Nine month review

Global pandemic

As I finished writing my 6 month review, the corona virus (covid 19) was beginning to spiral out of control in London. I cancelled all my outstanding London Mayoral appointments. The next day (13th March) the London Mayoral election was postponed for a year. I locked down early at that point, waiting for the Government to do the same. The official Government lockdown eventually came on the 23rd March. It is believed by some that 30,000 lives would have been saved by locking down a week early.

Professor & Chair of Global Public Health,@EdinburghUni
Medical School Devi Sridhar @devisridhar has commented:

Looking back at tweets from people in Feb saying UK would have <10K die from COVID & to stop spreading panic. Intention never to spread panic or fear, but to highlight facts that require action: to prepare, and to prevent. I’m not here to tell you about rainbows & unicorns.

Likewise. My project aims to highlight facts that require action: to prepare, and to prevent.

The lockdown rules were:

  • Requiring people to stay at home, except for very limited purposes.
  • Closing certain businesses and venues.
  • Stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public.

It took some time for people to reorient themselves to these unprecedented restrictions. Maintaining 2 metres of social distancing whilst out exercising or shopping was a challenge with narrow pavements and crowded shops. Not seeing our loved ones in separate households was deeply painful. But in the majority, people adjusted because we wanted to protect the National Health Service from being overwhelmed and save lives.

I am recounting this, both to set out the social context of my One Tonne of Carbon per Year project, and to look at the implications of such a rapid transformation of social norms social norms need to be rapidly transformed in the metamorphosis to a net carbon zero lifestyle.

An unintended byproduct of the unprecedented restrictions was that people unwittingly embodied lower carbon footprints: Minimal flights, radically reduced motor traffic (only essential journeys by car and public transport) more walking and cycling, buying less stuff as non-essential shops closed.

Another of the bittersweet benefits of the lockdown was the noticeably cleaner air and the sound of birdsong (as a result of a sharp reduction in motor traffic and aeroplanes) I started to embody clean air and a more tranquil environment. To remember. I lay on my bed, as of an evening, with the window open and just breathed. I became attuned to the complex music and echoes of birdsong across my neighbourhood. I felt more connected to this earth.

Intermittent ambulance sirens pierced through the birdsong. Carrying off the ill and the dead. Mostly out of sight from our lockdown stay at home viewpoint. We listened to Corona Virus Government Updates relaying information on the ever increasing numbers carried away. And eventually when the truth filtered down of 60,000+ excess deaths, we wept.

Embody it

I have been living within the restrictions of a One Tonne of Carbon, net carbon zero lifestyle for 9 months. It has permeated my muscle memory as well as my consciousness. I have embodied it.

During those 9 months I have become increasingly aware of how many in the climate community (scientists, campaigners, NGOs, activists) externalise the ‘Climate Emergency’ but do not embody it (or indeed internalise it). This results in compartmentalisation and rationalisation; often manifesting in irrational standpoints. We need to internalise and externalise to achieve a clear holistic view. Compartmentalisation and rationalisation are defence mechanisms which disable our ability to respond appropriately to this exponential crisis. And are often fuelled by narrow self-interest.

The Climate journalist who divides his family life between the UK and New Zealand, flying regularly, is personally conflicted in how he embodies his own pathway to net carbon zero. As is the Green politician who regularly flies between US and UK. Or the Climate Comms guy who flies back and forth between Europe and Peru to visit family and friends. All of these are impossible lifestyles on net carbon zero. Having a grown-up conversation about how people can navigate lifestyle transition is as important as discussing the practicalities of job transition.

Jean-Christophe Mortreux @mortreux_jc recently started a conversation on twitter about this delicate subject:

Jean-Christophe Mortreux @mortreux_jc: We need to stop flying as much as possible.
Would be interested to have your take on how to solve for those who have parents/very close family that live abroad (flight or boat only options) and want to see them? How would you deal with the transition for those that are separated by “oceans”? How can they still maintain a walk the talk type of approach?

