To recap this is our current situation: we now have approximately 420 parts per million of CO2 in our atmosphere which has lead to an average global temperature rise of just over1 degree Celsius from pre-industrial temperatures:
At 1 degree of warming we are already experiencing increased heat waves, wildfires, droughts, flooding and other natural disasters. To limit any further warming of our planet we need to… stop emitting C02 into our atmosphere as soon as possible. Not just cut down a little bit, we need to get our emissions to zero.
This graph shows our current global C02 emissions of around 42 Gigatonnes of C02 per year and rising. The steep downward slope is what is required to get to zero fast enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees without large scale negative emission technology that doesn’t exist yet and may never exist:
There is no fossil fuel plant that is pumping out CO2 emissions just for the hell of it, they are all working to power somebody’s lifestyle.
Lifestyles embrace much more than just consumption patterns and behaviours. Lifestyles include non-economic aspects of our lives, such as caring for children or elderly parents, spending time with our friends, play, engaging in voluntary work, activism, or supporting a local campaign or political party. All of these potentially affect, directly or indirectly, our well-being and our carbon footprint. Lifestyles are how we consume, and also how we relate to one another, what kind of neighbours, friends, citizens, and parents we are, what kinds of values we nurture, and how we let those values drive our choices. (Hot or Cool 1.5 degree lifestyles report)
Yes, the fossil fuel companies have denied and created doubt around the science which has led to a horrible delay in action for which executives in those companies should be put on trial. Yes, they have induced demand for their products by heavily investing in advertising for high carbon emission products- selling larger and larger car models, faster and faster fashion, normalising flights for weekend city-breaks, ramping up the single-use plastic industry, escalating consumer culture, and so no, they cannot be taken as good faith actors who can help come up with the solution to our current environmental problems. They need to be regulated into non-existence (and all non-executive level employees offered training for new jobs), and this is obviously quite a systemic change that needs to be made at an international/national level.
However at an individual level, the 1.5 Degree Lifestyles Report from the Hot or Cool Institute calculates that with the remaining carbon budget we have left (i.e. the total remaining amount of CO2 we can pump into the atmosphere) to keep within 1.5 degrees of warming we need to get our lifestyles from the global average of 4.6 tonnes/year/person to 2.5 tonnes/year/person in 2030, 1.4 tonnes/year/person by 2040 and 0.7 tonnes/year/person by 2050:
These are tough targets for the richest 10% who earn over £27,000 per year who are responsible for 52% of the worlds carbon emissions over the past 25 years. The average carbon footprint of someone in a higher income country like the USA is around 16.2 tonnes/year (see Our World in Data for average carbon emissions per capita broken down by country), however inequality within countries is such that carbon footprints can vary wildly even within countries in relation to income. For example the carbon footprint of Bill Gates is thought to be around 7500 tonnes/year and he has low emissions for a billionaire! It is the rich whose lifestyles depend the most on fossil fuels that need to make the biggest individual changes, or whose lifestyles will be altered the most radically by any systemic changes that are made.
The environmental impacts of lifestyles mainly come from four domains: food, personal transport, housing, and consumer goods. Among these, as this report shows, eating meat, using fossil fuel cars, flying, and large and high energy-consuming houses are especially problematic. Prioritising design, production, and consumption patterns in these domains will address about three-quarters of environmental impacts. – 1.5 degree Lifestyles Report
Want to travel low carbon? For long distance journeys that means travelling by train since the technology to electrify air travel does not and probably will not exist for decades (and biofuels use up too much valuable farming land). For medium/short journeys that means mainly using active travel (walking, cycling, e-cycling or scooting), and electrified public transport (electrified buses, trams and trains), with maybe some use of shared electric car hiring schemes/ or a private electric vehicle if you live in a very rural area or have a disability. Whether you take individual action now or wait for systemic change you are still at some point going to have to get rid of the gas-guzzling SUV, stop flying and get on your bike.
Want to eat low carbon? That’s a mainly plant based diet. Whether taxes are raised on meat products and all restaurants and cafeterias are mandated to produce only vegan/vegetarian meals, or you voluntarily chose to cut down on your meat and dairy consumption, you are still going to actually have to do it.
Want a low carbon home? That’s a small, energy efficient home powered by renewable electricity. A McMansion with a few photovoltaic panels on the top is not going to do the trick.
Systemic changes are those that incentivise and facilitate individual changes. They still lead to the same outcome.
Luckily, if you are in the richest 10% (and definitely if you are in the richest 1% ) of people on earth, you can afford to take more actions individually and do not need to wait for systemic change to incentivise those actions.
