached, when it became culturally unacceptable to smoke in public places. We need the same decades long campaign to wean us off our current addiction to burning coal, oil, and gas.
Electric cars are an example of how to put these building blocks into action. At the moment, they are expensive with an additional fear of ‘range anxiety’.
There is a long-term plan to phase out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars. There are lower taxes on buying electric cars and subsidies to reduce the purchase price and to install a home charging point. Good design and investment by car manufacturers are crucial to offering us an attractive electric future, fuelled by innovation creating more energy dense and ever cheaper batteries.
Most importantly, peer pressure is shifting. No longer are electric cars thought of as a joke. In fact, they are becoming the latest status purchase which people aspire to. Cleaner, quieter, quicker acceleration, cheaper to run and less harmful to the environment.
By applying my ten building blocks to our daily lives – our diets, homes, travel, shopping, and leisure activities – we can regenerate nature and improve our society, make us healthier, fitter, happier and lead more fulfilled lives.