What’s it going to take to hit net zero by 2050 and arrest our current path towards catastrophic climate change?
Time is clearly of the essence. Our carbon budget to stay under a 1.5’C temperature rise is running out. Some analysts think there’s a good chance we’ve already used it up.
That means we need to move quickly from ambition to action. And that can’t be achieved with just a top-down process. What happens at a local level, in our towns and cities, is going to be critical.
The green transition: view it as an opportunity for change
With that in mind, we recently held a series of workshops across the UK that brought together leaders from local business and government to have their voices heard on how we can tackle climate change. Their views and insights have been brought together in our new report: Voices of Place: The Green City.
Across all the areas we visited, there was a commitment to accelerating the green transition. There was a recognition that there would be a cost associated with this. But there will be significant costs in adapting and mitigating the costs of dealing with climate change, and our wasteful habits cost both money and carbon. ‘Do nothing’ is no longer an option and so viewed over the longer term the costs of reducing our carbon emissions will be offset – the Committee on Climate Change estimates that by 2050 aggregate operating cost savings will be similar to the annual investment required to hit net zero (see Figure 5.3 of its report, ‘The Sixth Carbon Budget’).
The leaders we spoke with saw the transition as representing an opportunity for growth in their businesses and regions. We need to look beyond the short term and talk about the opportunity the green transition presents for growth in the longer term.
An opportunity for a fairer society
The opportunity isn’t just one of growth. The transition also gives us a chance to tackle inequality and address issues such as economic deprivation, poor housing and uneven access to healthcare.
If we don’t act, these imbalances will widen, as climate change disproportionally affects more deprived communities – for example, pollution tends to be higher in less affluent areas.
This won’t be straightforward though. We had some lively debates in the workshops around what trade-offs might be necessary. Are there things we simply need to stop doing for the sake of the environment that will increase social inequality? Do we have to live with that in the short-term to stop catastrophic climate change?
A joined-up approach
Working out the answers to those questions requires a more joined-up view of the problem at hand. We need to understand how an action in one area will impact another.
What we’re talking about here is taking a systems thinking approach, where we analyse the connections and interactions between the parts that make up the system. If we can do that, we can avoid unintended consequences but also identify where an action can have a positive impact beyond decarbonisation.
One of the examples of this that we give in our new report is improving housing. That cuts emissions, but can also boost physical and mental health. And that reduces the burden on our NHS.
“Give us permission to act”
Essentially, we need a clearer, more coherent vision and plan on how to tackle climate change. The local businesses we spoke with were crying out for that. They want to take action but they feel frustrated by a lack of direction.
They want to be given a starting point and greater clarity over the destination. They want some no regrets actions they can take now. And they want government to cut some of the red tape that holds up initiatives. They want permission to act.
What’s needed is a framework that allows authorities, businesses and consumers to get on with the transition now, while setting out the medium and long-term actions they’ll need to take. Until we have this, we all need to give ourselves permission to act, in the name of cutting cost and waste, meeting our carbon reduction commitments and building sustainable businesses.