Just Who the Hell are We Kidding?

I was reading this Treehugger article yesterday:-


and it occurred to me just how much in denial we are, even people who think about ‘green’ issues. Even though we know the severity of the problems facing us as a species – climate change, ocean acidification, peak oil, the impending food crisis which is driven by all of these and an expanding population – we in the historically rich West are still trying desperately to cling onto the notion that we are in some way special and are allowed the use of a disproportionately larger share of resources than everyone else, because we are privileged by birth and have a right to these extra things.

It has been suggested that a sustainable average carbon footprint for a world citizen, which would minimise the damage from climate change and allow the poor nations of the world access to energy resources to lift themselves out of poverty is around 2 tonnes of carbon annually:-


The world average carbon footprint is currently around 4 tonnes annually. The average carbon footprint for industrialised nations is around 11 tonnes annually. The average carbon footprint for a citizen of the USA is 19 tonnes per person per year, and for a UK citizen 9.4 tonnes per year.

So currently the world average carbon footprint is double what it needs to be. Now in order for the current average figure to fall, it is obvious that somebody needs to cut their energy use.

Only a psychopath would suggest that it should be the poor nations of the world who should cut their energy use – in fact, we should really allow for people who currently emit less than 2 tonnes of carbon to use more energy to raise their standard of living, and have resources to help them adapt to climate change, as it is largely the poor nations of the world who are most threatened by the effects of climate change.

So it therefore follows that it is we, the rich citizens of the world, who need to cut our energy use, so that the poorer countries can have access to more resources, lift themselves from poverty and limit their suffering under increasingly unpredictable weather patterns.

The Treehugger article refers to ‘survivalists and neo-Luddite hippies’ as people who have traditionally concerned themselves with the converging crises in the world, as well as the military who see the threat, and suggests that we also should be concerned. But the article then goes into a kind of negotiating mode which seeks to preserve our way of life first and foremost, whilst at the same time urging us to at least consider some concessions to sustainability. We should think about longer stays when we fly long-haul, or at least flying less often. But if we can’t manage this, it is suggested, then no matter really, as not everyone is able to make these choices in the hectic schedule of their rich first-world lifestyles.

I really wonder about this.

If we take as read that people who emit less than 2 tonnes of carbon annually are likely to be living in poverty, and should have the right to use more energy to lift their standard of living, it therefore follows that the current world average carbon footprint will rise, unless people with a large carbon footprint cut theirs by an equal amount. So just to stay still, we rich world people need to be cutting our energy use.

But staying still isn’t good enough – the world average carbon footprint needs to halve to 2 tonnes to be sustainable and fair. And it is relatively few of us who use an extremely disproportionately large share of the planet’s resources. So this really does mean we have to get cutting.

The issue of international tourism is a real bugbear for me. The Treehugger article extols the virtues of being able to see vistas, eating food in the country where it originated and broadening one’s experience of the world – which is all well and good, for those who can afford it. But 95% of the world’s population have never even been on an aeroplane. And unless we are suggesting that those 95% of people are inevitably and irretrievably spiritually stunted because of it – an obviously ridiculous and patronising suggestion which belittles the power of the human mind, making it reliant on mechanical transport for growth – it therefore follows that air tourism is a pure luxury, an activity undertaken by a tiny wealthy elite who seek to justify it to themselves in terms of spiritual development in order to avoid confronting the unavoidable fact that actually, in a crisis, it is completely unnecessary and utterly dispensable.

At present, the cost of air tourism is around 3% of the world’s total annual carbon emissions. However, that 3% of emissions is generated by a mere 5% of the world’s population – a 5% which currently enjoys energy use emitting an average of 11 tonnes of carbon annually. And this average, for industrialised nations, is actually made higher by the small minority of the population even of developed countries who use air travel. So that 3% of emissions is on top of and in excess of the highest rates of energy use in the world by this very same elite already.

Tourism itself is not environmentally or economically benign. As well as the environmental damage from its contribution to climate change and ocean acidification, there is more localised environmental damage in the destination countries. Whilst European cities are geared up for high-consumption tourism, many poorer countries are not, and in the scramble for tourist dollars, the local populace ends up suffering – from shortages of wood fuel and unsustainable logging in Nepal to water shortages in Indian villages due to aquifers being drained to supply hotels which are luxurious by local standards, but simply what is expected by Western tourists. And increasing the dependence of what were once basically sustainable economies on tourist dollars which are in turn dependent on cheap air travel, at the expense of the long-term integrity of local ecosystems, is not helping people in the long term. Tourist dollars help to prop up corrupt political regimes such as that in the Maldives, whilst local people are exploited and local islands out of sight of the tourist destinations are used as dumping grounds for tons of unprocessed rubbish.

When we are booking our foreign holidays, we may say to ourselves, well, we are ordinary working people, we are not rich and do not live in a palace, so what’s the harm? But in reality, our levels of energy consumption compared to most people in the world absolutely do make us rich beyond the wildest dreams of large swathes of the global population. And in fact, as large communal living spaces, palaces are potentially a more energy efficient mode of living than individual dwellings. If more people lived in palaces, it could be a good thing.

