How to cut emissions: What this month’s Paris summit might learn… from Paris

Anti fracking protesters

Commentary by Zara Kitson

Politicians from across the globe will gather in Paris later this month to sign a new international agreement on emissions reduction.

The final outcome is likely to fall short of what most Greens around the world would wish for – binding targets that will limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius this century.

However it does at least seem that the world’s industrial powers may be waking up to the magnitude of the commitments they must make to have a meaningful impact for the climate.

Zara Kitson
Zara Kitson

Little old Scotland, with our binding 80pc emissions reduction targets by 2050, has set the example that others are now starting to follow.  For that, we should be upbeat, while offering constructive criticism about how we need the Scottish Government to learn to meet its own targets.  So why do I worry that in the political and media scrum which will descend on Paris, we’re missing the real story?

I think it’s because my politics starts with people – but these global grandstanding events seldom provide a platform for telling people’s stories; instead they are lost in a morass of platitudes and spin.

Our battles with climate change are helping us to gain a better understanding of what we are capable of.  It’s about the human, ecological and social costs of letting greed run unchecked, witnessed in huge tracts of our planet being rendered uninhabitable because they are threatened by flood, ravaged by fire or their water and other essential resources are now terminally depleted.

That said – as someone who embraces opportunity in every challenge – it’s also about what we can do to fight back.  It’s about the hope and optimism found in communities across the globe who are taking their future into their own hands, either to stop further pollution and degradation, like the communities along the Forth who are uniting against dirty shale and coal bed gas extraction, or those who are harnessing creative energies into grassroots initiatives, like the many projects supported by Scotland’s Climate Challenge Fund, won by the Greens in a budget deal back in 2007.

Scottish Greens understand that if we are to have any hope of meeting our climate obligations, we are going to have to take people with us, and that means engaging people to win the argument.  There are things that Government can clearly lead on, like supporting the massive shift needed away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy, and making energy efficiency for homes and buildings a national infrastructure priority – another agreement the Greens secured from the Scottish Government.

These are welcome interventions.  But, for a real transformation in the way we live, we also have to take bold steps in changing how we travel, what we eat and drink, and the materials we consume.

My concerns is that on these issues and others like them we risk a paralysis of inaction, where Governments are too feart to bring forward bold measures because they think they will be unpopular – and conversely, people become ever more resistant to the few measures that Governments do promote because they are badly presented as top-down or paternalistic.

We can set whatever targets we like, but if we get locked into this sort of stalemate there’s no chance of ever meeting them. This might sound like doom-mongering, but I think the prospect is real.  Our current SNP Government is happy enough to bring forward positive but small-scale measures like the 5p carrier bag charge, but not to do anything meaningful to bring down air travel emissions or red meat consumption, both of which would offer massive carbon savings.  Ultimately the danger is that some could view behaviour change as something done to people, rather than something they are an integral part of.

That’s where I believe the Scottish Greens come in to our own. We know we still need to win the argument on climate change – though it’s one young people get instinctively – and we have the understanding and the activism to go out and show people that we will all be better off in a world which takes responsibility for the climate, and preserves a positive future for the generations to come.

Interestingly, one answer to stop such an impasse forming between politicians and the people might be taking root in Paris, of all places.

Emissions? Us?
Emissions? Us?

Last year, while we in Scotland were on a post-Indyref comedown, Parisians were taking part in the biggest participatory budget-setting process ever to have taken place in Europe – deciding on the first round of priorities in a £335 million cash pot to be spent by 2020.  Nine projects received support, totalling £20 million. Interestingly, all of the top five had clear environmental benefits, ranging from ‘green walls’ to promote biodiversity to schemes to utilise derelict land and to promote co-working.

That doesn’t surprise me at all.  As someone who’s been involved in participation and community work throughout my life, it’s obvious to me that when people are meaningfully engaged in decisions that effect their lives, they prioritise actions that are likely to ensure a safe, secure future for their children and grandchildren, and that often results in making better choices for communities and our planet.

There’s similar evidence from the business world too. Research has shown that employee-owned companies are more willing than others to make decisions that have a longer-term payback and to invest more in innovation.

I’d like to see a brave business or local authority in Scotland set their own carbon budget, using participatory methods. Such a process would foster better understanding of our relationship with the environmental and help persuade authorities and decision makers that there is in fact a wisdom of the crowd that supports better decision making on all fronts.

I’d wager that if we adopted participatory methods to greater extent in local planning, we wouldn’t be threatening communities with the spectre of fracking, our pension funds wouldn’t be getting ploughed into fossil fuel extraction, and we’d be re-ordering our budgets to prioritise assurance of cleaner greener local communities, safe for cyclists and pedestrians – places for people to thrive.

Decentralised and networked ways of living and being, with participatory democracy  at the core is key to securing a sustainable and vibrant life for people and planet – Scottish Greens get that and are ready to kick in to action to help make it reality.

Zara Kitson, a regular contributor to Newsnet usually via our podcasts with Derek Bateman, is a prominent green activist, running currently to be co-convener of the Scottish Green Party. You can hear her soon in a forthcoming  Newsnet Radio podcast.