"We are the greatest problem solvers to have ever existed on earth" Sir David Attenborough, COP26
Addressing delegates at the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties 26 (COP26), the annual climate change conference held this year in Glasgow, Sir David Attenborough urges leaders to take action in his usual frank, but inspiring way. Will commitments and actions stemming from this conference start to reduce atmospheric carbon? Or will they keep rising for decades to come?, he asks of our leaders.
Being hailed as the greatest problem solvers on earth is fortuitous, given that we are also the greatest problem creators. We are the very cause of human induced climate change, the reason that the earth's climate is changing so rapidly that it's now affecting the very foundation upon which humans have been able to flourish during the relatively stable climate over the last 10,000 years.
This year's climate talks are critical, especially after the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found what scientists have been predicting for decades: that "Climate change is already affecting every inhabited region across the globe, with human influence contributing to many observed changes in weather and climate extremes". Unfortunately, regardless of any commitments made this week at COP26 or even if we immediately bottom-out global carbon emissions, the climate will continue to change and sea levels will rise, due to the delay in the climatic response from emissions already released.
Having been a spectator on the global climate debate for many years now, it is certainly encouraging to see the debate shift from 'is climate change real?' to 'this is what our country is going to do about it'. In Australia, politicians promote addressing climate change 'the Australian Way', with technology being the preeminent focus to achieve emission reductions. This is to include investing in new energy technologies such as hydrogen and low cost solar, capturing carbon and developing energy storage to facilitate greater use of wind and solar.
The importance of behaviour change in this conversation is often neglected. According to the UK's Committee on Climate Change, 43% of emission reductions to net zero (in the UK) necessitate a combination of both low carbon technology AND behaviour change. A further 16% of reductions are to come from broader behaviour change like changing diets, flying less, opting for more durable products, etc. And this is applicable in other countries too.
This is where you come in. While commitments from events like COP26 are important as they can set the stage for policy changes and funding future technologies and programmes; change can also be slow and influenced by economic and political factors, rather than evidence based advice. Many people are indeed interested in making lifestyle changes to help the cause, but only some individuals have thus far adapted their lifestyle.
You may also be surprised about the impact that different actions can have on carbon emissions. Waste reduction, particularly associated with plastics, has been gaining traction enormously in recent years. Ask anyone what they do for the environment, and undoubtedly one of the most common responses will be recycling. However, this ranks lower than other actions in terms of carbon emissions saved, as reported by a study by Ipsos MORI of people in 30 markets around the world:
Recycling saves 0.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per person per year
Buying renewable energy (1.5 tonnes CO2e/person/year)
Not owning a car (2.4 tonnes CO2e/person/year)
Eating a plant based diet (1.2 tonnes CO2e/person/year)
The key for you to consider what actions might make a difference and then think about those changes that are feasible for you to make. And if you do make a lifestyle change, tell others in your community about it.
We must not rely on our leaders to fight this fight for us. We need their support and international collaboration, yes. But individuals, uniting as households, communities, non-governmental organisations and businesses can also lead change. Together, we can live up to our status of being the world's greatest problem solvers. What changes can you make and who can you influence? For some inspiration, check out these 12 actions from the Climate Council Australia.