Sunday, 8 March 2009

Conflict of interests?

Recently, I attended a local conference on climate change as a delegate of Bedfordshire Climate Change Forum, a not-for-profit organisation. It was well-attended, with delegates from local government, local businesses and a few other not-for-profit organisations.

We had a superb keynote speaker who gave a well rounded presentation on the issue, drawing on Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, outlining the problem and the causes. This was followed by presentations, discussions and short workshops on reducing carbon dioxide emissions in transport, business and at home. Feedback from these workshops will inform local authority thinking and policy.


Two issues raised at the conference really struck me.
1) How do you generate real grassroots engagement with climate change?
2) Is there an underlying conflict between the goal of business to sell us services/commodities and the necessity of reducing our consumption?

In addressing the first issue it is impossible to avoid politics. Some grassroots organisations are deemed acceptable by the mainstream while others (e.g. Earth First, Rising Tide, Plane Stupid) which take direct action to confront the root causes of climate change and to raise awareness of the issues, are labelled as "eco-terrorists" and often treated severely by the police. Individuals at demonstrations have been filmed and have had their details placed on the Crimint database (as reported in the Guardian on 07/03/09) or have been subjected to inappropriate use of anti-terror legislation. This - along with a widespread disenchantment regarding politicians and those in power - seems to me to contribute to a sense of apathy and powerlessness regarding our ability, as individuals, to affect climate change. Too many people say to me, "Whatever I do makes no difference." Using the internet to get positive information across and some sort of genuine empowerment of grassroots organisations may be a way to combat this.


On the second issue, I do think that there is an underlying conflict between the goal of business to sell stuff to us as consumers and the need for us as responsible global citizens to buy less and to buy right.


In the UK we emit about 1-2% of global carbon dioxide emissions directly and yet as consumers we have a greater impact. By buying food and other goods which are manufactured abroad and transported to the UK we are contributing to the emissions of those nations. China has claimed (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/feb/23/china-carbon-emissions) that about a third of its emissions are the result of producing goods for the developed world. Given that China emits more carbon dioxide than any other nation we must accept our share of the blame.

In the UK, government and other organisations set targets for businesses and help them to reduce their emissions; also, many environmental management systems stress the supply chain angle. However, as consumers, we are often unaware of the "intrinsic costs" - the environmental and social costs of producing an item - which are not shown on the label.


In order for us to truly reduce our impact on the planet rather than just "outsourcing our emissions," all items should be clearly labelled with the intrinsic costs incurred in its production. This will involve a rise in the prices of many goods, particularly those which are resource-intensive; however, local and less resource-intense items may be relatively cheaper and local jobs may be generated by an increase in sales of these goods.


If we are to act as responsible global citizens we must become well informed and highly selective consumers. We should demand that all the information to enable us to make an informed decision regarding our purchases is openly and easily available.

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