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Royal Society’s report asks right questions about consumption

This is a guest post by environmental campaigner Alex Randall.

What responsibility should rich countries take for their historical carbon emissions? Should consumption by the wealthy have to be curbed to accommodate the growing consumption of the world”s poorest billion people? These are questions that are not quite answered by the Royal Society”s recent People and the Planet report.

The report acknowledges that consumption is a problem. If we do not want to run up against various ecological limits, or planetary boundaries, the richest countries will have to reduce the amount they consume. This needs to happen to make space for the 1 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day to consume more. Because of various ecological limits – including climate change – it is not possible for the wealthy countries to continue on their consumption trajectory, as well as allowing for the world”s poorest to consume more too.

This is fairly controversial, especially coming from an organisation like the Royal Society. The great hope of many governments across the world is that consumption by rich countries can continue and possibly expand, while at the same time, consumption by the world”s poorest (and everyone in between) can expand as well. The aim is that through new technology and market mechanisms the ecological impact of consumption can be reduced so that we do not run up against the planet”s ecological limits.

The authors of People and the Planet are clear that this isn”t possible: The combined effects of market forces and new technologies are not able to overcome planetary boundaries on the scale necessary to avoid unsustainable pressure on the planet and much human suffering.” Because economic growth (measured in GDP) and consumption are so closely linked, this will mean GDP growth might no longer be possible. What needs to be done instead is almost too controversial for the report to go into. The possibility of steady-state and circular economies are discussed, but  the report stops short of really making the case for either: “This report is not the place to pursue these highly contested strands, but they cannot be ignored.” It seems the Royal Society are not completely comfortable with their new stance. We still need to try and de-couple economic growth and resource use, they argue. But they then argue that in the long run this won”t be possible.

Where the report doesn”t venture is interesting. The authors stop short of exploring the ethical dimension of rich countries” historical consumption. They seem happy to accept that the world”s richest must consume less to allow the world”s poorest to consume more. What they don”t argue is that there is an ethical obligation to do this because historically the wealthy nations have enjoyed the benefits of high consumption. Where the report dares not tread is to suggest that high consumption in rich countries might have caused poverty in other countries. The authors do not draw a connection between how rich countries got rich and why poor countries are still poor. This is important because exploring these arguments adds force to arguments that wealthy countries should sharply reduce the amount they consume. Saying that rich countries should reduce consumption to redress an unequal situation is one thing. Saying that this unjust situation has been persistent for centuries is quite another. Suggesting that high consumption by the rich might have contributed to the desperate situation of the world”s poorest is more powerful still.

Still, we should be pleased that the Royal Society have made the leap of accepting consumption in developed countries has to be addressed. Their tentative forays into questioning economic growth are also interesting. Even though the report does not fully explore the ethical implications of wealthy nation”s historical consumption the report will hopefully make space for these debates to enter the mainstream.

PIRC working on animation about our carbon omissions

Working with leading animator Leo Murray and acclaimed journalist George Monbiot, PIRC is putting together a short, snappy animation to explain the scandal of the UK”s outsourced emissions. The animation forms part of an ongoing project by PIRC to ensure the UK’s outsourced emissions are properly tackled by the Government.

Leo Murray is a leading British animator and climate activist. Besides being heavily involved in environmental activism over the past decade, he was lead animator on climate blockbuster The Age of Stupid, and writer and director of acclaimed animated short on the threat of runaway warming, Wake Up, Freak Out – Then Get a Grip (www.wakeupfreakout.org).

PIRC are delighted to have been granted funding by Artists” Project Earth (APE) and a number of other foundations to produce the animation. Watch this space for more details as we get closer to completion and launch!

Bristol workshop on the ethics of advertising

THIS EVENT HAS NOW PASSED

As part of Bristol Big Green Week, PIRC are co-organising a workshop on The Ethics of Advertising.

Date & time: 4.00pm – 5.30pm, 13th June 2012

Venue: Arnolfini, Light Studio – Bristol

Advertising is everywhere, yet few questions are asked about its effects on our consumption, our freedom of choice, or our cultural values. This workshop will examine the deep ethical dilemmas advertising raises – and explore some ways in which we can start tackling them, both locally and nationally. With Jon Alexander, former adman turned industry whistleblower and co-author of Think of Me as Evil?; Agnes Nairn, co-author of Consumer Kids; and Guy Shrubsole, Director of PIRC.

