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Ten ideas to save the planet: climate of apathy

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 30 November 2009

We may be able to engineer solutions to the climate change problem - but can we engineer our societies to become "responsible consumers" demanding less from stretched resources?


Return to the Ten Ideas to Save the Planet index here.

What idea policy or technology holds the greatest promise for tackling climate change? That was the question Channel 4 News posed to the scientific community over the past few weeks.

Thanks to the extensive contacts of the Science Media Centre at the Royal Institution Channel 4 News was able to email hundreds of scientists across various fields of expertise to sound-out their opinions.

From the responses we received it was clear that many felt climate change was not about technology - it was about society.

Professor and author Tim Jackson argues that economic growth is the root cause of climate change. Growth in the already affluent world does not offer the solution; it represents the problem, he believes.

So in the developed world should the climate debate be about changing our quality of life? Should we be taxed for carbon emissions? Is government climate policy lenient because it is worried about upsetting crucial voters? Or is the answer to the world's problems as simple as, "the condom"?

Lifestyle change

The more money we make, the more we consume; the more we consume, the more we emit.

So in order to tackle climate change in developed countries behaviour needs a dramatic overhaul, said a number of experts who contacted Channel 4 News.

"There is a need for a widespread, intensive public education programme on the realities of climate change" said Alastair Chisholm from the Charted Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM).


Prof Hugh Montgomery from University College London agreed that public knowledge and understanding were the way forward.

"The first big need is for the general public to grasp the immediacy and gravity of the threat," he said.

"Without this, politicians and businesspeople are denied the permissive environment in which to act."

Prof Joseph Giacomin from Brunel University said he was researching ways the general public could better understand climate change. He believes the public must find a way to relate to the problems in order to act upon them.

"In a democratic society, significant behavioural change can only be achieved through a combination of measures which inform, facilitate and legislate.

"A fundamental difficulty, however, is that people do not become active with matters unless there is a high degree of emotional engagement."

The government have already begun a campaign urging people to act in order to prevent "profound effects that will alter our quality of life." They say that together the actions we take every day create over 40 per cent of the UK's emissions.

Reducing water and food wastage, insulating houses, eating less meat, and reducing car travel are all ways to cut society's carbon footprint.

But this is a lifelong lifestyle change. Can governments rely on individuals to voluntarily do enough to make a difference?

Taxing carbon

"Decide on the appropriate unit price for carbon (and other green house gas) emissions and make sure everybody pays it.

"This is the only way to give the millions of decision units (individuals and enterprises) the real incentives to change behaviour appropriately.

"Without this it will be almost impossible to achieve real change on the necessary scale."

That is the conclusion of Prof Stephen Glaister from Imperial College.

He and many of the other scientists who contacted Channel 4 news believe that taxing people and businesses on carbon emissions is the way forward. They also agreed that this should be a global initiative.

"Setting a global price for carbon is the most important outcome for the engineering sector that we should be looking for," said Scott Steedman.

"Once carbon is understood to be a real cost for engineers to manage, then it will have a major impact on the cost benefit analysis of different solutions and hence on investment decisions."

Malcolm Newell from the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology said that putting a global tax on carbon would lower emissions and encourage companies to build carbon free alternatives to providing energy.

"A heavy and immediately applied tax on the use of Hydrocarbon fuels...would have an immediate effect on reducing emissions," he said.

"The tax must be applied to all carbon loaded or carried (as fuel) so that emission reductions are achieved in both national and international waters. "At least part of the tax income must be applied to developing the technology needed to develop low carbon (or no carbon) fuels and the infrastructure needed to handle and distribute them."

Nick Bardsley from the University of Southampton suggested that "cap and share" would work as an alternative or extra part to carbon tax.

"Cap and share is a way to mitigate climate change, effectively and fairly," he said.

"It requires fossil fuel suppliers to buy permits for the greenhouse gas content of their fuels before selling.

"Permits are purchased from citizens, who receive equal shares of the economy's supply, and permit quantities reduce over time.

Prof Hugh Montgomery from University College London said: "Progressive tax is the best offering available."

"Tax energy production at source. This would add a direct and proportionate tax cost to every manufactured item or service. The neat bit is that all that tax would be given to the populace.

"Instantly, market forces create green activity."

Last chance saloon

The Copenhagen climate change summit is a chance for official policy to be enforced on an international scale. Although a deal is now looking unlikely many of the scientists who contacted us urged world powers to act.

"We need politicians to get their act together in the last chance saloon in Copenhagen and put global agreement on cutting emissions above their own personal or party interests, and then seek, and listen too, and follow, the engineering and scientific advice on how to do it," said Hywel Davies from the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers.


Some experts pointed out that methods of change were too difficult for politicians to implement.

Is it cheaper for government's to invest in multi-billion pound technologies rather than enforce unpopular reforms?

"Politicians generally know the score with regard to climate change, but they also know the required change is tantamount to political suicide," said Alastair Chisholm from CIWEM.

"Until the public give politicians permission to impose restrictions on current lifestyles and far greater spending on environmental measures, their hands are tied to a large extent."

Steve Rayner from the University of Oxford said: "Three factors determine carbon emissions, the size of the population, the affluence per capita of the population and the technologies they use to satisfy their needs.

"Neither culling the earth's population nor reducing our affluence to pre-industrial levels are politically viable. That only leaves technological change for mitigation, adaptation and remediation as the place where we will get real traction on the problem."

Population x consumption

Dr Paul Williams from the University of Reading contacted us with his simple solution to reducing green house gases.

"In my view, the idea, policy or technology that holds the greatest promise or could deliver the greatest benefit for addressing climate change is...the condom," he said.

"It might not be flashy state-of-the-art science, but $1 spent on low carbon technologies reduces CO2 emissions by 30kg, but the same $1 spent on basic family planning reduces CO2 emissions by 140kg."

Curbing the population was a popular solution among the responses we gathered from various experts. With the UK population due to surpass 70 million by 2029 it is possible to see why. Not only would a population curb reduce emissions but it would also lessen the demand for food and water, experts say.

Do you have climate changing ideas?

Tweet us @channel4news or email us your thoughts and we'll publish the best here.

Scientists, such as Prof David Wood from Durham University said the booming global population was a serious threat to our environment and livelihood.

"If global warming is real and driven my man-made activities, it is clear that all attempts to restrict activity per head will come to nought if the number of heads keeps on increasing," he said.

"Population control also eases pressure on space, food and water, and it is self-evident that many social tensions are relieved if there is less overcrowding of people."

Martin Angel from the National Oceanography Centre said: "There is urgent need to reduce the rate of human population growth. What is really needed is negative growth.

"Each percentage increase in population requires a concomitant reduction in emissions per capita, but this is further offset by the need to increase food production, which then only increases energy demands."

Dr Alan Dewar highlighted a different problem to population growth:

"There are too many domestic animals on the planet and they are eating all the resources, especially the plants which could reduce the CO2 which in turn would stop the planet becoming a greenhouse by consuming the excess.

"There are also too many humans, who require to be fed, which encourages the rearing of more animals, and so the cycle continues.

"More efforts should be made in educating the populations of the world to stop breeding so much, and provide them with the wherewithal to do so."

Return to the Ten Ideas to Save the Planet index here.

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