Stepping through the portal
On September 1st 2019, I stepped through a portal into a net zero carbon world. I wanted to immerse myself in what this new dawn of civilisation might look and feel like. For a whole year, I attempted to live as closely as possible within the net carbon zero individual carbon budget of around one tonne of carbon per year. This resulting blog is my ‘rough guide’ to living the net carbon zero lifestyle, so we can keep below the threshold of 1.5 degree global warming.
Although completely unintended, this was also the story of my life during one of the most unusual years in modern times, told through the lens of my everyday carbon consumption (recorded in a daily journal). This included being arrested alongside three priests at the Extinction Rebellion October Rebellion. Witnessing a climate and ecological emergency unfolding before our eyes, as Australia burned. Living through the chaos of an unprecedented global pandemic, rapidly spread by the aviation industry. Adjusting to the postponement of the London Mayoral election, in which I was standing as an Independent London Mayoral candidate. Breathing the cleanest air I have ever experienced in London. And the silencing of motor traffic and aviation noise pollution so we could finally hear the full beauty of London birdsong. And sadly the death of my adopted father from covid related heart damage. I did not record every detail of my life, that is for other diarists to do. But I hope through my consumption and the accompanying notes, the story is told.
I always made it clear that I am not a scientist. And this project was never set up to be an exact science. It is called a rapid imperfect prototype for a reason! For instance for simplicity and clarity versus accuracy and complexity, I used one tonne of carbon per person per year as a simple, clear way of understanding net carbon zero (which scientifically is nearer to 0.7 metric tonnes). However I tried to keep the project as fact based as I could within the available information.
Lifestyle carbon footprint is defined as the Green House Gas emissions directly emitted and indirectly induced from household consumption (excluding those induced by government consumption and capital formation). This does not mean that Government and Capital Formation budgets are not also incredibly important. But these are the areas that often receive the most attention. During the project, I was surprised to find out that 72% of global Greenhouse Gas emissions are related to household consumption. whilst the rest stem from Government and investments. In the UK, 75% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions are related to household consumption. In Finland it is 66%. Addressing household emissions is an essential and often forgotten part of the pathway to true net carbon zero.
True net carbon zero
At first I found it a bit difficult to get my head around what net carbon zero really is? It is a strange terminology for the layperson. But this is my way of explaining it: True net carbon zero describes a lifestyle which does not produce carbon beyond which Earth’s natural systems can sequester. In simpler terms this means that natural ecosystems like peatlands or biodiverse natural forests have the ability to absorb small quantities of carbon. The types of ecosystems that do this are as complex and diverse as the landscapes on the planet. There is also evidence that re-wilding increases this carbon sequestration. And that improving the biodiversity and health of soils and ecosystems where food is produced also improves carbon removal. Putting in a mono-culture of trees (offsets) or industrially produced vegan food will not produce this effect.
So there are two sides to the true net carbon zero equation: What carbon we (humans) emit when we consume food, transport, shopping, heating etc and what carbon can be absorbed (carbon dioxide by natural ecosystems). This is where we discover that the pivot is finely tuned; how do we hit the sweet spot to live in balance within our planet?
It may seem like an obvious point; but the more Earth’s natural eco systems are destroyed, the less carbon can be removed from the atmosphere. The less carbon can be removed from the atmosphere, the more our true net carbon zero budgets are reduced meaning our personal carbon budgets are reduced. In real terms this means we have less ability to create a more comfortable net zero lifestyle with more choices and room for manoeuvre.
Often scientists, politicians, economists, corporations and the media use ‘net carbon zero’ to smokescreen some other very fanciful ideas about man-made carbon capture technologies and carbon offsets. Relying on the never-never of negative emission technologies and offsets to get us out of a very deep hole is an extremely risky societal decision. Currently they don’t exist at any useful scale and the actual availability, feasibility, effectiveness and costs of these technologies and offsets are unproven. As this Simpsonized image illustrates, carbon capture is used as an excuse to carry on flying, driving and burning fossil fuels.
