The Scale of the Challenge
The world faces a series of unprecedented and interlocking crises on climate, social inequality and nature loss. These have already left communities and ecosystems economically vulnerable, with many increasingly unable to offer even basic livelihoods for all.
The simple solution to the climate crisis is to leave every kilogramme of fossil fuel in the ground. There is much talk about the prospects of creating more regenerative and renewable cultures and economies, and hope that eventually there will be transformations to low-carbon and more equal ways of living. Some of these paths have been set out in my book, The Low-Carbon Good Life and in the recent Earth for All Survival Guide for Humanity.
But it will be tight. Since the pre-industrial period, the planet has warmed by +1.2°C. A range of international and national processes led by the IPCC have been trying to “keep 1.5 alive” – to limit total heating to less than +1.5°C, and at worst +2°C. Researchers worldwide know this is looking challenging.
The world economy has been emitting a net of more than 50 Gt (billion tonnes) of CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) each year in the 2020s. The total carbon in the atmosphere is now rising at some +2ppm (parts per million) annually. The last safe place for humanity was in 1990, just a generation or so ago, when carbon was at 350 ppm. In 2023, the first measurements at over 420ppm were being made. At current rates, and without transformative changes in policies and institutions, it will pass 470ppm before 2050. This would be highly dangerous to economies and environments worldwide.
To get back to 350ppm we need emissions to fall to zero quickly. Three 50% cuts over successive decades would work: a cut of a half in the remaining 2020s, a further half by 2040, and another half by 2050. This would reduce total emissions to 12.5% of current levels, close to enough if we factor in a growth in carbon capture by regenerative land and sea based systems. It is clear that much else will have to change: habits, norms, policies and collective action.
Tipping Points and Transitions
Recent research on the concept of negative tipping points has identified a high likelihood of system discontinuities and non-linearities occurring before 2050. The prospects are alarming: collapse of the UK-warming Gulf Stream, death of tropical coral reefs, abrupt melting of 60-90% of the 47,000 glaciers in the Himalayas, end of Arctic summer sea-ice, permanent shifts in the Sahelian and Indian monsoons, the loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet. If these sudden ruptures do occur, it will be very difficult to find a way to return to the prior system state.
At the same time, the literature also recognises the potential for positive tipping points, whereby small initial perturbations lead to large regime shifts. As Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter has put it, now we need unprecedented changes in paradigms and worldviews to produce collective action and social norms that cascade the positive.
What are the prospects for new forms of social capital that build trust and reciprocity, common obligations and collective action?
In 2020, an international group of 29 authors published a global assessment of the growth in social groups for sustainable agriculture and land management over the past 20 years. Through deliberate engagement policies and practices, a wide range of social movements, networks and federations have emerged. We focused on social capital manifested as intentionally-formed collaborative groups within geographic territories, and these centred on landscape-scale sustainable uses of land, water and pastures, integrated pest management at scale, joint and collective forest management, the creation of microcredit support services, and co-production innovation platforms. We showed across 122 initiatives in 55 countries that the number of groups had grown from 0.5 million (at 2000) to 8.54 million (by 2020). The area of land transformed by these 170-255 million group members was 300 million hectares, mostly in emerging economies and countries.
These forms of social capital have improved environmental outcomes and agricultural productivity. Together with other movements, these social groups could now work to support further transitions towards low carbon futures. In Bangladesh, for example, the Grameen Bank has, with other charities, built women’s social groups for micro-credit: a priority now is to train 71,000 rural women to become solar panel engineers, one for each village in the country.
Elsewhere, substantial national leadership is being shown by a range of countries to support the transition to renewable electricity generation. These seven countries produce 100% of their electricity from renewables: Albania, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Iceland, Norway, Paraguay and Uruguay. These seven exceed 90%: Ethiopia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Namibia, Tajikistan and Zambia. No one is saying these countries are perfect in every respect. But it is clear that competent and active governments can raise domestic wellbeing by spending less on importing fossil fuels. In short, transitions to renewables with appropriate national social capital bring resilience and the financial capacity to invest in a green economy.
