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Why “warm sweater week” does not work

Why “warm sweater week” does not work

Photographer:Fotograaf: Pxhere

Opinion article

Climate change is not a personal but a political problem, says Martin Unfried, senior researcher at the Institute for Transnational and Euregional Cross border Cooperation and Mobility. Good policies are needed, just raising awareness is not enough. It may not even help at all.

Sometimes a bit of experience hurts. 25 years ago, I was a trainee in the German Federal Ministry of Environment in the department for climate change. Yes, for the younger generation: 25 years ago the German as well as the Dutch government had already set CO2 reduction targets (for the year 2005).

At the time, I had the chance to be present in many interdepartmental meetings. Unsurprisingly, it was about CO2 reduction in the transport sector, the electricity sector, in industry and in the building stock. Back then, it was already obvious that we have to insulate our buildings (including monuments) at a large scale.

That is why I was amused when I recently read the evaluation of the “warm sweater” week from the Green Office and the complaints from colleagues. The most amusing remark was the following: “our conclusion is that some buildings are not yet fit for Warm Sweater Week”.  And even better: “A known issue is that some buildings are poorly insulated.” As I already mentioned, we have known what to do for the last 25 years. For me, there is only one conclusion. We should stop celebrating “warm sweater week”.

In the past, I believed in awareness raising. However, I have noticed that the success or failure of climate change policies in the EU is less related to public awareness than I thought. The Netherlands is a case in point. According to Eurobarometer (2017), many Dutch have a rather high awareness of climate change compared to other EU member states. In three member states, at least a quarter of respondents say that climate change is the most serious problem (Sweden (38%), Denmark (29%) and the Netherlands (27%)). One could assume that this is an excellent condition for progressive climate change policy. It is apparently not. Whereas Sweden and Denmark are leading countries, the Dutch performance in climate policy belongs to the worst of EU member states according to several rankings.

This is policy failure. For two decades, consecutive governments have failed to take effective measures. Take my office as an example: single glazing and leaky windows after 20 years of climate change debate. This means in the first place, that the University has apparently still not established a professional energy management and investment priority.  And yes, we know that we are dealing with monuments (as for the last 20 years), that is no excuse. Sitting in an office with single glazing and celebrating “warm sweater week” is in this case the simulation of policy. Even worse: it gives us the idea that we are taking action. Furthermore, it gives the wrong impression that climate change policy is about suffering and less comfort. It is not. We would enjoy more comfort in state-of-the-art renovated buildings. 

Behind the surprisingly modest performance of the University, there is of course a general policy failure. If not even the top of a University (with all these smart people) can implement very obvious measures, then we need regulation such as a law to phase out single glazing and leaky windows.

Climate change policy is in this case comparable to the policy we have for Urban heritage conservation. Nobody expects the University to respect the monument regulation voluntarily. There are clear rules, despite the fact that investments for special roofs or facades are higher than for state of the art material. It is obvious that the protection of monuments is a political question and not a personal or a moral. We do not have to be good people to save our monuments. The good news: the same is true for the climate.

Martin Unfried, senior researcher at ITEM



2019-04-17: Jos Eussen
Thanks for this article Martin, a good read to which I'd like to add that a 'popular catch' such as 'Warm Sweater Day' works contra-productive, giving people the feeling, illusion, to have done good. It's like buying an over-expensive 'green' coffee and feeling so good about yourselves you don't notice buying a jeans that same evening which will compensate your good-warm-sweater-feeling for an entire lifetime.
And as to policy-'effectiveness' …. don't be too hard on our University, The Club of Rome met 50 years ago and today UNESCO claps itself on the shoulder for discussing Education for Sustainable Development in over 800 conferences without any progress at all except qualifying itself as an assembly of 'Experts'. In what, perhaps Warm Sweaters? Policy and Politics are at the end of the day and at their very best not more (nor less) then the reflection of the people's will; it would be about time we stopped the useless People, Planet, Profit - mantra which only led to people talking to people about (other) people's behaviour; merge the worlds of Education and Industry and get moving towards those dimensions of sustainable development that matter - now only hoping Earth Hour and others Sweater-spa(s)ms will no longer distract us from common sense.

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