Since politicians clearly cannot be trusted to tackle climate change, it’s up to the lowly masses to make a difference – and that includes designers and engineers

We had some hot summer days this year. And as usual, the hot weather provoked a rash of hand-wringing articles about global warming. In the prime minister’s September speech, he declared that sustainable development and climate change concerns were top of his agenda. In a survey by Greenpeace, 78% of people are now concerned about climate change. Unsurprisingly, the environment is becoming an election issue. Which can only be a good thing.

Tony Blair has enough reasons to call for action. He told us the floods in Europe during 2002 cost $16bn; that the economic costs of climate change will reach $150bn in 10 years; and that last year’s heat wave cost $13.5bn and caused 26,000 premature deaths in Europe.

The most effective way of dealing with global environmental issues is top down. In other words: establish the political will, reach a consensus on overall strategy, legislate and then implement policy locally. The trouble at the moment is that, globally, we’re stuck at the top level. Way back in 1997, the US Senate said it wouldn’t ratify the Kyoto treaty. Russia is also wobbling this year, so Kyoto currently has no chance of being made law. And the UN has a few initiatives, but even Tony Blair conceded that its international guidelines for sustainable development, Agenda 21, needed some life breathing back into it.

So can things be made to work from the bottom up? Perhaps. The UK has made a little progress and is doing fine on meeting its Kyoto emissions targets for greenhouse gases, though not so well on carbon dioxide. We’re promised a five-year programme this year by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as well as a sustainable development strategy in 2005 to deal with waste, recycling and biodiversity. New UK schools will also be sustainable.

But the UK as a country isn’t the very bottom. The bottom is you and me. It’s about the bottle bank, the combi-boiler, the holiday air travel (projected to contribute 25% of the problem). It’s where we work (building energy is contributing 50% of carbon dioxide), the paper we print out and throw away. It’s our lifestyles, dropping kids off at school in the car, buying stuff we don’t need. But also, crucially, it is about products.

Why? It’s a consumer society, dummy! I found myself hosting a booked-out event at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) this summer with the Arts Council of England (ACE) called “The Art of Shopping”, which attracted an impressive crowd, from architecture and building design to marketing and new media industries. Shopping? We love it. Our houses are all remortgaged and our wallets are stuffed with credit cards just so we can buy new stuff. But the products we buy are about as sustainable as an ice cube in hell.

How come the product manufacturers are doing so badly? Ford recently invested heavily in a new car factory to make SUVs (sports-utility vehicles, or gas guzzlers). As part of Bill Ford’s environmental initiative, the factory had a grass roof, solar cells and ISO14001 status (more on this in a moment). But some of the SUVs that Ford makes actually consume more fuel than models from 10 years ago – and the factory churns out hundreds of thousands of vehicles so the clever roof is meaningless.

Shopping? We love it. Our houses are all remortgaged and our wallets are stuffed with credit cards just so we can buy new stuff. But the products we buy are about as sustainable as an ice cube in hell

I recently invested in the world’s most efficient condensing combi-boiler at home. It even uses heat recovery on the flue gases so they are barely hand-hot. Made by Vaillance, it is however fiendishly temperamental and I have grown used to lukewarm baths. So back to the bottom up question again. I have a two-point action plan.

First, the consumer is king. Buy discerningly. The phenomenal success of Fairtrade products shows how things really can work.

Secondly, encourage your employers to do something. The Royal College of Art, where I work part-time as a professor, is a wheezing old 1960s building that (legally) spews dust and toxics into Kensington, not to mention the lungs of the staff, students and technicians. There’s an international standard

for environmental impact management called ISO14001. It isn’t mandatory, but I’m going to see if the RCA can become the world’s first university to be rated. Give us two years. As a start, from this year my students will only be working with environmentally acceptable polymers and resins.

And for the discerning professions? To keep it simple I have a tip for each one. Architects must use less glass; engineers must stop using air conditioning and use chilled ceilings instead if they must. Product designers have to know enough about materials to be able to select intelligently and educate manufacturers about the marketing advantages of environmental design. Oh, and lawyers and banks should wean themselves off paper and use email properly like the rest of us – I know that my high-street bank at least doesn’t use email with customers.

Tom Barker is a principal of b consultants and professor of Industrial Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art