The 2020s is the decade that demands more from environmental politics

Published on 6 January 2020

The beginning of the new decade is a wake-up moment, as a powerful combination of science and social science, and citizen activism has pushed climate and environmental change – or emergency – to the top of public, media, policy and political concern.

We now have incontrovertible evidence of dangerous global heating and other environmental problems such as biodiversity destruction, and their devastating impacts on human wellbeing. Iconic images of this decade will include people fleeing from drought-ravaged landscapes; cyclones and storms wreaking havoc in coastal cities, and oceans choked with plastic.

The decade environmental politics got serious, again

The 2010s was the decade when environmental politics got serious again. It began with the Rio plus 20 conference in 2012, leading through to the 2015 agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030) by all countries through the biggest global consultation process the world has seen, and then the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

But it was later in the decade that scientific and political impact hit hard.

In 2018 the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C (SR15) was published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), finding that limiting global warming to 1.5 °C compared with 2 °C is vital to reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being, and to avoid the further exacerbation of extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea icecoral bleaching, and loss of ecosystems. Meeting a 1.5 °C target is possible but would require “deep emissions reductions” of CO2, to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.” Decarbonisation requires “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” (IPCC).

Yet the Emissions Gap report of 2019 shows that while global emissions should be falling, they are actually still rising. There was a plateau in 2014-16 but this was a blip. Greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 1.5 percent every year on average in the last decade. Growth is the main driver.

The impact of youth activism

While reports have been publicised, it has been activism that has brought political attention to the so-called climate emergency, prominently led by the young. The late 2010s will be remembered for the iconic images of Greta Thunberg berating global political and business leaders at the UN, and of the youth climate strikes, with schoolchildren on Fridays toting banners demanding ‘system change not climate change’. The decade has seen new movements such as Extinction Rebellion as well as activist struggles in cities and rural places across the world in places hit hard by climate change impacts.

I say that the last ten years was the decade that got serious ‘again’ about the environment because there was a similar cusp half a century ago, across the late 60s and early 70s, again combining science and activism.

Environmental campaigns of the 1960s

In the 1960s human-induced climate change was not yet on scientific radars but pollution and resource depletion very much were, on a small pressurised planet iconised in the images of the earth from space from the 1969 moon landings. Rachel Carson’s 1962 ‘Silent Spring’  about the effects of the pesticide DDT on ecosystems and food chains paved the way and key reports, such as ‘Only One Earth’  by Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos and ‘Limits to Growth’ by Denis Meadows et al fed into the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

The late 1960s also saw a flourishing of citizen activism and campaigning, much spearheaded and co-ordinated by organisations such as the Sierra Club in the US, Friends of the Earth founded in 1969, and Greenpeace in 1971.

So why the lull in between? Despite ongoing efforts by many scientists, activists and policy agencies, the 80s, 90s and 2000s were comparatively ‘lost decades’ for environmental politics in a world obsessed by economic growth and the dominance of neo-liberal, financialised models of capitalism.

Thus the current climate and environmental ‘emergency’ can be taken as a wakeup call from a nightmare, to transform systems that have been bad for both planet and people – having also increased inequalities and failed to tackle extremes of poverty.

Now we need structural economic transformation

Looking ahead into the 2020s, and as colleagues and I have argued in our book The Politics of Green Transformation, we now need environmental politics to step up in new ways. We need structural economic transformation – green new deals, but also socially-just ones, that secure employment and livelihoods; investment in green technologies. We also need to be alert to the dangers of ‘quick fix’ technologies such as geoengineering, and of technologies designed and deployed outside the social contexts of their application, and a re-directing and taming of markets. And wary of fixes such as offsetting that don’t address the root causes of environmental problems, and of top-down regulations that ride roughshod over human rights and justice.

Citizen actions remain key, both to keep the pressure on governments and business, and critically, to guide solutions. For we can now look to examples around the world of locally-led solutions to climate and environmental problems that also deliver on human wellbeing – whether in transition towns and slum dwellers’ initiatives’; sustainable cities;  agroecology; ecosystem restoration; solar revolutions through the blossoming of home systems, and many more. These are small pathways that are already adding up to big motorways, and which should inspire a politics of hope that can take us into the next decade and beyond.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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