A Year of Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle, Extreme Edition

Rosalind Readhead looks back at her experience of surviving on a 1-tonne carbon diet.

Rosalind Readhead on a bike in London

Rosalind Readhead

In September of 2019, London activist Rosalind Readhead began her One Tonne of Carbon per Year project, where she diarized everything that she did in an attempt to live a lifestyle where her annual emissions of CO2 were less than one metric tonne, the average amount that humans can emit per person by 2050 if we are going to keep the global average rise in temperature under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Readhead was inspired by a study, 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and Options for Reducing Lifestyle Carbon Footprints, from the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies and Aalto University in Finland. The study bucked the common belief that 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions; it actually claimed that 72% of emissions were caused by our own personal consumption, the choices we make about where and how we live.

carbon targets
Lloyd Alter: red circle Rosalind Readhead: black circle. 1.5 Degree Lifestyle

I wrote about Readhead's project shortly after she started it, noting that "Readhead's one-tonne diet is ridiculously challenging and extreme, but as she notes, it is a bit of a performance piece." In January 2020 I started my own version but went for the 2.5-tonne target (the red circle), which is what we have to average by 2030 to stay under 1.5 degrees. I have written about it for a book coming out in the fall of 2021 from New Society Publishers, but Rosalind has summarized her year in a long and thoughtful post.

Readhead tries to address a fundamental question about this exercise: Do individual actions matter? She responds, "Individual lifestyle carbon budgets have been more or less ignored by the mainstream climate community. The well-worn mantra is ‘system change not individual change’. If you point out the obvious truth that we need to do both it does seem to penetrate somewhat."

She quotes the 1.5-Degree Lifestyles report: "If the world is to keep climate change at manageable levels before the middle of the century, changes in lifestyles are not only inevitable, but would need to be radical, and start immediately." She also quotes climate analyst Jonathan Koomey: “We need to reduce emissions as much as possible, as fast as possible, starting immediately. Everything else is noise.”

No blaming the 100 largest companies here; it is up to us.

Readhead spent a year at this so that she could see the seasonal effects; she froze through a London winter without turning on the gas heating for more than 45 minutes a day. I do not have that option in Canada, and my gas use is a little less than half her entire one-tonne budget. She also complains about her diet; "I also needed a far broader and nutritious diet in the winter. Vegan didn’t cut it; although I was still eating a largely locally produced, organic, seasonal and plant based." In summer she skipped her favorite holiday, telling Treehugger what she missed most:

"My week-long holiday on a 5-mile sandy beach in Devon. It restores me. And I get looked after in the Hotel with breakfast lunch and dinner included. With local fish etc. And walking barefoot on the sand every day. It is a 200-mile roundtrip by train and bus from London. At the moment the journey itself is too carbon intensive for net carbon zero. Hopefully, rail and bus can be decarbonized quickly. The hotel is fairly eco-friendly but it might have been difficult to keep within budget on those 3-course fine dining dinners!"

Carbon Freebies

There are definite sacrifices when living this kind of lifestyle, but as Barbara Streisand once sang, the best things in life are free. Readhead enjoyed a year of walking, cycling, growing her own food, enjoying nature, swapping, sharing, and socializing, part of a long list of what she calls "carbon freebies"— activities that are central to her lifestyle but are almost carbon zero.

Many of these freebies were also the kinds of things that have become common during the pandemic. As I noted in We're All Living a 1.5 Degree Lifestyle Now, it is much easier to hit this target when you can't fly and there aren't many places that you can drive to. Readhead concurs, telling Treehugger:

"Yes, I was probably living an even lower carbon lifestyle on lockdown. As I mentioned in my end of year review, about half of my One Tonne year was before the pandemic, and half afterward. I certainly cycled and walked much more (to avoid public transport). Shopping was a bit more difficult. Our local farmers market was closed for a few months at the beginning of the lockdown in March. And we had a very restricted choice of food from local shops. It was difficult to know if fresh fruit and veg had been flown in or shipped. It has now changed and many more independent stores have opened up selling locally sourced fruit and veg ... from local farmers. So I can trace the supply chain better. Maybe it was easier knowing other people were also in the same boat! Living much lower carbon lifestyles as a result of lockdown?"

Carbon Inequality

Oxfam Wineglass
Oxfam "Wineglass". Oxfam

She also reiterates a point that we have mentioned before: inequality, or how the richest 10% of the world's population emits half of the CO2. It's why it is so important for the rich to make changes; they can afford to, and it will make the biggest difference. But this will require a change in mindset, a change in values. Readhead writes:

"We have normalized overconsumption. That hyper-normalization of hyper-consumption has eaten away at our core human values. And what makes us happy. This means the pathway to net carbon zero is also a cultural metamorphosis."

What's Next?

Readhead has not given up. She is going to retrofit her home to electrify everything. She is thinking about a carbon-calculated cookbook. She is running for mayor of London as an independent candidate "to advocate policy that I believe will facilitate a good life on net carbon zero." She is doing webinars and talks online, telling Treehugger:

"Some of us have to seize the nettle and set an example. Demystify it. So people don't feel so overwhelmed or daunted by the challenge. It is doable. If we are creative and open-minded."

Rosalind Readhead has set a great example. Aiming for one tonne was perhaps a bit extreme. 2.5 tonnes is hard enough, but that is where we all have to be by 2030 and the more people who try to set an example, the more likely living a 1.5-degree lifestyle will become a normal part of everyday life.

Read Rosalind Readhead's full End of Year Review.

View Article Sources
  1. "A Rapid Imperfect Prototype." One Tonne of Carbon Per Year.

  2. Akenji, Lewis, et al. 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and Options for Reducing Lifestyle Carbon Footprints. Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, Aalto University, And D-Mat Ltd., 2019.