How can we help avert climate breakdown?

Ruth Mayne Climate Change, Influencing

Drawing on her research and her own experiences Ruth Mayne, Oxfam’s senior researcher on Influencing, reflects on what more might be done to achieve a fast and fair transition to a zero carbon future and what role civil society and governments might play?

We have 11 years to avert climate breakdown. As Christiana Figueres has said, we are on an accelerating and exponential curve of change. We are seeing the demise of coal, the beginning of a decline in demand for oil, an upsurge of renewable energy, major car companies going electric, states and cities leading the way on cutting emissions and some signs of reforestation and cultural and behavioural change. But we are still near the bottom of the curve. So, are there any precedents for a societal transformation at the pace, scale and scope required? What must civil society and government do in the small window of opportunity left?

What civil society can do

The anti-slavery movement sets a powerful precedent for how civil society can contribute to systemic change. More recently, evidence shows that social movements, grass roots organisations and women’s rights are key drivers of social change. Recent research shows that it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in protests to ensure serious political change. Elements of political science also highlight the role civil society can play in achieving political change. Kingdon’s multiple streams theory, for example, shows how political change is possible when there is a confluence of political recognition of a problem, mature policy solutions and conducive politics including advocacy campaigns and changes in public opinion.  

As pointed out by one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion (a social movement using non-violent civil disobedience to protest against climate breakdown), today’s climate crisis offers the potential for mass public mobilisation as it is both a universal and existential issue. Certainly, opinion polls have showed for some time now that majorities of people are concerned about climate breakdown. The problem is often that people often feel powerless to take action on their own.  Social movements provide people with opportunities for meaningful collective action on climate change, whether the indigenous and environmental justice movements around the world or more recently the mass civil disobedience of Extinction Rebellion, and the student strikes.

As well as campaigning for national level change civil society groups can also help individuals and communities develop local solutions to climate change such as renewable energy generation, sustainable food production, mass tree planting, influencing local government and businesses, promoting re-use and recycling etc. Evidence shows that community-based social learning programmes have helped people reduce their carbon emissions by an average of 10 %, largely via behavioural changes.  Civil society can also help pioneer and help spread and scale up local solutions to climate change such as the farmers’ innovations that have helped Green the Sahel.  Although small on their own, such initiatives if funded and scaled up can help contribute to the bottom up innovation and culture and behavioural changes we need.

The role of technical innovation

However, civil society action will not on its own achieve the far-reaching socio-technical transformation required. Energy use is deeply embedded across our system. So how might technical, and associated cultural and behavioural change, happen at the scale, pace and scope needed?

Transition Theory shows how historically niche technical innovations such as new forms of transport, sanitation, food, lighting and electricity, have taken off when external factors put pressure on dominant policies, rules, norms and practices to change and open the window for them to spread. Today we can see how the interaction between top down climate change and bottom up technical innovations and social movements, are pressurising governments to act.  We have seen how German and Chinese government subsidies for renewable energy, have driven increased demand, technical innovation, and plummeting costs. Governments have also successfully used market transformation policies to increase the energy efficiency of cars, boilers and fridges via a mix of financial incentives, energy efficiency labelling and phased bans.  We can also see a questioning of dominant consumerist culture and some changes to lifestyles and behaviour.

The role of Governments

Transition theory suggests that a key role for Governments’ role is to identify and nurture niche technical innovations. But the scale of the challenge combined with the limited time left to act means that governments will need to do much more, more quickly.  As a forthcoming book by Peter Drahos, Survival Governance: Energy and Climate in the Chinese Century, will argue at this late stage of the climate crisis a big regulatory state is needed to catalyse the innovation needed to transform our economies, leaving it to the market will be too late. Governments will also need to stop licensing the extraction of fossil fuels and promote natural climate solutions.

A key problem with relying on governments, is that they are often constrained and influenced by powerful vested interests, malfeasance, existing technical and economic structures, and a range of other influences. But the good news is that a growing number realise that climate change mitigation is in their national interest, not only to help reduce its negative human and environmental impacts but also to reap the economic, health, and well-being co-benefits of reducing carbon emissions.

Barbara Finmore’s recent book ‘Will China Save the Planet?’ highlights how China has recently redefined its national interest and economic development model to include the attainment of ‘ecological civilisation’ and has translated this into the planning targets and guidance it sets for officials both nationally and internationally. The book recognises the still huge scale of China’s carbon emissions, both domestically and via its external investment lending. But it also outlines the significant scale of  reductions it has already achieved n via binding national caps on coal consumption, improvements to industrial energy efficiency, power plant standards, carbon trading, green bonds etc.

Survival Governance will suggest that China may become an ‘improbable’ innovation leader on climate change mitigation because it is already innovating at such scale including by building experimental cities such as eco-cities, hydrogen cities, forest cities, and sponge cities.  In contrast, the US has locked itself into an energy model based on fossil fuels with fracking technologies. 

As more governments begin to act on climate change mitigation, a key role for civil society will be to ensure the transition is fair as well as fast including, among other things, helping to ensure:

  • an equitable distribution of responsibility, costs and benefits of new zero carbon policies and programmes;
  • that technologies are socially beneficial as well as green;
  • respect for human rights for people and communities in both the emergent new ‘green’ economy and the old ‘brown’ economy;
  • and finance and free transfer of technology from rich to poor countries so that those with historic responsibility for the climate crisis enable the least responsible to adopt and benefit from alternative, climate friendly development paths.

Ruth Mayne

Ruth Mayne is Oxfam GB lead researcher on Influencing and Climate Justice