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Climate change – emergency, extinction or progress?

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  • Picture of Joss Tantram FRSA
    Joss Tantram FRSA
    A passion for a sustainable, equitable future - and finding our way there.
  • Environment
  • Fellowship

Some urgency has been translated into ambitious public policy commitments but is there still too great a gap between words and action? Are we moving fast enough and with the ambition we require to deliver a world where global temperature stays with the 1.5° Celsius limit?

Extinction inertia... or are signals getting through?

We now appear to have a steady growth in public concern about the dangers of climate change, as evidenced by the activities of Extinction Rebellion and regular school climate strikes across the world. Adults and children alike are asserting their reasonable expectation to grow up and live in a functioning, liveable world.

In partial response, we have seen recent announcements from the UK and Japanese governments committing themselves to net zero carbon emissions by 2050; these announcements have hit the headlines and have hopefully added some momentum to the growing calls to consider climate change as a clear and present danger.

Both these government commitments have flaws, especially around the lack of clarity in the plans and pathways to decarbonisation, as well as the extent to which they rely on as yet unproven or scalable technologies such as carbon capture and storage. Denmark's new government has just joined in - and raised the game - committing the country to a faster decarbonation pathway, to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030, as well as a target of 100% by 2040. Denmark sees such commitments as an innovation and growth opportunity, perhaps helped by being the home of the world's biggest wind turbine maker, Vestas, and the worlds biggest operator of offshore wind generation, Orsted.

Keeping the home fires burning

There can, however, be a lack of joined up thinking. For example, in 2018, the UK government proposed reducing or removing the requirement for fracking firms to seek planning permission or conduct environmental impact assessments. Another seemingly contradictory action from the UK government is the recent announcement by UK Tax authorities that they intend, in October 2019, to increase the VAT for new solar and storage products from 5% to 20%, while allowing VAT to remain at 5% for coal sold as a fuel for domestic use.

The regional picture

On 20th June, the European Union announced the release of a new framework to help firms measure and disclose climate risks and impacts. The 'EU Taxonomy' is a tool to support companies and investors in identifying economic activities widely considered to be 'green' that can be implemented without unintended negative consequences elsewhere in the environment or society. It is also intended to drive the measurement and disclosure of climate related performance.

The costs of inaction - to divest or not?

So, some change is taking place, some commitments have been made, and the public discourse on climate change seems to be shifting in favour of acceptance and the need for leadership and change.

However: is the change fast or far reaching enough and will it deliver the viable future that humanity needs?

One big area of focus has been on the idea that real change in responding to climate change requires a reconsideration of what we value and where, as a society we put our money.

If we are going to achieve radical change in cutting climate emissions, then certain types of activity are simply not fit for purpose. Some sectors of the economy, historically those considered to be "safe" investments in terms of their steady financial performance, such as coal, oil and natural gas, would have to be seen in a different light.

If our future economy is going to be zero carbon, then those technologies and energy sources which we will need to depend upon, will need to be very different, and we need to reform our concepts of value to consider that sustainable technologies will be the ones which are valuable over the long term.

Two recent stories reflect this value shift:

  1. In July, the RSA committed to divesting its holdings in fossil fuels, as part of a wider global movement to move to sustainable energy production. To date, over 1,000 organisations have committed to divestment.
  2. In contrast, the penalties of holding on to what are increasingly being considered as "stranded assets" has been highlighted recently; this came about via news that the world's biggest investment manager, BlackRock, has lost around $90billion over the last 10 years through the underperformance of its holdings in oil, gas and coal companies.

Velocity and direction of change

It is, of course, rather easy to simply criticise a lack of action, or to say that action is too slow or lacking in ambition. Rapid changes in systems do take place but they are often unpredictable and usually give rise to unintended consequences.

So how do we speed up the transition needed?

Action is needed by all players, government, civil society, citizens and companies. Companies need to become corporate activists for a sustainable future. Investors need to start to re-orientate their holdings towards the sustainable technologies which will underpin our sustainable future.

