Behavioural change is essential to mitigate the effects of climate change, but sustainable change will only come when governments and corporations change their behaviour.
In recent years, we have seen an unprecedented amount of free bags (single-use plastic bag) being used in people’s day to day lives. This then changed with the introduction of a compulsory 5 pence charge for shoppers in the UK. Turkey recently followed suit by charging 25 kurus, provoking a trend of outraged shoppers globally.
We have seen the positive impact that these small actions in legislation can make. England’s plastic bag usage has dropped 85 percent since the charge was introduced in 2016, and within six months the figure dropped from 7 billion bags, handed out by the top 7 supermarkets in a year, to 500m in the first six months of the charge. Governments have enforced this action all over the world over the past two decades. The European Union also recently voted to ban all single-use plastics by 2021.
In the continent of Africa, more than 15 countries have banned plastic bags or charged a tax. China, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan also have bans or taxes placed on the plastic bag.
Developing countries are often the first to implement climate mitigation and prevention strategies due to the immediate risk they face from climate change. Plastic bags are not biodegradable and are a threat to wildlife and can last up to 500 years, leaving toxins that pollute the earth. They also damage agricultural land when left to degrade in landfill sites.
In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country in the world to ban plastic bags altogether, due to its effect on local drainage systems during floods. Most individuals cannot identify the reasons behind the ban aside from explanations such as ‘it is better for the environment’. This is symbolic of a broader issue regarding climate change and how it is understood by the public. The topic is incredibly politicised, often only understood through extreme statements.
The rhetoric of environmental activists who campaign for removing all meat and dairy consumption to 100 ways to ‘green up’ your workspace or home feeds merely into a society where individuals have become the consumer.
This shifts the focus to individual action as opposed to lobbying governments against fossil fuel companies who counteract individual efforts every day. More than half of all global industrial emissions since 1988 can be traced to 25 corporate and state-owned entities. These entities have the potential to influence politicians through lobbies; all the while we become distracted with the small changes we can implement to reduce the impact of global warming.
In the case of the US, the climate is inseparable from the oil and gas lobby. The US is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses which contribute to climate change. President Donald Trump’s recent denial of climate change referring to it as ‘a hoax’ makes it is difficult to imagine a world that is willing to move away from its reliance on fossil fuels.
Poland followed suit with its bold statement of refusing to phase out of coal, at the last climate negotiations in Katowice. With 80 percent of Poland’s electricity generated by coal-fired plants, miners’ jobs were secured in the president’s statement that he has “no plan… to fully give up on coal.”
As energy and politics are closely intertwined, the public remains divided between a need to secure their livelihoods or their immediate and long-term public health needs. This is further exacerbated when climate change is met with denial or resistance from politicians who are influenced by a strong fossil fuels lobby, making it seem just too difficult to shift to renewables and adopt practices that will reduce the impact of global warming.
In 2018, we saw the loss of three trillion tons of ice in Antarctica, a rise in global Co2 emissions, and the publishing of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which warned we would not be able to avoid a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase of global temperatures. The best negotiation reached thus far has been a 2 degrees target in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
However, what this means is unknown to the majority of the public. Without public understanding of the ongoing progress of climate negotiations, we are at risk of being caught in a cycle where legislation is agreed upon, but in practice, citizens will not be incentivised to adhere to new policies.
Between 1994 and 2017, the countries most affected by extreme weather events were Puerto Rico, Honduras and Myanmar. Less developed countries are more affected than in industrialised countries. This also means that these countries willingly enter international negotiations with the intent to introduce a real change that will benefit their nations.
However, the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season in the US, Caribbean and Puerto Rico proved that high-income countries are also impacted by climate change. Mitigation is required globally to effectively manage climate change, which is why climate negotiations are so integral.
There are glimpses of hope when it comes to effective cooperation between government and the public when it comes to prevention strategies for climate change. Sikkim is a state in northeastern India, an area of 600,000 inhabitants who are prioritising the fight against single-use plastic to reduce pollution by facilitating waste processing, with the long-term goal of removing any reliance on plastic whatsoever.
Sikkim was the first Indian state to ban disposable plastic bags in 1997 and instead shifted to paper bags or newspapers. In 2016, government bodies stopped the use of bottled water and NGOs and locals have followed suit. The plastic ban in Sikkim has been successful because the government and villagers have decided to invest in it personally.
For behavioural change on the ground, the disconnect between the public and governance must be resolved. If politicians can reach a consensus and take the issue seriously, based on the rate of the disintegration of the world’s climate, we may get a step closer to a culture of change that moves past the focus on the individual actions we can take.