Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A bagful of promises

By Martin Pollard

Anyone doing the usual hellish trawl of Cardiff’s shopping metropolis on Saturday will not have failed to notice that something has changed. How much it affects you, of course, will depend on your existing eco-credentials, or at least your penchant for a rucksack. Yes, the carrier bag charge – mighty symbol of a new green Wales – has arrived, and shop assistants everywhere are tiring already of the need to remind us.

Don’t let my soupçon of sarcasm give you the wrong idea: the 5p charge is clearly A Good Idea. We should doubtless be proud that our newly-empowered lawmakers have decided to follow the example of Ireland, albeit at a lower rate and without any of the new funds entering public coffers. It’s just that one might argue – as George Monbiot did at the weekend – that in the grand scheme of environmental sustainability, it isn’t really that big a deal.

The Federation of Small Businesses was determined to makea stand against it all, even though consumers themselves seemed supportive. “There's a lot of confusion and I think it will take a long time for people to get used to the charge,” they noted, a comment which could hardly be translated into rage by even the hardiest of tabloid headline writers. The Western Mail did, however, manage to make a “storm” out of the fact that the Welsh Local Government Association doubted the law’s enforceability.

The real importance of this law is that it will prove, once again, that legislation is better than regulation if you want the nation to change its lifestyle. We’ve seen it with the decline in smoking, and with the ban on using our phones when driving. On the flip side, one look at our hopelessly inadequate response to the obesity crisis is enough to tell us that so-called ‘self-regulation’ by the food industry simply doesn’t work.

But charging for carrier bags is painless. It will take a few weeks, or months at most, for everyone to accept it as a fact of life and take reusable bags wherever they go. No-one makes a big sacrifice. Dealing with the ramifications of climate change on a bigger scale is where the real challenge lies.

Oxfam recently reported that the Horn of Africa, already suffering a devastating drought which has killed thousands and forced nearly a million Somalis to leave their homes, faces a likely temperature increase of 3-4°C by 2080-2099 relative to 1980-1999. Quoting a Royal Society report, they predicted a 20% decline in yields in maize crops and up to 50% in bean crops. That’s just one region of one continent, but Somalia is one of the poorest and least stable countries in the world. The effects of climate change, as we are continually reminded by NGOs desperate for swifter global action, will be felt most keenly by those who have the least resources to cope.

It’s not even as if our governments fundamentally disagree on the science of climate change. Last December in Cancun, nearly every member state of the UN agreed on a whole range of principles including cutting carbon emissions, helping developing countries to deploy cleaner energy, and getting a grip on the destruction of rainforests. But it’s the political leadership back home, after the inspiring words have been spoken on the world stage, that is lacking.

Here in our cosseted world of the developed North, we have still not come terms with the fact that dealing with climate change really is going to mean making sacrifices. We can dream all we like about fleets of electric cars, vast investments in renewable energy, or the wholesale dismantling of global capitalism to make way for some kind of pastoral localist idyll. But in real world politics, what will really make the change will be when world leaders are brave enough to stand up and start saying, “Sorry – this is going to hurt.”

No more cheap flights. Big increases in taxation for private cars and investment in sustainable transport. Public campaigns to eat less meat. Until governments start speaking up for these kinds of steps – and there are many more – we, the public, are unlikely to adopt the wholesale change of mindset that will be necessary if we really mean business. Climate change is likely to be the defining issue of the twenty-first century – politically and socially as well as environmentally – and we need our public figures to face up to it. Like the Poor Laws or the start of the welfare state – but a global issue in an unprecedentedly globalised world – we need a wholesale change in our society’s narrative. Individuals and communities will contribute in important ways, but we need the political weight and financial wherewithal of our governments to make the really big changes.

I do believe that this change will come: it has to. But as mitigation of climate change fades inexorably into adaptation to its reality, we can only hope that it will happen sooner rather than later.

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