Peter Kalmus  @ClimateHuman replied: Eventually, as the decades unfold, we’ll have to gradually reshuffle and live closer to our loved ones. I think travel is precious, and spending time with loved ones is precious….We take far too much for granted these days. Slowing down and crossing oceans on ships will allow us to get to know our planet better, and increase our sense of gratitude.

Unpicking high carbon lifestyles requires emotional focus. People need to prepare. This is not ‘obsessing’ or ‘shaming’, this is giving this delicate subject the emotional space and compassion that it deserves. Whilst still acknowledging that we have a collective responsibility to equally share the burden of change. We need to remove self-interest from climate communications.

When Extinction Rebellion says net carbon zero by 2025, this means a personal lifestyle budget of approximately one tonne of carbon per annum by 2025. I often get the glazed look when I say this, as if this obvious point has not registered? Much easier to externalise it and say ‘system change’ whatever that abstract concept actually means? I hope that Extinction Rebellion does not go the same way as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth where over-reliance on wealthy donors with high carbon lifestyles seem to have inhibited the ability to tell the whole truth.

Embodying the climate crisis is not a ‘slow crank’. Look at Greta Thunberg. It takes imagination, courage and a leap of faith. Now is a leap frog moment to embody the climate crisis (as well as to mobilise policy, finance, infrastructure and collective action that will help facilitate it).

Powering down

Some people recklessly blow through their personal financial budget and become bankrupt. Others steal from others to increase their financial assets, whilst others reward themselves with an unequal portion of the pie. The same is true of carbon budgets.

Currently an average US citizen (on 17 tonnes per year) would burn through their entire remaining individual lifetime carbon budget of 40 tonnes in under 3 years. A UK citizen on an average 10 tonnes per year would burn through their entire lifetime budget in four years. This is the bloated elephant in the room.

Richard Heinberg @richardheinberg who appears in the controversial film ‘Planet of the Humans’ has understood this

‘’the only realistic way to make the transition in industrial countries like the US is to begin reducing overall energy usage substantially, eventually running the economy on a quarter, a fifth, or maybe even a tenth of current energy.

The fact is that we’ve already bet our entire future on electricity and electronics. Communications and information processing and storage have all been digitized. That means that if the grid goes down, we’ve lost civilization altogether

Figuring out how to eat lower on the food chain, or how to get by without a car, or how to reduce home energy usage by half, or growing a garden might seem like trivial responses to such an overwhelming crisis, but they get us moving together in the right direction.”

What do I mean by internalising and externalising?

I will give you an example: The pandemic has lead to a steep increase in conference calls like zoom and skype. More remote working has switched carbon belching commuting to carbon belching data. The carbon of data is far more difficult to see than the cars, planes and public transport. Although this BBC three programme gives us some idea of what dirty streaming looks like. I am sure there are some carbon savings to be had with using conference calls frugally but often what I see is a mindless switch from one dirty habit to another. I understand some people are online for up to 12 hours. And conferencing calls of 5 hours or more. This is a significant data habit.

We need to be very mindful of data use. The IT industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are predicted to reach 14% of global emissions by 2040. People think outsourced data is a carbon freebie. It isn’t. It won’t appear on your electricity bill but if it did it would be a lot of coal and gas fuelled electricity. And a lot of digiwaste and embedded carbon (data centres have a short burnt out life).

