As noted earlier, I have committed to trying to live a 1.5° lifestyle, which means limiting my annual carbon footprint to the equivalent of 2.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, the maximum average emissions per capita based on IPCC research. That works out to 6.85 kilograms per day.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost everybody is living a low carbon lifestyle.
I had a hamburger for dinner Saturday night, my first red meat in months. My wife said, "I am tired of your low carbon diet, we are trapped in the house, I wanted a burger!" It is hard to argue with that in these times. Unfortunately, that burger blew my carbon budget for the day, putting me at 1.4 times my daily allowance.But other than that burger, I am doing rather well at this. It's relatively easy when you never go out of the house. I noted in an earlier post about the "hot spots":
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.
Now, thanks to COVID-19, nobody is flying, very few people are driving to work, most people do not want to go in to stores, all the destinations are closing. Reports from New York City describe how bicycle use was exploding (at least until everything shut down). Walking through the grocery store the other day, I noticed that there was lots of meat at the meat counter, but that the pasta and rice shelves were thin; you can only get so much into a freezer. (My wife says chili and stew freeze really well, so I suspect I may be getting a little more red meat in my diet.)
I suspect that without even trying, most people in cities, who are not driving, are in fact getting pretty close to a 2.5 tonne diet. If they are vegan, they probably are under the limit without even trying.
Always look on the bright side of life
You can see it happening from space. Michael D'Estries writes on MNN that the skies are clearing over China, and that the NO2 levels in Italy have dropped significantly. All of the activities that produce those pollutants also produce CO2.
As the coronavirus pandemic takes hold and triggers lockdowns in major urban centers, researchers studying air pollution data are recording significant improvements in air quality levels. The shift is so dramatic that some believe these short-term reductions could end up saving many more lives than are lost to the virus itself.
How low can you go?
I was inspired to try this exercise by Rosalind Readhead, who is trying to live a one tonne lifestyle, yielding an allowance of 1.5 kg of CO2 per day. Madeleine Cuff of iNews spoke to Rosalind, me, and climate scientist Peter Kalmus, who is living a 2 tonne lifestyle. She tried to do it herself and found it hard, blowing through a one tonne target just getting to work on public transport. She eventually managed to hit a 2.7 tonne lifestyle – if she gives up vacations, business travel, and visiting her parents in Cornwall. She concludes:
Living on a carbon diet shows that personal choices like how much heating you use, what you eat, and how you travel, are a major factor in how large your carbon footprint gets. But it’s also a reminder that for most people, the carbon impact of going to work or heating their home is beyond their control. To go ultra low carbon, we’ll need to change systems like what powers our buses and trains, as well as our lifestyles.
Rosalind has been on this for six months, and has gone from happily eating her all plant-based diet and finding that "as it got into winter the tomatoes go, the peppers go, and it became more stressful." After a few years of trying to live a local 19th century diet (my wife was a food writer then), which had a lot of meat, you learn that this is true.
What's really hurting Rosalind is the heating; she describes on her website how "just 45 minutes of my gas heating (as originally set up) uses up nearly my entire 2.7Kg daily carbon budget. With some help from my plumber, we manage to reduce the output settings and nearly halve the gas use for the first 45 minutes." The rest of the time, the heat is off and she puts on a lot of jumpers (sweaters). She takes her showers at the local lido (swimming pool).
Madeleine Cuff also interviewed me, and quoted my conclusion about doing this:
My big lesson from my first month of doing this was that it’s a bit elitist. You can only do this kind of thing if you are lucky enough that you can work from home. That you are rich enough that you can buy a nice e-bike like I did. If I had a normal job downtown, it would be impossible for me to do.
Peter Kalmus has been taking this seriously for quite a while; he hasn't been on an airplane since 2012. He then switched to a plant-based diet. But he doesn't go as far as Rosalind.
The further down you go the harder it gets. I have found it quite easy to go to two tonnes per year. To cut that in half again would be very difficult. You could do it, but you're going to be in your own little world and other people are going to think that you are a bit of a nutter, and they won’t follow you. So I don’t advocate for people to go crazy to try to go down to one metric tonne a year or even lower than that.
Kalmus concluded with a good summary of why we are doing this, even though we know that it is not making much of a difference in the world, that it is all blown away by someone else's commute in a pickup truck.
You can get obsessed about this. The point is that we need systems change. We need collective change. By reducing our own footprint we express emergency, and that I think helps push for collective change that we need.
Read all of the interviews by Madeleine Cuff here.