Monday, 28 June 2010

What is the dream?

‘Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years time?’ is a question that one may commonly hear during a job interview and less commonly at 10pm on a Sunday evening at a pub overlooking the Thames in Wandsworth, Pimms in hand. I unexpectedly ended up having this type of philosophical conversation at a social event last night. I was discussing jobs with a friend who explained that what he is doing right now in finance is not what he would like to do at all (he’d like to be a teacher, a writer or set up a charity). Another friend was saying he does not know what he is aiming for in his current job as an estate agent.

When I explained that I am interested in, focused on and committed to sustainable development and doing my bit to help the environment, I was met with ‘so in an ideal world, what would you like to achieve in this sector in your lifetime?’ Wowzers. I did not have my thinking hat on at this point after a long day in the sunshine at the Royal Academy, picnic in Regent’s Park, awful England match and a BBQ, but time to put it on and engage my brain...
The best I could come up with in response at that moment was: On my death bed, I would like to feel that I have contributed to a significant reduction in anthropogenic green-house gas emissions (that is, those caused by human activity). This is in addition to many other things to help reduce human impact on the earth like encouraging responsible resource management: reduce, reuse, recycle.

I was asked ‘if there were no political, social or monetary constraints, what would you do to tackle climate change’? Wowzers Take 2. Right, must attempt to shake Pimms-induced brain fuzz. I think that two key areas for carbon emissions reduction that I would like to focus on are transport and the built environment. Evidently these are highly complex areas and it would not be a case of throwing money and resources at them. For example, Islington Council put on a ‘bike skills’ show as part of Bike Week last year, but found out from audience feedback and post-event social data, that whilst watching bike-athletes do wheelies, spin around and do jumps and hops on their two-wheeled vehicles is a nice way to spend part of a Saturday afternoon, it did not help encourage public bike use. We are still learning about what will have the most impact, but I think Boris’ plans for safer, more practical cycling routes and bike storage around London is a good start. Cheaper public transport would be another good step to take. As the new budget has shown, this is not likely to happen any time soon, but in my ‘constrain-free’ world, it certainly would happen!

In terms of ameliorating energy efficiency of buildings and industry, I would create and improve financial incentives like tax rebates for good behaviour and grants for domestic insulation (the ‘polluter pays principle’ is another story and does not always work). I would definitely invest in renewables and look into CHP and decentralised energy systems at this time too.

Looking back, these all seem like quite tame responses, but I believe that to implement something more extreme (free public transport and solar panels for all!), even in a constraint-free world, would require time, effort, research and development.

There are many smaller projects that at a local scale are fantastic for community spirit (e.g. Transition Highbury, or the Modbury anti-plastic bag project) and can collectively make a world of difference. Whether encouraging grow-your-own and ‘buy local’ to help reduce the carbon emissions related to food transportation or exploring options for eco-friendly art and theatre, it all adds up. When aiming for carbon emissions reduction, it is advised to neither neglect other areas of environmentalism, nor other areas of sustainability (economic, social) and instead aim for a holistic approach, because all of these things are strongly interlinked.

‘What are the main barriers and challenges that we currently face?’ Before my job as a recycling advisor, I would have probably said educating people and helping them to understand (and believe, in some cases) climate change and that they, as individuals, can and will make a big difference. My recycling job has helped me to see that changing people’s attitudes and behaviour towards environmental sustainability through education is not straightforward and is certainly not the full answer. As stated in a previous blog entry, there are other barriers to recycling, like the supermarkets not giving enough options for less-packaged products. To relate this to tackling climate change: education is important (and actually the communication of environmental issues is one of my passions), but companies selling products and the government have a huge responsibility too. As we are coming out of a recession, I would say that it may be difficult to prioritise environmental issues over economic ones. The answer is: there are many barriers of various forms and relative sizes, but we should attempt to tackle them all.

‘Will it actually make a difference?’ At this point I suggested to my friend that he visit the website of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which particularly in its summary publications demonstrates the evidence behind the claims. It makes clearer the science behind future scenarios (e.g. if we continue emitting at the rate we are, the CO2 level will rise to x parts per million by x time and this will cause x catastrophic global effects), as well as showing that the negative impacts of anthropogenic climate change are happening now and on a global scale.

‘Do you believe that we can stop it?’ Climate change happens naturally and through palaeo-environmental reconstructions and climate modelling we have seen that there are cycles of warming and cooling (with CO2 levels rising and falling respectively) over thousands of years. It is essentially since the industrial revolution that CO2 levels have risen dramatically to a level and at a rate never seen before. Here, I pointed him in the direction of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. For this reason, climate change is not something that we are aiming to stop, rather we are aiming to reduce human-induced climate change and therefore the impacts that go with that.

Bearing in mind these were my thoughts late on a Sunday night, my answers may well be different (better informed) in a few months time when I have had more experience in this field. Whether at an interview or down the pub with your mates, I have realised the importance of regularly taking stock of where you would like to be and how to go about getting there.

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