However, as Adam Tooze puts it so well in his newsletter article ‘Climate, carbon and class’ it is also those in the 10% who are in the kind of positions (company leaders, politicians, lobbyists, executives, civil servants, journalists, engineers, lawyers) to instigate the systemic changes, who quite evidently given the trajectory of global carbon emissions, don’t want to radically change their lifestyles:
‘From the manager of a national utility to the forward-thinking electrical contractor who decides to propose new solar solutions to his clients, it is, when it comes down to it, the same group highlighted by the consumption data – the folks in the top 10 percent of the income distribution – who drive the development of infrastructure.
Viewed in these terms the distinction between individual consumption choices and the structures that guide and constrain those individual choices, is blurred. Both are the result of action by the same minority. And this entanglement becomes even more compelling when we consider another aspect of the energy transition – the question of financing.’ Adam Tooze
I know that I am in the richest 10%, or quite possibly 1% of individuals (although it doesn’t really make sense this distinction of an individual – as a housewife I’m technically unemployed with zero income, and both my kids are obviously unemployed and earn zero income, but because of my husbands income and our inherited wealth as a family of four we either each have the potential equivalent carbon footprint and decision making power of an individual in the 10% bracket or just one individual in the 1% bracket and the rest of us in the top 20% bracket I’m not sure), and I know what all the social cues from advertising and culture are telling me is the lifestyle I should be living.
I should have a big car, make that two cars (one can be electric, but lets be practical one is going to have to be petrol/diesel), a big house with a large garden in the suburbs/country-side, a ‘dream’ kitchen, take multiple holidays in far-flung places (one of them a skiing holiday obviously), and have new clothes for every occasion and all the latest electronic gadgets. With the size of mortgage we would probably be eligible for from a bank with my husbands income and the money I’ve inherited for a deposit, the image below is of the lifestyle we could have right now. We’d be up to our eyeballs in debt, but mortgage debt and car finance debt, so not to worry!
All the carbon emission numbers are rough guesstimates using the Henkel carbon calculator: https://footprintcalculator.henkel.com/en . It assumes that the four people in our family are all equally responsible for the emissions – i.e. that both our small children also emit 15.4 tonnes/year and not that maybe we as parents who make all the decisions should be responsible for more of our total family emissions than them. It doesn’t include garden energy use (leaf blowers in particular are a total carbon nightmare!!), and it only covers emissions associated with clothing and streaming of digital media not other consumer goods so the real imaginary number is likely to be higher.
Instead we live like this at the moment:
Again the carbon emission figures are not very accurate and do not include all aspects of our life, they are only estimates using the Henkel tool and information from our gas and electricity bills- the real figures are likely to be higher, but hopefully still below the average European annual carbon emissions of 6.8 tonnes/year despite us being richer than average.
Obviously we still need to improve to get down below 2.5 tonnes/year/person by 2030. Our highest emission activity is our meat and dairy eating, followed by our car use and using a gas boiler to heat our home.
To minimise our emissions as much as possible therefore we need to get rid of our car, eat plant-based foods as much as possible and switch our gas boiler for an electric heat pump and install PV panels on our roof, along with reducing our consumption of new products further:
This would bring us down to around 2 tonnes/year/person. What do we need to get to this hopeful future low carbon lifestyle? And how can we avoid sliding back towards a higher carbon lifestyle (which I have to admit is incredibly tempting when I’m in my more doomerism mode)?
I decided to look at each category transport/food/home energy/consumption separately in terms of their low/zero carbon end goal solutions and what we need to be able to implement them.
I tried to separate these needs into those that we can address ourselves and those for which we require systemic change to occur, and to think about how we could use our money/time/social status as part of the richest 10% to influence systemic change in this direction and to enable (not block!) changes that others need to decarbonize. Given the changes we’ve already made to lower our carbon emissions in comparison to others in our income bracket I also tried to think about what has made it possible for us to take the action that we already have.
Here is what I came up with for each category- it’s not exhaustive and I need to think more about the actions I can take to help bring about systemic change, as I’m sure I have more leverage than I think I do:
It’s been harder than I thought it would be to go through this process of basically auditing our lifestyle and self-reflecting as to why we don’t do some quite simple things that I know would help and financially we can afford. We have spare cash so why aren’t we investing it in the only thing that matters – a liveable future? What is really the issue, am I somehow genuinely emotionally attached to my gas boiler and my petrol guzzling car?? Often I don’t have a satisfactory answer, it’s just a habit we as a family have formed that boils down to not wanting to be ‘inconvenienced’ and make the extra effort or take the time to do something differently.
This process has made me realise how small many of the barriers are to me acting, and how many of them are just in my head, rather than physical or financial (as a person in a higher income bracket). None of them involve technology that doesn’t already exist. Eating less meat and driving less is not going to affect the quality of my life, in fact it might even make it better! As an individual in the top 10% of the richest people in the world I can quite easily make further changes to lower my carbon emissions and at the same time influence other people to make changes in their lives and together we can drag governments into making systemic changes that enable everyone to live well within our remaining carbon budget for 1.5 degrees.
Roll on the future…