Sun, 14 April 2024

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Ethical and sustainable conservation can’t be achieved with endangered animals in hunters’ cross-hairs Partner content
By Earl Russell
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A complete system change is needed to save our planet

5 min read

You can’t fix broken food, energy, or economic systems – let alone environmental systems – with the practices that broke them.

A global “code red”, the “clock is ticking”, a “wake-up call”. The metaphors were flowing in response to the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest update report on the state of our planet.

But no figure of speech has the power to match the practical reality of the condition of our world. The apocalyptic fires from Greece to California, the bleached coral reefs and the rotting beds of shellfish, the flooded communities and melting permafrost.

And this was only, the IPCC concluded, 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. The changes that will come with 1.5 degrees, should we continue on our current course by at the latest 2040 or sooner, are greater on an exponential scale.

With Covid-19, we’ve all learnt about rates of exponential growth. To quote what’s said to be an old Chinese proverb, disaster lies in a pond being choked by exponential growth of lilies, and the gardener who says: “it’s only 50% covered today, I’ll deal with it tomorrow”.

So perhaps it is best to be concrete, rather than metaphoric. The carbon budget states the total amount of CO2 that can be emitted before we exceed 1.5 degrees and reach uncontainable levels of destruction far above those of today, 500 billion tons. At today’s rate of emissions, we’ll pass that in 14 years.

In 2007, 14 years ago, the first iPhone was released. British troops withdrew from Basra. Northern Rock was bailed out. It really wasn’t that long ago. Projecting into the future, that’s where we go over the edge, unless we utterly change course.

Avoiding that fate means reductions in emission of 9 per cent, year after year, starting now. At the height of Covid-19 lockdowns - when the world essentially ground to a halt - we saw reductions of around 17 per cent. That provides a sense of scale.

Business-as-usual with different technologies is not going to turn around this tide of destruction

But of course, we can’t just stop. When the world was running at full tilt nearly a billion people were regularly going hungry. As the business for building mega yachts for billionaires boomed, food banks were in high demand in the UK, while 4.3 million children lived in poverty.

A lot of the immediate reaction to the IPCC report has focused on technology. On ending the use of fossil fuels, fast, and replacing their energy with solar panels and wind turbines, the petrol and diesel cars with electric. These are things we must do in the next 10 years, that we have the technological capacity to do if we have the will. But none of that will be enough, or fast enough.

You can’t fix broken food, energy, or economic systems – let alone environmental systems – with the practices that broke them.

Greens have long been saying, “system change not climate change”. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, for as Tim Jackson showed in his book, Prosperity Not Growth, back in 2009, you can reduce the carbon intensity of GDP growth, but not decouple the two factors.

Business-as-usual with different technologies is not going to turn around this tide of destruction. The cleanest, greenest energy you can have is the energy you don’t need to use. The most energy-efficient journey is the one not made. The least polluting packaging is the packaging not used.

There’s no shortage of ideas, or demonstrations of the benefits from trials of a myriad of social innovations. For example, a universal basic income; a four-day working week as standard with no loss of pay; investment in education and skills for a healthy, productive life, not just exams and paid jobs; a caring economy with decently paid carers with time to give the cared-for the help they need; local food webs providing healthy vegetables and fruit; walking and cycling made the natural option for short journeys and public transport for longer; rewilding our countryside and letting wildflowers bloom in our urban spaces. The list could go on.

But none are operating at scale. We still have a world and a nation optimised for profit, with everything from care homes to playing fields privatised, essential workers underpaid and exploited, plastic wrap added to every conceivable object, fast fashion pushed from every computer screen.

Change, radical, tremendous, change is coming. The IPCC tells us that. It is our choice collectively, what course that takes. Uncontrolled, chaotic, massively destructive, or controlled, constructive, democratic change for people and planet.

So, if there is one metaphor that should be applied today it is “decision point”. That’s where the world is at. The IPCC has made that crystal clear.

And the UK is a key nation: it is chair of the COP26 climate talks. History won’t remember Dominic Cummings’ weird maneouvres, Liz Truss’s trade contortions, or Rishi Sunak’s snazzy Instagram branding. It will remember the outcome of COP26 and what part the UK played in its success or failure. Over to you Boris Johnson, once would-be “world king”.


Baroness Bennett is a Green Party peer.

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Read the most recent article written by Baroness Bennett - System Change, Not Climate Change: Why Business as Usual Won't Suffice