We in the first world really need to get the scale of the challenge into perspective. That return flight from the USA to Europe will emit 3 or 4 tonnes of carbon. And those fossil fuel resources are then gone, they can’t be used by someone elsewhere in the world to lift themselves out of poverty. If we pull out all the stops in the rest of our life, go vegetarian, install solar panels and recycle everything, we might only cut our carbon footprint by that exact same amount. Standing still and denying irreplaceable resources to people struggling in poverty is NOT ‘being green’.

So I would implore the reader: climate change and its related crises are not a game. The planetary atmospheric system is increasingly playing hardball with us, and what we do today will come back tomorrow tenfold to bite us. Billions of people could die from starvation and drought. Ecosystems which took hundreds of millions of years to evolve and develop a delicate homeostasis could collapse. Whole species could – wait, change that – are becoming extinct. Nature has no concept or consideration that it is reasonable for rich Westerners to have holidays in the sun, and does not make any allowance for it; that is a consideration which we afford ourselves, and fortunately for us it is others who have to make the necessary sacrifices in order to accommodate us.

There is another option: don’t fly. Be proud to take your place standing side by side in solidarity with the 95% of people who will never experience this highly polluting privilege. There is no shame in it. Even if you can’t avoid flying in the course of your work or to see family, when it comes to holidays you have a choice. And it will only be exercising that choice which as rich Westerners is ours only, that the difference will be made.

The responsibility to act lies with us, and only us, the citizens of the rich world. And if we do not, we are condemning the poor of the world and the habitability of our one and only home planet for the sake of a holiday in the sun.

Exploitation of the poor by the rich has been the rule for so much of human history – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s not kid ourselves.


World Average Carbon Footprint


The world-wide average is 4 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per person per year

The average of all industrialised nations is about 11 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per person per year

In the medium and long term, a world-wide average emission of maximum 2 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per person per year must be targeted. This amount is nowadays considered to be the maximum allowed quantity for a sustainable living on earth.

Carbon Footprints

In an effort to reduce my fat hippy carbon footprint, I have been doing a bit of research to see how mine compares to people living in other countries of the world.

I already measure my electricity use, but I’ve decided to keep a log over the next few months of my petrol, tram, train and any other travelling fuel consumption, daily food intake and where the food has come from, and anything else I can think of, to see if there are any areas where I can improve. I am hoping that just the act of keeping the log will make me think more carefully about my choices.

Initial research has turned up some interesting facts though. Wikipedia has a list of countries by per capita carbon footprint:-


Some interesting ones which jump out are:-

USA – 19 tonnes per person per year
Canada – 16.7 tonnes
Falkland Islands – 17.2 tonnes
Netherlands – 10.3 tonnes
Russia – 10.9 tonnes
UK – 9.4 tonnes
South Africa – 8.6 tonnes
Spain – 8 tonnes
France – 6.2 tonnes
Jamaica – 4.5 tonnes
China – 4.6 tonnes
Brazil -1.9 tonnes
Morocco – 1.5 tonnes
India – 1.3 tonnes
Pakistan – 0.9 tonnes
Kenya – 0.3 tonnes
Myanmar – 0.2 tonnes
Nepal – 0.1 tonnes
Afghanistan – <0.1 tonnes

This is pretty interesting as carbon footprint is, in today’s world pretty much related to quality of life, because it reflects the replacement of manual labour with fossil fuels. So an average UK citizen uses about 94 times the amount of fossil fuel that an average Nepalese uses, and about 5 times what the average Brazilian uses.

Also found this pretty interesting page for calculating the carbon footprint of air travel:-


According to this page, a return flight from London to Morrocco emits about 1.3 tonnes of CO2 per passenger, London to Delhi about 3.3 tonnes and London to Brasilia about 4.1 tonnes. So someone flying from London to Morocco and back uses almost as much energy as an average Moroccan uses in an entire year! Someone flying from London to Delhi and back uses as much energy in doing so as an average Indian uses in about 2 1/2 years of their day-to-day living, and someone flying from London to Brasilia and back uses about as much energy as the average Brazilian uses in around 2 years of life.

I found these statistics quite humbling, it really helped me to realise what a privileged life we lead here in the rich West.

I am trying to find some information on the carbon footprint of various different foodstuffs. I have already found these websites on eating seasonally, which can go a long way towards reducing the amount of food brought in from overseas:-


I already grow some of my own food but I am hoping that learning a bit from these websites will really help me to cut the emissions associated with my ‘food miles’ too – and maybe help me to eat a bit more healthily as well!

Meat production is a big carbon emitter, I spent 10 years of my life as a veggie but I eat meat these days. I try to source it ethically but still try to go without whenever I can. I found this page about the carbon footprint of a cheeseburger:-


Each burger has a carbon footprint of about 5kg!

This gives some interesting thoughts, a return flight to India is the equivalent of eating 660 cheeseburgers in CO2 emissions! That’s nearly 2 a day for a whole year!!

A bit of a shame that, as I love a tasty cheeseburger. Although hopefully growing the lettuce myself and using home made pickles – or even baking my own buns – might help.

Fascinating stuff. It will be interested to see how my calculations work out – I’ve just started recording my food and petrol consumption today, it hasn’t started well, I’ve bought 15 litres of petrol and eaten a bacon roll, and it isn’t even midday yet.