Global Climate action and sustainable development

Use your power – the importance of brave and visible climate leadership

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Introduction

As we near the end of 2022 we are experiencing one of the hottest years on record, autumn temperatures in Europe are currently high at around 25 degrees in Paris for example and 23 degrees in Munich at the end of October.  World leaders are again meeting to discuss the most pressing issue facing our planet: the climate crisis.

Hosted by Egypt, COP27 will kick off on the 6th of November. However, despite evidence showing that change is not moving fast or hard enough, there is growing concern about the ability for COP27 to deliver meaningful change.

With world leadership stalling, local climate action is becoming increasingly vital to make a difference. There has never been a more vital moment to use whatever power we have to show bold climate leadership and deliver actions to address the climate crisis.

Rising cost, shrinking concern 

At a global level, years of inaction mean that major climate changes are now inevitable and irreversible with temperatures likely to rise by more than 1.5C.

From devastating floods and storms, to deadly heat waves, 2022 has seen another sharp rise in climate change-related extreme weather. Roughly 40% of the world’s population is now ‘highly vulnerable’ to the impacts of the climate crisis and at least 85% of people have been impacted by anthropogenic climate change. This crisis is threatening to cut the world economy by $23 Trillion in 2050, while the global cost of adapting to these climate impacts is projected to increase to $280-500 billion per year by 2050.

However, despite the rising costs of the climate crisis, concern seems to be shrinking with fewer than half of respondents in a recent global survey believing that climate change poses a ‘very serious threat’. Alongside a shrinking individual concern, public confidence in institutions to act on climate change is extremely low with one survey of 10 countries finding that only 21% of people rated local governments as being highly committed to environmental action. This figure was even lower for national governments (17%) and corporations (13%).

The Limits of Individual Action 

Even in regions where concern for the climate crisis is relatively high, research has shown that very few people are willing or able to significantly change their lifestyles to become more environmentally friendly. From a cost of living crisis and political instability to armed conflict and pandemics, for many people making sustainable choices is the furthest thing from their minds. Many others simply do not agree with making changes to their lifestyle or view those changes as being too hard or simply unnecessary.

A 2021 Kantar Public survey of 10 countries (including the UK, Germany, New Zealand and the US) found that, while 62% of people saw the climate crisis as the main environmental challenge the world was now facing, only 36% of respondents rated themselves as being ‘highly committed’ to preserving the planet. Analysis of these results showed that even among those who are concerned about the climate crisis, the actions that are being prioritised are often those which are already part of their routine, 46% of respondents feeling that there was no real need for them to change their personal habits.

These results illustrate what climate scientists have been shouting about for decades, that putting the responsibility of climate action on individuals will not solve this systemic problem. There will always be a limit to what individuals can and are willing to do on their own. To catalyse real change we need collective action and meaningful action from powerful institutions.

The Importance of Brave Leadership 

The Kantar Public survey found that while many people are unwilling to make further lifestyle changes, 76% of respondents said that they would accept stricter environmental rules and regulations. This demonstrates that, to truly tackle this monumental crisis we need top-down policies that facilitate climate action that is accessible and affordable for everyone.

While much of the responsibility for catalysing climate action lies with national governments and multinational groups, organisations across the private, public and third sectors have the power to take leadership decisions. From workplaces helping employees to make sustainable choices and local authorities taking bold climate action, to every organisation reaching net zero and lobbying for change at a national level, it is time to utilise our collective local power to catalyse and demand change.

Often these changes mean steering away from a “Business as Usual” approach. This can be a worrying prospect for those in charge of organisational budgets or who are worried about re-election. However, not only are these changes vital in tackling climate change, they have the power to usher in new ways of living and working that will benefit both human and planetary health.

Climate leadership; case studies
Across the world, organisations are taking bold climate action. By taking brave leadership not only do organisations help to reduce their emissions but they inspire change, start conversations and use their power to help make climate-friendly choices easier for everyone. The following case studies are a tiny snapshot of some of the pioneering work going on across the world.

Transport
Transport is a hugely ‘sticky’ source of emissions. This means that, while the transport sector is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, it is also one of the slowest to take action. This is a key sector where systemic change is needed to help make greener transport more accessible for everyone. There are a plethora of case studies where organisations have used their power to facilitate greener travel.

Reducing business flights and giving time off for ‘slow travel’ 
Air travel is one of the greatest contributors to carbon emissions yet there has been little meaningful action to make the industry more sustainable. Alternative modes of travel are often prohibitively expensive meaning, once again, that people are forced into unsustainable choices.

Reducing business flights and giving time off for ‘slow travel’ are two examples of brave and innovative policies being deployed in some organisations. By cutting business flights or banning short-haul business flights, and giving extra days of paid leave if employees choose to take the train rather than fly on holiday, organisations are using their platforms to facilitate and normalise sustainable travel.

