Thursday, June 25, 2015

Is there any point limiting one's personal carbon footprint?

I was recently asked what I thought of this:
...if you share my desperation and terror about this crisis, the urgent desire to do something, then limiting your personal carbon footprint should be very far from your main concern.  Like, it’s great if you can bike to work, and you should keep it up (fresh air and exercise and all).  But I’d say the anti-environmentalists are right that such voluntary steps are luxuries of the privileged, and will accordingly never add up to a hill of beans.  Let me go further: even to conceptualize this problem in terms of personal virtue and blame seems to me like a tragic mistake, one on which the environmentalists and their opponents colluded.

I think it's a really important question, so I thought I'd post my response here.

Cool question!  It's something we have, indeed, thought a lot about - meaning that my answer is super-long....

I think we see the personal carbon-footprint-reduction that we have been doing as achieving a number of things.

Firstly, if everyone divests from fossil fuels and leaves them all 'in the hole' (which is what we believe is necessary), people will need to live really different lives.  Most people in the rich world aren't willing to contemplate doing that as they believe such lives will be horrible.  By living a significantly carbon-reduced lifestyle (although still not actually a sustainable one) we feel that we can more effectively argue that that's not the case.  We can say: look at us.  We are responsible for around a third of the carbon emissions of the average Kiwi, yet we still live rich and full lives - eating well, having lots of social contact, doing fun stuff and (within the constraints of my illness...) being healthy.  We can say that, yes, life will be different, but you don't need to be scared of it.

Secondly, and kind of relatedly, it's really important to us that we live a life that everyone on the planet could realistically aspire to.  We don't believe that, just because we have the good luck to have rich-country passports, we have the right to a better deal than most other people.  So we're trying to figure out what a good life that everyone could access might look like.  Were we able to be part of a movement of people living this way, maybe we could change the aspirations of the masses of India and China.  Currently, many of those people aspire to live like Westerners; but if they achieved that dream, the consequences for everyone would be disastrous.  But what right do I have to argue that they shouldn't live that way if I don't put the same constraints on myself?

Thirdly, I do think living this way makes a tangible difference, although I'll freely admit that difference is small.  A seminal point in my starting to really care about carbon emissions was reading this article about the impact of climate change on the lives of very poor Bangladeshi farmers.  I read once that the lifetime carbon-emissions of the average US family will cause sufficient sea-level rise to destroy the farm-land of one Bangladeshi family.  I see our actions as a gift (albeit small) to those people.  It may well be that one or two kids in Bangladesh reach adulthood because our actions prevented the destruction of a teensy bit of farmland and the salination of a teensy bit of groundwater.

However, the carbon-footprint auditing we have done and the changes we have made as a result just aren't things the bulk of the population are going to do: it's just too tedious.  So this approach isn't scalable, and scalable is what we desperately need.  The very exercise of monitoring and reducing our carbon footprint has made us both passionate supporters of carbon pricing.  If the impact of our actions on the planet were priced in, then tedious (and inaccurate) audits would become unnecessary.  Most people would simply eat less meat, fly less, drive less etc.: they couldn't afford to do otherwise.

I think you can see an illustration of the way behaviour shifts based on price in some further auditing we've done.  Taking the same raw data we gathered for the carbon auditing, I've calculated our use of fresh water and agricultural land.  You can see from my most recent report that we emit well over our 'fair share' of greenhouse gases, use roughly our fair share of fresh water and well under our fair share of agricultural land  (please ignore the 'forest land' and 'fisheries' tabs - that data's still not very good).  Like everyone else, we make our purchasing decisions guided largely by price, and I think the differences between our use of those various resources reflects how well or poorly they're priced.  Land is tangible and its use is priced really well; fresh water is a bit less tangible but we can still see that it's (kind of) finite and so it's priced moderately well; but the atmosphere is very intangible and diffuse and no one really owns it so it's priced extremely poorly.  Were carbon to be priced/taxed such that no more could be emitted than could be absorbed (not unlike land being priced such that no more can be used than exists), the climate change problem would go away.  Some people would emit more and others less but the sum total would be no more than could be absorbed.

Bearing all this in mind, we decided a year or two ago to take a break from trying to further reduce our carbon footprint.  Although we're still at a far from sustainable level, we felt that we had reached a point where any further reductions would take a lot of effort and result in little impact.  So now we're trying to lobby other people to make changes so that lifestyles like ours will become more common, and also lobbying the government to make changes that will make lower-carbon choices easier.  In concrete terms, that means that anyone I know who makes an international flight for personal reasons is likely to get an email asking them to consider off-setting their carbon (which, whilst not a hugely scalable solution, still has some merit and will hopefully nudge them towards thinking about this impact of their actions); and we take opportunities to lobby local and central government on these issues where possible.

In both of these I feel we are more effective because of having done our careful auditing and having significantly reduced our own climate impact.  Firstly, we feel it means we can speak from a position of integrity.  In addition, it means that we know things that most people don't.  For example, we reduced our carbon footprint by something like 300kg CO2e per year by putting a 'no junk mail' sign on our letter box.  That was how much carbon was being emitted by recycling all that paper that we didn't want in the first place.  I've never heard anyone else talk about the carbon impact of recycling: it's something we only came to understand through doing this exercise.  So when we lobby people, we can raise points others haven't thought of.

Lastly, I must take issue with the author of the article you read describing a low-carbon lifestyles as 'luxuries of the privileged'.  The things he cites (presumably) as egregious environmental 'sins' - flying to distant conferences, eating lots of meat, driving a gas-guzzling minivan and having lots of kids - are mostly completely out of reach of the poor even in countries like the UK or NZ, let alone the world as a whole.  It is the privileged who are the problem, and we need to change our behaviour fast before more people join our ranks.  And the change will ultimately come through structural things like carbon-pricing, but we won't get there without lobbying and lobbying won't happen without people like us doing stuff like we've done!

So, that's us.  What do you think?

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