Could You Live the One Tonne Lifestyle?

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Rosalind Readhead on a bike

A British activist is trying to reduce her personal carbon footprint to one tonne of CO2 per year. This is very hard.

Remember the 100 mile diet? That was for wimps and so 2007. English environmental activist Rosalind Readhead is doing something much tougher: a One Tonne Diet, where she gets her personal carbon emissions from everything she does down to less than one tonne of carbon per year. Currently, the average American has a footprint of 28 tonnes, the average UK citizen 15 tonnes. (A metric tonne is 2204 pounds, or 10 percent larger than an American short ton). Readhead (who we wrote about earlier with her low carbon manifesto, and when she was thinking about this project) writes on her website:

The aim of this project is to attempt to live on one tonne of carbon per year from September 2019. This breaks down to a budget of 2.74kg of carbon emitted per day. I will record everything that I consume in a journal. This will include food, drink, transport, entertainment, data, showers, washing up, heating etc.

Much of her data comes from Professor Mike Berners-Lee's book How bad are the bananas? The carbon footprint of everything. In the introduction, Berners-Lee said he wrote the book to encourage people to aim for a 10 tonne diet.

One way of thinking about the footprint of an object or activity is to put it in the context of a year’s worth of 10-ton living. For example, a large cheeseburger, with a footprint of 2.5 kg (5.5 lbs.) CO2e, represents about 2 hours’ worth of a 10-ton year. If you drive a fairly thirsty car for 1,000 miles, that is 800 kg (1,750 lbs) CO2e, or a month’s ration. If you leave a couple of the (now old-fashioned) 100-watt incandescent light bulbs on for a year, that would be another month used up. One typical return flight from Los Angeles to Barcelona burns up around 4.6 tons CO2e. That is just under 6 months’ ration in the 10-ton lifestyle.

So what is the point of such an exercise? Berners-Lee notes that "our impacts used to be local and visible. Today they are not." Living his ten tonne diet makes them visible and comprehensible. He also says, "It’s virtually impossible for an individual in the developed world to get down to a 3-ton lifestyle anytime soon." Readhead's one tonne diet is ridiculously challenging and extreme, but as she notes, it is a bit of a performance piece.

This project aims to give life to what net zero carbon means from a personal perspective. To add human flesh to an abstract and remote number. To inform policy and investment. To engage and educate the public. To discuss lifestyle choices and adaptation. To make the everyday a work of art.

I call it a one tonne diet, but this is more accurately a one tonne lifestyle. She is measuring everything, from the number of emails sent to the content of her website (and, according to the research by Kris de Decker, she should change her Wordpress template from a responsive to static page design). Even a tweet is recorded at .02 grams of CO2.

One almost feels like a voyeur, following through a typical day, the 71 tweets, the time spent on line, the local tomato salad and minestrone soup, that watching of a second-hand DVD. It is a constant education: "The mobile phone call carbon footprint was a shock. Just 47 minutes of mobile phone calls would use up my entire daily budget of 2.7kg."

But in the end, she got through her first week on budget, 14.5 kg for the week, which is an average of 2 kg per day, not accounting for a trip to the hairdresser and a swim in a pool.

Rosalind Readhead is going to be a shadow of herself at the end of this; her low-carbon diet is also really low-calorie. This will be very hard to keep up. But it is fascinating to follow, and it did inspire me to buy Mike Berners-Lee's book. He notes in the introduction:


A friend recently asked me how he should best dry his hands to reduce his carbon footprint— with a paper towel or with an electric hand drier. The same person flies across the Atlantic literally dozens of times a year. A sense of scale is required here. The flying is tens of thousands of times more important than the hand drying. So my friend was simply distracting himself from the issue.

I do this, too. I lose this sense of perspective about my own actions. As Elizabeth Warren tweets, there is a reason people do this, why we refuse a straw in our inflight cocktail. We do tend to get caught up on the little things and ignore the big, hard ones, and while Warren is right that the cars and the buildings are the most important sources of CO2, burgers and light bulbs matter and at least with them we have more personal control.

A one-tonne lifestyle is an interesting and challenging experiment, but we could all do better by thinking about how we live, by having a sense of scale and understanding the sources of our own footprints, and maybe even trying to achieve Berners-Lee's 10 ton lifestyle. Go after the serious stuff first and work our way down the list. Then read Rosalind Readhead's posts and feel really guilty!