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System Change, Not Climate Change: Why Business as Usual Won't Suffice

3 min read

As the UK pledges to reach net-zero by 2050, Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle, Green Party member of the House of Lords, calls for the government to do more now in order to reach that target.

There are two problems with the government’s policy of net-zero by 2050: the ‘net’ and the ‘2050’.

First, the timing: a target 27 years into the future – to be optimistic, around six elections away – is not something anyone now in government is going to be held to account for. What we need to do is slash emissions now, and by about 1% a month to get our emissions down towards zero by the early 2030s.

Then there’s the ‘net’. I found myself agreeing with Talk TV’s Julia Hartley-Brewer (not a regular occurrence) on the subject of carbon offsets. They are a con. We need to both protect our forests, restore our soils, our seagrass meadows, our grasslands, and slash emissions from fossil fuels. They cannot be traded off.

When other parties talk about cutting emissions, they’re usually talking technology – renewable energy, electric cars, maybe circular economy and recycling. If you’re lucky energy efficiency, particularly in homes, is in there. Discussion of where the necessary resources will come from – the huge damage done, particularly to the Global South through mining – rarely gets a mention.

And, occasionally, others talk about something we need to stop doing now. Ending new fossil fuel development is a baby step – albeit crucial, as the International Energy Agency says – in the right direction. An important step would be a global agreement to slash plastics production to near zero. Ending factory farming, the food waste that uses half our arable land to produce food that goes into animals, while threatening our medical system with antibiotic resistance, is another.

Instead, what most talk about is business as usual with added technology. But as the chant goes, what we need is system change not climate change. We need the technological change, and we need social innovation: a four-day working week as standard with no loss of pay, universal basic income to provide security and certainty to allow human flourishing, and transformation of our education system so that it prepares people for life, not just exams.

The challenges of the coming decades will need vast amounts of human energy, talents, skills, and ingenuity to fix, and Britain, with its terrible standard of public health, its ‘teach to the test’ Ofsted-fearing education system, and rampant inequality, is not unleashing those possibilities.

There are enough resources on our planet for everyone to have a decent life, to restore nature and keep global warming to below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (and just look at what weather disasters 1.2°C is giving us now) if we have change in our systems, rather than just our technology.

And that has to come with an acknowledgement that climate is only one of the environmental boundaries the human race is exceeding. Seven of eight are exceeded, scientists just concluded in the prestigious journal Nature. This is a planetary emergency.

Should we face such a similar level of economic crisis we’d be seeing daily Cobra meetings, emergency legislation, and companies entirely redrawing their direction of travel. Where are they?

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