Individuals and societies are waking up to climate change
As the dust settles from last week’s much-discussed United Nations Climate Action Summit, the most remarkable ensuing climate news has little to do with the activities in New York. The summit followed a predictable path, with a mix of encouraging country and private sector pronouncements and a conspicuous silence from many large emitters. Seventy-seven countries, 10 regions, and 100 cities committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The United States, Australia, and Brazil, on the other hand, were absent from the stage. Instead, the unexpected and inspiring news is ancillary to the summit.
We are witnessing a global wave of climate strikes that are demanding more action on the climate emergency. The largest of these had six million people, from countries around the world, who united in their message momentarily erased the diplomatic boundaries between developed and developing nations, which have long beset the international climate negotiations. The images spanning Jakarta, Nairobi, Mexico City, Sao Paulo – and closer to home in Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata – are striking, not least because these are cities with multiple development challenges and seemingly more immediate priorities (jobs, electricity, housing), as opposed to the more abstract and longer-term concerns of climate change. But the clear message from this growing public sentiment is that protecting the environment is no longer an issue for the future, nor is it one which is solely salient in UN corridors. Rather, it has pressing effects on everyday lives. Could this shift mean we are moving towards a tipping point in how climate actions are undertaken?
The reason it is important to ask this question is that tackling the climate crisis is not a task for heads of countries alone. In fact, any success towards the global temperature 2°Celsius target, laid out in the Paris Agreement, is inextricably dependent on how actions towards this goal will filter down from nations to cities, households, and individuals. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1.5°C report states, there are only two pathways to achieve the global temperature target: One, by drastically reducing global energy demand; or two, by the use of negative emission technologies (including bio-energy with carbon capture and storage), which reduce carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. While the latter technologies are almost entirely in the demonstration phase without being available at scale, the former option – reduction in energy demand – is both technologically feasible and cost-effective. The catch, however, is that it requires untangling the complex ways in which energy consumption is embedded in our daily lives.
The majority of energy services are used within four broad categories. These are in buildings, transportation, food, and commodities. The provision of services within each of these areas is core to a better quality of life, which is important for regions starting from a low base of development. At the same time, the scale of current and future energy consumption poses difficult challenges for climate change because of its trade-offs with higher greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, cooling, especially from air conditioners, is expected to grow exponentially to require the equivalent of all electricity demand in the US and Germany today. Reducing energy demand, thereby, requires a fundamental examination of our everyday consumption patterns, and in turn, of our lifestyles and underlying social norms. Changing these is arguably a more difficult task than an ostensible technological fix to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Yet, simultaneously, the opportunity to tackle climate change by focusing on energy demand also locates the solution space within our everyday lives. The use of energy efficient appliances, reduced meat consumption, public transport use, and the reduction of waste, are key examples. These solutions are even more relevant for emerging economies, where most of the infrastructure – which shapes preferences – is yet to be built. For instance, net-zero architectural designs or the availability of reliable public transit can significantly reduce, and even remove, the need for energy consumption for lighting, thermal comfort, and private vehicles.
The latest science tells us that we are already at 1.1°C of warming, and at the current rate, the earth is 15-20 years away from reaching 1.5°C. Halting temperature increase well below 2°C at this stage will require a range of solution pathways. Within this set, demand-side options are well understood and widely available. But their uptake and acceptability is difficult because they require more than technological shifts, and instead, call for a transition in our material realities and deeply embedded individual behaviours. Perhaps the most heartening message from the recent climate news is that as individuals and societies we are beginning to recognise that tackling the climate emergency is one in which we can all play a part.As geographer Mike Hulme has succinctly said, climate change is not so much a discrete problem to be solved as it is a condition under which human beings are to make choices about the way we live and govern ourselves.
Radhika Khosla is research director, Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development, and senior researcher, Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford.
The views expressed are personal