This year’s Royal Holloway Sustainability Lecture was given by the Rt Hon Greg Barker, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle (Recording available here). As the Minister of State in the Department of Energy and Climate Change from 2010-2014, he was ideally placed to comment on policy directions in the field of climate change, particularly given his role in international climate change conferences and negotiations.
Unsurprisingly, he was optimistic about the prospects for international action on climate change, particularly in contrast with the disappointing outcomes of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The Copenhagen Conference was presented as the last chance for the ‘international community’ to make significant progress on agreeing targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases. Mr Barker was complementary about the former Labour government’s commitment and efforts to achieve results at Copenhagen – led by one Ed Miliband when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change – but as with most such high-profile events, there were very limited concrete outcomes, other than a commitment to keep discussing the issues. And subsequent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meetings have failed to make major strides either. Fiddling while Rome burns anyone?
Mr Barker gave a number of reasons for nevertheless being optimistic for the future. He related these to technology, economics and geopolitics. In particular, he was greatly heartened by the bilateral agreement between the USA and China in November 2014, following discussions between President Obama and President Xi in Beijing. Given the role of the USA and China in the perceived failure of the Copenhagen Summit and their long-standing aversion to multilateral climate change agreements, most notably the Kyoto Protocol in the case of the USA, a bilateral commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is to be welcomed.
Beyond the geopolitical sphere of international diplomacy and agreements, Mr Barker engaged very little with power and the inequalities of economic and political power, particularly within countries. Instead, his other reasons for optimism suggest a strong belief in a technological fix and the role of the market in charting a greener, sustainable future. Hence the title of this post – ‘Business as usual’.
The development of green energy technology, such as solar panels and wind turbines is clearly important in seeking to replace fossil fuels with renewables as energy sources. However, the focus on physical technology as the solution to human problems has a very chequered history. As colleagues in the ICT4D Centre highlight in relation to information and communications technology, the use of technology needs to be understood within specific social, political, economic and environmental contexts. A perfect ‘bit of kit’ is hopeless without the broader social infrastructure to use it and its suitability for local environmental conditions. There is also the recurring issue of the sustainability of the technology, particularly if it requires complex and expensive repairs and maintenance.
Another factor giving Mr Barker optimism was the evidence that it is possible to achieve economic growth and decrease greenhouse gas emissions, although he recognised that this would become more challenging. A focus on the green economy as a driver for economic growth has been a theme of many political party statements, particularly in the context of post-recession recovery. The growth of this sector is indicated by the availability of financial analysis such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance and state funding, including the UK’s Green Investment Bank. There is also the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Green Climate Fund. This focus on continued economic growth and the incorporation of green activities within the existing financial system, means that the sustainability and desirability of current consumption levels and inequalities in consumption are left unquestioned. Mr Barker did not dwell on these points, but it came up in the subsequent discussion. Reducing consumption is perhaps a difficult message for a politician to engage with, since it is regarded as an unpopular approach with voters, but our audience members clearly felt that it should be a starting point, not brushed under the carpet in favour of more widely appealing solutions.
There is a lot to be said for optimism in the debates around climate change. Behavioural scientists would argue that a negative approach focusing on doom and guilt will be less productive. In many ways, it is good to see political leaders engage in positive reflections, and ultimately, have hope for the future. In raising these points we are not trying to demolish the optimism that geopolitical and technological changes could bring. We are also not, as Greg warned against in his lecture, making ‘the good the enemy of the perfect’ by seeking to criticise any activity which does not produce excellent results immediately. However, as researchers in the fields of sustainable development and sustainability in business, we are very aware of the need to go beyond technological and financial fixes, and to look to the restructuring of business, lives and practices. In the face of climate change, business as usual is not enough.
Katie Willis and Laura J. Spence
Katie Willis is Professor of Human Geography and Director of the Politics, Development and Sustainability group in the Department of Geography at RHUL. Laura Spence is Professor of Business Ethics in the School of Management and Director of the Centre for Research into Sustainability at RHUL.