For institutions such as the RSA, engaging in the climate debate and the need for rapid and radical change in policy and behaviour fits with our mission to take a multidisciplinary, innovation driven approach to social and economic change. As noted in the RSA's initiative "The Seven Dimensions of Climate Change", climate change is not just an environmental issue; tackling it requires education, social change, an understanding of human psychology and behaviour as well as changes in legal frameworks and the approach and tone of public discourse.

Complex problems require complex solutions. Embracing and understanding that complexity, as well as recognising and responding to the rising tide of public concern with a rapidly changing climate places the RSA at the heart of building hope and action for a sustainable future.

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  • Or maybe we are all looking in the wrong place - remember that "if what we are seeking is behind us, looking twice as hard in front doesn't help". 


    In this case, the fundamental problem is that there is too much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere NOW. How and why it got there is 'interesting'. But what's important is how to fix the problem - to which there is but one answer: the excess greenhouse gas MUST BE EXTRACTED. So reducing emissions to net zero is good, for it slows down the rate at which the problem is getting worse. But the only way to solve the problem is by developing technologies to supplement photosynthesis and help what James Lovelock calls "the living pump" to pump harder. 


    Here is a quotation from the Royal Society's 2009 report "Geoengineering the Climate" (https://royalsociety.org/~/media/royal_society_content/policy/publications/2009/8693.pdf ):

    “Carbon dioxide removal techniques address the root cause of climate change by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere”

    and another from their 2018 report "Greenhouse gas removal" (https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/projects/greenhouse-gas-removal/royal-society-greenhouse-gas-removal-report-2018.pdf):

     "...it is increasingly clear that reducing emissions is not enough – we must also actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere...” 


    See also this RSA blog, https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-comment/2016/reducing-emissions-a-good-thing-but-not-the-right-thing/, and this too, https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/7c5491_ac07094be50b433dae3bff83f493b34f.pdf.



  • I'd like to build on the post from Paul Pritchard. Where is the leadership from the RSA on the climate crisis? Are we engaged or not? I struggle to see it in practice. It might appear to be picking at small things but whats on the menu at Rawthmills? Are we as as our commission on food and farming recognised  "Healthy food is every body’s business Healthier and life-enhancing diets mean more and better fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses, less and better meat and dairy, with livestock products coming from climate and nature-friendly production, with zero food waste, and rebuilding our connections with food producers and with each other."? Seems to me we are stuck in the commercial paradigm with a vegetarian option the only concession.

  • Politicians promising to achieve targets 50 years from now is not progress. It's an attempt to convince electorates that the problem is being tackled, when it's not.

    We need to be more scared and worry more about the legacy we leave for future generations. More scenario planning please as what the impacts will be on people's lives if present trends continue. 

    Humans are competitive and acquisitive. We consume resources like nothing else. So measures are needed to start to reduce population significantly.

    Somehow we require more international co-operation with more emphasis on environmental objectives and less on economic metrics. Where do the major religions stand on this issue? 

    I agree with Joss's call for action but how do we get the motivation and sense of urgency to do it?

  • Good piece, but I wonder about the reticent around saying we need to view fossil fuels 'in a different light' when the reality is we have to manage and plan their retirement completely.  We need to be honest and upfront about the inadequacy of 'win-win' approaches in a way that for example a 'Just Transition' approach does. The latter recognises that we have to retire the carbon energy system - and all its knock on effects in electricity, food, transportation- but does put front and centre the need to compensate/retrain/relocate etc. and most importantly give voice to and work with those communities  who will be displaced, unemployed etc.

  • Joss, thank you for this thoughtful post, I have shared it with folks on LinkedIn, perhaps merely to stimulate both hope and action (about 100 views so far), it's nice to read a short climate risk message that doesnt duck the underlying complexity at hand and which encourages all facets of society and capital markets to act as one in addressing the threat. Cheers // Ian     

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