The dialogue of the COP24 climate talks often seem to consist of little but collections of acronyms and buzz phrases.
We need “enhanced ambition” for the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that are written into the Paris Rulebook, with provision for “loss and damage”.
Well of course. But I’m about to make myself potentially unpopular by suggesting that we add another to the list: BAU, meaning Business As Usual. And its reverse, N(ot)BAU.
Sessions at COP should come tagged with which category they come in – and the only ones that will be worth going to will be the NBAUs, unless your aim is to challenge the BAU narrative.
Unfortunately in Katowice this month, there were few sessions in the NBAU category. Typical of the BAU was a fashion industry session in which cuts in energy use and increased efficiency were on the agenda; making fewer clothes was not.
While this COP made significant strides in important areas, particularly in acceptance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that the world must stay below 1.5 degrees of warming, the proposed actions being presented in side events by researchers and companies, even often by charities and non-governmental campaigners, almost invariably fall short of to the IPCC’s challenge.
That’s without even considering all of the other ways beyond climate change by which we are stretching this planet beyond its limits: the turning of the oceans into a plastic soup, the collapse of biodiversity and bioabundance, as is all too evident with insect numbers, the contamination of waters and soils with pesticides and artificial fertilisers.
What we’re doing now isn’t anything like enough on climate change, and possibly even worse on other issues. What we have to do as a human species is tread far, far more lightly on this planet, take less so we can survive and thrive. We’ll live better while not collapsing the natural ecosystems on which our lives, and economies, depend.
Yet the models and plans for travel and transport, for feeding and clothing the world, for providing humans with energy for their every desire, on offer at COP suggest that we continue just as we are, indeed that the rest of the world rushes up to the levels now in the Global North, to the three-planet living of the UK - but more efficiently, with new and better technology.
Some of these habits are ones we fell into millennia-ago and have never questioned. But now we need to.
In a session on peatlands, one academic observed that our crops are all dryland species because agricultural models mostly developed in the dry Middle East millennia ago. Growing a variety of crops in rewetted organic soils is clearly essential, yet only just coming on the scientiists’ radar.
I challenged the academics and researchers on a panel that focused on both the desperate urgency of keeping the level of warming below 1.5, and transport, electricity and heating. They were simply assuming more of the same, more efficiently.
Real change was difficult to model, was one of their responses, and I agree that’s true. But we have to imagine it, plan for it and implement it, because there clearly is no alternative. BAU is not an option.
One of the few sessions in which I heard an exploration of what I’ve called NBAU was in the German pavilion. It was titled “Degrowth”, but that’s a term that often suggests decline and loss, which is not helpful when planning for a future world, and not accurate when we’re talking about transformation to a better life. One of the speakers came up with an alternative, I think better, title: “regeneration”.
That means thinking about societies that work for people, communities that deliver social goods, a natural world allowed again to flourish.
It means banning nearly all single-use plastic, and other single-use containers as well. Transport in bulk, buy into your own containers, and have that cup of tea sitting down in a café, maybe even having a chat (in this loneliness-plagued world). That would end the degradation of plastic-strewn beaches and microplastics-choked oceans.
It means slashing the consumption of animal protein, ending factory farming and the feeding of perfectly good plant food to animals to produce a tiny amount of meat – again, regeneration rather than degradation.
It means not “climate-smart agriculture” - doing what we do now to trash our soils and wildlife slightly less badly - but working with nature with agroecology, enriching soils, varying our diets, using knowledge as the high level input rather than chemicals.
When it comes to clothing – which we saw featured here at COP for the first time – it means making garments in quality materials (probably not synthetics, which are just more plastic) to last for the long haul, not “fast fashion” but great clothes.
Also in the German pavilion, I heard a young entrepreneur from the chemical industry talking about his scheme to chemically process complex plastic films containing layers of different materials in Africa. “We need to bring them back to reality,” he said.
It was one of the cases of being more accurate than perhaps he knew. “Reality” surely means that rather than producing complex materials that are extraordinarily challenging to recycle, for products that are generally bad for human health, we should find ways to produce, transport and sell food without the packaging.
Rather than sweet flavoured milk – a corporately sponsored plague now sweeping Vietnam - how about a local fruit, complete with all its natural goodness?
Ah but that’s not what consumers want, you’ll here the proponents of the current system say. Well no, that’s not what’s advertised to them, or, often, offered.
The long haul
There were boxes of free-to-take local Polish apples in boxes at COP. I never managed to snare one. They were always gone before I got to them, but I overheard one American delegate commenting with astonishment: “The taste, it is just amazing! I’ve never had anything like it.”
Nature, left to flourish, can do an amazing job of creating tasty, nutritious, varied foods, quality materials for clothing, manufacture and building, meeting our needs and those of the other species with which we share this planet.
That’s if we let it, and value what it produces enough to keep and maintain it for the long haul.
That’s not business as usual, but business as life - and it has to be if we’re to provide a decent life for everyone within the physical limits of this one fragile planet. Not so much regenerating the world as allowing it to regenerate itself.
Natalie Bennett is a member of Sheffield Green Party and former Green Party leader.