Features: ‘We need to leave the world’s fossil fuel in the ground’

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It is now all too clear that, like it not, we really do need to get on top of climate change. But is there really anything meaningful that any one of us can do to help? It’s a fair question. It is easy for any one of us to feel like just one speck among the billions of people who emit the world’s carbon. And things can seem even worse if we contemplate the harsh reality that so far climate change, to take just one example of our species’ enormous impact on our ever-more-fragile planet, has so far proved totally immune to any of the talks, resolutions, targets or actions of people, businesses or governments. To spell that out, the carbon emissions curve is still rising year on year exactly as it was doing before climate change ever hit the headlines. At the global level, there is still zero detectable evidence of human governance.

So much for the bad news, now for some evidence-based and well-founded hope. Firstly, our failure so far to have agency absolutely does not prove that having agency is not possible in the future. Secondly, the simple act of facing the stark realities that I’ve outlined is an essential and incredibly helpful step in the quest for a more effective course of action. The knowledge that nothing so far has worked at all gives us key information about the nature of the challenge – and we can use this to great effect.

It turns out that not only can humans get on top of the problem, but also that there is plenty all of us can do as individuals – far more in fact that than most of us imagine. Just before getting into the details of this, let’s just analyse the problem a little further, because this will help us target our efforts. So why is it that the individual efforts of people, businesses and nations have proved not just insufficient, but have actually added up to zero? It boils down to the balloon squeezing effect – otherwise known as ‘rebounds’. At the moment, the way things are working is that if we cut the carbon in one place, the emissions are simply migrating to someone or somewhere else. When one country’s emissions go down, another’s goes up. When a person has avoided a flight, the airline has sold the seat to someone else. Someone buys a smaller car, but the marketing effort has simply shifted to a different customer group. Somehow, we must intervene to interrupt the global dynamics of rising emissions. We need whole system change. We need an arrangement to leave the world’s fossil fuel in the ground. And for that to be possible, we need political will. And for that to be possible, we need cultural shift and widespread insistence. And that is where all of us come in.

So the question we all need to be asking is, ‘Given who I am, what can I do to help create the conditions under which the world can agree to leave the fossil fuel in the ground? Here are the answers as I see them.

Cutting the impact of our own lifestyles is still an important part of the equation. It matters because it demonstrates our commitment, it helps set the culture and it brings authenticity to the other essential actions we take to exert influence in every part of our lives. For most people their carbon footprint falls into about five core areas.

Food: This is about a quarter of the average European’s footprint and most of us can very simply cut it in half, or further still. The key actions, in order of priority, are: reduce meat and dairy, especially cutting beef and lamb. (Meat in general is an inefficient form of human nutrition, but cows and sheep ruminate – or burp methane – which roughly doubles their footprint. We don’t have to cut to zero and we don’t even have to make all the change overnight. But over the next few years it is very important that we make big changes to the average diet.)

Eat everything we buy. This sounds too obvious to need writing down, but eliminating waste would cut about a quarter from the average UK household food footprint (and the bill too).

Avoid air freight. Generally speaking, the more fruit and veg the better, but the exception comes from out-of-season products that are not robust enough to travel on a boat from the sunny places where they are grown. (Think of boats as having only around one hundredth of the footprint of planes per tonne per mile). Sadly, the shops usually don’t tell us which foods have been on a plane, so how can we tell? As a guide, apples, oranges, bananas, pineapples and melons are fine. But out of season, berries, grapes, asparagus and mange tout are not.

Household energy: cut the electricity and gas consumption. Fit solar panels if you can. Enough said.

Travel: Every flight is a huge carbon deal, so only take one for a very good reason. Secondly, cut the driving footprint by reducing mileage, sharing rides, driving a smaller car and driving carefully. Don’t buy a new car unless you need one, but if you do, make it small and, if you can, electric or plug-in hybrid.

Stuff: Everything we buy has a manufacturing footprint. So buy less stuff, buy higher quality and make it last. Keep it maintained. Get it repaired. Sell it on or give it to a good home when you are finished with it. This applies to clothes, furniture, white goods, electronics.

Money: Make sure all your investments are fossil fuel free. Everything you spend or invest in supports one future or another.

In tandem with working bit by bit on your own lifestyle (and don’t beat yourself up for not being a saint – just keep working on it and enjoy the process of cleaning your life), pay at least as much attention to the other ways in which you can push for a better world. Make sure all politicians know you expect coherent and strong climate policies. Make sure you expect your work place to make a serious response. Buy from carbon conscious companies; let them know you are on the lookout for greenwash and that you are not stupid. If you hear someone denying either climate change or the requirement for personal action, wherever you hear it, challenge it. Do so with a smile on your face if you can, but don’t let it go. Support those who take action.

Finally, and I don’t write this lightly, surely now it is time for each of us to ask very carefully whether we should take to the streets in some way. After decades of talking about the need for governments and businesses to do more and seeing a pitifully inadequate response, now it is surely time to insist. My advice would be to find a group that is thoughtful and constructive in its approach and, of course, non-violent.

We need to see whole-system change. None of us can do this alone, but each one of us can push hard for it through a huge range of important actions. Seemingly intractable problems can flip quickly when the conditions become right. Now is an interesting moment. In the Green New Deal, Extinction Rebellion and the school pupil strikes, we see signs of cracks widening in the outdated high-carbon regime on both sides of the Atlantic. Is this the beginning of the end? We can’t tell for sure, but whatever the odds, the harder each of us pushes, the better the chances.

Mike Berners-Lee’s book There is No Planet B: A Handbook For the Make or Break Years is out now published by Cambridge University Press at £9.99