We need to stay focused on climate change to keep 1.5°C alive

5 April 2022

Just after COP26 I wrote in a blog that we cannot fix climate change if we don’t tackle consumption emissions – those caused by producing the food we eat and the products we buy.

Climate change view of two planets with a tree

This is a drum I feel we have been beating for some time, but it just doesn’t seem to have been gaining traction. It is about managing the ‘demand side’ for food and resources and thus all the carbon that goes into producing the things we need to live our lives.  If we can reduce the demand for food and manufactured products or increase the efficiency with which we use them, it makes a big difference.  The same is true for energy where we often focus too much on the decarbonising supply rather than reducing demand.  If we had invested more in insulation or brought forward new housing energy standards, we would be in a much better situation now.

At last, the message has made it into the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). One of the key findings is that consumption and exploitation of resources are the strongest drivers of CO2 emissions – more so than population growth or energy generation or lifting people out of poverty. It recognises the contribution that resource demand side measures can make – measures like:

  • Reducing food loss and waste
  • Shifting to balanced, sustainable healthy diets
  • Material efficiency
  • Enhanced recycling

This is the circular economy where we waste less and move towards sustainable consumption through longer lived repairable products.  It is a world where we recycle, repurpose, remanufacture and reuse our natural resources.

The report brings out the significant greenhouse gas reduction that can be delivered through these strategies – just as we said in our report last year, Net Zero: Why Resource Efficiency Holds the Answers.  It also brings out how cost effective these measures are compared with some of the more expensive supply side measures.  We know from our work with Champions 12.3 that reducing food loss and waste has a median payback of 14:1.

The challenge in challenging times

Person looking at bills using a calculator and laptop

Acting on these measures, which all of us can play our part in has never been more important. It would be easy to take our eye off the ball during these turbulent times – still caught in the slipstream of the Covid pandemic, and now watching in horror as war wages in Ukraine.  But, sitting above all of that are the dark clouds of climate change.

As we have been reminded this week, they’re not going away; they are gathering ominously. As the IPCC warned: “It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C…Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”

How do we reconcile these huge agendas? How can we expect the public, and businesses to face spiralling living costs and the need to pay for climate action? How do we maintain the momentum of COP26? Is it starting to recede in the rear-view mirror compared to what is immediately in our sights?

This is a challenge for all of us working in the climate action arena. We need to be sensitive to the fact that many people have to share the bandwidth they can devote to the environment with many other competing issues and concerns. It’s understandable when many decide to park it as a ‘to do’ item when other more pressing needs are focusing their minds (and wallets).

This is challenging though. At WRAP, we regularly observe the gap between intention and reality when it comes to acting on concerns for the environment. Most people will, for example, readily acknowledge that wasting food is a bad thing for all kinds of reasons; and yet the lion’s share of wasted food comes from our homes. Most will lament the impact of plastic pollution but are finding it hard to break ingrained shopping habits driven by plastic packaging.

So, we design our behaviour change programmes to take these complexities into account, to understand motivations, and focus on practical solutions – which are rooted in everyday experiences.

We can’t keep putting off climate action. Time is no longer a luxury we have.

We need to talk about climate change

So, those of us working on this agenda have to work closely with partners across the political and ideological divide, with public engagement specialists, communicators, academics, grassroots organisations who have links into all levels of society. To keep climate change in people’s minds and make the science relevant and applicable to everyday lives.

We need to reframe the narrative. A climate friendly way of life doesn’t have to be one which limits choices, freedoms or enjoyment. In fact, climate friendly consequences can stem from other motivations, such as saving money, being healthier, alleviating poverty and tackling gender discrimination. Those interconnections are important so that people see and value the benefits of living differently and are inspired to change.

It is admittedly a difficult balance to recognise immediate concerns whilst maintaining the pressure and attention needed before the narrow window of opportunity closes for good. But is one we have to get right. It is not either/or.

Climate change cannot become part of the battle lines drawn between ideologies, generations or even countries. It is bigger than that. But not bigger than all of us. There is huge public support, but we can’t take this for granted. We have to avoid climate action retreating to the fringes and keep it front and centre of all our lives and decisions.