A rapid imperfect prototype


Scientists and policy makers often use the term ‘net carbon zero’ when they talk about pathways to prevent further climate breakdown.

However for most people this is an abstract concept. Net zero carbon (from a personal point of view) means living under one metric tonne of carbon per year, as set out here.

3-2-1 tonnes per person by 2030-2040-2050. Globally, citizens and society need to aim for per-person consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions targets of 2.5 (tCO2e) in 2030, 1.4 by 2040, and 0.7 by 2050 in order to keep global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees.

Different organisations propose different target dates to achieve net zero carbon.

  • IPCC 1.5C report – 2050
  • UK Climate Change Act -2050
  • Youth Climate Strike – 2030
  • Extinction Rebellion -2025

To get a perspective on the current state of play:

  • The average EU citizen emits 8 tonnes of carbon per year
  • The average US citizen emits 16 tonnes
  • The average Zimbabwean emits 1.6 tonnes
  • A new car produces 8-50 tonnes of carbon, just in manufacture
  • An economy return flight London to Hong Kong is 3.5 tonnes
  • A business class return flight London to Hong Kong is 10 tonnes
  • London to Glasgow return by large SUV is 1.02 tonnes
  • A return flight London to Glasgow is 0.368 tonnes
  • London to Glasgow return by train is 0.064 tonnes
  • A new computer is 0.326 – 0.620 tonnes

The aim of this project is to attempt to live on one tonne of carbon per year from September 2019. This breaks down to a budget of 2.74kg of carbon emitted per day.  I will record everything that I consume in a journal. This will include food, drink, transport, entertainment, data, showers, washing up, heating etc

I will attempt to give a carbon value to each consumption. Sometimes this will be based on the research of scientists like Professor Mike Berners-Lee, whose seminal book ‘How bad are bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything’ describes how values are calculated. The calculations take in many aspects and are a complex mix. They are he admits ‘best estimates’. But more than this he writes ‘I want to give you a sense of the carbon impact of everything you do and think about. I want to give you a carbon instinct.’

This will necessarily be an imperfect prototype. It won’t be an exact science and much of it will be a reasonable guesstimate.

But this project aims to give life to what net zero carbon means from a personal perspective. To add human flesh to an abstract and remote number. To inform policy and investment. To engage and educate the public. To discuss lifestyle choices and adaptation. To make the everyday a work of art.

We may be living on one tonne far sooner than people realise. Man-made climate breakdown is escalating far quicker than many scientists anticipated.

The UK Parliament was the first to declare a Climate Emergency in 2019. Followed by 16 more countries (so far) including Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Canada, France and Argentina. Cities like London, New York, Sydney, Auckland, Amsterdam and Paris have also declared; as well as 822 jurisdictions and local governments covering 145 million citizens. The clear direction of travel is towards rapid mobilisation to mitigate against dangerous irreversible tipping points.

This is a personal and societal adaptation the like we have never seen before. Our only point of reference is the rapid mobilisation and adaptation seen in WW2. But this is far deeper and transformative.

Such rapid transformation brings loss as well opportunity. But I am determined to enjoy a bloody good life on one tonne.


  • It is legitimate to focus on household /individual emissions and what cutting that looks like. It will help us understand what policies and practices need to be in place to facilitate it
  • However discussions about how other parts of society and the economy de-carbonises are also very important. This is not a distraction but runs alongside, to inform policy. As Professor Kevin Anderson points out, we must not be drawn into the ‘false dichotomy of the system OR the individual’
  • I have chosen to use the ‘net’ carbon zero rather than zero carbon. But I do not condone offsets or ‘creative accounting’ which outsource emissions to other countries or future generations. Or unrealistic, dangerous carbon capture tech. If the remainder is netted out through domestic ecosystems, this I believe this can open up the best chance of quality of life
  • UK Government activity adds an additional 0.86 tonnes of carbon per person per year
  • A rapid imperfect prototype is appropriate to a Climate Emergency