Environment

The overlooked climate and environmental issues we should all be talking about

Plastic straws and melting ice caps rightly get a lot of attention - but there are a number of climate and environmental issues that often get overlooked. Here's why we should be talking about them.

Climate change is a colossal topic that touches pretty much every area of our lives – from what we wear to how we travel and where we live. 

Yet in discussions about climate change and the environment, there are certain issues that tend to get all the limelight: melting ice caps, fossil fuels and, for some inexplicable reason, plastic straws. 

While these are all crucial issues that need to be addressed, they often take precedence over other elements of our environmental and climate crises that tend to get overlooked. 

Whether through oversight, policy or deliberate ignorance, there are some climate and environmental issues that simply don’t get as much attention as they should. 

We’ve rounded up five “Cinderella” climate and environment issues we should all be talking about to get the conversation started. 

Behaviour change 

Ahead of COP26 last year, the UK government published a research paper it had commissioned into behaviour change for net zero, outlining the interventions that may be needed to encourage lower-carbon behaviours among the public such as flying less often.

After 24 hours, however, the government deleted the paper from its website, saying it had been published there mistakenly.

It was a fitting example of the reluctance by governments around the world to touch the issue of behaviour change in tackling the climate crisis. 

The average carbon footprint of people in developed nations such as Germany, the UK and the US is significantly higher than that of those in developing nations around the world, and it is essential that this is reduced in order to hit key climate targets.

Doing so will require mass behaviour change that steers people away from high-carbon activities such as frequently flying and driving as well as regularly consuming high-carbon foods like beef. 

Moving towards a lower-carbon society in this way could have multiple co-benefits, including a healthier, more active population and less air pollution.

Both the UK government and governments around the world, however, have historically demonstrated reluctance to take any measures that might be interpreted as interfering with an individual’s freedom of choice. 

Public transport infrastructure 

In the UK, the government has focused heavily on technological solutions to climate change, including a big push towards electrification of vehicles

In 2020, it pledged to end the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2030, investing £1.8bn to support greater uptake of zero emission vehicles for greener car journeys. 

While electric cars are certainly less polluting than diesel or petrol ones, greenhouse gas emissions are still produced during the manufacturing process, including through production of the batteries. 

Alongside the deployment of electric cars, many experts believe we should be encouraging greater public transport and bicycle use, with the former more efficient in terms of the amount of passengers carried in a single vehicle, and the latter producing no emissions whatsoever. 

In spite of this, investment in public transport has been historically poor, with experts and local leaders warning in February that up to a third of bus routes could be axed without further funding. 

Pricing of public transport is also prohibitively high in the UK, with domestic flights in many cases cheaper than taking the train. 

As a result, many people in the UK are pushed towards travel in private vehicles or planes, creating emissions that might otherwise have been avoided. 

Climate inequality 

As the UK moves towards its goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, one risk is that society’s poorest will be left behind or excluded from access to a greener, healthier society. 

Already, climate change and poor environmental health are affecting lower-income, ethnic minority communities disproportionately in the UK. 

London’s Black communities, for instance, are more exposed to dangerous air pollution than the white and Asian population, while lower-income communities are more exposed to flood risk than more affluent ones. 

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Large parts of the government’s plan to move towards net zero rely on the market for climate solutions and interventions – a strategy that risks leaving behind those who can’t afford to participate.

For example, the government is encouraging a move to electric vehicles without providing any subsidies to those purchasing them. 

Those who can’t afford an electric vehicle may find themselves paying more as a result through interventions like clean air zones in cities which charge petrol and diesel car users for the emissions they create. 

The government is also offering grants of £5,000 to homeowners to install heat pumps in their properties, saving the occupier money on heating bills and reducing emissions. 

Yet as installation of heat pumps can end up costing far more than £5,000 due to insulation measures and other interventions like installing new plumbing, experts fear buy-to-let landlords will be reluctant to install the heating systems on behalf of tenants who pay the bills.

This could leave tenants in draughtier homes for longer, paying more for their energy and continuing to generate emissions through their home heating. 

Diet 

Meat and dairy products are huge contributors to climate change, with food production accounting for more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

There are several reasons why meat and dairy are damaging to the planet, including the methane produced by cattle, the deforestation caused to make way for grazing and the amount of water and feed required to maintain healthy animals. 

While there has been much focus on the damage caused by plastic straws in recent years, less has been said of the enormous amount of plastic pollution generated by fishing.

It’s estimated that lost and discarded fishing gear makes up the vast majority of large plastic pollution in the oceans worldwide, with an estimated 640,000 tonnes entering the seas annually – equivalent in weight to more than 50,000 double decker buses.

Bottom trawling – a fishing technique which involves dragging nets across the sea floor – is also damaging to the environment and climate, hurting aquatic ecosystems and potentially unleashing carbon from the sea bed. 

In spite of the clear damage being done to the climate and environment as a result of eating animal products, discussions around reducing this intake remain highly politicised, with few leaders willing to openly advocate for more plant-based diets among the population. 

Land use 

In a recent report on nature-based solutions to climate change from the Lords Science and Technology Committee, committee members noted that achieving climate targets will require a huge shift in the way we use our land for food, sequestering carbon and housebuilding. 

One minister said that the shift is so great it could be compared to the last industrial revolution. 

Yet as things stand in the UK – and England especially – land is highly concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy owners, making it more difficult to unlock land for the purposes now required.

Land ownership is also highly secretive, with around 15 per cent of land in England totally unregistered, making its ownership almost impossible to ascertain. 

Concentrated ownership of land can make achieving climate aims difficult in several different ways.

Burning of heather on grouse moors, for instance, can release carbon into the atmosphere and increase the likelihood of flooding in nearby areas.

Yet as nearby residents don’t own the land, they have no say in how it is used, while local authorities and the government similarly have little power over use of land in this manner. 

Currently, the government has no overarching plan for the restructuring of land use to achieve its climate targets – a gap its own advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has previously pointed out. 

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