Our climate is changing – so must our politics: 10 ideas for creating a political system that can get us to zero carbon

As the UK General Election moves closer it offers us an important opportunity to think what it might be like to have a political system under which very serious challenges, such as climate change, are given the profile and action they deserve.

Following the global recession in 2008 and shifts in government policy since 2010, climate change appears to have dropped off the UK political agenda. This reinforces public perceptions that tackling climate change is not a major concern. Turning this around, and getting Britain to zero carbon presents us with some serious challenges: the difficulties of changing systems locked into the use of fossil fuels, the power of vested interests, plus a lack of political will and leadership on climate change.

But it can be done – we have seen big shifts in the past and we can do it again. Building greater cross-party support on climate change and getting climate action back onto the UK political agenda requires breaking the ‘climate silence’ and showing candidates of all political parties that voters are concerned – and now is an ideal time to do that.

So, use the opportunity of the coming election to question all those standing in your area about climate solutions. Carbon Brief’s manifesto analysis provides a useful overview of the main parties’ energy and climate policies and Friends of the Earth’s election guide offers suggestions for what to ask your local candidates. Seize your power as a citizen and make sure you get out there and vote on the day!

The state of the system: where we are now

Strong leadership and cross-party support are critically important for effective action on climate change, yet recent governments are simply failing to rise to the scale and urgency of the challenge.

Lack of political will is seen by many as a fundamental obstacle to action on climate change. Without political will there is no support for meaningful policy or legislation, particularly the long term stable policy commitments needed for investment, no appetite to take on vested interests, and certainly no desire to take brave decisions. Even when politicians are aware that climate change is important and urgent they may still be unwilling to commit to action, influenced by a bias towards short-term electoral timeframes and a tendency to avoid career risks and potential blame.

While 2015’s COP21 UN climate summit in Paris resulted in a government commitment to enshrining net zero carbon emissions in law, many of the policies needed simply to meet existing carbon targets over the next 15 years are lacking. In recent years, many important climate-related policies or funding have been withdrawn, and the Government has shifted strongly away from regulations towards less effective voluntary approaches.

The vote to leave the EU has created greater uncertainty, as many laws on the environment and biodiversity are set to be reviewed. The creation of long-term, meaningful policy is further hampered by the process of ‘institutional churn’ where policies and bodies are subject to almost constant reform and a scattergun on/off approach to funding.

10 good ideas to make change happen

Since its launch in 2007, CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research has demonstrated that we already have the tools and technologies needed to rise to the climate challenge. Providing clear evidence that workable solutions already exist is vital – it changes how we see the way ahead, empowering citizens and giving hesitant policy-makers and politicians no excuse for inaction.

In Making it Happen, the Zero Carbon Britain team have explored the barriers to change, and offer a tool-box of ideas on how we can overcome them. As we approach the General Election, we look at ten ideas for helping transform our political system into one that is equipped to take action on climate change.

71) Tighten the law on lobbying transparency

Wealthy and powerful organisations with vested interests in sustaining our fossil fuel dependency directly lobby governments to oppose or weaken environmental policy and exert undue influence on the regulatory process.

It is estimated there are around 4,000 people working in the £2 billion UK lobbying industry, mostly for corporate interests but the majority are not covered by any legislation. The UK’s 2014 law on lobbying transparency is not fit for purpose as it excludes in-house corporate lobbyists, lobbying by phone or email and lobbying of civil servants.

Other countries have much more comprehensive and robust registers of lobbyists and their activities, which the UK could learn a great deal from. For example, the US has a register with a much higher degree of transparency, which includes quarterly reports from lobbyists and financial disclosure. Ireland’s lobbying register is also much more comprehensive than the UK’s and covers direct and indirect communications with a wide range of public officials.

To find out more see Making it Happen page 236

72) Tighten controls on ‘revolving doors’

UK politics has a serious problem with ‘revolving doors’, where politicians and civil servants move backwards and forwards to industry, and industry experts are appointed to government agencies, commissions and regulatory bodies. This risks giving fossil fuel and other polluting industries a strong voice in the legislative process.

This issue could be remedied through a legal requirement on Ministers and civil servants to consult the independent public body, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) if they intend to join industry for the purpose of lobbying their former departments.*

To find out more see Making it Happen page 236

73) Shareholder action

Transparency on the amount of lobbying by the fossil fuel industry and disclosure of the risks of climate change is also important for those who invest in companies. Shareholders are increasingly demanding information on the scope and spend on climate change lobbying. In 2015 the charity ShareAction, which runs shareholder campaigns, mobilised thousands of campaigners to email the French oil and gas corporation Total to demand they pull out of the trade group BUSINESSEUROPE which waters down EU climate legislation. While Total did not pull out of the trade body the campaign secured a commitment for increased disclosure of Total’s lobbying activities and support for progressive policies within such trade bodies.

To find out more see Making it Happen page 234

74) Divestment

Campaigns are increasingly calling for organisations, institutions and individuals to end their financial support for the fossil fuel industry via their pension funds and other investments. Led by coalitions of students, faith groups, environmental groups and trade unions, the fossil fuel divestment movement aims to remove the legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry, in a similar way to campaigns against tobacco or apartheid in South Africa.

Fossil Fuel UK estimates that over 700 organisations worldwide representing funds worth $5 trillion have committed to divest from fossil fuels – high profile organisations include the Church of England, British Medical Association, Glasgow University and the Environment Agency. There are also active campaigns targeted at a large number of universities and Local Authority Pension Funds.

