As if there’s no tomorrow: why we must curb our energy-profligate lifestyles

Few readers of this article are likely to deny that we have an overriding responsibility to act as the current ‘stewards’ of the planet so that, as far as possible, the quality of life of people living after us is enhanced rather than diminished as a result of the lives we are leading. Indeed, most of us will express support for social justice and the need for people to be inspired by moral purpose and to act in the manner that does not prejudice the public interest. However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. To what extent are we really prepared to alter our behaviour when our convictions have to be put to the test?

It is all too apparent that we are at a truly defining moment in history. With only lip-service being paid at present to the accumulating evidence of the devastating effects of climate change, which climate scientists almost unanimously accept as being attributable to human activity, prospects appear grim. We must drastically curb our energy-profligate lifestyles, yet we to prefer to look the other way.

We now know that the planet has a fixed capacity to absorb greenhouse gas emissions. The ‘cake is finite’. We cannot go on ignoring the issue of equity as we have shamefully done in the past, and fob off those complaining about the size of their slice on the fallacious grounds that, with the larger cake from economic growth, there will be more to eat — isn’t that what is wanted? That line of argument can no longer be deployed for we are faced with the reality that, if some have more than their fair share, others will inevitably have to have less. The primary lesson that largely escaped thinking during the 20th century is that economic growth, as pursued in all countries around the world, cannot be maintained in perpetuity as it is too closely locked into unsustainable patterns of consumption to be able to be sufficiently ‘decoupled’.

A cause for real concern, therefore, is the underlying promotion and direct and indirect subsidy of lifestyle activities which are causing serious damage to the planet. In the UK, the average individual’s annual carbon dioxide emissions are about 10 tonnes – roughly half from personal use and half from industry. That total is two and a half times the world average which, in turn, must be reduced by 60% to about 1 tonne, in the opinion of most climate scientists.

In spite of this, motor mileage continues to rise in spite of the fact that, in the last 50 years, it has increased six-fold. More disturbingly, within the next 20 years, mileage by air alone is forecast to triple, thereby exceeding current mileage by road and rail combined. Yet the carbon emissions from a return flight from London to New York alone is equivalent to about 3 times what the annual personal ration for all our fossil fuel purposes must come down to!

The continuation of fossil fuel-based extravagant practices such as flying reflects a widespread state of denial about the compelling significance of climate change, with unworthy excuses for inaction. It is casually stated, as if an ill-informed opinion is as valid as an expert opinion, that ‘…climate scientists have probably got it wrong’. And there is a predisposition to wishful thinking that current policies will be adequate to deal with the problem. 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!’ In effect, fingers are crossed that technology will come up with solutions that will let us off the hook, such as the proposition James Lovelock, the allegedly green scientist, tantalisingly put forward last week that we should engage in a Faustian bargain by urgently embracing nuclear energy so that we can continue with our unecological and self-indulgent lifestyles – even though that would impose an obligation on future generations to look after the radioactive waste that such a policy would create for tens of thousands of years.

Meanwhile, successive governments — not just in this country — are averse to acknowledging the enormity of the essential changes that have to be made, no doubt informed of the electoral consequences of doing so. This holds true even when our Prime Minister admits, as he has done recently, that the issue is “very, very critical indeed”. Instead, they have sought to impress on the electorate the view that they have matters well in hand. This appeals to industry, the viability of which is very dependent on a ‘business as usual’ growth scenario. And it feeds most people’s strong preference for not foregoing precious freedoms that they have come to take for granted and for what they see as an inalienable right for continuously improving material circumstances.

In some ways, climate change — the most awesome of issues ever to have faced mankind — can be seen as a divinely-inspired conspiracy to prevent the world from destroying itself by the ever-widening adoption of unsustainable lifestyles, especially with its burgeoning populations nearly all of whom are intent on raising their material standards. From this perspective, on both moral and political grounds, the only strategy with any prospect of delivering the degree of reduction in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions required to avoid serious destabilisation of the planet’s climate is one based on equity.

The framework for this has been devised by the Global Commons Institute. It is called Contraction and Convergence. Within it, the ‘contraction’ to relatively safe levels of emissions is targeted at the same time as the ‘convergence’ is progressively delivered according to a system of national quotas of the emissions, based on population. At the domestic level, this quota will have to be translated into a system of personal carbon rationing. In effect, it is equivalent to a new currency which will be able to be traded on the ‘white market’. Only in this way will it be possible for the difficult transition to very different lifestyles to be made without considerable public opposition.

In the early years of its introduction, relatively wealthy people will be able to buy the surplus rations from those who are leading energy-thrifty lifestyles. In this respect, it will represent the ‘win-win’ situation of redistributing income by rewarding ‘conservers’ ‑ those who are imposing the least environmental burden. But, with its decreasing availability, the cost of any surplus will steadily rise as the tonnage of the ration is progressively ratcheted down from year to year.

In the absence of both better and realistic alternatives to the awesome predicament which we now face from climate change, the implication of rejecting this strategy is that we should leave things more or less as they are and hope to ‘muddle through’! That increasingly looks like resolutely taking the road to ecological Armageddon.

If we in the developed world do not agree to substantially restrict our own carbon emissions, there can be only two possible but totally unacceptable outcomes. Either we will witness and bear the costs of an inevitable and devastating intensification for future generations of the problems caused by climate change. Or poorer people, mainly but not exclusively those living in developing countries, will have to be denied their fair share of the fossil fuels required to maintain even a basic standard of living. Burying our heads in the sand on this crucial and simple equation to avoid facing reality cannot continue. If we wish to sleep with a clear conscience, we need to be true to ourselves!

Our present and future decisions about the extent of use of fossil fuels in our activity will have a major impact on the quality of life of people in the next few decades and the generations succeeding us. We have a moral responsibility to act with this inescapable truth in mind. Future generations will justifiably sit in judgement on what we chose to do in the early part of this century in full knowledge — that is as accessories before the fact — of the devastating consequences of continuing with our energy-profligate lifestyles. The accumulating evidence on climate change and its damaging impacts make it progressively unacceptable that we attempt to plead ignorance with the excuse ‘I did not know’ — with all its haunting World War 2 images of the outcome of looking the other way.


Published in the Church Times, 4 June 2004.

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