The greatest obstacle to a low-carbon transition is the extent to which carbon-intensive lifestyles have become institutionalised. The scale of the changes in behaviour that are required of individual consumers is huge, but the changes that individuals can make, without considerable personal inconvenience, are, in the absence of institutional change, modest. Imploring individuals to ‘do the right (green) thing’ is, accordingly, insufficient and as likely to annoy as to inspire. Worse, the individuals of whom change is demanded are (mostly) citizens, and governments reasonably fear that they will be punished electorally for imposing changes in behaviour upon consumers, whether directly or via taxation. Citizen initiatives that demonstrate what some citizens are willing to do are required to embolden timid governments, but government initiatives are required to support and encourage such citizen initiatives and to give them more than marginal exemplary impact.
Institutional change requires government action to provide or encourage the provision of infrastructure that itself minimizes carbon intensity and that facilitates low-carbon behaviour. The design and siting of buildings of all kinds to minimise their carbon-intensity should have highest priority because so much flows from it, including the economic provision of frequent, fast and reliable public transport. Strict building codes and better urban planning are essential but, because most of the buildings we will use in 2050 are already built, ambitious initiatives will be required to encourage the adaptation of existing buildings and to provide transport and communications infrastructure to serve them. A progressive and rapid switch to the use of renewable sources for the generation of electricity is essential, but without more profound institutional changes in the built environment it will not suffice.
Christopher Rootes, Professor of Environmental Politics University of Kent