19: As if there’s no tomorrow

Prospects are grim if only lip-service is paid to our overriding responsibility to act as current stewards of the planet and to seek to ensure that the quality of life of the generations succeeding us is enhanced rather than diminished as a result of what we do.

A cause for real concern, therefore, is the serious damage to the planet that is the direct consequence of our fossil fuel-based lifestyles. In the UK, the average individual’s annual carbon dioxide emissions from them are about ten tonnes – roughly half from personal use and half from industry. That total is two and a half times the world average which, in the opinion of the great majority of climate scientists, must itself be reduced by 60% to about one tonne.

You can easily calculate the half of the carbon dioxide emissions from your own use of energy. It won’t take long. How do these compare with that national average? More importantly, how do they compare with future reduction targets based on their fair allocation for each person for 2020 and 2030, as shown below? Your total should shock you for you will see that your emissions far exceed your share of the capacity of the planet to absorb them if they are not to cause serious destabilisation of the world’s climate.
If we do not substantially restrict our own emissions, there can be only one of two outcomes. Either we will have to witness and bear the costs of an inevitable and devastating intensification of the problems caused by climate change ‑ as well as the burden on our consciences. Or poorer people, mainly those living in developing countries, will have to be prevented from having their fair share of the fossil fuels required to maintain even a basic standard of living. There is no third more conscience-relieving way out of the impasse.


  • For the gas, electricity and oil used in your home, add your annual household consumption in kilowatt hours (kWh) from your four quarterly energy bills. Divide each total by the number of people in your household. Put these figures for your annual individual consumption in the table below. Then use the multiplier in the next row to get the figure for your CO2 emissions in kilograms (kgCO2).
  • For transport, roughly estimate your own annual travel in kilometres (for miles multiply by 1.6) by the different forms of transport – it is not necessary to be too precise.
  • Add up your emissions from all your different activities to get an annual total figure. Then compare this for the average individual and with your ration in future years.
    Annual carbon dioxide emissions (kgCO2) for personal energy use

Annual carbon dioxide emissions (kgCO2) for personal energy use

Energy use your
annual consumption





average individual

In the HOME

electricity KWh

x 0.45


gas KWh

x 0.19


oil Litres

x 3.00

Personal travel

Car: petrol (as driver)


x 0.20


diesel (as driver)


x 0.14

Rail: intercity


x 0.11


other services


x 0.16



x 0.07

Bus: within London


x 0.09


outside London


x 0.17

express coach


x 0.08

Air within Europe


x 0.51


outside Europe


x 0.32

Total for 2004, kilograms CO2


Target for 2020, kilograms CO2*


Target for 2050, kilograms CO2*


*The targets for 2020 and 2050 are based on restricting carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to about one and a half times those in the pre-Industrial Age, and on globally equal emissions by 2030.

The continuation of our energy-extravagant lifestyles reflects a near-universal state of denial about the compelling significance of climate change and a predisposition to wishful thinking that current policies will prove adequate to deal with it. There is too an instinctive public response of ‘buck-passing’ — ‘it’s the responsibility of Government’ or the often-cited comment that ‘the Americans are far worse than we are!’ Fingers are crossed that technology will come up with adequate solutions and that, somehow or other, we will be able to ‘muddle through’.

It is all too apparent that there are insufficientpeople prepared to voluntarily curtail their fossil fuel-based activities sufficiently for the necessary massive reduction in carbon dioxide emissions to be achieved. The only strategy with any such prospect is one based on equity. Its framework, Contraction and Convergence, has been devised by the Global Commons Institute in London. Within it, the ‘contraction’ to relatively safe levels is targeted at the same time as the ‘convergence’ is progressively delivered according to a system of national quotas of these emissions based on population. This is then allocated to everyone as an annual carbon ration which is reduced year-on-year to that safe level but which can be traded on the ‘white market’. The Government needs to be pressed to take the lead in international negotiations for the urgent adoption of this framework and for the early introduction of carbon rationing.

There is no denying that, at present, carbon rationing is very unlikely to be welcomed by the public. But that is no justification for its rejection. Instead, people need to be properly informed as to why we have no right to constrain the choices of future generations nor to burden them with the costs of coping with the damage that our self-indulgent preferences will have brought on them. Only in this way will it be possible for the difficult transition to very different lifestyles to be made without considerable public and business opposition.
Future generations will justifiably sit in judgement on what we chose to do in the early part of this century in full knowledge of the effects of continuing with our energy-profligate lifestyles. Growing evidence of the devastating consequences make burying our heads in the sand on this topic to avoid facing reality wholly unacceptable.

Originally published in Setting the World Alight: Ideas for Social Change (eds. Nick Temple et al.) 2003. (Why our energy-profligate lifestyles must be curbed and how this can be done.)

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