It’s time to get personal, to dispel the romantic notion that we have more important things to do. But first, the big picture. The ambition of the Paris Agreement is for humanity to emit no more greenhouse gases than the planet can absorb, by 2050. To achieve this state of “climate neutrality” by the second half of this century, global emissions must peak as soon as possible before rapidly descending along each country’s nationally determined trajectory. In seeking to strengthen the global response to climate change in Paris, the goal is to limit the global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius – seen by many as a dangerous tipping point – and if possible to limit this increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“Mission 2020” is an initiative that followed on from Paris to drive more urgent action, to reach the turning point in global emissions by 2020. The big milestones to get to this point of inflection include renewables overtaking fossil fuels as new electricity sources; cities and states implementing policies and regulations to fully decarbonise buildings and infrastructure by 2050; zero emissions transport becoming the preferred form for all new mobility in the world’s major cities; heavy industry – including iron and steel, cement, chemicals, oil and gas – committing to being Paris compliant; large-scale land restoration replacing large-scale deforestation, and agriculture shifting to earth-friendly practices.
Progress in achieving these 2020 milestones is mixed. The uptake of renewable energy is increasing dramatically, although existing coal-fired power plants are not being retired fast enough and new coal-fired power plants are still being built. Insufficient new buildings are being built to near-zero energy standards. Most light vehicle manufacturing companies around the world have announced that they are moving towards hybrid and electric models, over the next decade. Heavy industries are slow in shifting their energy practices and are off track in terms of improving their energy, emission and material efficiencies. Sustainable agricultural practices that reduce carbon dioxide emissions and increase removals are also off track, along with continued losses in tree cover.
When we see such mixed progress, it should bring home to us that these challenges cannot be faced without our active involvement too. Reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Agreement is not only the responsibility of governments and corporates, but of every single individual. We are not powerless against the massive forces driving greenhouse gas emissions: it is our collective power that is driving these forces. As individuals, we can accelerate the pace of change. How? We can reduce and reuse; use low-carbon energy; eat less meat and more local produce; invest in the future; and vote. These are the five concrete actions that each of us can, and should, be taking right now.
One: Reduce and reuse.
The fundamental issue is overshoot, the cause of our ecological crisis. As consumers, many of us carry the responsibility for this over-demand. Luxuries such as smartphones, GPS navigators, espresso coffee machines, and more, have been swallowed up in our pursuit of material satisfactions and have been turned into needs. Churn is increasing too as we choose more stuff more often, from ‘single serve’ fast fashion clothing to the latest ‘must have’ mobile handset. We have the power to hold onto products for longer; to buy fewer products or replace them entirely with services; and to support only those brands that promote our values. Like the circular economy itself, ultimately it comes back to us. We are resourceful enough to make things last and to do more with less.
Two: Use low-carbon energy.
The climate problem is mostly an energy problem. The energy industry as a whole is in the spotlight as its greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for about two-thirds of the grave we are digging for ourselves. As individuals, we play one of the leading roles in this transition, not only as energy consumers but also as future producers. How we choose to move around also plays a critical role. What would things look like if we are daring enough to change our urban traffic culture fundamentally, from catering to the exclusiveness of private automobiles to embracing the inclusiveness of walking, cycling and public transport? If we are daring enough to switch to electric vehicles in places that are car dependent, and be more open to sharing vehicles and shared occupancy? While auto manufacturers are switching to electric models, the real revolution in urban mobility will depend not on a technology, but on whether we change our attitudes and adapt to various low-carbon forms of transport that are more appropriate for city living.
Three: Eat less meat, more local produce.
The pressure on land use is a direct consequence of our appetite for more food choice and convenience, where the only cost we look at is the price on the label. Agriculture is responsible for 10-12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, with meat, poultry and dairy farming producing nearly three quarters of that total. Meat farming produces much higher emissions per calorie than vegetables. Beef is by far the worst culprit – four times higher than chicken or pork.
Certainly we need to be much more aware of our eating behaviours. For example, those of us who eat meat every day are not living up to any sense of stewardship and responsibility. The simple way to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the food sector in half is for all of us to swap beef burgers and bacon sandwiches for vegetarian alternatives most of the week. It’s not a binary choice of all or nothing, of cutting out meat entirely, but instead of consciously eating less meat. Buying local and seasonal foods is another way to reduce the environmental impact of global agricultural practices, as well as simply reducing the quantity of food that we waste by throwing away.
Four: Invest in the future.
Those of us of a certain age who have savings or pension funds should look where our capital is invested. What is unacceptable is to be wilfully blind to the fact that our pension money can have a huge effect in rewarding harmful corporate behaviours. If our money is being used to support high carbon assets in any way, those savings should be shifted to the high growth, low-carbon or no-carbon assets of the future.
The current reserves of all the fossil fuels companies – the oil, gas and coal deposits they have already claimed for future extraction – represent potential future emissions of 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide. To reduce the risk of exceeding 2 degrees Celsius global warming to a one-in-five chance, the maximum future emissions over the forty years from 2010 to 2050 are 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide. What those numbers mean is quite simple: this high carbon industry has announced in promises to investors that they are determined to burn five times more fossil fuel than the planet’s atmosphere can begin to absorb.
Fossil fuels companies have little financial incentive to leave these deposits underground while investors and pension fund managers continue to credit these reserves on their books as assets worth trillions of dollars, banking on the future value of extracting them with our savings. Divesting our savings will ultimately starve these high carbon assets of liquidity and capital, forcing them to shift over to a new business model. At the same time, it enables us to reinvest our capital in the high growth, cleaner industries that support our collective future.
Those of us who live in democratic countries should use our voting power, and consciously support political leaders at both national and local levels who take the responsibility and opportunity of addressing climate change seriously. The paradigm that local elections are somehow less important is defunct, as key decision-making and funding continues to devolve from national to civic governments around this country and around the world. As this balance of power shifts, progressive civic authorities are taking the lead from prevaricating national parties on real climate action.
Examples are everywhere. In the U.K., at least twenty-seven local authorities so far have declared a “climate emergency” and stated their intention of becoming zero carbon by 2030 – twenty years ahead of the target. In the USA, leadership on climate change has ceded from federal to local government, with a coalition of hundreds of U.S. city mayors and State governors vowing to uphold the Paris Agreement, and over fifty cities and towns committed to one hundred percent renewables. In Germany, 170 municipalities across the country have brought their energy services back into public hands in their desire for greater local autonomy over clean energy supplies. Local matters, as does our vote.
If this is how we get from Paris to home, from national emission goals to concrete personal actions, how do we translate Mission 2020 into a similar personal drive for more urgency?
The answer lies in the point of focus. Whereas internationally Mission 2020 is about the turning point in global emissions, locally it is about the tipping point in collective behaviour. To accelerate change where we live, we must move from personal action to civic action.