Like most people, I was daunted by the scale of the emergency, but I now think the lifestyle changes needed to make progress are not that difficult
Last modified on Thu 23 Dec 2021 08.45 EST
A change is desperately needed. I know it and you know it, but someone in this citizenry – most likely you – isn’t ready to make a vast adjustment to their lifestyle. This is a common fallback position among progressives. I’ve always felt comfortable in this territory and simultaneously aggravated by it. Nowhere is this position more routinely applied than in relation to the climate crisis.
The argument goes like this: people across the political spectrum broadly agree on the fundamentals and the urgency of the climate crisis, and yet we probably won’t do what we need to do because we’re just too useless. Society is too fractured for people to make altruistic choices; poverty is too endemic for many to be in a position to make changes; financialisation has subverted democracy, so even if the demos was able to make a good, collective decision, it would be thwarted. Even if, by some miracle, the UK managed to overcome these obstacles to make good on its net-zero pledges, the same problems would play out on a global scale to prevent other nations from doing the same.
But this year I changed my mind about this position. It wasn’t because of Cop26, which left most campaigners disappointed. It was because of what Cop26 couldn’t undo.
The first two components of reaching net zero are basically in the hands of the government: cleaning up the energy supply, and becoming more efficient in the energy we use. Throughout the 2010s, we assumed that both the major parties were equally committed to tackling the climate emergency and merely differed on whether the state or the market should pay for it. This seemed like a reasonable assumption – the Conservatives in opposition, after all, were behind the Climate Change Act, an inspiringly strong piece of legislation – except for the fact that it was plainly not true.
Conservatives committed to arresting the climate crisis wouldn’t have talked about “green crap”. Nor would they have wasted five years on Brexit, or wanted to leave the EU in the first place. The price of entry to the grownups’ conversation was to pretend that all politicians wanted broadly the same thing, by a different route. This was a peculiarly low point for common sense, and it squandered time, fostering a sense that even when those in power wanted to tackle the climate crisis, still nothing constructive could be achieved. Even as recently as September, when Rachel Reeves described at her party’s conference the state spending a Labour government’s green new deal would entail, it was still normal in climate policy circles for people to describe the parties as equally committed to constructive, large-scale change.
But it is no longer necessary to pretend that the Conservative government means well, keeps promises or has any long-term plan for tackling the climate crisis. Removing it from power has become more urgent than ever. Accepting these facts is now, paradoxically, less daunting than the effort of papering over reality.
The third plank towards net zero has always been behavioural – are people prepared to stop flying and eating meat, and change to bikes and electric cars? And even if you are personally committed to these things, what about those who don’t care, or can’t afford to make adjustments, and what about young people and their fast fashion, and didn’t Greta Thunberg once buy a salad wrapped in plastic? There is a tendency to respond to every climate aspiration with a darting list of the insufficiencies of humankind.
Yet the granular work done by the Climate Change Committee shows the lifestyle changes this crisis will ask of us are in fact pretty manageable. The most demanding will probably be the switch to battery-powered cars (60% of vehicles by 2035). Otherwise, the number of miles per driver will need to reduce by 4%; plane kilometres per person by 6%; meat and dairy consumption by 20%. Arguably, this is the time to start new conversations – is net zero, in this time frame, ambitious enough? Can the disproportionate carbon usage of the affluent somehow be reflected in redistributive policy, so everyone has an allocation of plane miles and those who can’t afford to use theirs can sell them instead? Would it make sense to subsidise meat and dairy alternatives in the same way renewables were initially supported? Is it feasible to make a carbon budget, as a nation, that doesn’t take into account the footprint of your imports? (Not really.)
What is now unarguable is that all this is within our grasp. Radicals and progressives may maintain the longterm goal of bringing down capitalism and re-evaluating what life is for, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing constructive that we can do in the short term. I’m not sure that I would make a different or more certain prediction of what life will look like in 30 years’ time. But the idea that the changes required are too radical or the people who need to make them too timid, I’ve completely put aside.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist