The Carbon Butterfly Effect

Samar Khanna reflects on travel experimentation, carbon misinformation and how systems thinking could solve it all.

Humanity is on the backfoot. For decades, environmentalists and conservationists have warned of the detrimental effects human habits are having on the planet. Only now, as ‘climate change’ undergoes a rebrand to ‘climate crisis’, have we started to listen. Humans need to adapt, mitigate and, ultimately, irrevocably change their behaviours. How do we do this for good? As our Director of Lynn Planet, Samar Khanna, would advise, it starts and ends with systems thinking.

Threats from all sides.

The climate crisis is, at its heart, the result of a ripple – or butterfly – effect. One which, after being left relatively unaddressed since the monumental behaviour shifts of the industrial revolution, has turned into a tidal wave. 

Indeed, the industrial revolution saw the marked increase in consumption of air polluting fossil fuels. While coal may have been the fuel of choice at the time, gasoline would smoothly take over, tripling the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This has all been helped along, of course, by flagrant deforestation: 1.9 billion hectares of Earth’s forests have been destroyed in the last 300 years. We’re suffocating ourselves, all while we destroy our planet’s built in air purification system. 

The ripple, of course, does not end there. While the air becomes thicker with CO2, it heats the planet. Specifically, it heats the oceans. This is where the real crisis begins. Not only do polar ice caps melt – affecting sea levels and animal habitats – but more water evaporates, forming clouds. Clouds which, given the higher air temperatures, can hold more water for longer. Clouds which abstain from turning into rain in some areas, and lead to monumental downpours in others. Hence, the increase in droughts and, conversely, floods. The ripple continues. The knock on effects of both droughts and floods destroy habitats and cause food scarcity. After that, we have environmental collapse. 

However, these ripples are not caused by a singular stone. We cannot forget that we have an energy crisis to contend with, too. As the world’s population continues to exponentially increase, so does its demand for energy. As ever, this demand puts increasing amounts of pressure on the planet’s resources. Put simply, there is not – and there cannot be – enough to go around. As fuel prices soar – from scarcity, from tax – so with it soars the cost of living, destabilising economies. And what does this result in? That which governments fear most: social unrest. 

Government intervention.

Governments tread a fine line between protecting the future environment, keeping the economy stable and, eventually, being voted in again. At times, achieving all three might seem practically impossible. Thus, these conflicting ideals often lead to staggered – or even backtracked – decisions.

Take the EU’s recent ban on the production of combustion engines, for example. Where stakeholder tension delayed the very vote itself, the final 2035 concessionary policy resulted in an exemption of e-fuels. E-fuels which – while keeping brands such as Ferrari and Lamborghini in business – both requires a lot of energy to produce and pollutes far more than standard petrol and diesel. Here, conceding to stakeholders demands and their influence on the economy has won out over resolutely safeguarding the future environment.

Closer to home, the UK has seen its own brand of tenuous government backtracking. From the delay in Manchester’s Clean Air Zone, to delays and complications in the recycling ‘Deposit Return Scheme’ – to name but a couple – are clear examples of local governments who want change, have planned them, but, upon reflection, have been unable to follow through. As Samar put it: ‘Developing a simple, fair and effective system is much harder than it sounds.’

And what happened to those who stood their ground without exploring the implications of these changes? Backlash. 

The backlash.

The perfect example is how Oxford’s Low Traffic Neighbourhoods spawned a huge upsurge of misinformation narratives and, with it, demonstrations. In February, thousands of people surged into the city centre in protest. And notably, what they were protesting about was completely incorrect. Just as conspiracy theorists would have it, the protests seemed to be about a ‘hybrid interpretation’ of the cordoning off of streets (which comes with low traffic neighbourhoods) combined with the ‘15 minute cities’ plan (which aims to reduce car journeys by providing all basic amenities within 15 minutes walk of where people live). The product: protests about neighbourhood lock-ins. 

As Samar explains, backlash comes from a place of fear: ‘vulnerable communities, if not engaged and managed appropriately, are susceptible to be weaponized by misinformation narratives and conspiracy theories’. Indeed, when we do not consider barriers to change, behaviour change policies have the power to directly threaten perceptions of health and freedom. Hence, why schemes involving reducing car dependency and traffic reduction are so potent to vulnerability and, ergo, misinformation narratives. 

Addressing the barriers to change.

The fears and threats to personal freedom are direct results of behaviour change policies and campaigns being launched without the barriers to change being addressed. Knowledge, capability and motivation are all key points of entry in the change curve. 

Look back at the protests for Oxford’s LTNs, for example. People did not truly understand what they were protesting about; clearly, knowledge of the policy changes had not been effectively disseminated. On the other hand, Manchester’s Clean Air Zone sought to introduce a vehicle levy at a time of economic turmoil. It’s all well and good encouraging people to use public transport as an alternative, but when the cost of that is not equitable, nor is a reliable infrastructure there to support it, people feel incapable of making such a change. As for motivation, there’s still a long way to go. 

When barriers of change are not accounted for, stakeholders panic. We develop the perception of their freedom being taken away. Which is very dangerous.

Pre-empting the ripple effect with systems thinking.

When policies change, people need choices; they need feasible alternatives. Only by investigating which areas of society will be most affected by such changes, can systems be adapted to facilitate positive and sustainable behavioural change. 

‘From a systems thinking perspective,’ Samar says, ‘it’s important to move away from a #carbontunnelvision and consider how different parts of the #system (climate crisis, biodiversity loss, social inequality) are interconnected and how changes in one area can have ripple effects throughout the entire system.’

Of course, there are always unforeseen impacts when making any changes. That’s why qualitative and quantitative research, safe low-negative impact experimentation, as well as pre- and post-implementation testing are critical before larger changes are adopted. Germany’s ‘Deutschland Ticket’ exemplifies this. As do the Future Transport Zones of the Solent, West Midlands, Derby and Nottingham. 

Encapsulating the idea, Samar writes: ‘There is no innovation without experimentation. The process of translating an idea into reality requires execution in a safe space and across different contexts, with continuous feedback, collaboration, and iterations.’

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