Climate Change

This document was written while Synergy was based at the Camberwell Centre and therefore is a little dated and London centric.

Over the last 10 years, a consensus has emerged, particularly among the scientific community, that climate change is largely man made and that a significant reduction in emissions is required for catastrophic and run away climate change to be avoided.

The Royal Society, in the preamble to their publication “Man made climate change: the real science”, confirmed that

Those who seek to distort and undermine the science of climate change and deny the seriousness of the potential consequences of global warming put forward a range of arguments most of which misrepresent the existing research.  It is vital that the scientific evidence on climate change is accurately represented. Policymakers, industry and the public must make informed decisions about what actions to take rather than be misinformed by lobbyists for big business or programmes such as Channel 4’s recent ‘Great Global Warming Swindle’. Debate is crucial to science and the book will never close on the science of climate change. It is important that all aspects are adequately and thoroughly explored.  However, the science is now convincing enough that to take no action on reducing carbon dioxide emissions would be irresponsible and very dangerous.

Policy responses at local, regional and national level are gradually beginning to respond to this need. For example, The Mayor’s Climate Change Action Plan “Action Today to Protect Tomorrow” states that

Climate change is the biggest threat to the future development of human civilisation and poses a huge challenge for cities like London. The possibility of global climate change catastrophe can only be reduced by the world making deep and immediate cuts in its emissions of greenhouse gases, especially of carbon dioxide. We have to move from a high energy-using, wasteful economic model to one that conserves energy and minimises waste. In other words we have to be more efficient.

As the government’s comprehensive ‘Stern Review’ of the economics of climate change demonstrated, it will be far cheaper to invest now to reduce carbon emissions, rather than ignore the problem and face far higher costs in the future.

Stabilising global carbon emissions at 450ppm on a contraction and convergence basis means that London has to limit the total amount of carbon dioxide we produce between now and 2025 to about 600 million tonnes2. Meeting this CO2 budget will require ongoing reductions of 4 per cent per annum.

Energy use in existing homes is the largest single source of CO2 emissions in London, at nearly 40 per cent of the total. This plan sets out how annual domestic CO2 emissions can be reduced by 7.7 million tonnes by 2025.

Roughly half of this reduction can be delivered if just two thirds of Londoners make simple behavioural changes and put some basic energy efficiency measures in place.

Identifying the inefficiency of centralised power generation and implicitly calling for more localised, micro-generation, the Mayor’s strategy states that

The single biggest barrier to reducing London’s carbon emissions is the way in which energy supplied to homes and offices is produced and distributed. Centralised electricity generation, whether through coal, oil, gas or nuclear power stations, is inherently inefficient – wasting two thirds or more of its original energy input in the form of expelled heat. Further losses occur in the process of distributing electricity from rural power stations to the towns and cities where it is mostly consumed.


The Mayor’s goal is to enable a quarter of London’s energy supply to be moved off the grid and on to local, decentralised systems by 2025, with the majority of London’s energy being supplied in this way by 2050. This plan sets out how London could achieve carbon savings of 7.2 million tonnes by 2025 through improved energy supply (note: savings from energy supply are already included in the figures given for emissions reductions from the domestic and commercial sectors).

Under the heading ‘Changing the Way London Travels’, the Mayor recognises the importance of encouraging alternative forms of transport to the car, citing Transport for London’sTransport 2025 strategy :

It also includes promoting alternatives to the car through marketing, information and other travel demand management policies. London-wide, this can deliver nearly a million tonnes of CO2 savings per annum. For an average Londoner, switching from driving to work to taking the bus will save 0.6 tonnes of carbon per year; taking up cycling instead would increase these savings to 1.1 tonnes. The Mayor will promote eco-driving (for example, smoother acceleration/braking and proper vehicle maintenance) by all car, freight, taxi and public transport drivers.

In relation to air travel, the strategy recognises the need for

educating Londoners and advocating alternatives to air travel as part of overall communications on climate change and working with the government to develop price-competitive, high-speed rail services.

In Lambeth, the Council’s Climate Change Commission first met in October 2006 to review many of the council’s services and examine how the council responds to the challenge of climate change. The Council adopted a Climate Change Commission report and the Climate Change Commission action plan in January 2008. However, comments on the need for more community education projects to raise of awareness of issues relating to climate change in the wider public was limited to a commitment to working more closely with the Groundwork Trust. Nevertheless, the Council acknowledged it’s responsibility, cited in Climate Change : The UK Programme 2006 (Department for Environment and Rural Affairs) to provide leadership in tackling climate change through reducing green-house gas emissions :

Action by local authorities is likely to be critical to the achievement of Government’s climate change objectives. Local authorities are uniquely placed to provide vision and leadership to local communities, raise awareness and help change behaviours. In addition, through their powers and responsibilities (housing, planning, local transport, powers to promote well-being and through activities such as their own local procurement and operations) they can have significant influence over emissions in their local areas.

