I have previously raised here concerns that the Government’s commitment to the carbon reduction agenda has been showing signs of wavering. The harsh reality is that political leaders can only go as far as their electorates will allow.
That is why grass roots campaigns like the recent Catch the Bus Week are so important. More than 100 bus companies, local authorities, PTEs and passenger groups across the UK took part in Catch the Bus Week – generating over 150 pieces of positive media coverage for the bus and a significant uplift in new bus users. The campaign even reached MPs, many of whom ran their local surgeries on buses during the week in a wonderful example of politicians and their constituents finding common cause.
Tackling the UK’s dependence on car travel will be crucial to achieving an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Cars produce 60% of domestic transport emissions, which as a sector is responsible for nearly a quarter of all emissions in the UK. And modal shift campaigns are a very real and tangible way to engage the general public on the need to reduce emissions. Taking public transport is very often cited in surveys as one of the main ways in which people can “do their bit for the environment”.
For real and lasting change to occur, however, it is important that Government works with businesses and the general public to develop a supportive framework for collective progress. This is the central message of one of the best reports ever produced on the subject I will if you will by the National Consumer Council and the (sadly now defunct) Sustainable Development Commission. The report highlighted the key “triangle of change” – People, Business and Government. Each of these three groups have a distinct but equally vital role to play in carbon reduction, and they profoundly influence each other.
Looking at the other corners of the “triangle of change”, the business community has shown some encouraging signs of leadership, helped no doubt by the framework created by Government through the 2008 Climate Change Act. In 2008 the UK was a world leader in tackling the problem, with strong cross party consensus and only five MPs voting against the Act. This set an example for other nations across the world, gave the UK considerable weight in international negotiations and importantly created the right framework and incentives for businesses to take action.
Inevitably some businesses have made more progress than others. The Carbon Trust has identified eight exemplar companies which are leading the way in helping to reduce carbon admissions, British Land, BSkyB, BT, Diageo, Kingfisher Group, Tesco, M&S and Unilever – each with detailed and measurable targets that set them apart. And there are other good exemplars: Apple aims to buy 100% of its power from renewable sources; and Ikea is pumping $4billion into green energy.
Shareholder pressure is increasingly forcing even the less enthusiastic companies to publish details of their environmental impact and vulnerability to green regulation. In March of this year, for example, Exxon Mobil became the first oil giant to commit to publishing details of its “stranded assets” – the value of oil and gas fields that it might not be able to exploit if there were a high carbon price or tougher rules on greenhouse gas emissions.
There is no doubt that progress has been made, but there is much further to go. We urgently need our political leaders to find a new way to engage with the public on this issue. Carbon reduction needs to be part of the mainstream. Currently it is still in a category called “green” and not automatically connected to jobs and growth.
In a speech last year to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, John Ashton CBE, one of the world’s top climate diplomats and founder of Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G), stressed that none of our main political parties is yet serious enough about climate change. He urged them to build a conversation with the country about what climate change means in relation to our values, our history and the choices we face as a country. He made the crucial point that “you can’t transform a country by stealth. It requires consent and in a democracy that means an explicit political choice”.
Campaigns like “Catch the Bus Week” have an important role to play not only in engaging people on the need for carbon reduction, and encouraging them to make more sustainable travel choices, but also in urging Government to revive its commitment to this agenda.