Carbon budget watchers

The first article in this special issue on Climate Change has indicated that if the world’s climate is not to be seriously destabilised, its population’s average annual per capita emissions of carbon dioxide from all its direct and indirect fossil fuel-using activities must not exceed one tonne. Other articles in the issue provide evidence of awesome social, economic and environmental consequences in the event of failure. The UK current average is about ten tonnes. Earlier this year, Derek Osborn, Chairman of UNED-UK, stated “… we shall all have to learn again how to simplify lifestyles so that we consume less (my italics) energy in our homes, our work, our transport and our leisure”. He was clearly under-playing the gravity of the situation! Standing in the way of delivering the 90% reduction is the near-universal wish to raise our material standards of living by promoting economic growth, much of it dependent on use of fossil fuels and therefore leading to the production of excessive emissions.

Both the last government and the present one have acknowledged the importance of climate change. They have made attempts, with varying degrees of success, to promote practices which are less environmentally damaging: motorists are exhorted to drive in an energy-efficient way and householders and industry advised on how to save energy, what a high rate of return on investment this can deliver, and what grants are available to encourage it.

However, they have not seen a need to launch a major campaign aimed at increasing public awareness of the fact that all these practices, desirable though they are, will make only a limited contribution to the required reduction, and that huge cutbacks in fossil fuel-dependent activities are essential. They have given the impression that, by efficiency gains and changes in the mix of fuels currently used to ones with lower carbon dioxide emitting contents, we will be able to meet the target for 2010 agreed in Kyoto last December. Nor has the public been warned of the inevitably far greater, and more difficult to achieve, reductions in the decades thereafter. Instead, it has been led to believe that the Kyoto target, whilst attainable, is ‘ambitious’.

Allied to these failures and the misleading image given of the gravity of the situation, they have neither developed a method or technique enabling people to relate their pattern of activity, be it for travel, heating and lighting in the home or to appreciate what its share is of industry’s fuel-dependent activities to the production of greenhouse gas emissions.

Those people who could be minded to live within an equitably-determined and ecologically-sustainable limit – and thereby demonstrate the feasibility of living within the planet’s means – do not know whether or to what extent their current lifestyles are exceeding their per capita ‘ration’ of emissions if their contribution is not to exceed their share from a global climate change perspective. They are prevented from attempting this because they are unable, let alone encouraged to, make reliable connections between the fuel-dependent components of their daily lives and of their economic activity and the emissions stemming from these. Such an exercise is likely to be salutary. Even within the limited data already available, it is apparent that nearly everyone exceeds the one tonne annual limit.

How does this one tonne per person – or perhaps about 2.5 tonnes per household – compare with current average UK household emissions of 24 tonnes? At present, the household share includes about 5.5 tonnes for domestic uses, the majority for heating, and a similar 5.5 tonnes for transport, the majority for car use. To this must be added the emissions from the non-domestic sector of energy consumption, including the tonnage for the operation of power stations and refineries, industry, commercial activity, agriculture and so on. These more than double the contribution from the domestic and transport sectors. Clearly, a household ‘ration’ of 2.5 tonnes will only stretch to the most essential of energy-intensive activities.

To illustrate the significance of this figure, one could look at overseas holidays which are now becoming increasingly commonplace in spite of the fact that little air travel can realistically be classified as ‘essential’. With the fuel efficiencies of the current generation of aircraft and typical seat occupancy rates, a round flight from London to New York for a family of four accounts for about 4.8 tonnes. Thus, this flight represents nearly double the annual tonnage to cover all the fossil-fuel uses that an average household could be allowed on an equity base if the world’s climate is not to be destabilised.

As part of the process of weaning the public from continuing to lead lives oblivious of the contribution they are making to climate change, a comprehensive user-friendly inventory upon which personal carbon budgeting could be determined is needed. The setting up and use of such an inventory could follow a procedure similar to the one adopted by organisations such as WeightWatchers whose members wish to lose weight. They are provided with a booklet listing the number of calories in each item of food or drink or a system of points (for saturated fat and calories).This enables them to measure their daily or weekly consumption within a limit which they choose or which is medically prescribed.

The Carbon Budget Watchers inventory would list the kilograms of carbon dioxide associated with each aspect of their daily lives – for instance, the fact that, with the current mix of fuels used to generate electricity, a kilowatt hour results in the emission of about 0.8 kilograms of carbon dioxide and a litre of petrol in over two kilograms. The process of determining personal or household figures could be aided by the gas and electricity utilities supplying their customers with the kilograms of emissions covering their quarterly bill. The receipts for petrol and for other forms of travel could likewise include the relevant figure. In addition, consumer durables could be labelled with both the one covering manufacture and their use.

Politicians are fearful of the electoral consequences of requiring people to curtail activities, such as travelling long distances by air, which they enjoy and which they have been led to believe are so benign in their environmental effects that they can go on growing even at the annual 5% rate of expansion that the air travel industry predicts. Clearly, the task of managing the transition to lifestyles and patterns of development, with greatly reduced use of fossil fuels, represents an enormous challenge to us as individuals as well as to politicians acting in pro bono publico.

We may attempt to anaesthetise our consciences by recycling our household waste and by supporting the view that we have an obligation to ensure that our children inherit a healthy planet. But we cannot go on indefinitely putting forward what we know to be spurious arguments against taking the issue of climate change as seriously as the evidence indicates. We must face up to the obvious need for significant modifications of our lifestyles. Time is running out. If we continue to give tacit support to the concept of ever-increasing economic growth – or at least effectively support it by, for example, booking air tickets to some exotic location – we are at the least deluding ourselves that there will not be steadily increasing social, environmental and ecological impacts for us and our children in the future. In that respect, we are culpable.


Published as the concluding article to the special issue on climate change in Town and Country Planning, October 1998.

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