Climate change policies are not fit for purpose

Climate change policies are not fit for purpose

Nick J Fox and Pam Alldred

If you thought that the UK government was leading the world towards a zero-carbon future, think again.  It’s one thing for the UK parliament to declare a climate change emergency; another to choose the policies that will solve climate change effectively.  Our research has revealed that none of the policy options favoured by scientists, environmentalists and politicians have the capacity to meet the zero-carbon target.  But some good news too: our analysis suggests how this goal can be achieved.

When in May this year the UK government committed to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050, it seemed like a world-leading step-change in action to combat climate change.  Yet three months later, the chair of Parliament’s own advisory group – the Committee on Climate Change – described government ministers as unprepared: a ramshackle ‘Dads’ Army’!  Their efforts to implement the climate change policy are insufficient and too slow, the Committee concluded.

But is this just the temporary malaise of a government distracted by Brexit turmoil?  We conducted research on the range of policies that have been advocated by governments, interest groups and environmentalists internationally.  Our findings suggest that none of these principal policy perspectives on tackling climate change can meet the kinds of goals that the UK government has set itself.

Most current policies either focus on changes in consumer behaviour such as eating less meat or reducing water consumption-, or the development of zero-carbon and carbon capture technologies.  Others advocate a drastic change to the economic system.  None of these approaches, we concluded, can alone solve the challenge of climate change.

However there is some good news.  The analysis we developed provides the starting point to design a comprehensive policy approach.  If politicians mix actions from different policy perspectives, it is possible to counter climate changes adequately and effectively.

We used an innovative approach to analyse different climate change policy perspectives.  Policies are usually evaluated by looking at their outcomes – not much use if we need to know about effectiveness now, not in 2050.  Instead, we mapped how a policy models climate change.  We analysed four different policies, to identify what physical, economic, social and political aspects of climate change each addresses, and what it ignores.  Each policy, we found, focused upon particular aspects of climate change, while omitting or downplaying others.  This allowed us to assess the policies’ suitability to counter climate changes, and how effective they are likely to be.

First we assessed a policy perspective known as ‘liberal environmentalism’ or ‘green consumerism’. This approach emphasises the part that individual human actions play in causing climate change.  By harnessing consumer sentiment, we can all play a part in reversing environmental degradation.  Examples of the kinds of initiatives promoted in this perspective include recycling schemes, charging for plastic bags, and encouraging homeowners to reduce energy use by insulating roofs or installing solar panels.

Our analysis indicates that this perspective ignores the wider social and economic factors driving climate change and environmental degradation.  Western politicians for the past 200 years have competed to offer voters increased prosperity, based on continuous economic and industrial growth.  But while growth has provided jobs, raised standards of living for many and higher tax revenue for welfare spending, it has also led to increasing greenhouse gas emissions.   For this reason, this ‘green consumer’ approach is not in itself adequate to counter climate change.

Next we looked at a related perspective, one favoured by the United Nations’ policy approaches to environmental changes for the past 30 years. This policy recognises the extreme risks of climate change to the planet (and particularly to poorer people and the global South), but argues that environmental protection must go hand-in-hand with economic and social development.

The UN’s approach considers a range of economic and social factors not acknowledged in green consumerism, including the diverse human experiences of rich and poor, global North and South.  The over-arching objective of this approach is to ‘manage the environment’ so that future generations of humans will benefit from similar or enhanced conditions for life as those now living.

However, the UN’s insistence that environmental sustainability can only be achieved through economic development of poorer regions of the Earth excludes any recognition of how increases in human economic prosperity led to environmental degradation and climate change.  For this reason, this approach too is insufficient on its own to address the imminent crisis of climate change.

We then examined a third perspective, known as ‘green capitalism’. This approach to environmental policy has been favoured by many right-of-centre political parties in the West.  It considers that a market economy, entrepreneurialism and capitalism’s never-ending quest for profit are the tools by which humanity can reverse climate changes.

Technological innovations such as electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines can become a new growth industry for both developed and developing countries.  Government policy can encourage and support these technological developments, enabling a switch from traditional industries that are major greenhouse gas emitters.

