Skip to main content
Greta Thunberg with Schoolstrike for climate board School strike for climate (Skolstrejk för klimatet)

Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World

Follow Greta as she takes a year off school to tackle climate change.

About the programme

Follow Greta over an extraordinary year in which she comes of age as she takes her fight against climate change to a global stage. But when Covid-19 brings life to a standstill Greta is faced with an even bigger challenge – to convince a world reeling from one crisis finally to face another.

As she travels across the globe, Greta explores the science - from the melting glaciers of Canada to the coal mines of Europe. She witnesses first-hand the consequences of climate change and makes clear the reasons why she thinks something must be done right now. On her journey, she meets climate scientists and confronts the complexity of what is required to make change happen. Encounters with some of the world’s leading scientists and economists allow the series to examine what the latest science tells us about what can be done to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Head over to the BBC programme pages  to watch on iPlayer. 

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

Greta Thunberg on a glacier from - A year so change the world

Copyright: Matthew Gormly

How to respond to the climate emergency

Tackling climate change requires change at every level of society, and particularly in the systems and institutions of governance and leadership.

As individuals, issues of climate change can feel remote to our own lives and leave us feeling disempowered. This article presents some ideas about how we can personally act in using the products we own differently, and reducing the environmental impact of those products across their lifetime.

The global context

Melting icebergs

Photo by Kristoffer Brink Jonsson from Pexels

The scientific evidence is clear: our climate is warming significantly and quickly in terms of geological timescale, and human activities have a direct influence on this rate and rise of temperature change. The consequences of this increase in temperature as a result of increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere are already being felt around the world through, for example, increasing numbers of extreme weather events, the ongoing erosion of polar ice, the thawing of the permafrost, the rising of sea levels and the warming of oceans - all of which affect many different communities and levels of biodiversity across the planet. These climatic events are increasing in their severity and our ability to limit damage is uncertain. This constitutes a global emergency. Internationally there are plans in place. 

In 2015, 196 nations came together in Paris at the United Nations Climate conference and agreed to limit average global temperature rise to below two, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, above the pre-industrial levels of the end of the century. The Paris agreement  sets out global action on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and the financial support needed for such change. Do current global plans and actions on climate change indicate that this goal is attainable?

Many scientists fear not. The evidence suggests that unless we dramatically alter the way in which we do things to limit CO2 emissions, we will see much higher increases in temperature1. The consequences of this change will significantly affect our lives and those of future generations, and impact thousands of other species and the natural ecosystems that support us all.  

Types of action

Copyright: United Nations 

Different scales of action are required to respond well to climate change, with systems-level changes that bring about new ways of working the most pressing. As individuals though we also have the ability to act with the environment in mind.

The big picture is that we need to reimagine how we power the world. This requires us to substitute non-renewable energy sources such as oil, gas and coal for the renewable alternatives of solar, wind, tidal and hydro. This process of decarbonising economies is central to positive climate action. While adopting new technologies and policies will play a large part in this process so too will establishing different behaviours around how we travel, what we eat and our levels of resource consumption. In the first lockdown caused by the Coronavirus of 2020, global CO2 emissions decreased by around 17% compared with the mean 2019 levels2. It starkly demonstrates the actual level of change required for a ‘real zero’ reduction in carbon emissions (a 100% reduction).

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3 recognise the inequities in resource use across the globe, with some nations consuming far too much while others are still establishing ways of meeting basic needs such as sufficient food and water supplies, appropriate shelter, security, and protection and increasing access to education. There is both a need to balance things up (intra-generational equity ) and to establish new operational ways of working that reflect the Earth’s planetary boundaries  (inter-generational equity ).

Circular futures

Recycling bin

One new way of working is developing an economy where resource value is properly recognised, used, and recirculated – this is termed a circular economy. The concept of a circular economy challenges our current resource flow system which is linear in nature with too much stuff going to landfill4 UK consumption patterns show that on average: clothing is kept for 3.3 years5; the average lifespan of a kettle is around 4 years6; a mobile phone is replaced within 3 years7; and a washing machine replaced within 6-7 years8. Product durability has not really improved over recent decades even though technological advancements should have resulted in more resilient and longer-lasting products. Limiting product-life represents a strategy of ‘built-in obsolescence, where many manufacturers design products to last for a certain amount of time. Product strategies focused on maximum sales result in a large waste of energy and resource value, and worse, a production-consumption system that thrives on such waste. The new legislation will bring in a ’right to repair’ forcing product manufacturers to address these concerns in making products more durable and increasing the availability of spare parts9.

