When BBC journalist Andrew Marr interviewed America’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry about how the US plans to tackle climate change, the politician explained the public ‘don’t have to give up a quality of life to achieve some of the things we know we have to achieve.’ Kerry also said scientists told him that 50% of the carbon emissions reductions needed to get to net zero by 2050 are going to come from technologies that are not yet available – an assertion that was quickly brought into question by scientists. On watching the interview, our specialist in the climate and ecological emergency Alex Massie explained that Kerry is missing a very important trick if US climate policies will be designed to protect our current lifestyles and consumption habits, pointing him instead towards the golden geese currently available.

Behaviour Change and Tech – We Need Both

Alex said: “I agree with some of the points made in John Kerry’s interview – technology is one of the tools we need to adapt to a new climate and prevent accelerated climate change. However, I understand from developing climate emergency strategies for local government and through our review of carbon reduction approaches for the Environment Agency that to make this work, instead of focusing entirely on our annual carbon emissions, it’s really important we talk about the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Anything that kicks the can down the road puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and makes our challenges bigger. Even if we do line up, and I have no doubt we will, some fantastic tech, we need to do what we can now to make sure the problem does not grow to a size that makes it impossible for technology to succeed. Part of this groundwork is governments investing in the infrastructure that will change the environment and our lifestyles for the better now.

The Golden Geese

“The ‘quality of life’ John Kerry talks about us keeping is actually not that good for a lot of the West. Interconnected environmental and social problems are significant – in 2019, 10.46 million children lived in poverty in the US, and 4.3 million children lived in poverty in the UK in 2020. There are an estimated 40 million US adults suffering from an anxiety disorder each year. Air pollution is said to cause up to 40,000 early deaths every year in the UK, while physical inactivity is responsible for 1 in 6 deaths. Are these aspects of our lives that we really want to protect? We have a chance to reframe the climate crisis as a climate opportunity. Governments can set policies which lead to change – improving both our environment but also transforming the quality of everyone’s lives for the better. Take fifteen-minute-neighbourhoods for example, a concept that Anne Hidalgo has championed as Mayor of Paris, these are neighbourhoods where you can access everything by walking or cycling, while remaining buses and cars are electrified. Streets like this are healthier, attractive, and more economically resilient. When it comes to energy, a point of focus in Kerry’s interview, insulating homes reduces fuel poverty, associated public health problems, and pressure on the grid. Social justice is an important part of the conversation on climate and there are policies that simultaneously reduce carbon emissions whilst also contribute to solving some of society’s most troubling problems.

Consumption and a Circular Economy

“The right environmental policies and infrastructure that lead to behaviour change do not just offer an opportunity to improve public health and social justice, the economic opportunity is enormous –policy makers looking to understand the size of this opportunity should look at the benefits of a circular economy. Research indicates that if businesses were to move from an approach based on extracting the earth’s finite resources to one where the consumption of raw materials is reduced, and those used are kept in circulation for longer (the principle of a circular economy) this will have a positive effect on employment, and make businesses more resilient. Governments can use policy mechanisms like Environmental Fiscal Reform – raising taxes on things we want less of, like pollution, and lowering them on things we want more of, like employment – to achieve this.

“Yes, invest in tech John Kerry, but please can we talk about the opportunity for positive change available to us through policies which provide different infrastructure and consumption habits? These will lay the groundwork for keeping both the climate and society human-friendly, and it is highly likely technology will have to ‘finish the job’.

Featured image: Nastya Dulhiier via Unsplash (Unsplash license)