10:10 and the politics of climate change

Andrew Dobson
16 September 2009

On 1 September 2009 a new climate-change campaign called "10:10" was launched at the Tate Modern gallery in London. The campaign aims to commit individuals, organisations and businesses in Britain to a 10% reduction in Co2 emissions by the end of 2010. 10:10 is the brainchild of Franny Armstrong, director of the climate-change film, The Age of Stupid.

Andrew Dobson is professor of politics at Keele University. Among his books are Citizenship and the EnvironmentPolitical Theory and the Ecological ChallengeGreen Political ThoughtRoutledge, 4th edition, 2007). His website is ( (Oxford University Press, 2003), (as co-editor) (Cambridge University Press, 2006) and here

Also by Andrew Dobson in openDemocracy:

"A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (29 March 2007)

"A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state" (19 September 2007)

"Climate change and the public sphere" (1 April 2008)

"A politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism" (22 October 2008) - with David Hayes 

Why 10%? And why 2010? The 10:10 campaigners' reasoning is that "Britain is committed to an 80% cut by 2050, and at least 34% by 2020. But scientists say it won't be possible to meet these targets without the right action now - and that means cuts of around 10% in the very near future."

The umbrella campaign

Two things about the initiative - heavily promoted by the Guardian newspaper - are immediately apparent. The first is that it has managed to attract great support, and from across the political spectrum. Within two weeks of its launch, as many as 15,000 individuals, 600 businesses, 100 educational institutions and 220 other organisations had signed up to its aims. These bodies include Cambridge University's Conservative Association, the Danish embassy in London, Downham preparatory school, a north London branch of the Trades Union Congress, the British Medical Association and Tottenham Hotspur football club.

The backers also include prominent members of the three main political parties. The Guardian announced on 3 September that "the entire cabinet" (in effect the Labour government as a whole) was now in the 10:10 camp; the Conservative Party's "shadow cabinet" soon followed, and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was close behind.

Franny Armstrong celebrated the near-instant wave of support : "It's amazing that within forty-hours hours of the campaign's launch, the leaderships of the three main political parties have committed to cut their 10%. Who said people power was dead?" Indeed, a campaign that has managed so quickly to gather such an eclectic range of interests and viewpoints under a single, seamless banner is an impressive achievement.

This is a clue to the second notable aspect of the project: it is fundamentally apolitical. This is true in the trivial sense that it "transcends" party politics, which is why the leaders of Britain's three major parties (Labour‘s Gordon Brown and the Conservatives' David Cameron as well as Nick Clegg) can sign on the dotted line without demur.

But 10:10 is apolitical in a more profound sense too: in that its adherents are not required to act politically. Its core citizenship appeal is about lifestyle not agitation. The campaign advises individuals to fly less, drive less, wear more jumpers, eat better, and stop wasting food and water; and corporate bodies to focus on reducing electricity consumption, fuel-use, road-transport and air-travel. The focus of its efforts is to win a commitment from (mainly) individuals to make different personal choices rather than demand of governments and other power-structures that they change the conditions under which those choices are made. 10:10 is about changing lightbulbs rather than changing society.

The step-change model

There are good ideas, intentions and energies here. But the way the campaign is framed also builds in limitations. The extraordinary wastefulness of current habits and social practices makes it relatively easy for most households to achieve a 10% reduction by the end of 2010 (as indeed the campaign organisers themselves say). True, the difficulties in organising a collective response across the space and time that corporate bodies tend to occupy gives them a harder task (and the tendency to "free-ride" on the actions of others reinforces the problem of ensuring a positive outcome).10:10 campaigners recognise this too in saying: "For most businesses 10% is ambitious but achievable. It's the low-hanging fruit: eliminating waste, increasing efficiency, that sort of thing."

The (inadvertent?) use of this phrase raises the question: what happens when the low-hanging fruit has all been plucked? Much can be done in eliminating wanton wastefulness, but what is expected to happen in the next stages of the campaign reveals the limits to such lifestyle-changes.

By autumn 2010, the individual and organisational signatories will be asked to report on their progress. There will be no independent auditing, so a certain amount of creative carbon-accounting - and perhaps even a few over-fulfilled quotas - can be expected. It is likely too that at that stage the campaign will be declared a success. Insofar as there will have been some carbon-reduction as well as some consciousness-raising - so far so good.