True net carbon means living within the limits of natural eco systems. We must value nature’s gift
A Climate Emergency is Unfolding Before Our Eyes
During the project, I recorded some of the extreme climate related events in my daily journal. The Australian wildfires last winter were particularly disturbing. But quite frankly there were too many to mention. Not only wildfires; flooding, storms, extreme heat events, sea ice met and sea level rise were unfolding in real time; but tipping points, thresholds, cascades, feedbacks within complex systems were also surprising us. This headline took my breath away:
Global warming could exceed the key threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2024 – far sooner than scientists had predicted a major United Nations (UN) update on climate change indicators said on Wednesday (Sept 9 2020).
The ticking Carbon Clock in Times Square in New York shows us how we are squandering our 1.5C carbon budget on a second by second basis. We are currently running down the climate budget for greed and pointless car journeys. flights to nowhere, buying stuff we don’t really need
At our current emission rates, we will hit 1.5C in just over seven years Alarmingly we are currently on track to 3C. 2C has been called a ‘death sentence for Africa’.
Lifestyle Carbon Budgets
Individual lifestyle carbon budgets have been more or less ignored by the mainstream climate community. The well worn mantra is ‘system change not individual change’. If you point out the obvious truth that we need to do both it does seem to penetrate somewhat. But I do wonder how so many intelligent people got caught in this false dichotomy? A few notable Climate Scientists like Professor Kevin Anderson and Peter Kalmus demonstrably connect their own lifestyles to climate leadership. But my impression is that most Climate Scientists feel more comfortable speaking in top down (macro) terms than breaking down the carbon budgets into manageable, accessible bite sized personal targets, which are easily understood by the public. They prefer to hide behind graphs and data. And use inaccessible and frankly rather bizarre terminology. Perhaps this is a coping mechanism?
The most common question asked of climate scientists by the public is ‘What can I do?’ But this is often dismissed as unimportant. One Climate Scientist came back with the answer: ‘Darn your socks?’ Not a very helpful answer in the face of an existential crisis. So unfortunately global citizens remain largely in the dark about their carbon budgets.
In February 2019 I stumbled on this new 1.5C Lifestyles report posted on twitter. It started me off on this journey because it specifically focuses on ‘targets and options for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints’: I believe this is an essential part of the jigsaw. And something that all global citizens must be aware of. The report states ‘If the world is to keep climate change at manageable levels before the middle of the century, changes in lifestyles are not only inevitable, but would need to be radical, and start immediately.’
Two important questions I kept coming back to whilst on the project
What is the remaining lifetime individual per person carbon budget? And what is the most appropriate date for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints to reach net carbon zero?
Target dates to keep below 1.5C vary considerably. The starkest chasm is the twenty five year divide between Extinction Rebellion net carbon zero target date of 2025 and the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) target date of 2050. Why is there such a vast discrepancy? One obvious reason is that ‘leaders are happy to set targets for decades ahead but flinch when immediate action is required’. Steve Westlake @steviedubyu puts it slightly differently ‘An attachment to luxury, political expediency, a yearning for consensus, a deferral to power, deference to elitism’
Greta Thunberg has also highlighted the ‘creative carbon accounting’ that keeps carbon off the books, thus enabling far off net carbon zero targets. The UK is particulary ‘efficient’ at outsourcing emissions to other countries by getting them to produce what we ultimately consume, meaning our carbon reductions look far rosier than they really are. We are big consumers of imported consumables from places like China. But those emissions go on China’s books not ours. We also do not include aviation and shipping.
Then there are the fantasy carbon offsets (out of sight and hard to track). Imaginary carbon capture technologies which don’t exist at any useful scale. This all works to keep business-as-usual lifestyles stretched out for as long as possible by stealing carbon budgets from children, future generations and the global South. It really is as bad as fairytales get.
The Extinction Rebellion 2025 target date mobilises at speed and scale. This level of ambition is the very least we can do. Not the lowest common denominator agreements of the failed COP (United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties) but the very highest in human endeavour to stop the destruction of our planet and our fellow inhabitants.
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.
