This morning I accepted a leaflet that resembled a dollar bill from a very purposeful-looking campaigner while I was in the queue for the COP21 shuttle bus. I did this without really thinking about it (as many others around me also appeared to be doing) and I have yet to read what it’s actually about. Another campaigner offered a copy of the same leaflet to my colleague, Jonathan, who – rather more thoughtfully than I had done – kindly refused to take it on the grounds of saving paper. Surprisingly, the campaigner looked really rather put out by this and it set me to thinking…
It’s fair to say that pretty much everyone here at COP21 has made a commitment to and is playing a role in combatting climate change; so why is it that the most basic of environmentally-friendly gestures seem to baffle people in practice? It’s not just this campaigner. Yesterday we were visited by around 40 people at our exhibition stand (Hall 4, Stand 26D, if you’re interested!) and of all of these people, only one made use of the QR code system that we have set up to allow people to take digital copies (as opposed to paper hard copies) of our exhibition materials. Others, rather reluctantly in some cases, duly noted down our website but most seemed somewhat inconvenienced by the fact that we were not handing out vast quantities of paper (which, let’s be honest, would likely go unread and end up in bins!)
When it comes to fighting climate change, it seems to me that we all have a role to play: from the individual right up through to academic institutions, commercial and industrial organisations, policy groups and, of course, governments. At the opening of COP21 last Monday, 150 Heads of State gave their opening speeches, pledging commitments to combatting climate change and enthusiastically sharing their hopes for a successful outcome of this COP21. I watched (most of) these speeches with great interest and was impressed at how climate change seemed to be pretty high on the agenda of the majority of countries, (at least based on what was being said). The cynic in me wondered, however, if these leaders really meant what they were saying. I took to Twitter and looked up the feeds of a number of world leaders (Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama, Narendra Modi…) and lo and behold each and every one of them had something meaningful to say about climate change and/or COP21. Then I looked up our Prime Minister, David Cameron’s feed… nothing about COP (although something about tennis and then Syria). How strange! So I looked on the Conservative Party’s feed… just the Autumn Statement. There was nothing about climate change, nothing about COP21 and nothing to give even the slightest hint that David Cameron had shown up for an afternoon in Paris to deliver a speech. Does this matter? Well, in the big scheme of things, perhaps not. Does it send a message that the UK government really cares about climate change, as David Cameron claimed in his COP21 address? No! And that really does matter.
David Cameron spoke about the importance of delivering on the commitments that we sign up to (although apparently not when it comes to manifesto promises to fund £1bn for carbon capture and storage only days before COP21 but I guess that’s a whole other blog post!). It is time for all of us to practice what we preach.
I know that there are many who already do this and that’s great! I am surprised by how many don’t. Be it through disingenuousness or some technical or administrative difficulty, governments too often say one thing and do another. I spotted earlier today a very well-known environmental campaign group’s exhibit stand surrounded by stacks of leaflets and booklets to give away despite the pre-exhibition push for e-literature. How many sustainability experts fly all over the world to attend climate change events? How many individuals leave lights on at home in rooms where no one is, leave the tap running while they brush their teeth after having enjoyed a meat-based meal and sneakily throw their empty shop-bought water bottles in the normal bin because the recycling one is full? When we’re alone in our houses and no one is watching, my guess is that the answer is more than would care to admit it if asked!
Maybe COP21 will give us the binding agreement that we all hope for and maybe everyone (for once) will do what they’ve pledged and maybe the world will be saved. Maybe… Or maybe it’s time that we each made a real, tangible change (big or small) in our lives. I know that this alone won’t save the world but surely the impact of collective small actions has got to make some difference to the bigger picture. Would you give up meat and dairy for a day a week? Would you swap your (probably unnecessary because you’re not a farmer) 4×4 for a less environmentally-damaging car, or even no car? Would you stop buying bottled water? We allow ourselves not to do these things by reassuring ourselves that (i) someone else will take care of it and/or (ii) that our tiny contribution won’t make much difference in the big scheme of things anyway. But it isn’t about the immediate impact of one action; in fact, in this instance the significance is in the fact that we choose to change at all.
Things like COP are great and, without doubt, necessary but what’s the point if we don’t each play our part in day-to-day life? What’s the point if we don’t really follow through? What’s the point if in 10, 15, 20 years’ time we end up, in the words of David Cameron, telling our children that it was all just a bit too difficult?