COP26 – Climate Change and the need to Shift Beyond 'Blah, Blah, Blah' towards Individual Responsibility

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Every time we consume, we create and sustain employment somewhere on this planet, but also contribute to supporting activities that are linked to climate change.”

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Climate change is the most important threat to life on earth as we know it. The on-going UN Climate Change Conference that is underway in Glasgow – COP26 – highlights the importance of uniting the world to tackle climate change. There are many ways of reading the outcome of COP26. Greta Thunberg labelled the climate talks as two weeks of ‘blah blah blah’. This undervalues that which will come from COP26 in terms of strategic government led interventions and raising public awareness, but there is still a major problem left to tackle. 

Greta Thunberg is playing a valuable role in raising awareness of climate change, but it is critical to move beyond criticism and protest to action. The question is – what type of action? There is a major challenge here and that is individual acceptance of the role each individual living on this planet can play in reducing the impacts of lifestyle decisions on the environment. The Kantar September 2021 survey of people living in 10 countries including the UK, US, France, and Germany highlighted an important tension in individual perception of climate change. This poll identified that 62% of respondents considered the climate crisis as the main environmental challenge followed by air pollution (39%) and the impacts of waste (38%). The primary problem facing politicians and climate change activists is clearly identified in this poll – 46% of respondents considered that there was no real need to change their habits, but 74% considered that they were proud of what they were currently doing for the planet. 

The problem here is that climate change is the outcome of the continual accumulation of trillions of everyday decisions, often trivial decisions, made by individuals, households, firms, and organisations. A key driver behind climate change are everyday decisions regarding personal consumption. Every time we consume, we create and sustain employment somewhere on this planet, but also contribute to supporting activities that are linked to climate change. The problem is the balance between climate friendly consumer behaviour and consumption that contributes to climate change. There are major problems here including identifying eco-friendly products and services. For climate change the best option is to limit consumption but a key issue is the need to continue to consume to support local economic activity. Consumption results in taxation that then supports public services. There is this a circular economy of consumption based around job creation/retention, taxation, and public service provision. Nevertheless, this link between consumption and public service provision highlights the necessity for public service provision to be as climate friendly as possible. 

There are many pathways towards more climate friendly forms of consumption. One of these is to be found by engaging with circular economy principles based on consuming products and services that have been developed based on designing out waste and pollutants, and with an emphasis on reusing, repairing, and recycling materials. An alternative is to consider every moment of consumption to try to reconcile the tensions between the values that are obtained from using that which is consumed versus an assessment of sustainability impacts. This type of thinking sits behind organisations that are trying to develop more sustainable business models. These companies have to balance product and process sustainability against business profitability and this balancing act reflects an on-going discussion between different forms of value – profit versus sustainability. This type of thinking is reflected in one of my recent papers on COVID-19 and the need to develop an alternative balance between risk, reward and different forms of value in global value chains.

Birmingham Business School was founded in 1902. In the 1930s, Nikolaus Pevsner, the German-British art historian and architectural historian, was provided with a research fellowship by the University of Birmingham. This resulted in the publication of a little-known book entitled “An Enquiry into Industrial Art in England” (Cambridge University Press, 1937). This is a study of manufacturing firms in the Midlands of the UK. It is a very important study that I explore in my 2011 book on Design Economies and the Changing World Economy. One of Pevsner’s contributions was to note that alterations in consumer behaviour would drive change within manufacturing companies. It also highlighted the importance of educating future consumers in primary and secondary schools about product design. 
Pevsner’s book identified one pathway towards a more sustainable future based on education. This pathway is all about using education to encourage consumers and producers to shift towards more eco-friendly lifestyles. Universities, like the University of Birmingham, have an important role to play here, but as do all educational providers including the media. Nevertheless, the key point is that this is all about each of us accepting that we have individual responsibility for contributing to reducing the impacts of the climate crisis. 

Everyone living on this planet needs to make major alterations to their lifestyles and these alterations must force providers of goods and services to make dramatic alterations to their production processes. These alterations must apply to providers of public and private services. All this is about thinking before one consumes and using consumption as a tool to drive change.

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