As someone who studies biology, I’m more than familiar with climate change. Our ecology and environmental science modules cover this topic in great depth, and consequently are a treasure trove of depressing facts about the sixth mass extinction, decreasing crop yields, and microplastics to name just a few concepts. Often, it can feel like reading the gloomiest edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s a sadness that’s often anaesthetising, as the abject predictions can foster a poisonous smog of nihilism, clouding our ability to see humanity progress into a better future. It was therefore very refreshing to attend the environment and infrastructure panel at Warwick Congress, which showed me a slightly more optimistic future, and discussed what needs to be done to make that ‘green growth’ a reality.
The central discussion of the panel was how to promote sustainable economic growth in an environmentally friendly manner. Traditionally, the concept of environmental sustainability and economic growth and prosperity have often been juxtaposed with conflicting interests, and a key dilemma has been how to balance these. As much of the world continues to industrialise, more carbon emissions from non-renewable energy would be needed to fuel this growth. However, green growth breaks down this dichotomy and intertwines the prosperity of the planet and its people.
It’s impossible to separate climate from politics. Inevitably, the topic of Trump reared its nauseatingly tangerine head
Georg Kasperkovitz is the CEO of Consumer Packaging at Mondi Group – an international packaging company. He was the first speaker, and unsurprisingly focused on plastic pollution ,which recently became a high-profile topic after Blue Planet II dedicated an episode to the extent of the damage done by it in our oceans. There was a different tone though, as the focus was on problem solving and not just awareness or activism – noting, for example, that initiatives focusing on clearing surface plastics would only take out 3% of the ocean’s plastics. Suleman Alli was the next to speak, whose expertise lies in the power sector as Director of Strategy and Regulation at UK Power Networks. He spoke enthusiastically of green growth and the progress the UK has made to become more sustainable. Not only has there been a huge boon in the popularity of renewables, as they have become cheaper and renewable energy storage has drastically improved, but interest in electric cars has earmarked them a place in our future. Though largely understated, there have been significant changes to our power infrastructure which is needed to continue.
It’s impossible to separate climate from politics. Inevitably, the topic of Trump reared its nauseatingly tangerine head, specifically concerning his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. It was only fitting that Chris Huhne – Former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change – was the first panelist to broach the subject. Trump, rather than being presented as a corrupt oligarch, was presented as an incompetent fool. Huhne pointed out that, regardless of his best efforts, he won’t be able to swim against the tide of renewable energy and environmental conscientiousness. The phrase ‘genie out of the bottle’ was used on numerous occasions, and for good reason. Not only could his decision easily be reversed by a potential successor in 2020, since the USA will only leave the agreement in 2019, but his near complete lack of support was acknolwedged . In fact, the most eye-catching response was antagonistic towards Trump’s withdrawal, with a coalition of states, cities, universities, and companies creating America’s Pledge to defy his decision and continue working under the Paris Agreement framework.
Nothing better symbolises this seismic shift in the world’s energy supply than the Kentucky coal museum recently switching to solar power
Finally, CEO of E.ON UK Michael Lewis gave his perspective. Developing on Huhne’s points, he outlined the recently rise in increase for renewable energy interest from energy companies and the role of government in sparking investment in renewable energy. Both the EU and the UK governments have consistently supported initiatives for renewable energy, such as feed-in tariffs for solar panels. Government will need to continue playing its role by introducing new initiatives to tackle further inefficiencies, such as housing insulation, and continue making developments to a sustainable infrastructure. This could include, for example, building an electric charging grid to support electric car usage. The fact is that renewable technology is not only viable but preferable economically; as Suleman and Huhne earlier said – technology is cheaper, and more efficient than ever. Nothing better symbolises this seismic shift in the world’s energy supply than the Kentucky coal museum recently switching to solar power, as coal is being relegated to the annals of history.
A key question from the audience was where the biggest challenge lies in the progress of green growth, and how to overcome these challenges. Collaboration and cooperation was the apparent theme in all the responses, albeit at several levels. Internationally, nation states will need to find a way for everyone to cooperate on the global issue of climate change, whilst balancing differing political systems and economic needs, particularly ensuring sustainability doesn’t become a hindrance to economic growth. Nationally, most speakers argued for governments to closely work with businesses by creating incentives for technological innovation, and with their citizens to revamp infrastructure and encourage individuals to live more sustainable lifestyles. Logistically, collaboration is also necessary between different fields to ensure that renewable and sustainable technology is used, e.g. automotive engineers working with the transport sector to support a nationwide charging network for electric cars. Climate change is a systemic problem that requires a systemic solution.
Complacency must not develop as we continue to take an active role in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Still, it seems almost absurd to be able to write about a positive future after attending a panel on environment and infrastructure. Even as I’m typing this, I can’t help but think of myself as the man in The Life of Brian singing ‘always look on the bright side of life’ whilst literally being crucified. But the panel debate did point to a positive future of sustainable growth that is germinating as we speak from the foundation being laid by green growth, technological development, and corporate and government initiatives. Complacency must not develop as we continue to take an active role in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The panel itself only deals with one side of the climate change dice, as a variety of issues such as the preservation of biodiversity and habitats, agricultural practices, and rising sea levels all need tackling. And even within the issue of infrastructure, every speaker was careful to balance their optimism and pride in progress with a self-awareness that such progress needed to be built on. Nonetheless, it provided a welcome antidote to the omnipresent sense of existential dread that one often feels when discussing climate change and served a healthy reminder that humanity must collectively use its ingenuity to promote green growth and solve the problems of the next generation.