What are the most important changes we need to make as a society to reach zero carbon?

This question was initially posed during the accreditation process for the fantastic Carbon Literacy Project. The answer might have more to do with our humanity, than our environment.

First, we need to define society.  In the UK, society might be understood to mean ‘everyone’.  But society is multi-polar; it’s about cohesion, capability, culture, culpability, and capacity.  It’s about accountability and responsibility, but also belief in tangible and material outcomes, acknowledging that ‘climate’ is largely intangible.

Are we discussing worldwide society, European society, UK society, society in Syria, Somalia, Shanghai, or Singapore?   The climate crisis is global; however, there is no global authority with the power to enforce climate policy or action.

Communications technology has led global society to become more cohesive than ever.  Paradoxically, it is increasingly fragmented and polarised in culture, wealth, worldview, and communal values.  At the same time, global competition for power, influence, and scarce resources has never been greater. 

When devising solutions for a zero-carbon world, context is vital.  The human dynamics behind technological shifts, such as those leading us away from fossil fuels, are often the most challenging aspects of change. 

Afterall, the climate crisis has been created by the underlying systems and cultures of humans.  Our role as individuals might be to buy less, use less, and travel less (or at least more consciously).  However, mainstream culture remains skewed to incentivise us to ‘buy more’, ‘use more’, and ‘do more’. 

This is exacerbated by inequality.  Those countries bearing the greatest burden of global heating, are also the poorest, least developed, and least responsible.  Furthermore, over 45% of global emissions (and growing) come from China, India, Iran, Indonesia, and Brazil, countries with rapidly advancing economies.  These countries accounted for just over 8% of emissions in 1970, and must now balance their quest for modernity, prosperity, and influence, with global citizenship, amidst ever-weakening relations with the West.

So, my first point, is that there is no universal rulebook for addressing the climate crisis.  What works for one society, or one part of one society, must be adapted, reinterpreted, and galvanised for others.  While we often hear stories about carbon capture, carbon credits, and offshore wind, we hear fewer of legislative global cohesion, or of new systems of governance.  In 2023, COP28 marked the first mention of a phasing out of fossil fuels in COP history (COP1 was in 1995).  Though, action remains voluntary, and inaction comes without direct consequences.

As a ‘super wicked problem’ (the most complex in human history), global collaboration is needed at a scale greater than ever before.  However, the concept of sharing innovation for greater good operates on the fringes of our capitalist and geopolitical norms, typically levied as a means of regional influence.  New societal structures are required to incentivise the widespread sharing of technologies outside the confines of profitability and empire building.  At the same time, we must acknowledge, as growth plateaus in Western nations, political priority is placed firmly on domestic performance and international standing.

Returning to the title question:

‘What are the most important changes we need to make as a society to reach zero carbon?’

This line of questioning often arises from a place of great intent, great passion, great hope, but also great privilege.  Such questions can imply an ability or predisposition to act.  Though, arguably, this is seldom the case.  Other (more immediate or innate) societal and individual needs take precedence; hence, emissions continue to grow steadily to the current day, despite human causation of the climate crisis being widely recognised during the 1970s.

And so, we must be inclusive, specific, and relevant in understanding which parts of which societies play which role, to impact which metrics, and to what short-term tangible benefit.

Furthermore, we cannot afford to assume that society of any shape or size will act in moral disposition. 

Capitalism / neoliberal economics (arguably the root cause of climate change) is built upon self-interest: the enrichment of a few to prosper the many; a broken model that privileges those in positions of power.  Socioeconomic change must, therefore, coexist alongside emissions reduction, helping society evolve to ‘capitalism 2.0’, where all large businesses must account for their net societal impact.  Notably, whilst European legislation is tightening, there is currently no legislation anywhere (as of 2024), mandating that companies of any size measure or report such impact.

Talking of emissions reduction, namely:  energy production, energy use, industry, agriculture and food production, deforestation, transportation, food production, food waste, etc; we need to ensure co-benefits are in effect at all levels and in all societies where action is required.  For example, greener transportation must also be faster, more convenient, more enjoyable, or lower in cost.

One of my great climate passions has been food waste.  Globally, food waste accounts for c.3x the emissions of aviation.  However, in the UK (depending on which data you use), emissions from food waste and aviation are roughly at parity (c.8%).  Crucially, communication is skewed to ‘blame’ food waste on householders (c.70% of post-production food waste), however, this is unassailable.  The cost of influencing individual households to bring about material and sustained change is likely to be hundreds of times greater than the funding available.  In truth, food waste correlates with retail sales, and supermarket tactics are designed to maximise food ‘basket value’.  Until this metric changes, food waste will continue to proliferate.

Thinking of the UK, solutions for a zero carbon society include stricter rules on lobbying, a phasing out of fossil fuels, greater collaboration between scientific disciplines, fair taxation on industries resulting in disproportionate costs to environmental / public health, the capping of fossil fuel profits in favour of communities, greater domestic resilience in food production and manufacturing, safer transportation by foot and bicycle, rethinking our language: simply ‘people’ rather than ‘employees’ and ‘consumers’, tackling food waste for what it is (the need to sell more), banning green marketing claims unsupported by meaningful evidence and impact, accelerating infrastructure investments in electric grid and mobility, government backed funding for Greentech startups, greater support for community energy projects, a unified body of best practice for climate communication, and a solution for people to share their cars whilst unused, or preferably remove the need for cars altogether.  

A full list of societal changes would extend to a list many pages in length.

Many of these solutions involve huge technical advancements.  However, what unifies climate solutions, is that their primary challenge is most often human, in that we must balance differing perspectives, capabilities, contexts, and objectives, in a harmonious way, for the good of all. Central challenges include the increasing global shift to nationalism, and that our own political system is heavily skewed toward the short-term, serving power structures led by those responsible for the greatest societal harm.

Ultimately, we need to make the climate crisis worth tackling, for people who wouldn’t otherwise place it at the forefront of their actions; a concept that applies universally across all emissions and all societies.  That includes businesses.  We’re firm believers that a more purposeful commerce should and can be incentivised by profitability.  If you’re curious to find out how, we’d love to hear from you.

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