Greening your life is all very well – but only a global climate strategy will fix this

(The Guardian, 23 Aug 2019) The blaze in the Amazon shows the need for a green Marshall plan to allow poorer parts of the world to benefit from low-carbon tech.

Judging by the latest opinion polls, the public is ripe for some green austerity. Ipsos Mori says that 85% of Britons are concerned about climate change, with 52% admitting they are very concerned. These are the highest figures since the pollster started tracking opinion in 2005. Given the spate of extreme weather-related events, and the pictures of the torching of the Amazon rainforest, such concern is both logical and predictable. In this country, the climate deniers have been put to flight.

What the polls don’t show is whether the public is willing to translate this concern into action; whether similar levels of concern are present in less prosperous parts of the world; and whether it is possible to translate individual concerns into collective political action. Here, the message is a lot more mixed. The furore over the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s private jets are a case in point. People don’t like being lectured to, particularly when those doing the lecturing fail to live by their own ethical code.

Emmanuel Macron wants the future of the Amazon rainforest to be top of the agenda at the meeting of the G7 he is hosting this weekend in Biarritz, but this is an empty gesture. There is not the remotest possibility of the G7 doing anything to rein in the activities of Brazil’s rightwing president, Jair Bolsonaro. Indeed, Macron’s own experience shows how hard it is to translate a desire to curb carbon emissions into practical action. The French president said making driving more expensive was a price worth paying in the fight against global heating but faced nationwide protests from the yellow vest movement. For the gilets jaunes, the immediate threat to their livelihoods mattered more than the long-term threat posed by the climate crisis.

What Macron failed to grasp was that winning this battle first means winning the battle for hearts and minds, not least by countering the impression that tackling global heating is a luxury only the better off can afford or that going green means being miserable. The success of the UK’s 5p plastic bag levy is a classic example of how nudge economics can work. Plastic bags have not been banned: consumers simply have to think about whether they are actually prepared to pay for one. The message is that consumers respond to signals: it is not always necessary to ban things.

Despite receiving a bloody nose, Macron is right when he says the climate crisis is a global problem requiring a global response. But securing international agreement is not going to be easy, in the main because the biggest increases in emissions are coming from countries where governments put a higher priority on poverty reduction than they do on safeguarding the environment.

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The Guardian, 23 Aug 2019: Greening your life is all very well – but only a global climate strategy will fix this