Making active travel the easiest choice 

Shifting away from a culture of driving has proved to be one of the hardest challenges for local authorities across the world. Restricting the use of cars and installing active travel infrastructure has been hugely controversial in recent decades and in some cases, public backlash has meant that active travel infrastructure has had to be removed. Despite these challenges, local authorities across the world have taken bold action not only to reduce the use of private vehicles but to make active travel easy and safe for everyone.

A number of cities have banned non-residential cars from driving through the city centre. Madrid for example has banned cars entirely from 500 acres of its city centre and is redesigning 24 of its city centre streets for easy walking. Another example is Copenhagen which is home to the largest car-free zone in Europe and, since the 1960s, has installed more than 321 km of bike routes. Over half of the city’s population now cycle to work and the city is building a ‘superhighway’ of 28 routes for bikes that will connect the city to its surrounding suburban areas.

Other examples of cities taking bold action to facilitate active travel include Bogotá, which has been nicknamed the cycling capital of South America, and the Finish city of Oulu, which is pioneering a model for all-year-round cycling.

Energy & retrofit 

The war in Ukraine, combined with a growing climate crisis has thrown the importance of energy sovereignty into the spotlight. While this can be a technically complex and potentially expensive area of action for organisations to tackle, there has never been a more important time to tackle energy security.

District heating systems 

Copenhagen’s district heating system was set up in 1984 and today heats 98% of the city with clean, reliable and affordable heating. 30% of the city’s annual heating demand is covered by surplus heat from waste incineration, contributing to a circular economy, while the remaining production is from geothermal energy and fuels such as wood pellets, straw, natural gas, and oil.

In the UK, as of March 2022, there were about 2,000 district heat networks (mostly in urban areas), as well as thousands more community heat systems for institutions including hospitals and universities. These networks make up just two per cent of total UK heat demand however, by 2030, according to the Committee on Climate Change, this could rise to 32%, with 42% possible by 2050. Examples include district heating systems in Woking, Sheffield, Nottingham and Aberdeen.

Solar energy
While the failure of some council-backed solar energy projects in recent years has caused alarm for some, the reality is that solar energy provides huge potential for energy security.

One example of a local authority taking bold action to increase solar capacity is Plymouth City Council, which is working with Plymouth Energy Community to develop a community-owned solar farm on the site of an old landfill. Covering 17.8 hectares the Chelson Meadow Community Solar project is set to power 3,800 homes, save 3,330 tonnes of carbon per year, create 9 full-time jobs, generate £3.5 million for local projects over the next 30 years and improve local biodiversity by 25%.

Cities across Europe are also investing in solar. One example of this is Freiburg in Germany which has 150,000 m² of solar cells, panels, and arrays – on rooftops and properties – producing over 10 million kWh/year. In some neighbourhoods homes produce more energy than they consume which not only reduces energy bills but allows residents to sell energy back to the grid.

Domestic retrofit 

The scale of the retrofitting challenge can sometimes feel overwhelming, particularly in the UK where our homes are some of the leakiest in Europe. However, not only will retrofitting help to reduce emissions and energy costs, but these changes have the capacity to drastically improve people’s health and wellbeing.

Norway is home to the most energy-efficient homes in Europe. In a country where temperatures drop down to -20, home insulation standards have been in place since the Second World War and homes are generally very well insulated. The country also has the most heat pumps per capita with 604 heat pumps installed for every 1,000 households.

Circular economy

Amsterdam aims to become the world’s first circular city. Utilising Doughnut Economics, the city focuses on reducing and reusing materials across three value chains: Food and organic waste streams, Consumer goods and the Built environment. The city’s Circular Amsterdam strategy projects that the implementation or material reuse strategies has the potential to create €85 million of value per year within the construction sector and €150 million of value per year with more efficient organic residual streams. These policies could also create up to 700 additional jobs in the building sector and 1200 additional jobs in the agriculture and food processing industry.

A 4-day week 

The move to a 4-day week has the potential to significantly reduce emissions. A study published in 2021 found that shifting to a 4-day week by 2025 could shrink the UK’s annual carbon footprint by 21.3% (the equivalent of taking 27 million cars off the road. This growing movement in support of a 4-day week signals a significant culture change and could revolutionise the way we work. From financial tech companies and engineering consultancies, to nonprofits and local authorities, hundreds of organisations across the UK are implementing 4-day week policies.

Comment

While taking steps to reduce your carbon footprint can be impactful and empowering, relying on individual action is not only unrealistic but lets those with the power to act off the hook.

As the case studies in this article show, brave climate leadership, lead by powerful institutions is already taking place across the world. From innovative travel policies and changes to the way we work, to facilitating active travel and improving energy security, organisations and leaders are using their power and resources to not only reduce emissions but facilitate culture change and make sustainability accessible.

With COP27 happening now and doubts being raised about its ability to catalyse change, there has never been a more important time to come together and use our collective power to demand change.



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