Climate Change
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what will turn the tide of climate change: individual action or policy action?

January 12, 2020

Climate change is real, and we all feel its effects. It is heartening to see a lot of individual action and small changes around us in the way we live and work but is that enough to solve the bigger climate change problem?

A recent visit to Sweden got me thinking. I visited in the summer, in May, when the winds often felt “icy”. The coniferous trees dotting the landscape made me shudder to think what winter was like for these folks and how did they manage? I also witnessed there a whole “approach to sustainability” that is built into the very fabric of their culture, built-in precisely because their climate is already so harsh, but one that crucially involves all levels of “stakeholder” and not just one – individuals, companies, and Governments. Also NGOs, think-tanks and academia. I thought that this perhaps, at least in part, held the answer to my question.

Here are some ways the European and in particular Scandinavian countries have taken policy level steps to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, over the years. Maybe these are useful pointers for us and our policymakers here in India as we grapple with similar challenges.

One: “There have been ambitious legislations for environmental protection since the 1970s.”

In all of the Scandinavian countries and most of the EU countries, there have been ambitious legislation for environmental protection since the 1970s. These laws and directives relate, for example, to air, chemicals,
industry & technology, nature & biodiversity, noise, waste, water & marine, and more broadly to cross-cutting, enabling instruments. Importantly, these have been backed by strong monitoring and reporting arrangements and indicators that generate necessary information that can also be used for subsequent evaluation of the interventions. Across Europe, for instance, different public authorities are responsible for promoting, monitoring and enforcing compliance with EU environmental law.

Two: “Change consumer behaviour by providing information, economic incentives as well as “nudges” 

There have been attempts to change consumer behaviour by providing information, economic incentives as well as “nudges” that have encouraged companies, households and individuals to choose and think “green” even if other considerations may have made them think otherwise. An interesting example of changing behaviour by providing the information is by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), who have tried to influence Scandinavian consumption of fish by introducing a “street light system” for fish species.

They try to convince the consumer to mainly purchase species with a “green light” (including labelled fish or otherwise sustainably harvested stocks) as opposed to those with a “yellow light” (consume with caution) or “red light” (avoid). In getting consumers to adopt this system, WWF works with retailers, trying to convince them to keep only green and yellow listed fish, making it difficult for consumers to access red-listed fish. This practice is called “choice editing” – removing certain ”unwanted” products from the range of choice. Economic incentives and disincentives may include environmental taxes and charges examples of which are traffic congestion charges in Stockholm and road taxes on new cars based on their weight and the amount of carbon dioxide they emit, in Sweden.

Three: “stakeholders have been involved closely”

Policy instruments of various kinds have been used, which include bans in some cases, and taxes. In the drafting, uptake and eventual acceptance of these taxes, stakeholders have been involved closely. For example, the European Commission website informs us that the salmon fishing license in Ireland was the outcome of meetings with as many as 46 different agencies, organizations and individual stakeholders. Formal consultations on other taxes and levies helped ensure each instrument’s acceptability and effectiveness. Even bans require a high level of consensus about the need for the restriction before it is accepted. The reverse (of bans and taxes) includes environmentally driven subsidies such as those for implementation of energy efficiency technologies, or subsidies for eco-friendly cars.

Four: “High-level policy packages with smart communication

There have been high-level policy packages with smart communication around them. The European Commission developed the “European Green Deal”, an ambitious package of measures accompanied with an initial roadmap of key policies that aim at for instance decarbonizing the energy sector, renovating buildings to cut energy use, supporting industry to innovate, and promoting cleaner and cheaper forms of transport. The package is accompanied by communication that describes very simply “what’s in it for me?”. 

Five:  “Increasing use of a particular policy principle”

There has been increasing use of a particular policy principle that has helped prevent environmental problems at the source, called Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP). In Scandinavian countries, there is EPR legislation covering a variety of end-of-life products and materials including electronics, batteries, packaging, cars, among others.

The India “Plastic ban” Story So Far

Coming back to India we see for instance the plastic “ban” in Delhi, on plastic bags of less than 50-micron thickness. It is designed to fail. Who would be able to measure or prove the thickness of a plastic bag? Also, the ban has been announced several times and not followed through with proper enforcement, thus leading to no fear and little compliance. Plastic bans in other states (Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra) have also met with limited success given the lack of clarity on the banned and exempted items, poor enforcement and resistance from manufacturers and wholesalers of plastic products. Is a ban then the answer? While I always believed it is, I now feel that maybe an incremental approach would work better, one that involves stakeholders and gradually helps overcome resistance. 

Also, individual action or policy action? Both matter, of course. Small changes by many can make a significant difference. However, as the experience of these countries shows, larger changes at a policy level, using a variety of policy instruments, are a necessary precursor to effecting widespread change. Initiatives like publishing the Plastic Waste Management (PWM) Rules in 2016, a key element of which is EPR, imposing EPR waste recovery targets, etc. are a step in the right direction on a long road ahead.

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