Transitions to a sustainable economy

As we build up to the Paris climate conference in December, big companies and governments are once again telling us what a great job they are doing on climate change and the environment more generally. Meanwhile, we are heading for a climate disaster, with the world on track for a 3 or 4 degree rise in temperature when even 2 degrees – we are halfway there – is too much for people and nature.

Climate change is the most acute sign of the many ways in which we are trashing our planet, and it is the one we need to fix if all our efforts on reducing poverty, creating fairer societies, stopping deforestation and protecting nature are not to be a waste of time.

We know that world leaders are not going to do enough when they come together in Paris. The recent G7 meeting in Bonn agreed to phase out fossil fuels by 2100. This got some positive coverage but a pledge by a bunch of leaders who will be long dead before then to give up something which will mostly have run out by then anyway is not really that impressive.

In Paris, they may talk a good game but the actual targets they are willing to sign up to are well short of what is needed. Unlike the similar Copenhagen conference in 2009, we know this in advance. Copenhagen could have produced a fair, ambitious and binding deal, but it didn’t. What comes out of Paris will probably not be very fair, certainly will not be ambitious enough and not much of it will be binding.

It is still important to keep up pressure on world leaders, so that what comes out of Paris is as good as it can be in the circumstances. But it is just as important to work for a transition to a more sustainable economy through our own efforts, despite the failings of world leaders.

What are the characteristics of a sustainable economy? On the energy side, it means getting out of fossil fuels. Globally, we know about five times as much fossil fuel exists as we can possibly afford to burn to avoid catastrophic climate change. Most of it has got to stay where it is if we are to prevent disaster. Fracking and the other unconventional coal and gas plans are the last thing we need.

On electricity, we are doing pretty well, but we also need to get rid of fossil fuels for heating and transport fuels. We need to use materials much more efficiently – going beyond recycling and composting to a ‘circular economy’ where materials can end up being used many times over, instead of going from extraction through use and then straight to disposal. A recent study suggested Scotland could reduce its current climate emissions by 20% by moving to a more circular economy.

A more sustainable economy should be one with more jobs. A study by government, industry and academics concluded that going for offshore renewable energy – wind, wave and tidal – would be as big as North Sea oil has been for the economy, and create 145,000 jobs. These jobs are only slowly being created, with the renewables industry currently employing 11,000 people.

As well as offshore there is plenty more to do in the onshore renewables, which also require engineering skills, and there are perhaps 150,000 jobs to be created in the massive investment we need to make in insulating people’s homes to get them to a decent liveable standard. Across Britain, radical action to develop a circular economy could create more than 500,000 jobs.

And where does nuclear fit in this picture? It doesn’t. Even if you didn’t care about leaving a radio-active waste challenge for the next 1,000 generations, nuclear is pretty much the most expensive way to create electricity and almost nothing else creates fewer jobs per pound spent.

We need to have a plan to make the transition because our past failures have cost dear. We failed to have a planned transition when deep coal mining collapsed in the 1980s. We failed again in the 1990s with the closure of most of Scotland’s heavy industries.

You could, of course, make the changes towards a more sustainable economy through big companies, financed by big banks. No doubt we will have to do some of that, but a genuine sustainable economy must also have a decent social dimension, supporting local jobs, community ownership and a fairer distribution of income, with a well-planned transition from where we are in the unsustainable economy to where we need to get to.

The Scottish election, with a revamped Labour and a likely strong showing by the Greens, could provide a good space to push sustainable economy ideas.

Dr Richard Dixon is Director of FoE Scotland. Join Friends of the Earth in Paris for the international mass mobilisations for climate justice: