Does the Micro Stuff Still Matter In a Climate Crisis?

In the United Kingdom, micro-steps are being promoted in the runup to COP26.

Politicians missing in action 100 days before COP26
Politicians missing in action 100 days before COP26.

Guy Smallman/Getty Images

A decade ago, Treehugger was full of tips on "how to go green," such as saving water by not rinsing your dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Then the climate crisis really reared its ugly head and we pretty much stopped writing about little green steps and started writing more about the bigger sources of carbon. We even stopped saying "go green" because it became such a cliché, and sounded so 2010.

Meanwhile, in the buildup to the United Nation's COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland the British government has "recycled" the name used by two smart Indian kids and established a program called One Step Greener, saying "By all coming together, we can create a mass movement of green steps, showcasing how steps – big or small – culminate in large collective action." The government hired former journalist and government advisor Allegra Stratton as its COP 26 spokesperson, who sells the idea of One Step Greener in the paywalled Telegraph newspaper. She asks:

"But could you go One Step Greener? Did you know, according to COP26 principal partner Reckitt, who make Finish, [free ad for a dishwashing detergent] you don’t really need to rinse your dishes before they go into the dishwasher? Does your brand of plastic bottle shower gel come as a bar in cardboard packaging? I bet it does. It might be freezing half a loaf of bread when you get it home, to get out later in the week, rather than throwing half of it away when it goes mouldy. It could be walking to the shops, not driving. Micro-steps maybe, but all the more achievable because of it. Ahead of COP26, choose one thing: go One Step Greener."

She notes also that she is looking for "#OneStepGreener Ambassadors who symbolise the very best in UK climate leadership and will inspire the public to follow in their footsteps ahead of COP26" and which so far include the driver of an electric car, a person who measures the carbon footprint of Sainsbury's coffee, and a fellow who "turns industrial waste into eco-tarmac" for all the endless highway expansions the government is proposing. It does not appear that George Monbiot or members of Extinction Rebellion qualified.

Now, it's true Stratton is talking to the very conservative Telegraph readership. Be thankful you can't read the comments saying "The articles come across as a relentless propaganda onslaught" and demanding equal space for climate arsonists like Patrick Moore, Michael Shellenberger, and Lord Monckton. It's a tough crowd.

And in fairness, Stratton does continue with the sentence, "On your own, we are not pretending these steps will stop climate change" and after considerable outrage on Twitter, does try to qualify her statements. But seriously, here we are a few months before one of the most important climate conferences ever and she is using her official bully pulpit to tell people to freeze their bread? To tell British citizens that when we have a crisis happening right now, "It could also be the time to start to think about the cleaner technology coming. Nobody will be forced to ditch their gas boiler or diesel car overnight, but in 10-15 years, there will be change."

This is a conference about how we keep the world from heating more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) by attempting to cut emissions almost in half in 9 years. It's a little late for micro-steps, and for driving diesel.

Do Micro-Steps Matter at all?

As someone who recently spent a year measuring every micro and macro step for my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I can answer unequivocally: yes and no. I measured my water use and weighed my single-use plastics to keep under 6.8 kilograms of carbon emissions per day and found that they amounted to a rounding error. The person who carefully turns off all their lights before they drive to the mall has their priorities wrong; it is the big stuff that matters, that diesel car and that gas boiler, to use Stratton's examples.

Aarne Granlund, one of my heroes for his low carbon lifestyle, came to the same conclusion. He describes himself on his website: "During the last five years, I have put all my effort into understanding and solving the climate challenge in my work, studies and low-carbon lifestyle." And while he claims that he is not sweating the micro stuff, that's not really true; as with Rosalind Readhead or my Treehugger colleague Sami Grover, it becomes a lifestyle, where you don't bother counting every little detail, you just take it for granted that you ride an e-bike and don't eat a lot of red meat. It just comes naturally.

Stratton started her article with the statement: "The world has already warmed by 1.2 degrees, scientists say it needs to be capped at 1.5, and we’re on course for three. That’s why people say COP26 must 'keep 1.5 alive'." She is doing her readers a disservice by suggesting that micro-steps make much of a difference with a task that big. She should be preparing them to pay a honking tax on that diesel or to put a heat pump in their stately home, to give up on the ski holidays in Zermatt. But politicians or their spokespersons are not willing to do that.

Keep Calm and Carry On

This is perhaps the British way, papering over the problem with half-measures and diversions. It is a country where the cabinet minister for climate emergency is ripping up bike lanes, the environmentalist London mayor is drilling car tunnels and the transport secretary spews the famous canard that building more lanes reduces pollution: “Continued high investment in our roads is therefore, and will remain, as necessary as ever to ensure the functioning of the nation and to reduce the congestion which is a major source of carbon." It seems every one of them, even as they give themselves glorious Pythonesque titles like "Cabinet Minister for Climate Emergency" are doing their best to bring it on.

Treehugger's Grover and I often differ in our views; he is writing his own book where he questions the effectiveness of individual actions. But his views and mine are converging more often than not these days. He tweets on this issue:

"This is why some of us urge caution on 'individual action.' It's not that these actions don't matter. It's that - depending on who is talking and how much - focusing on them can be a distraction. And sometimes deliberately so."

It certainly seems that One Step Greener is a deliberate and pointless distraction and that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's "10 point plan" is too little, too late—he has no intention of funding or implementing much of it. But we will be inspired by #OneStepGreener Ambassadors like "Formula E racing driver Alice Powell whose car is electric" while we freeze our bread. I suppose that's something. In the meantime, let's give the last word to Granlund.