Responding to Professor Kevin Anderson’s blog on ‘Allocating a carbon budget to individuals’

In his blog Allocating a carbon budget to individuals, Professor Kevin Anderson writes that he believes it would be possible to produce a carbon budget per person for people in the UK which he calls A Personal Annual Carbon Budget. But, he wonders whether such a carbon budget should be divided between: 

1) all people in the UK (from infant to adult); 2) just among adults (at what age?); 3) per UK household; or 4) is there another more appropriate division?

Kevin thinks to estimate A Personal Carbon Budget for Life would be far more complicated and require some very clear assumptions to be made; for example:

Should a 98-year-old get the same remaining carbon for life budget as a ten-year-old?
Should a 16-year-old in 2021 get the same budget as a 16-year-old in 2037?

A 1-year-old child in 2021, would have a ‘large’ remaining budget (very likely to live to 2040)
A 50-year-old adult in 2021 would have a ‘moderate’ remaining budget (likely to live to 2040)
A 98-year-old adult in 2021 would have a small remaining budget (unlikely to live to 2040)

He concludes

In my view, of the two options, a declining annual carbon budget per adult, and based on an emissions pathway that matches the UK’s fair carbon budget for 1.5-2°C (at chosen probabilities/chances of success), would make more sense than a ‘for life’.

Here is my response:

Firstly, just to clarify, I am specifically looking at a personal carbon budget for life to keep within 1.5C. For me 2C is not acceptable. 2C has been called a ‘death sentence‘ for Africa. Consequently I believe the 2040 date to reach net carbon zero is far too late. So my approach will be very different. My response implies reaching net carbon zero as quickly as possible; that we must adopt the quickest feasible path to zero

And just a reminder that 72% of global Greenhouse Gas emissions are related to household consumption. whilst the rest stem from Government and investments. Household / personal carbon budgets are a major part of the climate jigsaw.

A personal carbon budget for life is likely to include

  1. Personal and household carbon investments (eg. a heat pump, home insulation, a bicycle, device for internet use, home maintenance etc)
  2. Lifestyle carbon footprints (eg. food, heating, clothing, shopping, travel etc)

My first question to Kevin would be how would a A Personal Annual Carbon Budget capture both personal /household carbon investments and lifestyle carbon footprints?

Let’s look at the current situation

At the moment we have a free-for-all. Whoever has spare cash is blowing through our shared global carbon budget with wild abandon. And meanwhile we are not preparing the infrastructure needed to make a good life on net carbon zero. We could easily blast through our 1.5C carbon budget on mindless consumerism and still not have prepared for a net carbon zero world. Without an established Personal Carbon Budget for Life there is little incentive to use our carbon budget wisely. And prioritise de-carbonised heating, cooling and hot water investments. The status quo is not working.

Why are citizens not living within sustainable personal carbon budgets?

There has been a failure by the climate community to commit to a lifetime per person carbon budget. I covered this in my End of Year Review

It has been difficult to pin down our lifetime individual remaining carbon budget to remain below 1.5C. Partly because there is some disagreement in the scientific literature; between 16-75 tonnes depending on historic emissions, climate justice and equity considerations.

This failure to be decisive means global citizens are being kept in the dark about the personal carbon budget restraints. And therefore cannot plan appropriately.

Citizens need to be told about their personal responsibilities within personal lifetime carbon budgets, They also need help to become carbon literate, so they can navigate choices with awareness, wisdom and knowledge. We need to establish clear, effective advice, education and support; to prepare citizens for their own pathway to net carbon zero.

Should younger people receive a bigger share of the carbon budget?

If we are looking at a 2040 date to reach net carbon zero, age might be seen as more relevant. But if we are looking at 2030 net carbon zero or even earlier then age differences don’t take up quite the same importance. Its more about how citizens use their lifetime carbon budget. What is their agency?

This is how it might work:

Homeowners would be required (in law) to de-carbonise their homes. This upfront carbon investment would be taken off all homeowners Personal Carbon Budget for Life.

A deep retrofit of a house is around 10 tonnes. But much less for smaller flats. Multiple home owners might have a problem to de-carbonise their homes on the personal lifetime budget, unless they had already previously completed decarbonisation/ retrofit. They may wish to sell second homes.

If household income (and/ orsavings) falls below a certain amount then Government financial help is available to do so.

If you are a landlord it would still be the law that you have to de-carbonise your properties but I assume this comes under the capital formation budget? Council housing is decarbonised out of the Government carbon budget

Older people currently own much of the housing stock (they have more agency to decarbonise the Uk housing stock quickly). Older people tend to have more disposable cash which they could spend on much needed net zero carbon home investments. The danger is that older people could just blow their lifetime carbon budget on cruises, long haul holidays, cars and needless shopping. This is why it is imperative that homeowners must be required to retrofit their homes in law.

Younger people don’t own so much of the housing stock and tend to be less wealthy, so generally they have less agency to decarbonise homes. However young people have far more personal investment in the future. And may therefore use their lifetime carbon budgets more wisely?

To conclude

I believe all people in the UK (from infant to adult) should have the same carbon lifetime carbon budget. But the onus is on homeowners and the wealthy to use that carbon budget to de-carbonise their homes.

Communication: Clarity and simplicity versus complexity and accuracy

Climate communication is most often top down (macro); data, graphs, large unwieldy remote numbers which doesn’t resonate with a normal person’s everyday life. And more often than not in language which is completely inaccessible to most people. The layers of complexity (and bureaucracy) reminds me of this passage in Charles Dicken’s Bleak House:

‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, over the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it.’

This is why I came up with this number crunch, to put it into a human sized perspective. And communicate clearly and decisively.

Scientists may feel that they need to come up with the perfect individual lifetime carbon budget (with lots of caveats) but this will not help communicate clearly with the public and politicians. Better to settle on an average number and then find the best way to communicate to a broad audience.

Most people aren’t thinking from a personal carbon budget approach right now. This needs to change. Politicians haven’t even told voters there is such a thing as a remaining lifetime carbon budget. Citizens have the right to know so they can prepare and begin to map their own pathway to net carbon zero.

 “Scientists now need to go beyond simply documenting environmental decline, and instead find the most effective ways to catalyse action,” – Prof Tom Oliver, University of Reading.

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