If governments prioritise reelection, consumers want cheap convenience and businesses seek to maximise their profits, who is supposed to be leading on climate change?
Among the most fundamental problems of democracy is its inherent shortsightedness. In the United States, a presidential term of office lasts just four years. In the United Kingdom, the longest a parliamentary term will last is five years.
As a result, there is little electoral incentive for governments to prioritise “long-term decisions for a sustainable future”, to borrow the astoundingly ironic tagline from the recent Conservative Party conference.
Climate change, its causes and its solutions can be complex. It relies on an understanding of weather systems and the effect of carbon dioxide accumulation in the air.
It is not a single extreme weather event that explains global warming; rather it is trends and data over extended periods of time. For many people, the link between their personal energy consumption and climate change seems remote and indirect. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that people with higher education and income are typically more supportive of environmental policy.
Complex issues requiring good governance, long-term planning and international cooperation are not politically sexy. They require expertise. Talking about Brexit in 2016, Conservative MP Michael Gove said “people in this country have had enough of experts”. The year after, he became environment secretary.
On one level, he’s right. Reductive slogans that ignore complexity can be much more enticing. Think “Get Brexit Done.”
Prioritising growth, minimising regulation and protecting industry is a sure way to keep powerful lobbyists onside and keep the party donations coming. Similarly, policies aimed at minimising the immediate cost of living are sure vote winners.
From the recent election of climate-denier Javier Milei in Argentina to the very real prospect of Trump being reelected in the U.S. next year, it is evident that democracy is not a system well set up to deal with climate change.
2024 is going to be a significant year politically, with more than half of the global population living in countries that will hold nationwide elections.
Where election is the primary goal for political parties, heeding the UN’s increasingly stark warnings is easier said than done.
If government isn’t leading the way, perhaps business should?
Yes, and no.
In some instances, it is not only ineffective, but it is essentially irrational for businesses to adopt an environmental policy.
The Climate regularly celebrates innovators making groundbreaking environmental changes, from those who are changing the sustainability of the meat industry to businesses on the cutting edge of green chemistry.
Likewise, firms that are greening their vehicle fleets and reducing workplace energy consumption should be commended. In some cases, they do so because it is the right thing to do. However, more often than not, they do so because of a statutory requirement.
There are commercial advantages too; lower energy bills and electric vehicles are long-term investments to reduce running costs.
Some consumers will only engage with companies they deem sufficiently ‘green’. Despite being a minority, they are not commercially insignificant. Generally, businesses care about their long-term commercial viability above all else. This is not a criticism; as far as the ecological well-being of the planet is concerned, the motivation doesn’t matter; the change does.
However, there are times when it is not rational for businesses to take green decisions without government support.
Say, for example, that you run a soft drinks company and sell the majority of your products in single-use plastic bottles. In an attempt to green your operations and take a stand against plastic pollution, you decide to stop using them.
The intention is good. Plastic has become the material of choice for food and drinks packaging due to its malleability, durability, affordability and light weight. However, the properties that make it so useful also make it impossible for nature to break it down. Much of the plastic we use ends up in our rivers and flows into our seas. By 2050, it is projected that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.
Plastic in our oceans breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces known as microplastics. These are then ingested by fish that other animals, including humans, then eat. Microplastics have been found in human lungs, livers, kidneys and even placentas.
While technological solutions are being developed to deal with the plastic and microplastics problem, including the development of biodegradable plastics, which is not without its own problems, it is undeniable that we need to curb our reliance on single-use plastics and manage their disposal much better.
Despite the recyclability of some plastics, mismanagement often leads to their disposal in landfills, incineration or the oceans.
Greenpeace claims that only 9% of plastic used worldwide gets recycled. The UN is currently seeking to develop a binding global instrument to end plastic pollution, and there are many NGOs that do fantastic work in this field. This resource from the UN Environment Programme is an accessible, comprehensive overview of the plastic problem.
Many people simply do not care what happens to plastic once they have finished with it. The plastic problem viscerally exhibits humanity’s disregard for the earth’s ecosystems in the post-war period.
Back to our hypothetical soft drinks company. You, as CEO, have taken the decision to stop all single-use plastic in your distribution, preferring the more recyclable glass bottles and aluminium cans, which are more expensive and less convenient. Your competitors continue with their current practices.
Unwilling to give up their love for soft drinks, unable to increase their budget and limited by how much shopping they can carry, many of your consumers are likely to switch to the now cheaper and more convenient options your competitor sells.
The result is that your company loses its market share. This is a shame, as its CEO genuinely cares about climate issues, unlike your rivals. At the same time, the same — or almost the same — amount of single-use plastic bottles are being used, only bought from your competitors rather than you. Ultimately, your well-intentioned policy will have been ineffective.
There are, however, two obvious ways that your policy could have been effective:
- If government legislated to ban single-use plastic food and drink packaging for all retailers at the same time. Perhaps using a ‘phase-out’ approach. A weaker interim measure would be to impose a charge on single-use plastic, such as the one imposed on single-use carrier bags in the UK. The UK Government reports this reduced their use by more than 95 percent. Government intervention can ensure that all businesses in your sector are playing by the same rules.
- Consumers didn’t switch brands and stayed with you despite your prices being higher and your product less convenient. This would depend on an incredibly environmentally concerned consumer base or an incredibly delicious soft drink. In practice, this seems unlikely.
Collective action problems require collective action solutions, and governments are uniquely placed to deliver them. As CEO, you will have a bigger influence pushing for government action as the head of the largest firm in the industry than you would have by stopping single-use plastic use within your business and compromising your market share.
What can individuals do?
For households and individuals, times are tough at the moment.
It can sometimes feel as though you are powerless on an individual level to make a change in a world where 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions and the richest 1% are responsible for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66%.
For as long as businesses pursue profits and governments seek power, as a consumer and a citizen, the importance of how you spend your money and cast your vote should not be underestimated.
It is not just the super-wealthy who are disproportionate polluters. The richest 10% globally (anyone paid more than £32,000 per year) are responsible for half of global emissions.
People who want more radical change can also join in with non-violent direct action.
While governments have to take the lead, deploying an arsenal of taxation, nudging and statutory obligation, consumers and businesses should not absolve themselves of liability as changemakers.
The UN is a beacon of hope, but it itself has no legislative power. Their recommendations will only be implemented by domestic governments where they are electorally sustainable. For better or for worse, our political system exists in the way that it does, and it looks unlikely to change in the next decade.
The UN’s AR6 Synthesis Report states that “the choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years”. 2024 has to be a year where voters show politicians that they value long-termism and the ecological health of the planet.