Saturday, 25 April 2009

April 2009 - The Green contradictions in the Red briefcase

The straight-to-camera monologue routine being broadcast across the nation on 22nd April 2009 could only mean one thing: Budget day. And, although the government’s renewed support for Carbon Capture Storage (CCS) was hailed by some as evidence of Britain’s commitment to climate change, Alistair Darling’s red briefcase contained many green contradictions.

Despite pledging financial support for CCS in the budget, the government’s subsequent announcement that new coal-fired power stations would only be approved once they could demonstrate substantial capture and storage of their carbon emissions confirmed only one thing – that there will be new coal-fired power stations. And, with emissions reductions targets contingent on a technology that is yet to be demonstrated on an industrial scale, the potential torrent of investment promised by a Green New Deal seems to have been reduced to a techno-fix trickle.

Alistair Darling’s take home message was that economic growth would return in 2010, but there is no bigger contradiction than the message that we can consume more, regain economic growth AND use fewer natural resources. The myth that economic growth and energy use can be decoupled is compelling, pervasive and utterly false. The government’s controversial plans to extend the capacity of Heathrow are based on an economic argument that the UK will ‘lose out’ if the mile-high custom goes elsewhere. But we will certainly lose out if we cannot reign in our burgeoning emissions. Even dyed-in-the-wool free marketeers like Nicholas Stern recognise that failing to tackle climate change now will cost us more in the long term.

But the myth of low-carbon growth runs through government policy like the lettering embedded in sticks of Brighton rock. We are exhorted to exercise personal restraint, to minimise our carbon footprint, yet every signal we receive tells us to carry on exactly as we are. Heathrow is just the most obvious example of a policy that flatly contradicts the UK’s emissions targets.

And, unsurprisingly, these contradictions are mirrored in people’s individual behaviours. We carefully select local fruit and vegetables and then drive them home in our car. We turn our televisions off standby but leave our laptops on overnight. You might imagine that whether someone ‘acts green’ in one situation would be a good indicator of whether they will act similarly across the board. But research by the social psychologist John Thogersen has shown that the ‘spillover’ of one environmental behaviour to another is notoriously unreliable.

One of the factors that influences whether one green behaviour will predict another is how similar the behaviours are. So, someone who recycles is also likely to compost their food waste, whereas someone who cycles to work may not pay any attention to the heating of their home. One of the most significant challenges of tackling environmental behaviours is that they are so dauntingly diverse. The cues and triggers that we use to judge our behaviour in one situation will be completely absent in another.

But Thogersen’s research also identified another factor that determines spillover – whether seemingly green actions are taken for the same underlying reason. Someone who insulates their home only to save money will be unlikely to pay more for a train ride instead of a plane – because although their home insulation produced significant carbon savings, their motives were financial. According to Thogersen, significant spillover in environmental behaviours will only be achieved if a clear and consistent environmental message is used to motivate change. The contradictory messages emanating from the government are ensuring that this spillover will not be achieved.

As long as the myth of decoupling growth and resource use continues, even the most well-intentioned message will fall on deaf ears. Our sacred economic growth has been predicated on an almost limitless supply of cheap energy – a supply that is rapidly dwindling. While increasing financial wealth is a necessity for the world’s poor, the rich countries chase further prosperity even while the fossil-fuelled engine of the growth economy starts to splutter out. Darling’s sums may have balanced the financial books for another year. But the ecological debt can’t be dealt with by consuming our way out of trouble.


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