It’s instructive to read what the writer Rebecca Solnit has to say about the idea of the “carbon footprint” of individuals. Writing in The Guardian last month, she echoed a steadily growing analysis of that phrase by stating that, “The main reason to defeat the fossil fuel corporations is that their product is destroying the planet, but their insidious propaganda, from spreading climate-change denial to pushing this climate footprint business, makes this goal even more worthwhile.” In other words, individual virtue, like not taking flights or participating in the carbon economy in other ways, while a noble thing, isn’t going to avert the climate catastrophe. For that we have to re-imagine consumption, manufacturing and energy policies, all of which are ultimately predicated on fossil fuels.
The fact is that people use what they’ve been given to build as good a life as they can. If the paradigm is shaped by a lifestyle and products that flow from fossil fuel energy, then it’s that paradigm that has to change, led by government policy ushering in a world based on renewable energy. This same sentiment is echoed in a new report published on 5 October called the 1.5-degree Lifestyles Report, prepared by the Germany-based public interest think tank Hot or Cool Institute. The report analyses lifestyle-related carbon footprints of seven of the G20 nations, including high income countries like Canada and the UK, upper-middle income countries like China and South Africa and lower-middle income countries like India and Indonesia.
The report states that current lifestyle carbon footprints of these representative G20 countries far exceeds the Paris 2015 target for 2050. The report analyses six areas of consumption which has the highest impact on the climate crisis, namely food, housing, transport, goods, leisure and services, and finds that current carbon emissions from these far exceed the carbon budget that the world has left in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels. While the current global average lifestyle carbon footprint is 4.6 tonne CO2 equivalent (tCO2e), this has to reduce to 0.7tCO2e by 2050. For a country like Canada, that figure currently stands at 14.2tCO2e. India’s footprint is 3tCO2e.
The report argues that the only way the global average, as well as the massive inequalities between high income and other countries could reduce, is if governments enact policies that enable people to make low carbon choices. The report also puts forward solutions that can be used by governments to reach this goal. The gist of the matter is this: no matter how much you ask people to lead carbon-neutral lives, it’s an impossible task unless governments show willingness to change away from current business-as-usual behaviour.