Tickets:  £5.00

Buy tickets here.

Media round-up: ECC demand coalition tackle outsourced emissions

The report of the Energy & Climate Change select committee – whose findings we’ve summarised here – has been receiving some good media coverage:

It’s now incumbent on the Government to respond with a convincing plan of action…

PIRC Radio 5 Live interview

Insomniac followers of PIRC may have already caught this, but at around 3am last night Radio 5 live’s programme ‘Up All Night’ featured a slot on the topic of outsourced carbon emissions by Julian O’Hallaran – including some (fortunately pre-recorded) comments by PIRC’s Guy Shrubsole.

You can listen again here (relevant programme is 2 hrs 5 mins in).

Select committee calls on coalition to tackle Britain’s outsourced emissions

This piece originally appeared on Left Foot Forward.

The influential Energy and Climate Change (ECC) Parliamentary select committee have today demanded the government take responsibility for the UK’s still-rising emissions, stating Britain “has to address its consumption if it is to make an effective contribution to a global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions”.

Whilst on paper, Britain’s carbon emissions have fallen by 19% since 1990, when measured on a consumption basis – by factoring in imported goods that the UK consumes – they have risen by 20% over the past 20 years.

As the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRCshowed through an investigation using Freedom of Information requests last year, ministers and civil servants have been fully aware of this extremely concerning trend for many years, yet done nothing – content to maintain a conspiracy of silence.

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Our latest publication… Climate Science Factsheets

Since the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 and the ‘Climategate’ debacle of early 2010, media interest in climate science has declined, and the public become somewhat more sceptical about its veracity. Yet the evidence base itself has only become more robust in that time. Conveying the certainties and uncertainties of climate science to the public – through a media that has become much more polarised about the subject – is a recurrent challenge for campaigners.

Responding to this, PIRC has put together the following set of factsheets, covering different aspects of climate science. The factsheets look at the evidence for climate change from a range of angles, such as global temperature trends and Arctic ice melt, and traces the fingerprint of climate change in various phenomena, from floods and heatwaves to wildfires and species extinctions. Each briefing contextualises the issue in question, summarises the background science, and addresses common objections raised by sceptics. Drawing on the latest peer-reviewed studies, they are intended to be a solid, reliable and concise guide for campaigners wishing to communicate climate science with accuracy and confidence.

Climate change research encompasses tens of thousands of peer-reviewed studies, decades of observations and the work of thousands of scientists. But too often this valuable knowledge doesn’t reach the people who need it most: climate change communicators & campaigners. By taking the latest scientific research and translating it into practical factsheets on a wide range of climate change topics, we hope to ensure that those responsible for communicating climate change to a wider public have easy access to the best available evidence.

DOWNLOAD PDF, 1.5Mb.
BUY A COPY Amazon.co.uk, £9.

Marketing and advertising that respects children’s rights

This piece by Guy Shrubsole originally appeared on the Guardian’s Sustainable Business Blog.

“Every day… some businesses are dumping a waste that is toxic on our children. Products and marketing that can warp their minds and their bodies and harm their future.” Not the words of some zealous activist, but those of David Cameron, just before the last election. They’re worth recalling today as Unicef launch their Children’s Rights and Business Principles.

Principle 6 states that businesses should “use marketing and advertising that respect and support children’s rights”. That this ethic even needs spelling out speaks to the huge impact the commercial world increasingly has on children around the globe. Marketing to children is an increasingly lucrative industry – in the US, companies are estimated to spend $17bn a year targeting kids – and the means used to ensnare them in the consumerist net are increasingly pervasive.

From online ‘advertgames’ that blur the boundaries between commercials and entertainment, to recruiting children as peer-to-peer marketers, companies’ efforts at selling to kids are growing more insidious. The UN Principles recognise this concerning trend in stating that marketers must “consider factors such as… children’s greater susceptibility to manipulation” when conducting their business. And with good reason: as marketing academic and children’s campaigner Dr Agnes Nairn puts it, much marketing “operates darkly, beyond the light of consciousness”.

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