Many divestment campaigns have a ‘divest to reinvest’ element, which advocates using the funds invested in fossil fuel companies to reinvest in socially and environmentally beneficial projects. For example, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Merseyside and West Midlands have joined an initiative to use their investment funds to make ‘impact investments’, committing £152 million to projects that have an economic impact as well as positive social and environmental outcomes.

Find a campaign near you.

To find out more see Making it Happen page 234

75) Build coalitions

Individual issue groups are generally not strong enough on their own to bring political pressure to bear, and therefore joining forces with others can help to create meaningful change. The history of past social movements shows that coalition building plays an essential part in creating a sufficient base of support; forging a sense of collective identity and finding common values are key to success.

Examples of successful coalitions include: Feeding the 5000, a coalition offering solutions to food waste; Take Action on Active Travel, a coalition urging action on active travel; and the Sustainable Development Alliance, a coalition of around 30 Welsh NGOs from different sectors who worked successfully over a three year period to enact a ground-breaking Well-being of Future Generations Act. The Act makes sure that any decisions take into account the possible impact on people in Wales in the future. The ultimate success of the Welsh campaign was based on a positive message, effective cross-sector working and a high level of ambition.

To find out more see Making it Happen page 242

76) Build connections to build support

Clear recognition of how climate change intersects with social issues like health, poverty and inequality creates opportunities for building coalitions. By framing the issue as one deeply connected to our other challenges, the climate movement can embrace wider ethical, social and political issues, supported by a broader range of groups. For example, the trade unions have been promoting climate jobs through their ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ pamphlet as well as supporting marches and divestment campaigns.

Local authorities play a key role in reaching zero carbon. Devolution deals for English local authorities offer opportunities for building connections between co-benefits and cost savings arising from better diets, more walking and cycling, improved air quality and reduced energy demand. Despite funding pressures, many UK authorities have developed innovative low carbon solutions, and councils can make significant savings from energy efficiency and earn revenue from renewable energy schemes.

To find out more see Making it Happen pages 202 and 243

77) Contact your elected representatives

Citizens can hold their elected councillors, MPs and other representatives to account, and increase their ambition around climate change issues by writing to them, meeting them and inviting them to local events on climate solutions. MPs and councillors of any political party respond to the concerns of their constituents and if their mailbags and in-boxes show that voters are concerned about climate change they will be more likely to support action, particularly if those concerns are framed appropriately.

The submission of representations or evidence to Parliamentary Groups and Select Committees is a good opportunity for NGOs, academics and industry bodies to build cross-party support for climate change action  and increase the ambition of MPs.

To find out more see Making it Happen page 239

78) Reinstate the Zero Carbon Homes policy

Analysis by the UK Green Building Council confirms that it would be entirely possible to build new homes to zero carbon standards at scale and at reasonable cost. Both the UK Green Building Council and the Committee on Climate Change, along with many others, are calling for the Zero Carbon Homes policy to be reinstated.

For existing buildings new legislation is needed to ensure that they meet minimum energy efficiency standards when a building is rented, bought or sold, significantly renovated, or after a certain amount of time has elapsed. France has made a move in this direction by setting minimum energy efficiency requirements for all existing buildings; from 2030 homes that have not been refurbished to a sufficient standard cannot be sold.

To find out more see Making it Happen page 250

79) Make ecocide a crime

According to legal experts even if all the current environmental laws at international, national and local level were enforced, this would still not stop really serious climate change or biodiversity loss. In response, there are calls to develop a new generation of environmental laws which comprehensively protect the planet and biodiversity and have ecocide (‘causing or permitting harm to the natural environment on a massive scale’) recognised internationally as a crime.

During war-time it is already a crime to cause environmental damage where the impact is severe. However during peacetime mass destruction or loss of ecosystems is not a crime.

Join the campaign to make ecocide a crime via the Eradicating Ecocide website.

To find out more see Making it Happen page 255

80) Support ‘class action’ against governments

A ‘class action’ is a type of lawsuit where a group of people is represented collectively by a group member. In 2015, campaign group Urgenda Foundation and 886 co-plaintiffs in the Netherlands won a landmark case against the Dutch state. For the first time in history, human rights law was used to compel a national government to take additional steps to combat climate change. The case is inspiring other environmental NGOs in Norway, Belgium and other parts of the world to bring similar claims.

Urgenda Foundation court case. Credit: Urgenda/Chantal Bekker

In another high profile case a farmer from Pakistan successfully sued the national government for failing to implement its own climate change policy.

The Urgenda case has parallels with the successful High Court case won by the environmental law charity ClientEarth against the UK government for their failure to tackle illegal air pollution. There is potential for similar legal action by ClientEarth under the UK’s Climate Change Act if the government fails to get back on course to meet its carbon targets.

To find out more see Making it Happen page 258

Making it happen

Stronger political consensus on climate action can be built by increasing the visibility of climate change amongst the electorate, showing that more people are concerned and creating a new space for bold politicians to move forwards. Ultimately, broad social movements must be built with a collective identity that challenges the status quo and the power of vested interests. Seeking different types of people to engage and collaborate, brings new perspectives, experiences and ideas – strengthening the movement.

You can download the full Making it Happen report here.

The Centre for Alternative Technology also offers a wide range of education, training and short courses which can help us reconnect with nature and with others – visit www.cat.org.uk.

* Thanks to Tamasin Cave, Director of Spinwatch UK for this good idea (conversation with ZCB researcher Lisa Hopkinson, 06/06/16).