So, what does a more circular resource system look like, and how does it work? In broad terms, the idea of circular resource flow is to extend the use of resources for as long as possible in a useful and productive way.

Today we need to think about the global scale of circular resource flows. How do we develop resilient and regenerative material things: from kettles and cars to buildings and urban transport systems? At every scale, we need to look at how we care for resources across their whole lifecycle, from cradle to cradle. The Circular Economy applies lessons from nature where few resources are wasted. An effective circular flow of resources needs a number of things to be in place: new policy and regulation, good communications, a resource dedicated infrastructure that enables the collection of products in and after use; and new ways to re-process resources at the end of their life. No more keeping the old phone, laptop or video recorder in the drawer or garage! We need to find ways in which people feel safe to let go of these products knowing, for example, that the security of their data isn’t compromised. People need the ability (in terms of skills or financial viability) to repair products or replace components to make their phone /kettle /washing machine last longer. These changes move us away from the ‘buy cheap and often’ strategies that have dominated consumption patterns in recent decades.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle   

Buy less, choose well, make it last - Graphic

They are many different ways to enhance our own environmental behaviours. You may have already heard of many of them: consume less; reduce your use of plastics; eat less meat; produce less waste; don’t fly; drive less; use electric cars; use less energy to heat your home, and support a renewable energy supplier. All of these things are not new ideas and admittedly some may be easier to implement than others. There are also important trade-offs to understand around these activities. Plastic food packaging for example eliminates a lot of food waste. So instead of demonising plastics in isolation, it is important to recognise that our whole food system needs restructuring to consider how and where food is produced and to challenge, for example, the distance food travels from source to plate. While innovations in bioplastics provide more environmentally benign options for protecting food and reducing ocean plastics waste, equally important is our support for local food systems and favouring more ecologically beneficial habits of food growing, shopping, storage, cooking, and throwing away - as part of a more sustainable food system.

Many sustainable activities mean using less energy, using fewer material resources, and recovering more waste – and as a consequence, save us money too. When we think of a more efficient product we might look for an energy label - for example, purchasing an A+++ rated fridge-freezer or washing machine will not only be a better buy for the environment it will save us money in the long-term due to reduced demand for energy over the lifetime of keeping food cold or washing our clothes. This is certainly part of the story but not the whole story. If you open your energy-efficient fridge and keep the door open while you spend ages thinking about what to cook for tea, or you do a laundry wash every day even though the machine may be less than half full, the benefit of a higher energy rated product is eroded as a direct result of your own habits of use. The products in our home require us to use them in an informed way to gain the best energy-saving outcomes.

"Another way to limit our environmental impact is to reduce what we buy in the first place. Clothes are a great example here. Fast fashion dominates the global textile and clothing sector and results in one of the highest throughputs of waste in the UK economy. On average, each person in the UK annually throws away, 4.7kg of clothing in mixed household waste, missing opportunities for reuse or recycling10"

Buying less or buying differently such as second-hand clothing, or revamping what you have in your wardrobe – are all useful ways to make the most of the clothes you currently own. Looking after your clothes by carefully following the washing instructions and repairing items that tear or need a button replaced, are ways to keep things out of the waste stream for longer. When eventually you think enough is enough, look to dispose of them through proper recycling channels (often local councils have them) or if still wearable, sell or give away to charity.

Reducing our consumption of stuff and making what we have bought last longer can apply across all types of domestic products. Important to this story of enduring products is how they are designed and made in the first place. A long-lasting product economy that presents opportunities for repair and remanufacturing requires products to be designed thoughtfully from the very beginning.

