SUSTAINABILITY

Common-sense Solutions

to our Climate and Nature Crises

January 6, 2021

 

By Neil Kitching

IMAGE: Neil Kitching

In this article, Neil Kitching, Geographer and Energy Specialist, talks about his motivations to write a book on the common-sense solutions to our climate and nature crises; then discusses his views on eco-tourism and sustainable travel.

 

 

 

 

Taking full advantage of the spare time made available to me by lockdown, I wrote Carbon Choices.  It tells the most remarkable story on planet Earth.  How one group of sociable animals came to emit 40 billion tonnes (40,000,000,000) of an invisible gas each year, changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and the oceans, and steadily destroying the environment and life support systems that we depend on.  We have unwittingly driven the world into a climate and biodiversity crisis by the endless extraction of raw materials and our excessive consumption - primarily by wealthier people and countries.

 

With a focus on Scotland, host of COP26 – the next big international climate negotiations - this book also looks at international examples of good and bad practice.  It reflects personal social and business related experiences from trips to Greenland, India, Morocco, Lapland, Botswana and Namibia.

 

Writing Carbon Choices arose from a frustration that people and businesses are still unaware of the basic facts around climate change and its serious implications.  Incorporating nature loss into the book is ambitious, but necessary, as nature is integral to climate change and wildlife is fragile.  This book was instigated by my alarm that society is still not taking these issues seriously despite the science being increasingly more certain and the warnings becoming more alarming.  The announcement of the United Nation’s climate conference in Glasgow in 2020 (rescheduled to November 2021) catalysed me into writing urgently.  My knowledge and experience has been gained from studying geography, a qualification in accountancy followed by a career change to Sustainable Development Policy then to Energy Specialist – supporting the business environment and innovation for heat and water technologies.

 

We all know and understand that the use of electricity, driving, flying and heating our homes drives our carbon emissions. But the four ‘hidden’ elephants in the room are our excessive consumerism including fast fashion, our dietary demands including beef and dairy, society’s use of cement and concrete, and the refrigerant gases and energy used for cooling.  Arguably travel and tourism is part of that ‘excessive consumerism’; certainly food experiences is a key component of tourism, concrete is used in huge quantities to build a seemingly never-ending string of hotels often along coastlines whilst hotels use a significant amount of energy for refrigeration and air conditioning.

 

 

IMAGE: Neil Kitching

Carbon Choices explores the impact of humans – population and consumption – and the reasons why it is so difficult to tackle climate change.  Why does our society still choose to subsidise fossil fuel?  Why do we destroy nature?  Why don’t we act on what the scientists tell us? Knowledge is the first step to action. Although not a science book, the effects of climate change are summarised, including the dangerous tipping points that may change our world for ever.

 

Perhaps in an ideal world business would only offer us 'green' choices, but in the meantime how can consumers hope to make sensible choices if manufacturers, retailers and service providers do not inform us of the environmental impact of their products?  To tackle this, ten building blocks are identified; including sensible economics, regulations, design, innovation, investment, education and behaviour change.

 

These ten building blocks are the foundations to help us build a low carbon economy that works in harmony with nature.  Without these in place, tackling climate change is at best, an uphill battle.  Those who try to be ‘green’ find there are obstacles - we need to clear these.  Governments can then set the policy direction and sensible regulations, businesses can respond and provide innovative low carbon products and services, and consumers will have the knowledge to make better carbon choices.

 

The book then introduces five common-sense principles which government, business and consumers can use as a guide to make better decisions.

 

  1. Be fair across current and future generations
  2. Price carbon pollution
  3. Consume carefully, travel wisely
  4. Embrace efficiency, avoid waste
  5. Nurture nature

 

By applying these principles to our daily lives – our diets, homes, travel, shopping and leisure activities - we can regenerate nature and improve our society, make us healthier, happier and lead more fulfilled lives.

 

Our carbon intensive lifestyles can be divided into three categories.

