Only one way: the ethical implications of climate change for personal lifestyles

What I have to say is largely drawn from my research and from reflections on its findings. The principal theme is that you cannot simply deal with each area of public policy in isolation in view of its scope for furthering or interfering with the success or failure of policy objectives in other areas. And you cannot ignore moral and ethical considerations. Optimal and sustainable solutions can only be derived from a holistic approach – which we ignore at our peril.

We are at a defining moment in history. In the past, we have been able to look to economic growth as the source for raising material standards and prosperity and as a response to arguments about equitable shares in that process. A joint report of the UK Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences in the US stated that ‘… The future of our planet is in balance …’ It provided cold comfort for optimists who assert that science and technology will come up with realistic answers to avoid the need for making drastic changes to our non-renewable resource-dependent and energy-intensive lifestyles. We cannot go on burying our heads in the sand on this issue.

The issue of global warming represents an imperative over-arching all aspects of public policy and, therefore, commercial, institutional and private practice and behaviour. We now know that the planet’s capacity to act as a reservoir for greenhouse gases is limited and that we must be very thrifty in our consumption of finite resources. The signal that the world is now receiving is akin to one stemming from divine intervention.

The problem stems from man-made activities exaggerating the planet’s natural greenhouse characteristics which have so far enabled it to support life. Nearly all the hottest years since records have been taken have occurred since the mid-1980s. The tundra in north Canada, Alaska and Siberia is slowly melting, releasing methane gases which in turn are a significant contributor to climate change. Already changes have been observed in the character of the Gulf Stream which in the opinion of the government’s last chief scientist, Sir Robert May, are ‘awesome’.

Concern about this was highlighted by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) a few years ago. Its Reports have indicated that a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions of at least 60 per cent is needed to stabilise the world’s climate, and recent reviews have confirmed this assessment. Even this may prove insufficient because of a possible near doubling of the world’s population over the next 50 years. Most of the increase will be in developing countries which are understandably aspiring to the standards of living in more affluent ones and are in the process of industrialising their economies in ways that require intensive use of fossil fuels and therefore intensive output of greenhouse gas emissions.It is salutary to note that the level of car ownership per capita in this country is over 300 times as high as it is in China – and China’s current growth rate could lead to a doubling of its GDP by the year 2010 and a five-fold increase by 2020. Nor does our desire for higher standards appear to be reaching satiation.

The demand is never-ending and no government seems prepared to cap it – ‘we all want to drive and fly’ don’t we? The UK government now forecasts a 50% increase in greenhouse gas emissions from transport sources in the UK by the year 2020. And, on current forecasts of UK air travel, emissions will exceed those from road travel by about the same year.

So, how have governments around the world responded to this? Some have taken it more seriously than others. Some are encouraged the UK Government setting a target of a 20% reduction in carbon emissions by 2010. However, conflicting messages are put out: TV programmes draw attention to the prospect of ecological catastrophe but at the same time project images indicating a ‘business as usual’ future. The reaction of politicians appears akin to one in which the scientists’ warning is to be treated as just a bad nightmare from which we will awaken and be able to proceed along the gradus ad parnassum towards an ever-expanding economy and material prosperity. We can carry on, it is implied, oblivious of the increasingly likely fact that we no longer have a choice if world-wide catastrophes induced by climate change are to be avoided.

At Kyoto, there was considerable difficulty in reaching international agreement on small reductions in emissions and the US has now reneged on the commitment it made there. Clearly, much more significant reductions will be needed if damage is to be prevented and this will require far more dramatic changes in fossil fuel use than have been contemplated to date. The overriding consideration will have to be recognition of the wide-ranging implications of climate change of our lifestyles and working practices.

Five key arguments have been put forward for not taking the subject as seriously as the evidence would suggest. These arguments represent, in my view, escape routes from facing up to our responsibilities. First, it is claimed that it may be too early to say that the earth is necessarily in the grip of global warming triggered by human activity: in other words, most climate scientists may have made incorrect calculations. Even if this were true, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to deal with climate change.

The second line of defence has been to cite the contribution that technology is making to reducing fuel consumption by improving efficiency in various operational aspects and by using alternative fuels. However, it is clear that these measures, when combined with competition, generate more demand with the result that the savings can, and often are, lost.

The third positional gambit has been to point out how unrealistic it would be for any one country to act unilaterally on this issue. However, the fact that many EU countries are almost certain to fail to meet the modest target of greenhouse gas reductions agreed after Kyoto suggests that policy in this domain requires more intense activity rather than the reverse.

Fourth, somewhat more radically, it has been argued that the solution can be found in policy based on fairer and eco-oriented taxation. The ‘polluter pays principle’ has been cited as the route to salvation, though this could be interpreted as a licence to rape the environment and for this reason could be considered unacceptable.

Finally, politicians have shielded themselves behind a claim that, in a democratic society, the necessary resolute action cannot be imposed upon an unwilling public – a remarkable coalition on the road to Armageddon!

Even in the face of the possibility of catastrophic environmental damage owing to the fact that the population of the planet cannot conceivably support the developed world’s level of energy-intensive lifestyles, these arguments imply that there is an unquestionable right for us to continue with these lifestyles unless other matching equally acceptable alternatives can be found.

The source of the failure of policy in this regard arises from a lack of understanding of the link between current lifestyles and the urgent need for action on lowering carbon emissions. As yet, however, governments around the world have given no warning that the public may have to be called upon to make changes entailing substantial rather than modest alterations to the lifestyles that they have only been able to adopt because their environmental implications have been largely ignored. Politicians continue to be fearful of the electoral consequences of resolute action and argue therefore that we must find ways of achieving sustainable development without denying people their good and proper expectations of improving standards of living.