Comparing COVID-19 with our climate emergency

Professor of Earth System Science, Prof. Neil Edwards, talks to ecologist Dr Julia Cooke about the connections and contrasts between the COVID-19 pandemic and our climate emergency, and their impacts on society and the economy.


Meet the OU experts

Emma Dewberry, OU Lecturer
Dr Emma DewberrySenior lecturer in Design for Sustainability - School of Engineering & InnovationVIEW FULL PROFILE
Emma Dewberry, OU Lecturer
Dr Emma DewberrySenior lecturer in Design for Sustainability - School of Engineering & Innovation

I’ve long been interested in the relationship between the stuff we design and its impact on the environment. I tried to integrate an ecological perspective in my work as an undergraduate industrial designer, and later, in my doctoral research exploring UK eco-design strategies and practice.

Since the 1990s I’ve led education programmes on design for sustainability at a number of UK Higher Education institutions. My interest in education for sustainability is not only in the content of what we learn but also in the ways we learn and what we do with that learning – in other words, how we create ‘education AS change’. My research explores design, education, and the social narratives of sustainability to consider how design-led approaches can create effective responses to crises.

A picture of Professor David Humphreys
Professor David HumphreysProfessor of Environmental PolicyVIEW FULL PROFILE
A picture of Professor David Humphreys
Professor David HumphreysProfessor of Environmental Policy

David has a long-standing interest in environmental policy and environmental politics, with a particular interest in international forest policy. Having tracked the evolution of all international forest policy initiatives over the last 25 years, both within and outside the United Nations, he has written two books on this subject, Forest Politics: The Evolution of International Cooperation (1996) and Logjam: Deforestation and the Crisis of Global Governance (2006), the latter of which won the International Studies Association’s Sprout Award for the best book of the year on international environmental problems.  

David is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. In 2017 he was made a National Teaching Fellow by the Higher Education Academy.

Find out more about Professor David Humphreys

Picture of Professor Neil edwards
Professor Neil EdwardsProfessor of Earth System Science - School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem SciencesVIEW FULL PROFILE
Picture of Professor Neil edwards
Professor Neil EdwardsProfessor of Earth System Science - School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences

I have been actively involved in research on climate and Earth system dynamics and climate change for over 30 years.

I’ve authored around 90 refereed publications, including five recent articles in Nature and Science journals, in collaboration with a large network of colleagues around the world, and my work has been cited over 4300 times.

My primary expertise is in climate and Earth system modelling, including the impacts of climate change in the geological past, as well as the present and the future, the quantification of uncertainty in projections of climate change, and integrated modelling of climate and socio-economic change.

You might also like...

The Search for a New Earth

Stephen Hawking believes if mankind is to survive we only have 100 years to colonise another planet… But can we? 

Read Article

Blue Planet II

Sir David Attenborough presents Blue Planet II.

Read Article
Blue Planet Live - Coral

Blue Planet Live

In an exciting week of programmes, Blue Planet Live celebrated marine life and explores our oceans. 

Read Article
Engineers work on pylon on OU/BBC series Power to the People

Power to the People

This three-part OU/BBC series looks at SSE, one of the Big Six energy companies, and how they are battling to keep electricity flowing to our homes.

Read Article
How to End Poverty in 15 Years title card - BBC Series

Don't Panic - How to End Poverty in 15 Years

Shown again as a tribute to the late Hans Rosling, his exploration of how statistics offers hope in an overcrowded world

Read Article

Explore the OU

A cropped photo of students with documents scattered in front of them.

Open University courses

An image of the OU poster for 'A Perfect Planet'

Order a free OU Poster

A young woman on a computer in a cafe

OU subjects A-Z

A photograph taken in a cafe. A mug is in focus in the foreground, and a man using a laptop is out of focus in the background.

The latest OU news

A photo of a person using a laptop and notebook, and a small dog resting its head on the user's arm

About distance learning

A top-down picture of a man using a laptop at a desk

Free courses

A photo of a man wearing a red hoodie and headphones walking away from the camera, on a busy path by a road

Hear from students

About our BBC partnership

For over 50 years The Open University and the BBC have worked together; co-producing hundreds of hours of programming and bringing learning to life for millions. Find out more about our unique partnership.

OU website