 

  • Emissions that new technology can tackle with little impact on our behaviour such as electric cars and the change from burning coal to renewable sources to generate our electricity.  These are the easy emissions to tackle.
  • Emissions that inevitably result from the physical infrastructure which society has built over decades and from the financial structure of subsidies and taxes which government places on goods and services.  For example, building out of town shopping centres inevitably leads to more road traffic whilst subsidies for fossil fuels result in excessive use.  In effect the system and the available infrastructure constrain our choices.  It takes time, normally decades to change these.
  • Emissions where our individual choices can make an immediate difference.  For example, we can choose what goods we buy, what diet we eat and whether to fly long distances although we are influenced by peer pressure.  In these areas, behaviour change and psychology are important.

 

Now consider each of these three categories for the tourism sector.  Accommodation providers and tourist attractions can reduce or eliminate their own emissions through investing in energy efficiency and on-site renewable energy.  This will not impact on the visitor.  The shift to electric vehicles may have a minor impact on behaviour, such as longer coffee breaks whilst the recharges, but overall will not fundamentally affect the tourism experience.

 

Infrastructure, such as new railway lines for business and leisure visitors, will take decades to build or upgrade even if society chooses to do so.  Subsidies and taxes can be changed quickly but this rarely happens.  Subsidies could be directed to accelerate the shift to electric vehicles (e.g. to set up rural recharge points) whilst taxes could be applied to polluting industries such as aviation, and cement which would perhaps shift the construction industry to use more wood in construction.

 

But perhaps, tourism, more than most other aspects of our lives is an area where individual choices do make a difference.  How far we travel, how frequently we travel, how we travel, where we choose to stay, what we choose to do.  Counter-intuitively a family holiday in a large energy efficient purpose built hotel spending the time sunbathing at the beach is likely to be a lower carbon choice than staying in a large, detached “eco-lodge” in the countryside, perhaps with an outdoor hot tub.  Despite its energy efficiency credentials, such accommodation often forces the user to travel by car every day.  The choice of activities is also important.  Almost all activities involving motorised boats are carbon intensive whether that is water-skiing or even wildlife watching cruises.

 

And behaviour change is not just about the visitor. Hotels and restaurants can make a large impact on their carbon emissions by offering good quality vegetarian and vegan food options.  Serving local food is certainly good for local communities and the local economy but may not have a large impact on carbon emissions. Fundamentally it is best to grow food where the climate and soil is best suited to that crop. This is a far larger factor than ‘food miles’.

The solutions to climate change and nature loss could come from three sources:

 

  1. A top down, formal process with governments cooperating through the United Nations, setting targets, policies and regulations.
  2. Business pushed by shareholders and investors - influencing their supply chains and consumers.
  3. Community and consumer choice - who we vote for, what we invest in, what we buy and how we influence one another.

 

The reality is that we need all three to work together but led by government regulations.  For example, how can consumers make good choices if products and services do not have a carbon label on them?  Governments need to regulate; business needs to apply the regulations and then retailers can offer consumers clearer carbon choices.

 

Consider long distance flights, which are the Achilles heel for the tourism sector.  After years of prevarication, the International Civil Aviation Organisation is capping the global carbon dioxide emissions from international aviation at 2019 levels.  Airlines that emit more will have to pay to offset these emissions, perhaps by planting trees.  Now this scheme is full of holes, but is a step in the right direction.  Faster action may occur as individual airlines, under pressure from customers and investors rush to announce their own carbon targets and initiatives. But there is also a role for consumer choice.  In Sweden, following the “Greta Thunberg effect” the number of passengers flying fell in 2019 even before the Covid-19 pandemic.  Some people are influenced by ‘flight shaming’.  Whilst most of us will not voluntarily give up flying, we might reflect on flying less – perhaps fewer but longer trips away – keeping long distance flights as a treat, not an annual expectation.

 

Amidst all the bad news, there are grounds for hope - this popular science book concludes with a green action plan for government, business and individuals to make better Carbon Choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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