The average quality of the 16-75 tonnes is 30 tonnes. Lloyd Alter of treehugger.com fact checked the 30 tonnes and did the maths: 30 tonnes individual lifetime carbon budget left for a 66% chance of staying under 1.5C
So here is the number crunch I keep coming back to
“We need to reduce emissions as much as possible, as fast as possible, starting immediately. Everything else is noise.” -Jonathan Koomey @jgkoomey
I have found that permanently stopping air travel, not driving cars, cutting home energy use, food waste and shopping does not have to lead to any reduction in quality of life. Living the net carbon zero lifestyle is about mindfully minimising consumption within healthy planetary boundaries. Indigenous people often have this wisdom as part of their culture. It is an essential part of their survival instinct. But we have grown so far apart from this innate wisdom that reconnecting with it requires a lot of maths, number crunching and abstract calculations. I tried to avoid too much mind numbing (and mind narrowing) data and graphs. But we need just enough to get things into perspective. To understand what fits? And then once again hopefully we can reconnect with our innate survival instinct. Because the mother of all climate storms is coming faster than expected…
Everyone needs a handbook
My project was bookended by two books by Mike Berners-Lee. The first book ‘How Bad are Bananas? The carbon footprint of Everything’ published in 2010 was my main source of information for the project. Yes it was a bit out of date but it was the best available information to hand. The second updated, expanded version was published a few days after my project finished. It completely overrides some of my guesstimated carbon values. Yes I got some of the stuff very wrong! I underestimated and over estimated. My favourite parmesan cheese is the most carbon intensive cheese available (luckily there are less carbon intensive options) ; an egg has risen from 300g to 340g (deforestation in the Amazon to grow soya then shipped over to feed UK chickens) Not good. Zoom is better than I thought. UK intercity trains per mile carbon footprint has now halved from 160g per mile to 80g per mile; but still a long way to go to become a net zero carbon choice for longer trips. Someone could write a PhD on all the differences in carbon footprints over the decade. But it is not going to be me!
Despite low energy bulbs, more renewables, lower emission vehicles and ‘efficient’ gas boilers, Mike Berners-Lee reports that our UK average carbon footprint has only dropped from 15 tonnes CO2e per year to 13 tonnes CO2e between 2010 and 2020. This clearly shows we need carbon literacy to go mainstream ASAP.
‘If we’re serious about really addressing climate change, we need to become energy and carbon literate, and get to grips with the implications not only of our choices but also the bigger infrastructures which underpin the things we consume.’ – Mike Berners-Lee
One of the reasons i wanted to complete a whole year living on net carbon zero was to assess how the seasons affected my lifestyle. It turns out that living with little gas heating (too carbon intensive for net carbon zero) was not great! Not a complete surprise but living through it made me prioritise decarbonised heating bigtime. I also needed a far broader and nutritious diet in the winter. Vegan didn’t cut it; although I was still eating a largely locally produced, organic, seasonal and plant based.
In Summer I really needed a holiday; to get out of the city. Train was still too carbon intensive for longer trips, it needs to come down to 22g per mile rather than 80g CO2e per mile currently. A 90 seater completely full, electric buses look like a good low carbon alternative at 6g per mile. A sail passenger ship is very appealing for a more adventurous holiday. If we created the right safe cycling infrastructure and accessible car-free destinations, I would be very happy to go camping with an electric assist cycle.
Quite early on in the project, I identified things I could do which wouldn’t emit any carbon. I called them carbon freebies. I made many of these carbon freebies central to my lifestyle. This is just a brief list of some of the low carbon and carbon freebies that might be available to us on net carbon zero, if we make more space and time for them in our local communities. And accessible by cycle and walking
- Walking 0g per mile
- Cycling 3g per mile
- Growing your own food
- Buying seasonal locally produced food
- Cooking from fresh
- Pre-used 2nd hand vintage
- Enjoying nature
- Writing and reciting poetry
- Making acoustic music
- Local Sport
Inequality and agency
“There is nothing inevitable about over-consumption… we can resist the expectation to consume.” – Stuart Capstick @StuartBCapstick
The richest global 10 percent account for over half (52 percent) of the emissions. The richest one percent were responsible for 15 percent of emissions.
You only have to be earning £27,000 per year to be in top richest global 10% and £110,000 per year to be in the top 1%.
Conversely the richest top 10% are most responsible but also have the most agency to cut emissions.
‘Somehow, in all the campaigns to inspire climate action, the onus on well-off people to take the lead on sustainable consumption has been lost. Let’s face it: Rich people are influencers (though you don’t have to be rich to be an influencer). And those same rich or merely affluent are blowing through the world’s carbon budget — the maximum amount of cumulative emissions that can be added to the atmosphere to hit the Paris agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming goal.’