I have already altered my email habit to cut carbon, minimised streaming video on demand (Netflix, YouTube, iplayer etc) and set my twitter account to ‘data saving’ (so I only load embedded videos and pictures when absolutely necessary). I don’t use roaming data either. I try to use best practice on this website

  1. Using less images and no video
  2. Compressing images and keep to black and white
  3. Delete unused files, pages and websites
  4. If in doubt, leave it out

Electrical Engineer Finlay Puffin @FinlayPuffin comments: When it comes to IT, we can radically reduce our carbon footprint many times. Redundant ads, bloatware, spam, etc places a high strain on our existing infrastructure. In other words, this lag is additional work. Also via exponential growth in computing performance but relatively linear trajectory of general applications, we underutilize our hardware. Phones, in particular, are biggest villains with RISC-based CPUs (central processing units) not that different to what’s in a PS3 (PlayStation 3) I think around a quarter of our email-based power consumption is tied to spam. However outside email, it’s bound to be far greater. Pop ups/ bloatware choke hardware and unlike with spartan gaming consoles, modern systems have a lot of spare output.

Unfortunately the available information on the carbon footprint of video conferencing calls is scant. One 2012 study quoted by the BBC estimated that a five-hour meeting held over a video conferencing call between participants in different countries would produce between 4kg (8.8lbs) CO2e and 215kg (474lbs) CO2e.’ which is a pretty unhelpful error bar. We need a more granular understanding of how this technology fits in with a net carbon zero allowance of 2.7Kg carbon per day?

The well worn argument is that video conferencing is lower carbon than travelling to a meeting or conference by planes, trains or cars etc Whilst this may be true, it is also true that walking and cycling to a local meeting is lower carbon than a video call. And why are some people on video conferencing calls within the same building??

The absence of research and data often speaks volumes. It makes me wonder if Big Tech are hiding another dirty secret? My hunch is that the net carbon zero lifestyle is mostly localised face to face meetings (enabled by walking cycling) with frugal use of video conferencing? But without the maths we are morphing in the dark.

Recently I was invited to take part in a conference call / webinar and asked on twitter whether video conferences in black and white would reduce data? There was a general dismissive response (I am used to that) but one guy, to his credit gave it a go. His analysis:

‘This does reduce the stream volume by more than 25%. I’m genuinely surprised. There is a similar reduction if using a plain background and keeping very still. That was just measuring the volume of a video data stream. Should apply to any.’

This where the transition from internalising to externalising becomes interesting: I am now wondering; is there a potential 25% reduction in all conference call stream volume by switching from colour to black and white (or plain background)? What might be the the potential global carbon savings? But 25% of what?

Another person commented that this idea of black and white conference calls was an ‘innovation’ Personally the word innovation makes me cringe. But no this was not an ‘innovation’, I asked because I care. I want to know the carbon cost because I am living within the net carbon zero lifestyle and I have a budget. I care about staying within that budget. I have internalised it.

But beyond that I care because I want us to prepare. I want us to be honest with ourselves about what net carbon zero lifestyle really involves. To face up to the challenges (some of them emotional, others very complex). In this broader sense, I have externalised it.

I am preparing for net carbon zero by 2025 in my personal life and in my work because I have read the science, looked at the data, listened to trusted experts and added it up. I have performed a risk assessment.

Unfortunately concerned citizens have had to do their own risk assessments on both the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis. Locking down early came from growing concern on social media that allowing the virus to run through the community would be catastrophic. Likewise early net carbon targets and pathways are coming from concerned citizens who are doing the maths and realising how perilously far behind the curve we are. It still shocks me that no overall risk assessment was not done on the Paris Agreement, effectively signing us up to ecocide and genocide on the current trajectory to net carbo zero 2050.


This rapid imperfect prototype is a kind of role play or improvisation; an invented social role to act out and explore the net carbon zero lifestyle scenario. Data and science are useful tools but not holistic absolutes. To be better prepared, we must be creating lots of rapid imperfect prototypes to understand the complex metamorphosis to net carbon zero. Understanding the granular day to day living helps us get an overview of how that might work, scaled up? Internalising and externalising gives us a more surround viewpoint. Mediating between the two, gives tangible, bodily form to an abstract concept. This helps us comprehend.

