Opinion: A middle-class approach to decarbonisation

29 Sep, 2020 00:24
source: Tom Gosling

Singularity Financial Hong Kong September 29, 2020 – A middle-class approach to decarbonisation.

About this author: Tom Gosling is a seasoned board adviser with 20+ years of experience in corporate governance, including 15 years as a Partner at PwC. Tom is unique in being a practitioner who also has deep academic expertise and a rigorous understanding of evidence. He coaches board members and high performers in professional services, and advises investors, companies, and regulators on matters relating to corporate governance and responsible business. This article was originally published on Tom’s personal blog

Extinction Rebellion protests have caused me to revisit my own approach to climate change.

Taking the pledge

The Extinction Rebellion protests have divided opinion. On one view they are offering childish solutions (or no solutions?) to adult problems. On the other they are the ones taking a grown-up view of impending climate catastrophe.

I’m not going to comment on the rights and wrongs of their method, but in one small victory they’ve persuaded me that in order to look my children in the eye I need to take my own personal contribution to climate change more seriously.

I’ve taken some interest in reducing my carbon footprint in the past. I’ve read Chris Goodall’s excellent book How to live a low carbon life and follow some of the advice. We have a green energy tariff, drive a hybrid, installed solar panels, insulated the house to a high standard, now cycle rather than drive to the station, and we offset our remaining carbon footprint. But I last looked at all this in 2015 and the world has moved on. Extinction Rebellion persuaded me it was time to educate myself on this issue and develop a thought through response based on positive choices about what I am and am not prepared to do.

So I’ve taken a simple climate pledge, which appealed to me. I paraphrase:

1.    Reduce personal carbon footprint by half in 10 years

2.    In so-doing take into account home energy, travel, consumption, and investments

3.    Offset what you can’t reduce

4.    Share your experiences to encourage others

This blog is the start of my commitment to share my experiences. In a series of posts in the coming months I’ll be sharing how I get along. This is not to set myself up as any kind of authority on climate change. But by sharing the thinking, research, dilemmas and trade-offs I come across, I hope that it helps others who may be grappling with this complex issue on a personal basis. Making the commitment to share also acts as motivation for me to get my own thinking straight(er). It is also likely to strengthen my resolve to hold the course. If people are kind enough to comment and share their own ideas then that will help me adapt our approach and also avoid some potential errors in what is a very complicated problem.

As I am learning my way through this I fully reserve the right to change my views and approach as I get a better understanding of this issue. Moreover, I expect this to be a path punctuated by failure and lost resolve – perhaps we’ll decide it’s just too hard. But there may be some positive surprises along the way too, some lessons to be learned, and, who knows, maybe some partial success too.

A personal responsibility to act

This may seem like a no-brainer, but there are arguments for not taking personal action. Each individual is, after all, a drop in the ocean, and the necessary change will not happen until we have action at a political level. But there is a question of personal leadership. In summary I believe that man-made climate change is happening, has potentially serious consequences, and that governments are not currently planning actions that will contain the risks at what I view to be an acceptable level. This is particularly the case given the potential for non-linear escalation in effects as the planet warms. Although it’s not an easy read, with too much impenetrable expert jargon, the latest IPCC report is worth ploughing through for a review of the evidence on this.

Moreover, the negative impacts of climate change are most likely to affect the most vulnerable, and societies that, in general, have not benefited from the industrialisation that has put so much carbon in the atmosphere. This creates a fundamental question of fairness. More selfishly, my children are likely to be alive during the first wave of potentially very negative consequences, and I want them to feel that I did what I could. To my mind, this creates a moral imperative to act. Moreover, citizens acting will create an environment where governments feel emboldened to follow suit.

The goal

“Our goal is to reduce our family’s carbon footprint by 10% pa over the next 7 years.”

This means reducing our footprint by a quarter in three years and by half in seven.

It’s pretty clear that halving our footprint will be next to impossible but also not enough. Depending on your view on whether 1.5°C or 2°C is the level of post-industrial temperature increase at which we need to stabilise, and your view on the likely efficacy of technologies to take carbon out of the atmosphere in the event of an overshoot, we probably need to be close to carbon neutral by 2050. To believe otherwise either requires acceptance of mean temperature increases of 3°C  to 4°C by the end of the century, or belief in deployment of carbon removal technologies on a scale that is currently untested.

At the current global run rate, our remaining carbon budget to hold temperature increases to 1.5°C will have been exhausted by 2030, according to the IPCC. While developed world carbon emissions are decreasing slowly in some countries, those in emerging markets are still increasing. Given that in the UK we’re running at about 2x the global average or more, depending on how you measure it, it’s hard to see the numbers adding up.

So I’m aware that halving our footprint probably doesn’t cut it. We will review it after three years to see if we can accelerate progress. At the same time, the scale of carbon reductions required to hit the 1.5°C goal are beyond the realistic scope of collective individual action and will need accelerating regulation or carbon taxation. Halving our personal footprint over seven years seems a reasonable (indeed ambitious) personal contribution and can be revisited in the future.

Principles of our approach

I want to take a structured and considered approach to reducing our carbon footprint, making conscious and, where possible, educated choices. So I started off by thinking about some principles, which would define the approach. This is where I got to.