These observations can be interpreted as posing a major challenge to a range of conventional but worryingly fallacious assumptions. First, demand should be met if at all possible. Second, growth is desirable and sustainable in a resource sense and only causes environmental problems that can be resolved satisfactorily by fuel switching, improving energy efficiency, and the so-called de-coupling of economic growth and energy consumption. Third, energy efficiency and energy conservation are synonymous terms. Fourth, ecological strategies are more costly than conventional ones, a theme reflected in the proposition that public transport should be subsidised rather than that a proper price should be paid for the damage entailed in the use of private transport. And fifth, environmental protection can realistically only be afforded from the proceeds of economic growth. It may be that the objective of rising material wealth and current policy and practice on population control may have to be abandoned in favour of solutions derived from a very different policy base.

Solutions do not lie, as is the current conventional wisdom, for instance, in relation to sustainable transport policy by improving energy efficiency and transferring our patterns of car use to public transport, first because the energy intensivity of public transport travel is not sufficiently lower than that of private transport – nor is the level of noise, danger or pollution; second, because it is wholly unrealistic to expect that public transport can often match the convenience of the car however much we invest in improved bus and rail services; and third, and most importantly, because there are more effective and appropriate solutions focused on promoting thrift in our use of fossil fuels, uniquely by cycling and walking – cycling first owing to the implications of areal accessibility – the equation πr2.

In my introduction I referred to the climate scientists’ call for a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions of at least 60 per cent to stabilise the world’s climate. Obviously, as has been argued for many years by the Global Commons Institute, the reduction will have to be achieved according to an agreed framework which has been called Contraction and Convergence. This proposition stems from the obvious fact that the populations of the Third World cannot be expected to reduce their emissions by making the same contribution that we do in the affluent West. On a per capita basis – and there are neither moral grounds nor political prospect of obtaining international agreement on any other basis – the UK must cut its emissions by about 90 per cent – a very tall order. The task of managing the transition to lifestyles and patterns of development, with greatly reduced use of fossil fuels, is an enormous challenge to us all. It cannot simply be hived off to politicians to sort out.

What does such a reduction mean then for the typical UK household when related to its current annual average emissions of over 25 tonnes? At present, each household’s share for the operation of power stations and refineries is about 11 tonnes; for industry, 5.5 tonnes; for domestic uses, mainly heating, 3.5 tonnes; and for transport, mainly car use, 4.5 tonnes. Clearly, the household ‘ration’ of 2.5 tonnes, that is one tenth of the current level, will only stretch to the most essential of energy-intensive activities.

To illustrate the significance of this figure for our current lifestyles, reference can be made to the quantity of carbon dioxide emitted on a round trip by air from London to Florida, based on the aviation fuel used and typical aircraft seat occupancy on such flights. Carbon dioxide emissions for one person’s round trip accounts for 1.8 tonnes, that is, just under half the total average annual tonnage that can be allowed for each person for all their energy dependent activities for the year, with the central IPCC recommendation. If the world climate is to be stabilised on an equitable basis, it represents nearly double the annual tonnage. And average annual car mileage accounts for over four times that annual tonnage.

We can’t continue to ‘pass the buck’. We cannot excuse ourselves for not taking action on the grounds that it is the responsibility of government as we know full well that government decisions are too heavily influenced by electoral rather than public interest objectives. We must recognise that the targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions will only be achieved if there is due recognition of its link to our lifestyles and working practices. If the contents of policy are to be seen more than expressions of intent, then there must be far more political and personal commitment. We ourselves should be far more conscious of the fact that our current lifestyles are having serious deleterious effects on the health of the planet.

The case for a radical change in policy is considerably strengthened by reference to other relevant public interest objectives – public health, economy, equity, environmental quality, and energy conservation –for which there is a broad political consensus. One way of seeing a clear road ahead is by reviewing the way in which we judge whether people are well-off. Given the damage to health of different aspects of our lifestyles and indeed the financial costs, it may be asked, who are better-off, those who need a car to get to work and for their leisure lives or those who do not need a car because most of the people and places they want to reach are easily accessible? Who are better-off, those who have central heating with its high installation and running costs or those whose homes are so well insulated that most of these costs an be avoided? Who are better-off, those who have the best medical facilities accessible to them or those whose lifestyles are so well focused on the maintenance of health that their need for these facilities is rare? And who are better off, those who can afford to fly to distant destinations to enjoy a pleasing environment or those who do not need to do so because they already live in such an environment – and want to have a clear conscience?

I would like to finish on a sanguine note. Clearly, a major cultural shift is called for in taking far greater account of the ecological implications of our lifestyles. Most of us like to believe that we care about the future. Consider then how we are to face our grandchildren and perhaps great grandchildren if we do not make the appropriately drastic reductions in our material standards of living in order to be able to pass over the planet to them in at least as wholesome a state as we had it passed on to us. It is an issue of personal responsibility and preparedness to limit the ecological damage that each of us causes. That can no longer be side-stepped by claiming ignorance. The history of the last century, and evidence of the tragic consequences of economic and ecological failure, and avoidable damage to public and planetary health, make the response ‘we did not know’ inadmissible.

The need for urgent action is now. If my lifestyle results in the production of more than my fair share of greenhouse gas emissions, then there are only two possible outcomes – either I will have to be involved directly or indirectly in ensuring that others are denied their fair share or I will be responsible for contributing to the destabilisation of the planet’s climate. That is the reality of the predicament now facing us. It is the pay-off for wishful thinking.


Published in Ethical Record: Proceedings of the South Place Ethical Society. Paper given at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London on 20 May 2001.

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