Challenges and opportunities

Across the world – and in the UK – millions of people’s lives are blighted by pollution, the daily destruction of our natural environment, poor health resulting from ecologically-damaging diets and the impacts of climate change.

Within and between countries, it is the most disadvantaged people who are worst affected. Communities across the world are already dealing with the consequences of this environmental and social crisis. The burden is overwhelmingly borne by people living in the Global South, while the richest countries have been most responsible for the causes.

The facts are shocking and many of the trends are heading in the wrong direction.

  • The world is currently on a path for 4-5⁰C warming, which is already having dramatic effects on people’s lives through extreme weather: flooding, drought and heatwaves. Even if countries make the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that they have pledged we would still be on track for well over 2⁰C of warming.i
  • Globally we are undergoing a loss of nature unprecedented in human experience. We have lost half the Earth’s animal population in 40 years, with over-exploitation and habitat loss or damage by humans the main causes.ii In the UK, 60% of species have declined in the last 50 years.iii
  • 40,000 people die prematurely each year in the UK due to air pollution, with low-income and Black and Minority Ethnic communities disproportionately affected.iv
  • In relation to sustainable diets, high levels of meat consumption – particularly of red and processed meat – have been identified as detrimental to public health. Livestock production is responsible for around 14.5% of the world’s human-induced global greenhouse gas emissions and 30% of biodiversity loss.v

These problems aren’t just about a few bad individuals, companies or governments. The rules of the game – the institutions, narratives, and ideologies that dominate economic, political and cultural life – don’t recognise that our lives depend on the health of the single planet we call home. And they don’t provide a level playing field for everyone. That’s why we work with people to tackle systemic causes, as well as helping to alleviate symptoms. Some institutions will fight hard to protect the status quo.

Despite the challenges we are fundamentally optimistic. Because while people might have caused our problems, people can fix them too. The last century has seen some spectacular advances for humanity, particularly around rights for women, against racism, against homophobia. There have been setbacks, but the overall trend is progress. The same is happening on the environment now.


On climate change, for example, while we’re not on the right road yet, we have seen global emissions flatlining, unprecedented levels of investment in renewable energy, and – under extreme pressure from civil society – political leaders starting to acknowledge the necessity of holding global temperature rises to 1.5⁰C in the Paris Agreement. Some businesses are ahead of the politicians. While coal companies issue profit warnings and file for bankruptcyvi and the Governor of the Bank of England warns of stranded carbon-intensive assets,vii home furnishing stores expand their solar panel ranges.viii

Following the Paris Climate Agreement, with accelerating global investment in renewable energy and building on success in keeping the UK frack-free, there is huge civil society momentum around keeping fossil fuels in the ground. For the country that started the Industrial Revolution to kick the fossil fuel habit would send a powerful signal, and indicate a preparedness to take responsibility for the UK’s disproportionate historic contribution to climate change.


There is evidence that people are increasingly distant from the wild world, especially in urban areas; 75% of young Londoners are ‘disconnected from nature’.ix Many are only too aware that they are missing out and there is a strong appetite to experience, understand and protect the beauty and joy of wild things, as the extraordinary popularity of our Bee Cause campaign makes clear.

The evidence is now mounting up about the direct benefits of nature to people’s physical and mental health and children’s learning and development. Turning around this disconnect – and re-establishing the value of wildlife in our culture – is key to overcoming the false dichotomy between nature and economic success and thus to tackling the ultimate drivers of damage to biodiversity.


With the scientific evidence clear and the VW scandal having brought air quality squarely into the public debate, there is a new political appetite in major cities for tackling air pollution. The issue was central to the most recent London Mayoral contest and the infrastructure to support electric vehicles is now growing rapidly.

With 40% of people reporting that they are eating less meat than they used to,x the idea of flexitarianism is now entering the mainstream. Adhering to health guidelines on meat consumption could cut global food-related emissions by nearly a third by 2050.xi


Across the world, the environment is intimately and unavoidably associated with dramatic social, economic and political tension, from climate refugees to the realities of climate-driven damage. The UK has a particular responsibility to take its fair share of action, given our disproportionate historical responsibility for climate change, and the continuing role of UK-headquartered companies and financial institutions in driving environmental damage around the world.


Protecting the environment and the quality of life it provides can be a difficult – and in some cases dangerous – business. Across Friends of the Earth’s international network, courageous people are defending their environment and the human rights which it supports. Facing persecution, kidnapping and even death, we support them as they continue to challenge powerful interests.

Even in the UK, the right of people to campaign is under threat. Groups defending the public interest are coming under increased and sustained pressure from the Government and corporations who want to silence the views of people who stand in their way.


Friends of the Earth’s history – from recycling to the Climate Change Act – demonstrates again and again the power of people coming together and taking action for change. In wanting to find socially-just solutions to environmental problems, the public are way ahead of some of our current political leaders. Despite the social and economic divisions laid bare by the EU referendum, and the uncertainty unleashed by the result, Brexit has significantly increased political engagement and organising.

The last few years have seen a democratisation in how change is made with digital tools making it easier for more people to start campaigns and take practical action. As digital platforms accelerate the pace of change, new models of organising have enabled more people to share in leading and shaping campaigns. While very many people simply want to do their bit, giving money or taking quick and easy expert-led actions which add up at scale, the rise of organising alongside mobilising has seen a desire for greater autonomy in finding creative ways to reach shared aims.

For references click here