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)
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
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 toa lifetime per person carbon budget. I covered this in my End of Year Review
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?
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.
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.
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?
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:
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 budgetto 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.
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
Writing and reciting poetry
Making acoustic music
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 15%. although David Hembrow @DavidHembow has challenged those figures and says;
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 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:)
What’s the difference between a deep spring clean when you get right into the corners (the nitty gritty) and a tick box superficial clean? Well a lot really. The superficial clean doesn’t want the hassle of finding the unexpected and happy to sweep the dust under the carpets.
The superficial clean doesn’t want to find the inconvenient or irksome. Or to get its hands dirty. It just wants the job over and done with so it can return to normal life with a somewhat cleaner conscience. Boxes ticked. Smoothed over
I know this because I am not a natural cleaner. On a day to day basis. But every now and then I just want to get stuck in, really reach the back of the cupboards or under the bed, in the darkest corners where the deepest problems lie.
So why am I rambling about Spring cleaning? Because (only today) it occurred to me that when I set out to live on net carbon zero for a year, I was doing a very deep clean. The Mother of all Spring cleans. To get down to the nitty gritty of living within planetary boundaries
Vindication – tragically – of Extinction Rebellion target date for net carbon zero by 2025. We are in a real time climate emergency. Even at current 1.1C degrees we are seeing irreversible or potential tipping points. At the moment the Western part of the United Stated is burning up with unprecedented wildfires.
This wonderful updated and expanded book has been published much sooner than I anticipated. And it is a must read. Certainly the book of the year, if not the decade. It will change many of my guesstimated calculations. But that doesn’t matter. The clarity and intelligence of the writing is a delight. Navigating many of the more controversial debates with skill and wisdom. Giving us new information on data and zoom, updated figures on public transport. Watching television is covered in far more detail and may be a shock! A pizza gets discussed in detail. An egg has unfortunately risen from 300g to 340g…..But laundry at 30C has gone down from 600g to 330g as a result of a cleaner electric grid. As long as you dry it on the line….
I have not yet read it cover to cover but every page so far is a gem.
Note: This is the last day of my journal. I will be sad to finish. But really this is just the beginning. Now to put what I have learnt into action…
I wanted to get an in depth feel for what a net carbon zero lifestyle might look like. In order to do this, I felt it was necessary to model it as part of my daily life.
Why is the real life context so important? Because the real world is an unknown. This project changed a lot of my assumptions. It proved to me that assumptions can be dangerously off the mark Especially when clichés become embedded in climate culture. Real life is a bit different.
If an intervention is a ‘seed’ then the context is the ‘soil’. Alongside the importance of what you do (intervention) and how you do it (implementation), the context that you do it also matters. It is the interaction between these three elements that makes for success.
Of course my life is just one context. It may mirror a lot of what other people do but to gain an ever wider understanding, it would be helpful if citizens from all walks of life trialed the net carbon zero lifestyle. Just for one day. Or a week if you are feeling a bit more adventurous.
‘Practical wisdom’ comes from just getting stuck in: “No guilt, just roll up those sleeves and do all you can” says Climate Scientist and Activist Peter Kalmus.
Note: Uphill cycle! Very impressive even with electric assist.
Cappuccino (cows milk) – 350g
Vegan carribean platter and sides – 700g
1 x apple picked in my son’s allotment – 0g
1 x fig picked in my son’s allotment – 0g
Note: On a hill in North London sits a piece of paradise. These allotments are both beautiful, creative and abundant with fruit and vegetables.
Walk 6 miles – 0g
Note: A long downhill walk through some very car dominated roads. It is incredibly polluted. And my mind boggles at the carbon emitted just on one Sunday of short car trips. But only one road was dangerous to cross so more accessible than I imagined. I kept to main roads to keep it direct and not to get lost. Finally in Finsbury Park an opportunity to dance to some wonderful drumming Completely unexpected. I must dance more outside in London.
1 mile bus – 150g
Note: The last mile felt a bit too much. specially after the dancing!