What has 2021 taught us about how to fight climate change then? Part 1

This piece is the first of two articles discussing the highs and lows of my attempt to address my carbon footprint for travel in the last few months, and what I’ve learned along the way. Part one forms the basis of why I think we should still be thinking about our personal responsibility for cutting carbon. (If you want a more colourful, and frankly more intelligent summary, you could watch this video by German video-explainer royalty Kurzgesagt). Part two focusses on how I’ve been doing it, what challenges I’ve faced, and what I’ve learned along the way. Read it here

So what’s been happening with my eco-travel goals since I last updated you in July? 

Well, for one thing, COP26. And with it the whole landscape of conversation around individual versus government responsibility for cutting carbon emissions has been shifting. While I’ve been focussing on what choices I can make to reduce my carbon footprint many climate change groups discourage what they perceive as a ‘blame culture’ against putting the onus on the choices and actions of individuals. They may argue that the only real impact we can have on our national and international carbon targets is for governments to pressurise and penalise high-emissions industries such as fossil fuel extraction while incentivising lower-carbon options for individuals.

I do sympathise with this view. After all, it is hard to appreciate how the individual can make a difference to our current apocalyptic trajectory through our small daily choices, especially in a bewilderingly complex system coupled with a woefully inadequate supply of unbiased, scientifically accurate and easily accessible information from trusted sources with which we can make those choices in a rational way. It also doesn’t help that we’re bombarded with contradictory suggestions from opaque sources whose motives and sponsors are either shrouded in secrecy or else seem to be from the ‘do-as-I-say-not-as-do’ school of authority and often involve buying a new this, that or the-other. It is widely recognised that oil giant BP introduced the concept of a ‘carbon footprint’ in a 2005 ad campaign to place responsibility for carbon emissions with the individual and deflect attention from the earth-shattering carbon footprint of their corporate oil extraction activities [1]. In a more contemporary example, my news feed during the COP26 summit seemed to be mostly populated by commentaries designed to waste my time arguing with myself and other eco-conscious people about what the most virtuous way of living might be, or as a Guardian columnist recently put it, “best [being] very much the enemy of good”. It’s messages like these that make many sceptical – or perhaps more accurately, despondent – about the merits of thinking about personal carbon reductions at all.  

Pointing out the possible imperfections in attempts to live planet-consciously is a very effective distraction technique because feeling superior to others is innate to human psychology. It’s the thing that drives lay football fans to call into Radio 5 Live to put the world to rights about how the manager should have fielded their team if only he wasn’t such a moron or gives the taxi driver I recently met the authority to confidently assert that he and his dad could have done a better job of building the hospital I work at. In a more scientific example, when a group of health professionals were asked “How often do you see a colleague deliberately do something wrong at work?”, most responded ‘daily’ or ‘weekly’; when the same group was asked, “How often do you deliberately do something wrong at work?” almost all replied either ‘yearly’ or ‘never’. This reveals our bias towards believing we are better or more virtuous than the rest of the world at large, even people we know and interact with, even people that are quite like us.  

It is exactly this psychology that Big Industry taps into when it attempts to turn climate activist against climate activist, denouncing vegans for singlehandedly drying out the state of California in order to feed their collective almond habit*, or people who cycle for causing the deaths of five people on UK roads last year**. When you know what? Eating less animals is definitely better for planetary – and human – health, and cycling definitely has ecological – and health and community – benefits over driving, even if you have to get a lift home with your bike once in a while. Both are better, if not best, for the planet, whatever best looks like. 

Jeff Bezos didn’t spend all day debating with his detractors about best how to grow his online marketplace, he just got on with it. And while we, the environment-conscious lay public, are forever getting bated into circular arguments by Big Industry, whose only motive is to keep us dumbfounded about whether avocados are worse than bananas, or keeping our three-tonne petrol SUV is dirtier than buying a new electric car, so long as the end outcome is that we at least overconsume one of them, Bezos’ company continues to trot out carbon footprints that rival that some small European countries [2]***. 

So how do we address this bewilderingly complex milieu, fraught as it is with carbon-shaming and contradictory information? Maybe we should worry less about whether we’re doing the best we possibly can, and focus more on trying to do better, and encouraging the same of our circle. Can I suggest that in most Western lives there will be a lot of low-hanging fruit we can harvest to reduce our impact on the planet. Most of use could use the car less! We could cycle more, or park-and-ride more, or car-share more. Or make less journeys in general, by making small, sustained changes! Could we cut a third off our travel emissions in a year? Probably not. But could we cut them by 10% this year, then 10% again a year after that, then 10% again? Possibly! 

Cycling is one of carbon-cutting’s no-brainers; each individual journey burns no fossil fuels. Building a bike is far less carbon-intensive than building a car, and even if you need to run both (which probably applies to most people) it only takes 430 miles of cycling journeys you would have otherwise made by car, to offset the average production cost. Even better, and perhaps more realistic in the current post-Brexit-and-Covid bicycle supply-and-demand climate, you could buy second-hand, or dig the neglected steed out of the shed and get it in for a once-over at your local bike shop (the Fix Your Bike Scheme, which gives eligible households £50 towards the upkeep or repair of a bicycle, is about to be re-released in the UK. Its Scottish branch, the Scottish Cycle Repair Scheme, is already up and running). 

But what about the monstrous impact of the extractive fossil fuel industries? The methane emissions from landfill? The expansion of the middle classes of the likes of India and China? Don’t they cancel out my puny efforts to cycle more by many millions of orders of magnitude? 