Our analysis suggests that green capitalism’s overarching concern is for economic development, with any benefits for the environment as incidental.  The inherent wastefulness of competitive capitalist markets and the endless need for economic growth are ignored.  Again, this policy of a ‘technical fix’ for climate change fails our test of adequacy.

Finally we assessed the policy advocated by many environmentalists and Green parties, of a radical switch from a capitalist to a zero-growth economy. Contrary to the previous policy, this perspective argues that capitalism’s inherent need for never-ending economic growth has led us to the current climate crisis.

Advocates of this policy argue that the economic developments that moved agrarian societies into an industrialised era of production and consumption has had disastrous effects on the environment.  Only by reducing the size of the global economy can we save the Earth from climate change.

Analysing this policy suggests that it downplays the realities of the contemporary politics linked to global capitalism.  The market economy provides the source of wealth for the rich and powerful, while growth has been used politically to buy off political dissent with promises of future prosperity and to fund welfare and a public sector.  A shift toward zero-growth economics would require a global re-distribution of resources, and a move from capitalism to ‘democratic eco-socialism.

This kind of global political realignment shows no sign of emerging any time soon, either among governments or the populace itself.  It is unlikely to be readily embraced by the world’s major contributor to climate change: the US.  Once again, we are led to conclude that this policy position is inadequate to meet the urgent need for climate action.

Though none of the policies assessed meet the test of adequacy, there is a positive side to this analysis.  We used the same approach to model climate change, based on a comprehensive and sophisticated scientific and social scientific understanding.  From this, we may derive an adequate policy to address climate, drawing on the best aspects of each policy we assessed.

Some actions required for a posthuman climate change policy:

Environment Protection

Enhanced environmental protection of biological and natural resources.
Environmental pricing of production (‘polluter pays’ principle; punitive sanctions on use of non-reusable and polluting resources).
Use taxation and regulation to encourage sustainable consumption.

Human economic and social security

Reduce inequalities via taxation and tax credits.
Support family planning and smaller families.
Develop international treaties to manage migration to meet climate targets. 

Technological solutions

Support development of technological fixes that replace polluting and wasteful production.
Nationalise industrial infrastructure (energy, transport, services).
Support developing countries to adopt zero-carbon technologies.

 Move to no-growth economic model

Incentivise future proofing, longevity and quality of goods.
Use taxation and company law to manage growth downwards, while sustaining infrastructure and welfare.
Replace global free trade with regional economic trade zones.


Increase economic aid to assist global South to implement these policies.

From the liberal environmentalist perspective, a range of measures to change consumer behaviours and protect the non-human environment.  From the United Nations position, action to redistribute income locally and globally, support education and manage population growth.  From the green capitalism approach, support for alternative zero-carbon technologies that can limit and reduce greenhouse gases.  Finally, from the no-growth economics perspective, actions to manage growth and competition down and implement the social and political transformations to enable this economic shift.  Figure 1 suggests some of the actions that this hybrid policy will need to incorporate, to meet the target of zero-carbon.

Our research indicates that none of the major policy perspectives on climate change is going to be sufficient to meet the kinds of targets now being set by the UK and other governments.  Each omits some key elements of the complex processes that have led to climate change, often for political reasons.  But our analysis also shows that together these policies include actions that can work, both locally and globally.

Clearly, the challenge of such a programme is immense, and to be effective will require new social, economic and political collaborations and alliances, both within countries and internationally.  While we don’t profess to offer here a finalised solution to the complex science, politics and economics of climate change, our findings do establish a firm foundation for future climate change policy.


Nick J. Fox is professor of sociology at the University of Huddersfield, UK, and also holds an honorary chair in sociology at the University of Sheffield.  Pam Alldred is professor in the department of social work, social care and community at Nottingham Trent University, UK.  They have written together and separately on topics including citizenship, sexualities and sexual health, education for equality, environment and research methods, and are the co-authors of Sociology and the New Materialism (Sage, 2017).

IMAGE CREDIT: Image by Tumisu from Pixabay