England & Wales Climate action and sustainable development

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone

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LGiU’s Kim Fellows blogs about climate change and what retailers, citizens and governments at all levels can do to tackle it – and why haven’t we done anything until now?

When Joni Mitchell wrote about visiting Hawaii nearly 50 years ago I don’t think anyone would have predicted that particular song would resonate over the next 5 decades.

Climate change has been in the news so much over those five decades, peaking in the last five to ten years, that those of us over 50 tend to forget that we have been eco-conscious for a very long time, but the sad fact is we are still consuming like there is no tomorrow, as if we have infinite resources. Yes, as part of the baby boomer generation, I am a lucky person: I went to university when you still got a grant, and as the first person in my family to go to university I do feel blessed that I was able to benefit from a welfare state that supported social mobility. However, baby boomers collectively seem to have failed to both grasp and do something about the climate emergency. We protested, from Greenham common, CND marches, anti-fracking to Extinction Rebellion but how on earth have we got to the point that the UN Climate action summit on 23rd September 2019 is billed as  “the defining issue of our time”. Why haven’t we as a society tackled this issue yet?

Sustainable development and climate change have been “defining issues” for years. I worked with Jonathon Porritt when he was part of Forum for the Future and it is often forgotten that he was an eco warrior with Friends of the Earth before becoming a government advisor. Jonathon Porritt is quoted as saying “we are never going to scare people into living sustainably. We have to be able to demonstrate just how dynamic and aspirational such a world can be.”  Perhaps there is a clue in that quote. Every headline you read about climate change is negative, so who is offering this positive vision?

When working at Scottish Government one of my jobs was to embed sustainable development into all government policy, the so-called green thread. Now that was a challenge. I sat alongside the climate change policy team and we worked together. I think on reflection it is difficult in national and local government to persuade politicians and officers to make difficult policy decisions with long term outcomes, within finite budgets. The short term pressure of the media and public spotlight is on delivering services today and everyday. How do you support farmers, jobs and rural communities and say by the way, farm less meat? This is a topic we cover in our new briefing Cut the Bull.

However, as Jack McConnell, the then First Minister of Scotland demonstrated in banning smoking in public places there comes a point when, brave political decision making and leadership, supported by an evidence base, is the right thing to do and the voting public are ready for that move. The UK Government quickly followed suit and banned smoking in public places.

This did not happen overnight. I heard Sir Richard Doll, world-renowned epidemiologist, talk about the evidence for smoking related harm back in the 70s.

At the risk of being positive it is my opinion that there are some clues emerging that now is the time for enacting climate change policy, putting it at the heart of economic development and the UK public agree, judging by recent opinion pieces and surveys. It is now the time to show brave leadership to tackle all aspects of climate change from travel through to energy, transportation, food, buildings, biodiversity, flooding and emissions. Moving from a self denying “make do and mend”, to reduce and reuse being not only the right thing to do, but also the fashionable, thrifty and fun thing to do, for example Instagram stars who promote fashion and beauty must now have products that are sustainable. I am further encouraged that the public is ready to take personal responsibility for tackling this issue especially since David Attenborough highlighted the plastic pollution issue. In my view the Blue Planet effect is the tipping point built on years of green campaigning. It was even more heartening to read that one of the big UK retailers, under pressure from consumers, will introduce refillable packaging to cut plastic waste and stop packaging entering into the supply chain. It is great because whilst we as individuals can do our bit, the impact is amplified when big corporations and their suppliers play their part.

Many councils are demonstrating their leadership role and have already declared a climate emergency, and are consulting and planning to make significant changes, facing up to taking brave decisions. LG has a vital role to play in leading their communities to a low carbon future. I hope you enjoy the briefings on climate change and we will follow up after the summit with further information.

Until then, let’s not put all the trees in a tree museum.