Once again thousands of diplomats, press and lobbyists have flown to one of the world’s major coal producers for the UN Summit on Climate Change. Now in its 24th iteration, this annual folly in consensus follows a well-established rubric; a few fairly minor goals are put forward, one major country objects and that either provides cover for the others to say they won’t sign unless everyone signs or they use it as an opportunity to appear as forward thinking bastions of hope, stoic in the face of intransigence, sign and then never fully implement the treaty under the pretense that doing so will disadvantage them against the non-signatories.
This year the conference was stymied by the fossil extracting quartet of Australia, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the USA refusing to accept the recent IPCC report that their own delegates had helped write and which they had commissioned a few years earlier. Having refused to accept their own facts the world then took the opportunity to sign a slightly amended version of the almost meaningless Paris Agreement and hail it as progress.
Back in the real world, emissions are rising again and the climate’s changed. Another opportunity has been squandered as all those assembled are complicit in the willful failure to tackle the most intractable challenge of our time: the very continuation of life on earth.
Some have responded with protest. Last year at the conference in Bonn, thousands marched against coal with some activists taking to the vast Hambach mine and disrupting production for three days. The Polish authorities have been more of an asphyxiant on protests this year, refusing entry to key protesters, prohibiting spontaneous protest and issuing a terrorist alert on Katowice days before the conference. Consequently, the protests that manifested on the ground were somewhat insipid. The real action was elsewhere.
Some of the most revolutionary action: 20,000 children around the world have followed Greta Thunberg walking out of classes, calling out elder generations for choosing inaction in the face of overwhelming science. In the UK, Extinction Rebellion have been growing louder and more belligerent, most notably occupying five bridges in London this November. Taking their inspiration from the suffragettes, Gandhi and the civil rights movements of the 60s, the clearer objectives of these movements are unquestionably an improvement over the often-nebulous aims of more traditional environmental groups, but they still miss the point.
Climate change isn’t just a civil rights issue, it’s not just about a subjugated minority unable to be heard, it’s already impacting all of us, from the wealthiest CEO to the lowliest vagrant. Treating it as a civil rights issue only placates the conscience, allowing those it impacts least to continue consuming safe in the knowledge they have done their bit. By brandishing a placard and demanding our institutions take action we discharge our individual responsibility but we also lull ourselves into believing we don’t have the agency for change.
That gives rise to a much more dangerous phenomenon. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that the ‘the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice’. We only have to turn on the news to refute the idiocy of a visceral climate denier, but by pinning the blame on the institution we manufacture the ‘white moderates’. We give people a conviction in their belief that they can’t change anything, that all change is the responsibility of the institutions. We cement a perception of subjugation for the individual and give both the individual and the institution licence to continue with business as usual. We destroy our power.
Climate change seems like such a big problem, overwhelming even. It’s difficult to know where to start. Whilst everyone’s carbon footprint differs, if you break it down it becomes quite manageable. For all its complexity it’s all about one thing: reducing consumption. It may seem obvious, but less consumption means less production, means less pollution.
Approximately a fifth of the average Briton’s footprint comes from what you eat. You don’t have to go vegan (although that will usually cut it by about 60%) but cutting down on beef and lamb is key. Raising beef produces 12 times as much CO2 as chicken and 60 times as much as soya. Beyond that, avoid perishable produce out of season. Eating airfreighted Peruvian asparagus produces 24 times as much CO2 as in season British asparagus.
Another 20% is from land transport, and the majority of that comes from cars but electrification is only part of the answer. This can be difficult to cut. Your commute is often pretty fixed and public transport is often inconvenient, but it can usually be at least halved by using a bike for shorter trips and the train for really long trips.
The next 15% comes from electricity production. The lion’s share of the solution to that comes from renewables, but it can feel like we’re powerless to change how our energy is generated. By switching to a, usually cheaper, renewable supplier like Bulb or Octopus you can drive the market in its transition. That’s not just neoliberal economic theory flim flam, it is borne out in the evidence; in the last 5 years carbon emissions per unit of electricity have more than halved in the UK.
A matching 15% comes from direct burning of coal, oil and most of all gas; heating and cooking. This is the one that engineers are finding toughest to solve, quite simply burning stuff is a very efficient way to generate heat. Nonetheless simple things can make the difference; eating fewer hot meals, cooking in bulk, turning the heating down a few degrees, turning radiators down and just wearing a jumper at home can cut your use, and your bill, by around 70%.
On average flying accounts for the next 10% but it is comfortably the most variable. Flying around the world will double your total footprint, but it’s so easy to cut. Planning a trip to New Zealand? Just go bungee jumping in the west of Ireland, it looks stunning and has plenty of sheep. Want to visit South America? Watch Michael Palin, go to a restaurant and read National Geographic. Some of you might recoil at that slightly daft response, but for all my facetiousness these are the sort of sacrifices we’re all going to have to make. Transcontinental holidays are wonderful, but short of starting a forest fire they are the worst thing any individual can do for the planet.
A roughly equal chunk comes from all the industrial processes to make and dispose of the mountain of stuff we consume each year. Steel, cement and landfill are the worst offenders, chemical processes that are near impossible to meaningfully decarbonise without a step change in the technology. Industry and government always point to research, you will read about hydrogen steelmaking, bio-based plastics, mycelium disposal and low clinker cements that are lauded by their inventors (or patent owners) as the forgiver of all sins, and these will probably be a part of the solution, but converting hundreds of factories will take generations and cost trillions of pounds. Technology only gets you so far. It doesn’t get you there fast and its never cheap. A much easier, and likely bigger, part of the solution is so simple it is taught in primary schools; reduce, reuse, recycle. Reusable cups and bottles are great, but it has to go beyond that; regenerating buildings and improving occupancy rather than building new, forgoing IKEA in favour of more hardwearing second-hand furniture, sharing cars, pooling tools, repairing clothes when they wear out and not getting a new phone every time a new model is released. Nothing clever, nothing expensive, just living with less.
It’s only the last 5% that is really out of our hands. It’s the emissions we don’t really think about, the interstitial of our modern world. Data centres, the military, government operations. Our power here comes from abstention, election and insurrection. Choosing to stand up.
We need to get angry, but we need to take real action too in our daily lives and with campaigns that are targeted and actionable. In our city, Fossil Free Coventry have just released an excellent report demonstrating the council’s investments in the fossil fuel majors are high risk with relatively low returns and are now rewriting the Coventry Carbon Plan. Climate Action Network West Midlands (CANWM) have a campaign called Green Games working with the organising committee to reduce emissions from the 2022 Commonwealth Games and on campus Climate Reality work to prevent waste by collecting all the usable stuff that is left in halls at the end of each term and donating it to charity through their Rawkus campaign.
The climate has changed and now every day counts, every gram of CO2, every fraction of a degree and every action. We are on a mission to save spaceship earth and we are the only crew it’s got.
Our former Editor in Chief, Tom Harrison is currently studying part time for an MSc in Sustainable Automotive Technology and runs a company called E.Mission which works to help people understand their carbon footprint and give them the tools to reduce it.
To get involved in Fossil Free Coventry email firstname.lastname@example.org
To get involved in Climate Action Network West Midlands go to: https://www.climateactionwm.org.uk