Leaded petrol, acid rain, CFCs: why the green movement can overcome the climate crisis

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Guardian environment correspondent Fiona Harvey discusses why the last 50 years of environmental action have shown how civil society can force governments and business to change and why that should give campaigners optimism for the future


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Faced with multiplying and interlinked environmental crises in the 2020s – the climate emergency, the sixth extinction stalking the natural world, the plastic scourge in our oceans – it is easy to feel overwhelmed, Guardian environment correspondent Fiona Harvey tells Rachel Humphreys. But it’s also easy to forget that environmentalism is arguably the most successful citizens’ mass movement there has been. Working sometimes globally, at other times staying intensely local, activists have transformed the modern world in ways we now take for granted.

Campaigner Janet Alty tells Rachel about how her local campaign to ban lead in petrol became part of a much bigger movement called CLEAR – the Campaign For Lead-Free Air. Their campaign took years. But in 1983, a damning verdict from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution prompted the UK government to decree that both petrol stations and manufacturers must offer lead-free alternatives. Leaded fuel was finally removed from the last petrol pumps in the UK in 1999.

Fiona tells Rachel about two other hugely successful moments in environmental history. Acid rain is no longer the scourge of forests and lakes. Public pressure on the worst-offending countries – chiefly the US and the UK, which were responsible for acid rain that fell largely on neighbouring countries and regions, such as Canada and Scandinavia – was key. And the hole in the ozone layer, once a threat to most living things, including plants and animals, is now on the path to recovery – a result of the world moving quickly. Governments got together under the aegis of the UN and forged the Montreal Protocol in 1987, which phased out ozone-depleting chemicals globally.

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