What can I do?

Increasing numbers of informed individuals are concerned about the likelihood that the continued failure of public policy to effect a drastic reduction in greenhouse gases will inevitably result in the decline of life, habitable land and healthy oceans on our planet. What are the most effective actions that can be taken to prevent such horrendous prospects happening?

At the personal level

The best way of coming to terms with the scale of the task and acting urgently on it is to complete a simple self-audit of carbon dioxide emissions. Precision is not necessary. All that is needed is access to one of the many websites, such as carboncalculator.direct.gov.uk, to establish one’s annual emissions from fossil fuel-based activity in the home and in getting about by road, rail and air. The total can then be compared with the under one tonne we must all get down to as speedily as possible. It is important to monitor progress by means of a regular audit.

To avoid engaging in wishful thinking that encourages the belief that there is any easy escape from the predicament now facing us, the following basic truths need to be faced:

  1. The capacity of the planet’s atmosphere to safely absorb further greenhouse gas emissions is finite. Unlike most other decisions, such as in relation to economic growth, that capacity must not be exceeded. It is non-negotiable.
  2. If this is divided fairly between the world’s population, individuals will have to be restricted to under one tonne of carbon dioxide emissions from their annual use of fossil fuels. In the UK, the current average is 10 tonnes and in the United States well over 20 tonnes!
  3. Any proposition that this should not be allocated equally across the world’s population would be very difficult to justify on moral grounds, let alone implement to ensure that the global level of emissions is not exceeded. A higher allocation for any one group (of what inevitably will have to be a very small volume) would necessarily have to be balanced against a lower allocation for others.
  4. The alternative means of reducing fossil fuel use considerably by pricing and taxation would become increasingly inequitable owing to the fact that, as the price rose year-on-year, poorer people would find it ever more difficult to pay for their heating, hot water, electricity, travel, food and so on.

Against this background in the past, I have argued that everyone has a responsibility to substantially reduce their emissions as quickly as possible and that few of the ways of doing so require major lifestyle changes or significant financial investment. I attempted to substantiate this statement by setting down many activities that people could adopt fairly easily:

  • With total distance travelled typically accounting for about two-fifths of personal emissions, cut out air travel owing to its intensive use of carbon fuels and its association with long distances.
  • If a car is owned, use it sparingly and, whenever possible, travel on foot, bicycle or bus, combining several journey purposes.
  • When there is a change of home, school, job and so on, aim for short journeys between them. Likewise, choose local schools and services, and recreational and sports facilities whenever you can.
  • Remembering that current emissions from all stages of the food chain – from ‘farm to fork’ – account for close to one fifth, choose local shops and buy locally produced food when available.
  • Minimise household waste that has to be carried to landfill sites, recycling rather than disposing of as much as possible of what remains and if you have a garden composting the vegetable part of it.
  • Reduce energy use in the heating and hot water system, in home appliances (fridge, freezer, washing machine), and lighting in your home. When changes have to be made, make sure to buy the most efficient ones available on the market.
  • Sign up to a green tariff – that is, electricity generated from renewable sources.

At the social level

Whilst all these changes are highly desirable, it is obvious that it is unrealistic to assume that much of the essential massive greenhouse gas reduction can be achieved in this way voluntarily. It is unrealistic too to assume that, even after a massive programme of education on the realities of climate change, everyone will be able to be relied on to deliver their fair share of reductions. Any one individual can only make a miniscule contribution to the global reduction. However, involvement in community life can help, for instance, by:

  • Engaging in public debate and letter writing, making one’s views known on the actions that need to be taken to prevent climate change.
  • Supporting environmental groups, other local organisations, and religious groups and educating family, friends and colleagues at work in promoting action on the subject.

At the political level

In recognition of the fact that only government has the power to influence behavioural changes in our lifestyles on a sufficient scale to ensure that we all contribute our fair share to achieving the essential reduction, the most effective action that individuals can take is by prioritising their efforts in exerting pressure on those who inform decision makers and those vested with responsibility for making the decisions and then implementing them. The thinking of these two groups needs to change at this fundamental level and policy has to stop being formulated on daydreams that economic growth can be maintained in perpetuity by sufficient “decoupling” from current levels of carbon emissions.

For this reason, the following actions are even more important than those listed above at the personal and social levels. Politicians must be called upon as a matter of urgency to:

  • Raise awareness of the links between carbon dioxide emissions and our current lifestyles as a prelude to adopting C&C (Contraction and Convergence) as the international negotiating position and encourage fellow EU (European Union) and other governments to do the same.
  • Set an absolute limit for carbon concentrations in the atmosphere based on the best climate science – not on what is thought acceptable to the public and what an economic growth strategy will allow.
  • Introduce this rationing as soon as possible to meet targets for carbon reduction each year – an essential component of a speedy transition to zero carbon economies across the world.
  • Start urgent negotiations with all the political parties on the truths of climate change with the aim of achieving a consensus on introducing a widespread programme of public education and support both for C&C and carbon rationing.
  • Draw politicians’ and government decision-makers’ attention to the significance of climate change and the justification for carbon rationing and seek a commitment on the subject if elected.

Recommended reading

How we can save the planet by Mayer Hillman and Tina Fawcett

Contraction and Convergence by Aubrey Meyer

Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning by George Monbiot

Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas