After the recent Committee on Climate Change report on the UK moving to zero carbon by 2050, I watched news reports on the BBC and ITV. Both of them were singing from the same hymn sheet. In fact, someone could have written the script and handed it to both. The big message was that meeting this target would mean us all “making sacrifices”. The key "sacrifices" mentioned were “eating less meat” and “losing our gas boilers”. Shocking stuff indeed!
But let’s think about for a minute. Are either or both of those things really sacrifices? Eating less meat? That means moving to a healthier diet, it’s something we could all do and gain from and it's not difficult to do. What about gas boilers? That sounds much more serious. We’ll freeze in the Winter, right? Wrong! To move to a zero carbon economy we would have to have energy efficient houses - the kind that doesn’t need gas boilers or have massive energy bills. What’s not to like about that? A key part of any action to move to zero carbon such as a Green New Deal would entail retrofitting millions of homes to make them very energy efficient.
In 1999 I went to a European conference and met a delegate from Sweden who lived in a place that was really cold - minus 30 centigrade in the winter. But he had a warm house without a gas boiler. A house that was really well insulated, so well insulated that sometimes in the Winter they had to open a window because it was too warm. A house like that can be heated from appliances such as cooking, TVs, and laptops - and this was twenty years ago!
In 1998, a groundbreaking book called Factor Four: Doubling wealth and halving resource use was published. The book advocated an industrial revolution with massive reductions in energy and resource use and was packed with examples of how this revolution could be achieved:
"The book contains a wealth of examples of revolutionizing productivity, in the use of energy; from hypercars to low-energy beef; materials, from sub-surface drip irrigation to electronic books, transport, video conferencing to CyberTran, and demonstrating how much more could be generated from much less today."
It was written by capitalists rather than environmentalists and a key part of the message was that if you become much more efficient you can be much more profitable and competitive. So what was the response? Er.. well nothing really, very few businesses took up the ideas even though they had a real incentive to do so. The point about mentioning this book is that we knew twenty years ago how to change the way we do things to massively reduce our carbon output and use far fewer precious resources - and technology has moved on since then. The business response to Factor Four also shows that we can't rely on the "market" to make the changes we need - government-led action through something like a green new deal is essential.
So, back to media reporting on zero carbon. The news bulletins illustrate the scale of the challenge we face in changing the media and business mindset of business as usual. That is why action by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and activists such as Greta Thunberg is essential to help bring about real change. We need to stop talking about "sacrifices" and start talking about the massive benefits that changing our consumer-led lifestyles and moving to a cleaner and healthier environment will bring.