Principle 1: We will take an evidence-based approach to reducing our footprint

Over a decade ago Chris Goodall was widely criticised for saying that if you have a diet based on red meat, you’d emit less CO2 driving to the supermarket than walking. This heresy against the anti-car orthodoxy illustrates one of the complexities when you try to reduce your footprint: the need to take into account whole-system and life-cycle impacts of different consumption choices. His point was that red meat production was so carbon intensive and inefficient that a human body fuelled by red meat had a higher carbon footprint per mile travelled than a car run on petrol. These systemic factors are very difficult to take into account, and inevitably will require reliance on third party expertise, but I’ll do our best as an amateur to use evidence, triangulating different sources to form a view on what is reliable. Evidence will also help us take the most significant decisions. Remembering to turn your lights off is easy and we should all do it – but it will not scratch the surface of the problem.

Principle 2: We’ll act as if there is a carbon tax of £100 per tonne today

It is commonly accepted that some form of carbon tax or cap and trade system will be essential to create economically efficient climate change. Chapter 2 of the IPCC report suggests a need for carbon prices of at least $135 per tonne by 2030 to keep below a 1.5°C increase (with a wide range up to over $6,000 per tonne). To create some self-imposed economic incentives, we will act as if we’re charged £100 per tonne of CO2 equivalent of our footprint and will invest that in carbon saving changes to our lifestyle. I recognise we’re in a fortunate position to be able to take this approach This will be in addition to offsetting our remaining carbon footprint each year at prevailing offset prices (c. £10 per tonne).

Principle 3: We’ll aim to adopt changes consistent with zero carbon from 2050

The point here is that changes that reduce carbon footprint in the short-term may embed continuing net carbon emissions over the long term, or simply be impractical if scaled to the population level. Biofuels are probably one option – they simply cannot be produced at the scale required to replace current diesel and petrol usage, or if they were the land-use and deforestation implications would be horrendous. A more expensive, or even in the short-term less carbon efficient, alternative may be consistent with an achievable lower carbon long-term pathway.

Principle 4: We’ll still live a middle-class lifestyle

Looking at the climate change science you can convince yourself that nothing is enough. Only drastic changes will do. But we’re not going to come off the grid and live on vegetables grown in our back garden. We’re simply too selfish for that (or at least I am). I also don’t want to become a carbon bore. By acknowledging our weakness for life’s comforts we hope to inoculate ourselves against confirmation bias – the desire to select evidence that proves we’re virtuous. We will make a genuine effort, but will face the limitations of what we do squarely in the face, and will not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. So I’ll try to find the items that make the biggest difference, but will let myself on occasion choose a bottle of Shiraz from far-flung Australia over a bottle from the Rhone if that’s what I feel like. This final principle of ultimate selfishness may be where it all comes unstuck – we’ll see. But if the only way to prevent catastrophic climate change is for us all to live a monastic existence then we’re doomed, and we will need to wait for disaster to impose it upon us.

The eight steps to carbon reduction

I’ve identified eight main steps to reducing our carbon footprint. I may have missed some so will feel at liberty to add more or change them along the way:

1. Calculating our current footprint. I’ve found this is easier said than done, and ‘quick and dirty’ calculators available on the web have gaps in them. I’ll share the best calculators I’ve found, but also discuss some other useful inputs.

2. Domestic heat and power. Central heating and electric power are one of the major contributors to our family’s carbon footprint and create significant issues when it comes to entrenching technology that may be inappropriate long-term.

3. Transport. Car, commuting, and air travel is one of the highest contributors to our carbon footprint. Niggling at my conscience is the need to face up to the consequences of excessive use of air travel.

4. Consumption. Consumption of food and material goods in the UK exceeds domestic fuel and road transport emissions by more than a factor 4, yet general consumption is often ignored by web-based calculators. I suspect it is going to be difficult really to get a handle on this, but we’ll give it a go.

5. Offsetting. Offsetting is controversial but seems to me to be a necessary part of responsible transition to a low or zero carbon future, although it should not be seen as a get-out-of-jail-free card. It is a bit of a mine-field and our current offsetting strategy is multidimensional in order to try to avoid the pitfalls. It needs review.

6. Investments. Although not a direct part of our carbon footprint our investments are one route through which we can send signals to the corporate world about the significance we attach to carbon reduction. The good news is that environmental activism is turning into one of the relative success stories of investor stewardship and there are options for people wishing to invest in a low carbon way, although there’s more than one theory of how to do it.

7. Work. I’m lucky to work at a firm that takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. I’m confident that our direct emissions via buildings, energy, and sourcing are well managed. But still a large part of my climate footprint is work-related, particularly through air travel, and I expect that my major challenge will be to be more assertive and creative in avoiding air travel, especially long haul.

8. Citizenship. The task of tackling climate change goes beyond the realistic scope of collective action by individual citizens. Co-ordinated action at many levels of political society and across multiple stakeholder groups will be required, underpinned by well-designed regulation and taxation. I’ll need to consider what an appropriate contribution would be in this area.

Getting to the end of this post I’m wondering what we’re getting ourselves into. By hitting ‘publish’ I’m aware I’m committing either to a lot of work or the humiliation of back-tracking. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Let’s see where it goes.

(This post is republished with permission from author‘s personal blog. )