Changes in behaviour are needed to tackle the climate emergency, the UK’s chief scientific adviser has said at the Cop26 summit.
Sir Patrick Vallance said behaviour change was starting to happen but needed to go further and said he cycled to work, ate less meat and had taken the train to the climate summit in Glasgow. He also said the climate crisis was a far bigger problem than coronavirus and would kill more people if immediate changes were not made.
Canada’s chief scientific adviser, Mona Nemer, said there would need to be a “profound behavioural and cultural change in terms of our relation to the Earth”.
Systemic changes are widely acknowledged as necessary to end fossil fuel burning and halt global heating, for example by switching to renewable electricity. But the role of individual behaviour is more controversial, with most politicians shying away from encouraging less meat-eating or flying.
The UK government recently published a study proposing taxes on high-carbon food and a reduction in frequent flying, but then swiftly withdrew it, saying: “We have no plans whatsoever to dictate consumer behaviour in this way.” Cutting meat consumption in rich nations is vital to fighting the climate crisis, scientists have said.
“Behavioural change is part of [climate action],” said Vallance. “Some of that comes down to what we do as individuals, and some of it is what needs to happen to make things easier for us, because we can’t assume that there’s going to be dramatic personal behaviour change unless we can make some way of making that easier, so that the green choice is actually easy choice.
“I cycle to work, I eat less meat than I used to and I came here by train,” he said. “I think [behaviour change] is starting. Is it where it needs to be yet? Probably not and I think there’s more to go. But I think there’s a willingness and an engagement taking place that is going to be important.”
Science has been very good at detecting the changes in climate, Vallance said. “Where we have to go now is to move from diagnosis to treatment. Science is going to be crucially important, of course, for innovation, technology, and research and development to implement and scale up the technologies that we need and it’s going to be important for the behavioural sciences and the other sciences crucial to actually make this work,” he said.
Vallance also told the BBC on Tuesday that the climate crisis was a far bigger problem than Covid. He said that, while the pandemic had been awful, Covid might be a two- to four-year problem, rather than a 50- to 100-year problem that could be “really, really damaging”.
He stressed that people should not rely on science and technology alone to halt climate breakdown. “In the pandemic it took a concerted worldwide effort to come up with vaccines, drug treatment [and] understanding what behavioural change is necessary – the same is true for climate.”
Nemer said: “Science will be an absolutely essential part of the solution, both the technology but also the behaviour aspect. We’re going to have to have a profound behavioural and cultural change in terms of our relation to the Earth, our relation to consumption, our relation to transport, etc, and that’s something that is extremely challenging.”
But Vallance said there was a lot of hope that the climate emergency could be ended.
“The technologies we need are either here or are in development. If we implemented them now and scaled up, a lot of change then takes place in terms of climate emissions. The second reason for hope is we’ve got a whole generation that’s absolutely determined to do that. So there’s behaviour change already happening right across the globe. And the third thing is that I think some of the commitments at [Cop26] are going to make a difference in terms of getting people together.”