But we are nearly all in the top 20% global wealthy in the UK. We have normalised overconsumption. That hyper-normalisation of hyper-consumption has eaten away at our core human values. And what makes us happy. This means the pathway to net carbon zero is also a cultural metamorphosis.
Rishi Sunak, the current UK Chancellor, has said our economy more than any other is based on consumption. And he wants the wealthy and those who have saved money in the pandemic to go out and buy stuff to kickstart the economy. Now is the time to focus on decarbonising our homes, not encourage pointless consumerism. Leadership at this critical time in history is understanding that we need to use our remaining (and fast diminishing) carbon budget to set up the conditions to live a good life on the net carbon zero lifestyle. We cannot afford to blow our carbon budget on Keynesian ideology.
What do I as a politician prioritise?
Whilst I was living the net carbon zero lifestyle, I was also writing my manifesto for the London Mayoral election (I was and am standing as an Independent candidate. It was postponed for a year when the pandemic struck). My experience of living on the net carbon zero lifestyle has informed my policies. These policies are pretty comprehensive but still much more work to do.
Transport is a major contributor to emissions in the UK. Solving the car problem with these alternatives will be vital.
Net carbon zero shopping list
Whilst I was living on the net carbon zero lifestyle, I was also internally devising a carbon budget for my remaining lifetime carbon budget of 30 tonnes.What did I believe were the most important carbon investments for a good life on the net carbon zero lifestyle? Everyone’s lifestyle is slightly different but here is my basic outline of a shopping list (work in progress)
- Bicycle – 0.24 tonne
- Solar PV 4kW domestic array – 5 tonnes
- Typical deep UK house retrofits (50-80% Energy consumption reductions) using not too bad ‘standard materials’ – 10t CO2e
- Secondary glazing, double glazing – ?
- Heat pump or other appropriate electric heating, cooling and hot water system – From 1 tonne
- Induction cooker – ?
- Induction hob – 36.13 Kg
The profit motive has failed
The profit motive has not lead to rapid decarbonisation and climate action. It has merely distracted us with gimmicks, cheat devices and gadgets often masked as ‘innovation’. These gimmicks are marketed because they are seen as ‘sexy’ by investors. Much of what passes as ‘green technology’ is really the ‘hope of the company’ presented in futuristic, sci-fi visuals to lure hedge funders and other investors to join the ‘pyramid’. We have seen companies heavily hyping and marketing driverless cars and then quietly withdrawing when it is obvious this can’t be delivered. We have witnessed cheat devices put into diesel cars to claim they are lower carbon emissions. We have installed ‘efficient’ gas boilers only to find out they are too carbon intensive for net carbon zero. The important question is not is it lower carbon but is it low enough to fit within net carbon zero lifestyle budgets? We have wasted so much time, energy, money and carbon with this profit driven approach. Putting in electrified heating and hot water may not seem ‘sexy’ to Dominic Cummings and his mates. But living with heating and hot water is non-negotiable for most people in the UK. And we can’t hit net zero carbon without electrifying our homes.
Human interactions matter
I lived half of my project year before the global pandemic, and half after the pandemic had struck. The most difficult thing over the whole year has been lockdown and social distancing. Socialising by spending half an hour in a cafe or eating together with family and friends is part of my joie de vivre. I even like chatting with people in the street; strangers or casual acquaintances. But the masks and fear of contamination have made human interaction less open and enjoyable. I have learnt that I can live a low carbon lifestyle far far more easily than I can be removed from human contact.
And have I continued to live on the net carbon zero lifestyle since I finished? Yes! Not perfect. But in the ballpark. In 2021 I will additionally be investing some of my lifetime carbon budget on a home retrofit to make an even more satisfying life and stop my reliance on gas heating, hot water and cooking.
I am also standing as an Independent London Mayoral candidate to advocate policy that I believe will facilitate a good life on net carbon zero, whilst walking the talk. I hope to raise the profile of lifestyle carbon footprints wherever I can. I have already done some webinars and talks online. And hope to reach an even wider audience in 2021.
I still have it in mind to create a carbon calculated cook book. I am trying out some recipes as I write. Collaborating with other people would be good. Cooking, eating and sharing food….perfect:)
And my challenge to you, dear reader? Try living on the net carbon zero lifestyle for just a day (or longer if you are even more adventurous) with Mike Berners-Lee new book ‘How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything’ as your guide. Enjoy:)