Place-Based Climate Commissions
I am chair of one of the UK’s Place-Based Climate Action Commissions inspired by the ESRC-funded project at the University of Leeds. The aim was to provide a novel institutional architecture situated between national government and individual households. The model of independent commissions supported by commissioners drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors has been adopted by cities, counties and sub-regions, including Aberdeen, Belfast, Croydon, Edinburgh, Essex, Kirklees, Leeds, Lincoln, Surrey, and Yorkshire and Humber.
This close engagement with the concerns and interests of the public within their regions has ensured the opportunities for change are embedded in a local social, economic and cultural structures. Climate action is not just about developing and adopting low-carbon technologies, it is also about inequality, social justice, behaviour change, volunteering and sharing, and visions for new ways of living. Many Commissions began with a target of Net Zero by 2050, echoing national and UN targets, but since the Glasgow COP26 have become more ambitious. The Yorkshire and Humberside Commission set a target of 2038 in their late-2021 report.
The Essex Climate Action Commission issued its first comprehensive report in 2021 recommending the county adopt more than 100 recommendations on land use and green infrastructure, the built environment, energy use and generation, transport, waste, community engagement, and a just green economy. All 100 of these recommendations were accepted as a package by the cabinet of Essex County Council in December 2021, and endorsed unanimously by all political parties.
Since the summer of 2022, I have given more than 40 in-person talks in the region and beyond. One aim has been to prompt local groups to form new climate action committees and groups at parish, town and district level. I have learned the following: the reality of the climate crisis is now widely accepted. But this has in turn brought new anxiety and stress.
People do not want only bad news. They prefer hope and kindness, the values of togetherness and collective action. I provide a menu of choices that will deliver greater well-being and lower bills through low-carbon living, and emphasise that each of us will want to choose a different path over diet and food choices, energy and the home, active and electric transport, and lowering consumption of material goods.
Across the county some 25 groups have emerged, and they are supporting the work of the county Commission. They are also helping to spread ideas across local boundaries, thus securing further policy change towards net-zero.
Hope is a key requirement for starting any journey. And stories help, as I have sought to show in my book about sea-facing cultures of the North Sea and eastern North Atlantic in Sea Sagas of the North.
Rebecca Solnit in her Hope in the Dark has said, look not for hope in the limelight, for that is where the existing power sits. Look instead in the shadows and margins. When people act with hope, they soon find others: hope helps us move from the individual to the collective. The Rapid Transition Alliance and the University of Essex have been working on a project called Hope Tales – a series of events organised around hope, each producing a chapbook modelled on the street literature of the 1700s and 1800s.
A chapbook in those times was small, typically short in length, and illustrated with woodcuts and drawings. Chapbooks covered fairy and folk tales, heroic journeys, ghost stories and ballads; they focused on fortune telling and political manifestos, on almanacs, news of disasters, and dreams of hope.
Hope Tales are inner journeys as much as external, shaped by outer events that readers or listeners will recognise. Something is at stake, and we learn from it. We believe hope to be a key part of the social transitions now needed to create new ways of low-carbon living that can help prevent the occurrence of the negative tipping points of the climate crisis.
A literature of hope can lead to greater agency. But this will also require patience and attention to the language of stories. The nature poet, Mary Oliver, reminded us all of the value of small steps in her poem Wild Geese:
“You do not have to be good, you do not have to walk on your knees,
For a hundred miles through the desert repenting.”
And the Tao Te Ching, written 2500 years ago and translated here by poet Gary Snyder, observed:
“The best things in life,
Are not things.”
Photo Credit: Prof Mortel on WikiMedia Commons
About the author
Professor Jules Pretty is Director of the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex, and author of two recent books: Sea Sagas of the North (2022) and The Low-Carbon Good Life (2023). He is Chair of the Essex Climate Action Commission.