Much of the emphasis of the report is on action the local authority can take in terms of housing management, transport, planning, schools and energy management, in terms of the Council’s own energy consumption and there is some reference to the need to increase the amount of recycling. However, awareness on behalf of the Council of broader and deeper changes that need to be made in terms of underlying economic and cultural values according to which we manage our lives appears to be limited. Nevertheless, the report identifies, in an appendix, other innovative measures taken by other local authorities and recommendations of by the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE), the Energy Saving Trust (EST) and the Carbon Trust to

Encourage partnership arrangements with local businesses, schools and organisations to engage the whole community.

The report also recognises the work of the Transition Town Movement, inspired by Transition Town Totnes, the UK’s first town exploring how to prepare for a carbon constrained, energy lean world.

TTT is a community-led initiative which is working towards the creation of an Energy Descent Action Plan for the town that sets out a positive timetabled way down from the oil peak. The thinking behind TTT is simply that a town using much less energy and resources than we presently consume could, if properly planned for and designed, be more resilient, more abundant and more pleasurable than the present even after “Peak Oil”.

Inspired by Transition Town Totnes, the people of Brixton have launched Transition Town Brixton which is :

a community-led initiative that seeks to raise awareness locally of Climate Change and Peak Oil. We will vision a better low energy/carbon future for Brixton. We will design a Brixton Energy Descent Action Plan – the route-map to the future. Finally, we will make it happen. A TransitionTown consider the challenges of the future as opportunities to rethink the way we do everything, to reconnect with our planet and our community and to relocalise.  TTBrixton aims to be inclusive, imaginative, practical and fun. And to build a local community that is more interconnected, resilient and self-reliant.

At a national level, the ‘Climate Change – the UK Programme 2006’ recognises that

Consumer education is important, encouraging better behaviours and raising expectations that goods and services should be designed to be energy efficient and not waste energy.

Furthermore, the report acknowledges that, while

government can play a critical role, by establishing a framework that encourages and enables changes in behaviour that reduce the footprint of individuals”, it also goes on to state that government must work to “enable individuals to make choices that reduce the impact of our individual and collective actions on the environment and help to meet our emissions reduction goals.

When it comes to engaging with communities, the report identifies that

Research shows that information in isolation is rarely enough to change people’s behaviour, but it has a very important role in underpinning and increasing the effectiveness of other Government actions. Information provision usually works best if some of the people the Government is seeking to influence are involved at a local level in developing the communication materials and selecting the media used. Such an approach also helps identify and encourage community champions and leaders and their networks to be involved.

However, despite the good intentions of numerous strategies, at local, regional and national level, the public understanding of climate change, according to research undertaken by Andrew Darnton for Futerra, the sustainability communications consultancy is limited.  

Beneath the quantitative ‘percentages’ suggesting a high level of public belief in ‘climate change’, and a high level of awareness of the term itself, the evidence included in this desk research study suggests that public understanding of the ‘climate change’ concept is patchy, but generally poor.

Furthermore, the research shows

the public’s understanding of the processes of climate change to be very limited, it also shows that the majority of the public regard climate change as only a remote threat to themselves. This perception of remoteness is apparent in the data in two ways: first, climate change, and global warming in particular, is regarded as being both more apparent and more worrying in connection with the world than in connection with Britain.

Indicating a worrying tendency for individuals to abdicate responsibility for tackling climate change by changing their individual behaviour, the research showed that

the common perception that climate change is a problem facing the whole world is often used by respondents as the rationale behind their claims that it would be useless for them personally to take action to tackle climate change as the rest of the world would need to take action too.

Furthermore, in a DEFRA ‘Quality of Life Survey’, only 44% of respondents identified ‘climate change’ and related processes as the ‘environmental trend or issue which would cause most concern in about 20 years time’ (less than traffic at 52%), and  when asked to indicate how important each of the 15 Headline Indicators of Quality of Life was to them personally, ‘climate change’ came out 13th.

Further public confusion about the causes of climate change are revealed in the research, which shows that “the majority of the public also erroneously believes that the hole in the ozone layer contributes to climate change”, “only around a third of the public associate air travel with climate change” and “only a minority of the public seems to be aware that household energy use contributes to climate change.” Furthermore, Darnton observes, “respondents seem more inclined to associate activities with climate change which are both large-scale and not undertaken by individuals”, that “the evidence suggests… that most members of the public are factually unclear about which human behaviours contribute to climate change“ and “would suggest that many respondents have not even thought about the possible environmental impacts of their actions.”

By way of conclusion, Darnton recommends

clear and authoritative information which establishes the links between specific behaviours by individuals and accelerating climate change can serve a dual purpose. First, such information could remove uncertainty among those sections of the public who do not understand their role in climate change. Second, the information could limit the extent to which a large section of the public can keep telling themselves that some of their behaviours are not contributing to climate change.