A personal carbon budget is not dissimilar to a personal financial budget When we buy something we want to know if we can afford it and whether it is good value for the money we spend. We weigh up choices. shall I spend my wages on a new dress or continue saving up for a holiday? It is a concept we are familiar with. Similarly I want to know whether I can afford a conference call on 2.7Kg carbon per day? How will it impact on my ability to eat what I want or do other things? How could I minimise data use and still keep within my budget?

If you want to expand your own understanding of your own personal pathway to net carbon zero, I would recommend a one day experiment with the 2.7Kg net carbon zero daily budget. It is a simple but effective way to get a feel for what that might look like? It doesn’t have to be perfect, just ball park. It is how I first tested out this project. What would you prioritise? How could you live well within the net carbon zero individual lifestyle budget?

Indigenous wisdom and behavioural scientists

‘People won’t’….the oft rolled out phrase….of behavioural scientists.

But something remarkable has happened over the last few years; citizens are moving faster than their Governments. And ahead of the narrow remit of behavioural scientists, advising government.

In the UK, citizens, businesses and organisations locked down and cancelled events ahead of any Government corona virus policy. In fact citizens continue to lead the Government on the global pandemic.

It started to happen last year with Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Climate Strike. Citizens heard the authentic voices of children, frightened for their future. They felt the grief and pain of fellow citizens and they too started to embody the climate and ecological emergency. It does not mean they have necessarily personally embodied the pathway to net carbon zero but Citizens Assemblies are starting to grapple with how this might work in our communities? This is the beginning; our collective indigenous wisdom can lead the way. I hope that clear information on the net carbon zero individual lifestyle budget (one of the key pieces of evidence) is given to Citizens Assemblies to help them deliberate on how communities can best prepare themselves for net zero carbon. I am happy to given evidence from an embodied point of view.

Ideal re-presentation rather than embodied fact

One of the things the climate community does pretty well is to externalise the Climate Crisis (data, graphs etc) and come up with top down policy. It is much less successful at internalising and then expanding, based on that embodied knowledge.

Iain McGilchrist writes in hid book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World that “the brain contains mutually opposed elements whose contrary influence makes possible finely calibrated responses to complex situations”

So why aren’t we using both sides of our brain to address the complexity of the metamorphosis to net carbon zero?

“Everything about the body, which in neurological terms is more closely related to and mediated by the right hemisphere than the left, makes it a natural enemy of the left hemisphere, the hemisphere of ideal re-presentation rather than embodied fact, of rationalism rather than intuition, of explicitness rather than the implicit, of what is static rather than what is moving, of what is fixed rather than what is changing. The left hemisphere prefers what it has itself made and the ultimate rebuff to that is the body. It is the ultimate demonstration of the recalcitrance of reality, of its not being subject to our control.”

When we do not ground insights within the body, we are more likely to find ourselves trapped in a brittle, rigid, bureaucratic, remote, mechanistic civilisation guided by narrow self-interest. Sound familiar?

How might we start to ground ourselves more in the body? How might we understand from within as well as from the outside?

“As Alain Corbin has argued, we have become more cerebral, and retreated more and more from the senses – especially from smell, touch and taste – as if repelled by the body; and sight, the coolest of the senses, and the one most capable of detachment, has come to dominate all”

It is heartening that on lockdown, despite the expansion of remote working technology, many people are discovering and re-discovering gardening and food growing. Connecting to the smell, touch, sound, sight and taste of the living world. Growing your own food or flowers can be a wonderful carbon freebie.

As I have moved further into the one tonne of carbon project, I have noticed how the senses come more into play. In fact it is a joy and something I remember. the smell of  fresh air (earthy), the taste of freshly picked home grown herbs (intense), the sound of birdsong (mesmerising), the sight of shimmering stars (potent), the verdant touch of long grass (lush), the raising of consciousness (sublime).

By powering down and resisting the lure of technology dependency (we don’t need to worship dead things) I am reaping the rewards of a more embodied existence.

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