James Thinks

writing is a kind of thinking

You know how friends and family like to send you newspaper articles through the post that they thought would interest you? Well, presumably because I often talk about climate things I was recently sent an article taken from The Sunday Times entitled "The man who knows the carbon footprint of everything".

It was interesting.

The man is Mike Berners-Lee who has released an updated version of his book "How bad are bananas". The article contains a handful of products and activities and briefly explains their carbon footprints. I'm not going to criticise the book here. There are plenty of reviews on Amazon if that's what you're after. What I'm interested in is the practice encouraged by this and other articles of fastidiously counting our personal carbon footprints.

Counting your carbon-calories?

I find this is a curious parallel to counting calories. It got me wondering whether carbon-counting is as ineffective for climate as calorie-counting is for health. I know calories are related to health and a carbon footprint is related to climate change, but both can be a distraction from the big picture. A person can carefully consume exactly the right amount of calories in the form of crisps, chocolate and diet cola while leading a sedentary lifestyle. Similarly they could switch their cow's milk for oat milk or wrap their child in a re-usable nappy, forgetting that their pension is invested with a company intent on exploiting tar sands for oil and that their government is funding fossil fuel projects abroad.

But all these small actions add up, right?

Yes and no.

I think there are a lot of good reasons to make changes to our individual lifestyles. There are obvious things like reducing total emissions a bit and influencing others to do the same. Buying more sustainable products does grow the market for such things.

Less obvious is that changing the way we consume and travel can give us a different appreciation for resources. Asking the question, "Do I really need...?" creates a focus on what is important, what is a distraction and what is wasteful.

Finally, it is good to recognise the luxury that has become normal for most of us in the UK and the rest of the rich world. Only around 20% of the world's population have ever been on an aeroplane, 25% don't have their own toilet and 38% have no access to the Internet. Living with a bit less of that excess should make it easier to move to a more sustainable future.

Can we fix climate change through individual actions?

Asking individuals to change their lifestyles to help the planet is nothing new. We've known about climate change since at least the 90s. Even back then people were encouraged to recycle, drive less and so on.

How much has it helped?

UK emissions have dropped a bit since 1990. However, most of that reduction was due to phasing out coal to generate power. This happened mostly for economic reasons and consumers had little control over it.

The latest UK Committee on Climate Change report suggests that things like surface transport emissions have hardly improved at all.

To be fair to individuals, we can't expect them to prefer cycling and walking unless government and local authorities make the necessary improvements to make them convenient and safe. Most people are in favour of these changes, but they need government to make them happen.

From the UK CCC 2019 report

Meanwhile the UK government is providing subsidies and loans for fossil fuels, building new roads and supporting fossil fuel expansion abroad. All of which commits us to years of carbon emissions, even if some of them don't get counted as "UK" emissions. That puts the question of whether you should take the car to the shops instead of walking into perspective. Especially when the shops are at the other end of a busy dual carriageway.

Worldwide, CO2 emissions are still rising. In 1990 CO2 made up about 350 parts per million in the atmosphere, while today it's at 411ppm.

If individuals watching their carbon footprints is making a difference, it's not enough.

Arguably it would make a much bigger difference if individuals took their pensions and savings out of fossil fuels and invested in renewable energy. If you can persuade your employer or local government to do the same, then the difference can be even bigger. Mike Berners-Lee's article in The Sunday Times compared the carbon footprint of a goldfish and a cat, a bicycle with an e-bike, all of which are trivial by comparison. He did mention the astronomical carbon footprint of space tourism, but that's not something many of us would consider.

Why are we being told to sweat the small stuff?

So why the climate trivia? Divesting from fossil fuels or pressuring the government to make sustainable living easier is important. However, they are not strategies you're likely to read in newspapers. I've realised that most of the media is not on board with the scale of change needed to address the climate and ecological emergency. This may be because newspaper owners are invested in the fossil-fuel-driven status quo. The article I read is from The Sunday Times which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. He has a very bad reputation when it comes to the environment. In other countries his media outlets have even denied the science of human-induced climate change. If a British newspaper printed outright climate denial today they would probably lose credibility. So how can they prevent people from taking meaningful action on climate change without flying in the face of science and public opinion...? ... reframe the solution as a matter of individual choices.

The idea of everyone doing their bit, pulling together and making a collective difference is appealing and has some merit. The problem comes when large, polluting industries do not do their bit. Their bit is enormous. It's even worse when they actively work against progress while shifting the responsibility to individuals.

I found an amazing article on Mashable which explains how BP popularised the carbon footprint eventually leading to books and articles like those I described above. Once that happened, conscientious environmentalists were expected to dramatically reduce their own carbon footprints. If they don't do that perfectly, they can be accused of being hypocrites when they speak out on environmental issues. But of course society isn't set up to allow people to reduce their carbon footprints and still live normal lives. So those pleading for nature and planet are doomed to be dismissed.

I believe that articles obsessing over personal carbon footprints are intended to make us feel guilty and distract us from the bigger picture of the corporations who benefit from the fossil fuel-powered world.

This is late-stage climate-change denial. It is no longer possible to deny there is a problem or that human consumption is causing it. The last resort is to implicitly deny that governments and corporations need to act, by focusing instead on what individuals ought to do.

When it comes to the climate and ecological emergency, governments and corporations are best placed to enable the necessary changes, for example by redesigning urban spaces, moving to renewable energy, improving agricultural policy or banning products linked to deforestation.

Once that happens, everyone's carbon footprints will drop naturally because sustainable choices will also be the cheapest, most convenient choices.

Category: Environment
Mugshot of James cycling on a road in the sunshine.

James Bradbury

I write about whatever is on my mind. I do so mostly to help me think more clearly. If other people find it interesting that's good too. :-)


I know calories are related to health and a carbon footprint is related to climate change, but both can be a distraction from the big picture.

The idea of everyone doing their bit, pulling together and making a collective difference is appealing and has some merit. The problem comes when large, polluting industries do not do their bit. Their bit is enormous.