Leading article: A greener world begins at home

Remember the environment? The Independent on Sunday still does. In the months and years leading up to the Copenhagen conference last December, climate change was increasingly recognised as the biggest long-term policy challenge for peoples and governments around the world. The growing acceptance of the need for urgent action then met three obstacles.

First came the global financial crisis. It is plainly easier for people to consider making financial sacrifices for the sake of a collective and distant goal when personal prosperity is rising; and the urgency of the green agenda is easier to sustain when people are less worried about their job security or paying for their home.

Second came the great Climate Research Unit emails scandal, which may not have amounted to much in the end beyond a further reminder of the wisdom of thinking before you press "send" about whether you would be happy to see what you have written in the pages of a newspaper. Except that it did draw attention to the extent of uncertainty among scientists about the scale of the changes to the climate that we might expect over the coming decades.

The third setback was the failure of the Copenhagen summit itself, which brought home the gap between the rhetoric of the Chinese government and its willingness to commit itself to targets to cut the output of greenhouse gases.

This newspaper was, of course, keen to get on with the work of preparing for the next phase, but in this country at least the general election pushed green issues to one side. Despite protestations from all three main parties, and despite the election of Britain's first Green MP, climate change does not feel as if it is centre stage. During the campaign, we devoted one of our "big issues" – the important subjects that the politicians were failing to address – to the environment. Since then, last month's Budget confirmed that green taxes were not being taken seriously. The best that the Liberal Democrats could secure to make good their claim to be the greenest of the main parties was a review of the per-passenger plane tax.

That is why we are going back to basics to devote this edition of The Independent on Sunday to a special report on saving energy. We report the findings of new research suggesting that more energy could be saved than previously thought by simple things such as switching off lights and electrical appliances. This is a good place to start – on the demand side of the energy equation, with individual action that can make a difference.

Of course, it is only a start. Personal responsibility for lower energy use leads quickly to the realisation of the need for government and ultimately international action. Manufacturers need to be incentivised or regulated to make electrical goods less energy-hungry; customers need better information about what energy they are using; and energy prices need to rise to send market signals throughout the economy.

Beyond that, we need to move on to the supply side, to the debates about nuclear power and the viability of large-scale renewable energy generation. Then there are the technological fixes that might help the world adapt to higher average temperatures. And, ultimately, there is no point in individuals or single nations acting to reduce their carbon footprints if the rest of the world continues to increase theirs, so, ultimately, we must return to the kind of international agreement that was attempted at Copenhagen.

The failure of world leaders eight months ago to agree to binding targets – in which India and several other important nations hid behind China's intransigence – forced the green movement to reappraise the tactics and mechanics of securing international agreement. Despite months and years of preparation for the summit, it turned out that the deep work had not been done to persuade the ruling elites in China and elsewhere that big and difficult changes were necessary.

This is a long and complex process that must begin with individual action. One of the most effective ways of achieving the deep change of attitudes around the world is the power of example. If people in rich countries can show that high standards of living can be compatible with environmental sustainability, then meaningful international agreement will come closer. We in the rich countries of the world have not yet really begun to do that. It is time to make a start. Turn something off now.