You would be correct in saying this, yes. But what can you do about those other things? Simply by refusing on the grounds of scale to do your bit to reduce your carbon footprint, you will not change the course of those other things. But what you might find yourself feeling is greater resentment, helplessness and guilt in the long run. A Buddhist monk once addressed a Glasgow audience looking for more inner peace: “If there’s nothing you can do about it, then why worry? And if there’s something you can do about it, then why worry?”. The upshot being that if there’s something you don’t like that’s in your power to change then the route to finding a release from mental anguish is to do something about it. Taking even some control over a problematic situation, regardless of the overall outcome, can increase the sense of autonomy, which makes humans feel happier and more motivated to be the change we wish to see. If there’s nothing you can do about it, then there’s nothing you can do about it, and wasting your concern on those things you can’t change just redirects energy from more fruitful and fulfilling endeavours.

We can’t do anything about the fact Boris Johnson took a private jet from a pivotal climate change conference in order to attend a private dinner with a load of billionaire movers-and-shakers, some of whom deny climate change (well, we could have not voted for him, but Rafiki tells us we can’t change the past). We can’t un-burn the Amazon rainforest. But, as a wise teacher once counselled my husband’s younger self when he was berating a schoolmate with a perceived unfair advantage: “Just concentrate on your own game, son”. We could all just focus on the one or two big things we could do by ourselves to cut down our carbon invoice. 

We identified a third scenario not covered by this philosophy, and which I feel is the real source of worry, namely “what if you’re not sure whether or not you can do something about it?”. In carbon footprint terms I think this represents such a small fraction of the problem (and yet a disproportionate amount of headspace, public discourse and column inches) that we might as well put it in a drawer somewhere, and focus back on that low-hanging fruit I mentioned earlier. 

If you’re still not sold on the personal responsibility argument, then consider that we (by ‘we’ I refer to the wealthy West, who tread among the biggest personal carbon footprints of any of the world’s nations) live in a capitalist society where the only real power you possess as a citizen is how you choose to spend your money. Have you ever tried lobbying your local MP about anything and noticed how painfully slow any kind of discourse is, the proportion of autoreply-looking correspondences you receive in return, how high the effort to outcome ratio, the returns often crushingly disappointing? Conversely, notice how quickly your local supermarket expands its dairy-free range once you start buying plant milk there for a few weeks. 

In summary, here’s why I think we shouldn’t take our eye off the personal carbon footprint ball: 

1) It’s a tangible change that we can all make, no smoke and mirrors, no secret agendas, no creative marketing. 

2) Making personal carbon efficiencies is likely to make us more confident and motivated to enact, and perhaps even campaign for, other changes we wish to see. 

3) In a market economy, what greater power do we have to exert over our nation than how we choose to spend (or not) our money? 

You know how I think we shouldn’t go about doing it though? 

1) We shouldn’t give ourselves nebulous targets “I’m going to cut my carbon footprint as much as I possibly can” or unachievable ones “I’m never going to use my car again”. These promises are only destined to be broken, making us feel disappointed, disillusioned, and perhaps more likely to rebound (“f*** it, what’s the point, I might as well buy a second car, we’re all doomed”). Instead, we should set achievable, measurable carbon reduction goals which have a binary succeed/fail outcome. “This year I’m only going to drive 85% of what I drove last year” (you check your car’s MOT and service record to see how much that was).

2) We shouldn’t fall prey to people telling us we’re not doing it properly, or perfectly, because we’re not doing X, Y or Z. Everyone’s version of carbon cutting will look different and as long as we’re headed in the right direction that’s what’s important.

3) Equally, we shouldn’t get into the habit of shaming or judging those whose carbon behaviours we deem to be unhelpful. None of us knows where the other is coming from. Most of us don’t know as much as we think we do (did you know that, over several studies, more than 80% of drivers think they’re better than your average?) and shaming someone is as good as scientifically proven to not make someone do what you want anyway. 

4) We should be careful where we take our advice from. Most of the time, significant carbon savings at the individual level will be achieved by doing less stuff and buying less things. Be wary of people who tell you can reduce or offset your carbon emissions by buying a new this or upgrading to a new that. 

* I could rant all week about the incorrectness of denouncing vegan diets as being bad for the environment and the driving forces behind that bullshit, but you came to this blog looking to learn about cycling so I’ll save you the pain… 

**Those five deaths were, of course, a human tragedy. But let’s put it into perspective. Most road traffic incidents involving a cyclist only do harm to the cyclist themselves, and collisions involving at least one car totalled 1,116 fatalities on UK roads last year, with 45% of those causing damage to non-car users [3], most likely pedestrians, cyclists, or motorcyclists. 

From [3] 
 Deaths involving a bicycle (146) Deaths involving a car (1,116) 
Road user themselves killed 141 (97%)  
Road user killed another road user 5 (3%) At least 498 (45%) 

*** I’m not trying to pick on Jeff Bezos here. It does nothing for sensible climate discourse to demonise certain individuals (this is not the Daily Express after all). Nor does it do much for the healthy psyche. There are good deeds and bad deeds but very few bad people.  

[1] https://mashable.com/feature/carbon-footprint-pr-campaign-sham?europe=true

[2] https://apnews.com/article/climate-jeff-bezos-us-news-ap-top-news-wa-state-wire-dd2368999232425bb5d7d2b9e84604b5 

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/reported-road-casualties-great-britain-annual-report-2020/reported-road-casualties-great-britain-annual-report-2020 

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