2019: the year citizens speak up and governments act to protect our long-term prosperity

Night of ideas - Jo Haigh, Nicholas Hulot, Tim Jackson

At the end of January, the Night of Ideas, an international event staged simultaneously in Paris, London, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh and worldwide, questioned today’s challenges. The French Institute in London explored citizens’ experiences of today’s most talked-about issues: Europe Beyond Walls and The Earth Here and Now. In this blog, Professor Joanna Haigh, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute, reflects on the role that British and French citizens, and their governments, are playing in determining our planet’s future.

Extreme weather events, failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation, and natural disasters – three of the preeminent Global Risks that were worrying top minds at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

Amongst the distractions of Brexit, cyber security, trade wars and fake news, there is a danger that those in power ignore experts’ recommendations to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to cut profligate consumption and waste. The environment is not a rarefied concern for sandal-wearing scientists and tree-hugging lefties in wealthy nations. Instead, agricultural failure in northern India, water security in South Africa, flooding in Europe, heatwaves in Australia and wildfires in California are examples of climate issues affecting everybody, though the poorest will suffer the effects of environmental catastrophe most intensely.

What 2019 needs is for people from all backgrounds to speak up about the future they want to see, to challenge those who hold power, and for everybody to commit to making the changes needed to avert global-scale disaster.

Citizens of the world step up

Extinction Rebellion banners on the floor in Parliament Square, London, surrounded by people
Extinction Rebellion in Parliament Square, London (c) Mike Gifford

The long-term outcomes of climate action are compelling: a sustainable future for humanity, with fair access to food, water, energy and transport, quality housing, good health, unpolluted urban living, a thriving natural environment, and opportunities for people regardless their background.

Artists, film-makers and many ordinary citizens around the world are showing how much they care about humans’ relationship with the environment and nature, about air pollution, the state of the oceans, micro-plastics and animal welfare. Greta Thunberg and the Climate Strike, Invisible Dust, ARTCOP, and Grantham Art Prize are but a few.

Countries including the UK and France offer support for cleantech start-ups, where entrepreneurs can see their inventions developed into products and businesses that reduce our reliance on outdated, polluting or wasteful technologies. Imperial’s own Translation & Innovation Hub (I–HUB) and White City Campus adjoin the Mayor of London’s cleantech regeneration area in west London, and Paris has its own equivalent in Station F.

What is less clear is why governments are lagging behind popular opinion on these critical issues.

Governments must react

France and the UK’s domestic action on climate change in the past has given them credibility to influence other nations to implement similar plans. There are signs however that this influence is weakening, which risks damage to their national reputations as well as to their position as a driving force for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Recent policy changes, including the UK’s slashed budget for carbon capture and storage, the failure of the Green Deal for energy efficient homes, removal of subsidies for solar and wind power, and retracted permission for a tidal power in the Severn Estuary, might lead to questions regarding the UK’s commitment to cutting emissions to zero.

In France, we have seen long-term sustainability policies stumble in the face of public protests against a high-carbon fuel tax. President Macron has suspended the tax for this year, despite a petition to sue France over climate inaction. Europe and the rest of world are watching.

In 2019, governments and leaders must set an example and lead the international community to take action on climate change. Here’s how:

  • Continue to act as trailblazers in environmental policy at home, and fuel the economy with investment in clean innovation domestically and internationally;
  • Establish new, and reinforce old, multi-lateral agreements and platforms that advocate for stronger commitments and action on sustainability and climate change, such as the World Bank, OECD, or the Global Commission on the Economy and the Climate;
  • Determine a new relationship between the UK and the EU that enables them to continue to work together on climate change mitigation targets, dedicated institutions and technology transfer; and
  • The UK must use its departure from the EU to strengthen policies at home, including more focused agricultural policy goals, with solid enforcement by the proposed Office for Environmental Protection and direction for low-carbon economy investments.

Imperial College London is one of the Institutional Partners of the Night of Ideas, which is organised by the Institut Français du Royaume-Uni (French Institute of Great Britain).

Watch a full video of the panel discussion with Professor Joanna Haigh, Former French Minister for the Environment Nicolas Hulot and the University of Surrey’s Professor of Sustainable Development, Tim Jackson, chaired by Financial Times Energy Correspondent Pilita Clark. [From 4:44:45]

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