When I was very young (i.e. somewhere between having learned to hold up my own head and being able to form lasting memories), I was taken by my parents to visit my Grandfather.
My parents, having moved from Ireland’s rural west to the English Midlands, used these visits home to hear the stories of the local births, deaths, marriages and mishaps. As emigrants know, this is always important in maintaining a sense of belonging as well as, in some, way, justifying their decision.
In among the colourful tales of local drama, of course they talked of the weather. In that part of the world in the 1960s, the weather was close to life and death. It dictated when you could cut hay, save turf for the fire, sow and reap. A good summer meant an easier winter; a summer of rain and storms could make the dark, cold months a genuine struggle. On Ireland’s Atlantic coast, either was a real possibility.
On this particular occasion, my Grandfather told my parents, “The day will come when you will not be able to tell the seasons apart.” And then, pointing at me, he said, “I won’t live to see it…but he will…”.
Of course, my Grandfather had no peer-reviewed scientific research to support his statement; he had no access to predictive climate change modelling or sophisticated databases. He had simply lived a long life, most of it close to the land and nature, and felt the gradual blurring of the lines between the seasons…
I am reminded of his words as I write this. It is late October, and the clocks have just returned us to GMT. Just up the hill from me, in Birmingham’s Centenary Square, a public ice rink and a sizeable Ferris Wheel have been installed, the now-traditional indicators of winter’s imminent arrival. Advertisements for pantomimes, festive parties and our Christmas Market abound…
Yet today, parts of England are warmer than Greece; the Sunday strollers in Centenary Square are out in shirt sleeves and light jackets; even an ice cream seller thought it a reasonable business decision to pass up his Sunday lunch in return for making some extra money. I am writing this without having had to trouble my knitwear drawer, let alone consider putting the heating on (the latter at least postpones energy-related penury for a little longer).
So, should we be grateful for what our meteorologists, with commendably British understatement, call, ‘unseasonably mild’ weather? Or should we be very concerned?
This week, The United Nations released the 13th edition of the Emissions Gap Report. This annual summary provides details of what greenhouse emissions are likely to be in 2030 (based on current activity) compared with where we need them to be to avoid the more catastrophic impacts and outcomes of climate change.
The report is not an encouraging read and lays bare the scale of the challenge that we face if we are to limit the extent of global temperature rise. It finds that progress since the COP 26 climate change conference in Glasgow last year has been, ‘woefully inadequate’. The agreed Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) on emissions have led to a reduction of only 0.5 gigatons of CO2, less than 1% of the projected 2030 figure. The report goes on to say that keeping any temperature rise to 2°C will require a 30% cut in greenhouse emissions by 2030; the original 1.5°C target will now require a 45% reduction over the same period. Most worryingly, the report suggests that ‘Policies currently in place, without further strengthening, suggest a 2.8°C hike’ [in the global temperature, by 2100]. This, by any model, merits the ‘catastrophe’ category that the authors of the report assign to it.
So far, so bleak…if Hollywood took the option on the movie of this report you can bet Morgan Freeman would be the voiceover of choice. However, it would be too easy to take the headlines and retire, helpless, to a quiet corner where you hope the air-con outlasts you. But I am an optimist, and my glass of zero-carbon, eco-friendly, organic, sustainable Small Heath Spring Water is forever half full...
Let’s look at what the report does not say. It does not say that the ‘catastrophe’ is inevitable; it does not say that the original targets are unrealistic or invalid; nor does it say that a shift in global behaviour suitable and sufficient to meeting those targets is impossible.
What it does do is to clearly present the difficulties ahead of us, and the level of commitment and willingness to change that will be required to overcome them. It sets a challenge to global governments to think beyond the short-term, to make tough choices and to work together for the common good. Equally, it pulls no punches with us, the global consumer. We need to change too – our diets, our wastefulness and our expectations are not sustainable, literally.
Here is the report on what is required in the world of food production and consumption;
“Food systems, which account for one third of all emissions, can be reformed to deliver rapid and lasting cuts [to greenhouse emissions]
- Focus areas for food systems include demand-side dietary changes (including tackling food waste), protection of natural ecosystems, improvements in food production at the farm level and decarbonization of food supply chains.
- Transformations in the four areas can reduce 2050 food systems emissions to around a third of current levels; as opposed to emissions almost doubling if current practices remain in place.
- Governments can facilitate transformation by reforming subsidies and tax schemes. The private sector can reduce food loss and waste, use renewable energy and develop novel foods that cut down carbon emissions. Individual citizens can change their lifestyles to consume food for environmental sustainability and carbon reduction.”
That is the dual approach recommended here – governments can use the mechanisms available through e.g. taxation and legislation to incentivize good practice, and individuals can make positive lifestyle choices that bring collective benefits.
I think many people already want to do the right thing. It is not easy when the information on environmental impact is both so plentiful and yet unclear, and when ‘planet-friendly’ claims are vague and consumers mistrustful of the businesses that make them. It is also a consideration for many households that they must put food on the table and have less money with which to do so. If healthier food options are not financially incentivized, then the ‘choice’ element is taken away.
While being on the 'good' side of environmental impact is not easy for us as consumers, as members of an organisation whose remit is assurance of quality, safety and compliance, we can more easily define our contribution. Our customers are those businesses who want to do the right thing and who choose us to help them meet the required standards. We serve the need for global change when we support their innovations by helping them understand and mitigate risk; when we guide them through the maze of the regulatory framework so that they can bring a beneficial product to market; when we certify their new technologies and products, and ensure that the public is properly served by their safety, quality and authenticity. We are likely to be called upon more often as 2030 nears and the ‘window’ begins to close.
COP 27 begins in Egypt in seven days – it is time for governments to recognise the ‘fierce urgency of now’ and make some brave but necessary choices.