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Getting to the heart of the matter

A wall of imaginative solutions for a low-carbon Manchester, taken from the listening event A wall of imaginative solutions for a low-carbon Manchester, taken from the listening event

Are our current commitments on climate change really cutting it? Mark Robinson reports on a challenge that suggests embedding principles at the heart of climate action can open us up to the big ideas that make change possible.

It can be easy these days to despair about climate change, unable to see how we can possibly make real progress. We look away from the problem because it feels like there is no solution – or so many that we can’t find what will actually work. But this is the second time I’ve attended a talk where Kevin Anderson, professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Centre, has managed to fuse the gravity of the crisis with hope that it’s not yet too late.

On 23 January I was lucky enough to attend Anderson’s guest lecture in Manchester, organised by CPRE’s North West regional group. The lecture covered a lot of ground, but central to Anderson’s talk was something important he believes is not mentioned enough in the climate debate, described, incidentally, most eloquently by the Pope in his 2015 encyclical:

“The alliance between the economy and technology ends up side-lining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently, the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented”

The dismissal of these “genuine attempts” to think bigger, Anderson argues, has meant that while the science (and perhaps the motivation) is there, the past 28 years haven’t seen the change needed.

With his usual brevity, Anderson presented us with the crux of the issue – the realpolitik at the heart of this is no match for “realclimate”: by 2016, our greenhouse gas emissions were 60% higher than in 1990, when the first international peer-reviewed scientific report on climate change was published. In 2017 they were still rising. Consequently, we are heading for a three or four degree temperature rise above those seen in pre-industrial times. Associated with this temperature increase is substantial sea-level rise, greater incidence of extreme weather such as droughts and tropical hurricanes, and mass crop failure. He made it quite clear that “there is a widespread view that this level of temperature rise is incompatible with an organised global community”.

It is true that climate change will alter our cherished landscapes beyond recognition. But rather than determining the potential for action by what politicians determine to be technically or economically feasible, Anderson argued that the need for action must be founded in something much deeper – the principle of equity. Looking to the inter- and intra-generational dimensions of the problem facing us could, it seems, breathe new life into the climate agenda.

First, Anderson pointed to the fact that we are privileged to be born where we are. The landscapes we live and breathe mean a lot to us – but other people around the world rely similarly on their own environment. The only difference is that for those in countries such as Vietnam, Bangladesh, and the Marshall Islands, this environment is disappearing much faster than ours. If we choose to base our response to climate change on equity, however, countries which have historically benefited from fossil fuel extraction must take far more of the burden of decarbonisation before other countries bear too much of the effect. Change would have to occur much faster.

The second point is even closer to CPRE’s heart – to protect the countryside for present and future generations. Anderson made clear that climate change is a matter of cumulative emissions – whatever mitigation we put off now will only displace the responsibility of decarbonisation to following generations. Knowing this, can we really push full steam ahead with activities such as fracking, opening up new frontiers of extraction when two-thirds of existing fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground?

To me, the message of Anderson’s lecture was clear - technology can get us so far, but it is founding our action on more fundamental principles that will deliver the momentum we truly need. Furthermore, while climate science demands much of us, it is possible to root our fight in very local and practical solutions.

With Manchester’s Green Summit fast approaching, we were fortunate after the lecture to find ourselves participants of one of several ‘listening events’ being used to crowdsource ideas into a new low-carbon strategy. Audience members contributed their thoughts for new policies, such as mass retrofitting and electrification programmes, frequent flyer levies at Manchester Airport, and expansion of greenspace for local food production and education. It was stressed that such solutions are perfectly feasible, and the courage to implement them would put Manchester at the heart of what Anderson called a “decarbonisation revolution”, much like the industrial revolution it fired two centuries earlier.

Rather than industrialising our countryside and worsening climate change, we can take ambitious steps forward such as those suggested above to rapidly decarbonise our societies. These step changes have occurred in the past - the UK Climate Change Act is just one example of political courage creating a long-term framework for change. It is with this inspiration I left Manchester on a grey Tuesday afternoon, and I know I will continue to draw on that inspiration in the future.

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2 February 2018

Rather than industrialising our countryside and worsening climate change, we can take ambitious steps forward to rapidly decarbonise our societies.

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