We are going to try and live the 2.5 Tonne Diet.
In September, during the presidential debates, the question of regulating straws and light bulbs came up. Elizabeth Warren responded:
According to the New York Times, "The three industries contributing to the most carbon dioxide emissions in the United States right now, Ms. Warren noted, are the building industry, the electric power industry and the oil industry."
“Oh, come on, give me a break. This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants us to talk about.... They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers. When 70% of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries.”
A lot of people, particularly on the left, share this attitude. I have been saying this for years about the recycling industry, how it is all a scam run by the petrochemical industry to keep us locked into a continuing stream of single-use products and packaging.
Warren is not alone. Martin Lukacs wrote a powerful article in the Guardian saying that it's all part of a plot, as I have written about recycling:
The freedom of these corporations to pollute – and the fixation on a feeble lifestyle response – is no accident. It is the result of an ideological war, waged over the last 40 years, against the possibility of collective action.
He suggests that it is all by design.
If affordable mass transit isn’t available, people will commute with cars. If local organic food is too expensive, they won’t opt out of fossil fuel-intensive super-market chains. If cheap mass produced goods flow endlessly, they will buy and buy and buy.
He tells us that we have to take collective action.
So grow some carrots and jump on a bike: it will make you happier and healthier. But it is time to stop obsessing with how personally green we live – and start collectively taking on corporate power.
Others believe that setting a good example matters. Leor Hackel and Gregg Sparkman wrote in Slate:
The IPCC has sent up a flare on climate change, but this warning is not enough. Many people will need to see others making real changes instead of carrying on with business as usual. Ask yourself: Do you believe politicians and businesses will act as urgently as they need to if we keep living our lives as though climate change were not happening? Individual acts of conservation—alongside intense political engagement—are what signal an emergency to those around us, which will set larger changes in motion.
On TreeHugger, our position has been that you can't nip around the edges, give up your straw but keep your take-out disposable cup. We have to change the culture, the way we drink our coffee or eat our meals. We can't just buy more efficient cars or even electric cars, but have to embrace a culture of shared sidewalks, public transit or bicycles.
It is too easy and simplistic to blame the building industry, the power companies and the oil industry, when we are buying what they are selling. Instead, we should be sending up some signals.
We really have no choice. As we have noted many times recently, we have to cut our carbon footprint in half if we have a hope of keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees. And we don't have until 2030; we have to start reducing our emissions right now. If you divvy up the carbon budget by population, we pretty much have to reduce our per capita emissions of carbon dioxide to 2.5 tonnes per person. Nobody is going to do that through efficiency gains alone; we have to change the way we live.
Every year about this time I start teaching Sustainable Design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design in Toronto. I used to just talk about green building, the usual stuff about insulation, healthy materials, water. But I quickly realized that this doesn't really move the needle very much; the way we design our communities has a far bigger impact.
How we get between our buildings produces as much carbon as our buildings themselves. How we design our food distribution system, and what we bring into our kitchens, is far more important than whether our kitchen countertops are sustainably sourced. Surprisingly, renting out a guest bedroom reduces per capita emissions almost as much as converting to heat pumps or insulating. It became clear to me that you cannot discuss sustainable design without discussing sustainable lifestyles. It does not exist in isolation.
So this year, we are going to try and live a 1.5 degree lifestyle, limiting our carbon footprint to 2.5 tonnes. This is hard for North Americans; the average in the US is 16.2 metric tonnes, and in Canada, 15.1. That's all the personal stuff, not the per capita portion of the military or infrastructure. That's the stuff we have control over. According to the study, there are "hot spots" where change makes the most difference:
Focusing efforts to change lifestyles in relation to these areas would yield the most benefits: meat and dairy consumption, fossil-fuel based energy, car use and air travel. The three domains these footprints occur in – nutrition, housing, and mobility – tend to have the largest impact (approximately 75%) on total lifestyle carbon footprints.
I am going to try and emulate Rosalind Readhead, the British activist who is trying to live a one tonne lifestyle, and who is tracking every single gram of carbon she is responsible for, right down to the number of times she uses her phone. One tonne is seriously hard, but I think 2.5 tonnes is doable.
I have built a spreadsheet that I am going to fill in every day, trying to keep under my daily allowance of 6.85 kilograms, and I am going to ask my students to do the same.
In a lot of ways, I have it easy; I live a short bike ride from the University, otherwise I work from home. I have already given up driving, perhaps the biggest lifestyle change people have to make to hit this target. I live in a province where the electricity is 96 percent fossil-fuel free.
But I suspect it will still be a challenge. I am building out the spreadsheet now, and when it is ready to share with my students I will put a link up for anyone else who wants to try this, starting the first day of classes, January 14. And I will be reporting weekly; watch this space.