The next stage will presumably be to change the shape of the campaign - to move from 10:10 to 15:11 to 20:13...and on to the ambitious, declared aim of 34:20. These next steps will become progressively harder - for as the buffers represented by systemic carbon irrationalities are approached, the returns on the effort put into behavioural shifts become smaller. No matter how hard individuals try, the way modern (and trying-to-be-modern) economies function guarantee a continued infrastructural residue of carbon-emissions. (Many carbon-calculators for individuals assume a two-tonne carbon-emission load whatever life the individual leads in a developed early 21st-century country - with one tonne generally regarded as the fair annual emission-level for sustainable living). At this point the limits of a campaign aimed at reducing carbon-emissions through individual lifestyle-change are unavoidable.

The 10:10 advocates could in principle accommodate this critique by emphasising the positive benefits of their campaign: that it is empowering, is an antidote to the despair engendered by the enormity of the problem, and gives individuals something to do rather than always wait for someone else to do something. They might even argue - touching more directly on the perspective offered here - that the problem must be tackled step-by-step: lifestyle-change and efficiency gains followed down the line by political action.

The danger, though, is that everything gets stuck at the first step. The Guardian's campaign launch included a centre-spread "eyewitness" montage photograph of dozens of individuals, each holding a piece of paper inscribed with their 10:10 carbon-commitment: fly less, cycle more, buy fewer clothes. If the 2015 photograph looks the same it means that little real progress will have been made towards dealing with catastrophic climate change.

The test of the times

What then should be done? It's almost certain that the required 80% reduction by 2050 will need transformative social and political - collective - change that in scale far exceeds the lifestyle-shifts envisaged by 10:10. The time for that to begin is the present. To that end, the celebrity authors, designers, artists and sportspeople who champion 10:10 might supplement their private pledges with some public ones:

* join and campaign for the party with the most progressive and coherent socio-environmental policies in the next general election (even if it's a small party)

* argue for a more holistic measurement of the health of an economy than is suggested by its gross national product (GNP) - as in the reports of the French-government-sponsored "commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress"

* attend the next climate camp

* oppose the privatisation of public spaces and public services.

This last pledge is fundamental. Climate change is a public bad, and there is an urgent need for citizens both to reimagine the public good and to relearn how to work together towards it. In current conditions, every new private solution to a public problem is a nail in the earth's climate-coffin.

The fight against catastrophic climate change can succeed only if it forges a permanent link with social-justice campaigns; if it is prepared to commit to an absolute reduction in the material throughput of modern economies; and if it accomplishes a comprehensive shift in political conditions and social relationships. The poor and vulnerable, within societies and across the world, contribute least to climate change and suffer most from it. The 4:1 ratio - the optimum high-to-low wealth balance in an environmentally and socially healthy community - should be as important as aspiration as any other. Any serious climate-change project today must rise to these challenges, or risk wasting the good ideas, intentions and energies that inspire it.


openDemocracy writers explore the politics of climate change, including the debate of that name (edited by Caspar Henderson) in 2004-05:

Stephan Harrison, " Kazakhstan: glaciers and geopolitics" (27 May 2005)

Camilla Toulmin, " Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" (27 July 2006)

Simon Retallack, " Climate change: the global test" (10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, " Climate change: choosing the tools" (21 December 2006)

Dougald Hine, " Climate change: a question of democracy" (2 March 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate change: from issue to magnifier" (19 October 2007)

David Shearman, " Democracy and climate change: a story of failure" (7 November 2007)

Tom Burke, " The world and climate change: all together now" (7 December 2007)

Saleemul Huq, Oliver Tickell, David Steven, Camilla Toulmin, Andrew Dobson & Alun Anderson, " Was Bali a success?" (18 Dec 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate security: the new determinism" (20 December 2007)

Mike Hulme, " Amid the financial storm: redirecting climate change" (30 October 2008)

Camilla Toulmin, " Climate change futures: postcard from Poznan" (11 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, " Climate change: rock the state, save the planet" (21 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, " Climate change: a failure of leadership" (8 May 2009)

Simon Maxwell, "The politics of climate change" (15 June 2009)

Paul Rogers, "A new security paradigm: the military-climate link" (30 July 2009)

External Relations Authority, "Report on World 87" (20 August 2009)

Ruby Gropas, "The hot, flat, insecure world: a governance test" (21 August 2009)

Øyvind Paasche, "After glaciers: a new climate world" (27 August 2009)

Halina Ward & John Elkington, "International Democracy Day: work to do" (15 September 2009)

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