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Sustainable development (2): the politics

To consider the complicated politics of sustainable development.

by Claire Lamont

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To consider the complicated politics of sustainable development.

Preparation and materials


Reader 1

Climate change is rarely out of the headlines at the moment. Scientific research grows ever more conclusive, and the headlines more frightening: huge glaciers melting, possibly millions of species facing extinction, and the EU, UN and individual governments announcing ambitious – and some far less ambitious – solutions to the problem.

But the past months have seen a crescendo in media coverage of the issue. While representatives from all over the world met in Poznan, Poland, to discuss preparations for the UN climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 (the aim of which is to finalize a post-Kyoto plan of action), protesters marched through central London on Saturday 6 December 2008 to demand an end to coal power and to protest at the planned third runway at Heathrow.

Then, on Monday 8 December, a group called Plane Stupid got all of our attention by scrambling over security fencing at Stansted airport and closing down a runway for a couple of hours. 52 flights were cancelled, thousands of people were hugely inconvenienced, and the headlines for the rest of the week were full of tales of middle-class protesters who were chuffed that they had been arrested and got their cause in the news.

Reader 2

How should we interpret all these different reactions? Should we put faith in the UN and our government, or should we all be climbing onto runways to demand action?

Reader 3

Although Gordon Brown did recently announce an ambitious target of reducing the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, it was only after pressure from MPs that this was adjusted to include emissions from planes and shipping (two of the largest emitters). Many experts state that these targets simply don’t match up to the government’s current policies – which include building new coal power stations and a possible third runway at Heathrow. If the government continues with these plans, there is simply no way that emissions will be cut by 80 per cent in 40 years.

Reader 4

So it seems that our government, while being one of the better in the world at setting targets, is maybe lacking a bit at putting those targets into effect. And even if individual governments act decisively to stop climate change and make changes for a more sustainable future, this issue is global. If the UK reduces its emissions by 80 per cent but another country (for example India, which is rapidly modernizing right now) increases its emissions by 80 per cent, then clearly we have not solved the problem.

Reader 1

Climate change is an issue that can unite the world. It requires concerted commitment to change, from every country on the earth. But it is not as simple as just urging every country to reduce their emissions. Sustainable development asks that we create a fair world not only for generations in the future, but for everyone in our generation now.

Currently, the richest nations of the world use up a disproportionate amount of resources and produce a disproportionate amount of pollution. Countries that are currently undeveloped, and lacking adequate food, water and other basic needs for their people, should not have to make the same sacrifices as the rich, developed countries that are causing the vast majority of the emissions now.

But if handled properly, climate change legislation can not only help slow climate change, it can also address some of the inequalities between different countries in the world.

Reader 2

The idea is that undeveloped countries should be allowed to become more developed, to reach the basic living standards that we take for granted here in the developed world. Sustainable development therefore requires rich countries to rein in their resource use, and use what resources they have more efficiently (and more cleanly). But it also suggests that the way forward is development for poor nations, in line with the environmental necessities of sustainability: clean energy sources like renewables, greater efficiency, recycling of resources and a general cutting down of the amount of resources used.

Reader 3

How can such an ambitious project be realized? (Can it ever be realized?) You might have heard of some global initiatives that are currently being tried out for the first time: a prominent example is ‘cap and trade schemes’, where companies in the EU, for example, can buy permits for the carbon they produce. If they produce more carbon than their permits allow for, they have to buy more permits on an open carbon market; but if they produce less carbon than their permits allow for, they can sell their permits on to other companies who need them.

This is just one example of how ideas for sustainable development are already having an impact. Others include improvements in transport systems following the introduction of the central London congestion charge; the implementation of large-scale renewable energy sources like wind farms and solar power; and the building of better-insulated houses (the UK government plans to make all new housing zero-carbon by 2012).

Reader 4

To address the issues of equality in different countries, schemes also incorporate ways to encourage western nations to contribute to development projects in poorer countries, and therefore help them grow in an environmentally stable way. The biggest scheme is run by the UN, and is called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

This scheme functions like the EU cap and trade scheme for companies, but on a national level: countries that go over their carbon limits have to pay a fine to other, poorer countries that do not use up their carbon allowance. This money is then used by the poorer nations to pay for clean development schemes, for example energy generation using renewable sources. The idea is that undeveloped countries aren’t punished by climate change: they are able to develop while rich nations pay for the pollution they have caused.

Reader 1

These schemes are imperfect, new, and prone to problems. While they are clever and interesting ways to solve a huge problem, they don’t mean that the problem is solved: far from it. More action is needed, and quicker. As citizens, it is our responsibility to learn about the problems, to think about the ways we can help personally, and to show governments that we care. 

Time for reflection

Show the pictures of the protests, and play ‘Fragile’ by Sting.

Leave time for the students to listen and reflect.

You might like to use these words as a prayer:


Climate change, we all contribute.

We like our holidays.

We like warm houses.

We like to drive our cars.

We like food from all over the world.

But what could I do to decrease my carbon footprint?

How can I help the earth to breathe more easily?

(Let the music play as the students leave.)

Publication date: February 2009   (Vol.11 No.2)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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