Last updated on 2019/10/25
Three little questions everyone can answer
- How many flights have you taken in the last year?
- How many days in the last week have you travelled by car?
- How many days in the last week have you eaten meat?
Add the three numbers together. What was your total score? What will it be tomorrow?
The difficult bit
Tell someone else your score and ask them what theirs is. Maybe start with someone sympathetic to the cause then move on to your boss or the ubiquitous Brexit/Trump supporting uncle.
I’ve been thinking about these three questions for years and I simply don’t have the nerve to talk about them to my friends and colleagues even though I work in an environmental organisation. And that fear is the fear that is destroying the planet. We comfort friends who are teary eyed about planetary destruction but don’t have the nerve to talk to them about skiing/city/beach/eco holidays. We pretend it is complicated when it isn’t. There is a simple way to keep score for all of us in industrialised countries, cut through the crap, and have real conversations about how we need to change society. But we never do it.
What would we need to change about our culture and society so that everyone can reduce their scores on these three questions? These are personal and political decisions but they start with just these three questions.
Imagine if journalists and politicians were asked these questions on the TV. If discussion programmes started by everyone laying their cards on the table. But they won’t. Because we are scared.
In more detail
The logic is very simple. Per capita global CO2 emissions are around 5t (that is Metric Tonnes or 5,000kg). This isn’t evenly distributed. People in least developed nations emit well under 1t per capita and people in most developed nations (as well as the privilege in many developing countries) emit more. In the UK/EU it is about 6.5t and USA 16.5t! (Source). So at the very least we should be looking to personally emit less than 5t today and reduce that very rapidly if we are interested in climate justice. If we can point to three big things in our lives that push use to over 5t then we should address those publicly. 80% of the problem is caused by 20% of the activity. This avoids the dead cat distractions of arguing about plastic straws (should be banned) or paper towels vs hot air hand dryers (who cares).
Flying is very very bad
Compared to anything else you do getting on a plane for a short or long haul flight is out and out the worst thing you can do to the planet. You should do it as little as possible or not at all. It is also the thing that is very often discretionary. People choose how often they travel for vacations. People who have jobs where they have to fly are the same people who have sway over how their jobs are organised. Too often foreign meetings are used as perks in a complicit game played between employer and employee. This is why you should count work flights as part of your total. Your job is your choice and the amount you flying in your job can be influenced by you. Own it. If it is justified you will have no problem touting a high score (see below). The only exception to the flights rule is air crew who are actually driving the planes! They can just count their discretionary flights.
Rule of thumb is 0.25t of CO2 for each hour flying [Source]. So ten hours flying is your total CO2 emissions for the year. i.e. nothing left for food, heating or ground transport.
Driving is very bad
Carbon emissions from cars are bad but they also facilitate emissions from the vast infrastructure needed to support them. This is why you should include travel by electric and hybrid cars. Remember they are just CO2 free at the exhaust pipe unless you already have totally renewable electricity. For conventional vehicles think of between 4.5 and 5 metric tonnes of Carbon dioxide per car per year on average 404 grams of CO2 per mile in the USA [Source] from the exhaust alone. The EU has mandated 95g/km (that’s 162g/mile) by 2021 [Source]. So that is about 30,000 mile per tonne from the exhaust pipe. But this does not allow for infrastructure implications. The roads need to be built and maintained. When you drive you participate in a conspiracy called traffic that requires wider roads and larger parking areas for people to congregate. If you live somewhere you have to have a car then all the services you depend on will be car dependent. Your clients and friends and deliveries will all come by car. Car use per day is a good estimate of lifestyle.
Meat is far worse than you think
For years nobody mentioned meat. Recently it has become more mainstream to point out the impact to the climate on eating meat in particular. As an example if globally we switched to a plant based diet it would be the same as switching all fossil fuel generators to nuclear [Source]. Even sceptical people will now agree that the more they fly and the more they drive the more damage they do to the environment. The penny is just beginning to drop that the more meat you eat the more damage you do. Some argue that it is only South American cattle ranchers that are the problem and that grass fed beef from temperate areas is good because that is all you can do with the land. This is wrong. The conversion of vast tracts of land to improved or semi-improved pasture was as much part of the industrial revolution as James Watt’s steam engine. That land needs to be returned to arable or rewilded.
There is very little research on the actual amount of CO2 and methane emitted from meat production in temperate, grassy areas but there was a really good discussion on BBC More Or Less that, in debunking a larger claim by George Monbiot concluded a leg of grass fed lamb was like a short haul flight.
If your family of four only eats meat as the Sunday roast it is the equivalent of each member taking six return flights from London to Zurich each year. And that is the lower estimate from this fact checking programme where the presenters obviously enjoy eating lamb. Which is incredible. The thing is we don’t know exactly but treating meat consumption, even grass fed meat, as being equivalent to car and air travel appears very reasonable. This applies as much to organic meat production as non-organic. There are likely to be better ways of producing meat but they aren’t orders or magnitude less damaging.
A word of caution regarding the media coverage of the effects of meat production. Journalists will invariably interview a farmer or someone from the meat production industry for expert opinion. This is like asking a coal miner for his opinion on whether we could do away with coal fired power stations. In the last few years the media have more or less stopped doing that and they should also stop asking lamb farmers if lamb farming is a good thing.
Yes vegan would be better. Milk is meat but for simplicity and trying to hit a ball park figure just talking about meat at this stage is simpler. If you really care perhaps produce a second score for entirely animal free days.
Should we all have the same score? No way. If you are disabled and need to a car to participate in society then you may have a base level of six before you start. Nobody can criticise that. On the other hand if you would simply die without two foreign breaks a year maybe you should look into why that is.
Rich, privileged people will score far higher than poorer people. They are also the ones with the power to effect change.
As I type this my score is 5. I took four flights in June to go to a work conference in Germany. I’ve been vegetarian for nearly thirty years so the meat one is easy. I have a camper van that I drive at the weekends on out of town trips. I’m just about to drive it now so my score will go to six or so which is my average just now. I can’t get below four till next June.
What is your score? Maybe share how you feel about it below.
I looked at the fine print on the World Bank estimate of 6t per capita and it says: “Estimates exclude fuels supplied to ships and aircraft in international transport because of the difficulty of apportioning the fuels among benefiting countries.” Neither does the World Bank estimates account for oils or methane from animals “They include carbon dioxide produced during consumption of solid, liquid, and gas fuels and gas flaring.” Therefore we should think of meat consumption and flying as additional to our 6t per year. We actually emit more than we think. Possibly double.