Climate change: Global targets to personal action

Climate Change and Sustainability September 15, 2021

By Jack Mason

To avoid the worst consequences of climate change, we can only afford to emit approximately another 580 gigatonnes (Gt) of C02 (the remaining ‘global carbon budget’) to give us a fighting chance of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. If we fail, the consequences for a range of natural, managed and human systems are likely to be severe.

But what does this mean in practice? For a world population of 7.8 billion, equal shares of the remaining 580 Gt C02 would give 75 tonnes to each person, and we have to get to net zero emissions by 2050. When I first wrote this, I used the word ‘fair’ rather than ‘equal’ shares but as a colleague pointed out, this is very wrong. The richest 10% of humanity accounted for 52% of the total carbon emissions between 1990 and 2015. The poorest 50% accounted for just 7% of the total in the same period. Therefore, the richest owe the poorest for the emissions of CO2.

The focus of this piece is on the UK; however, much of the information is relevant elsewhere. In terms of action, we should consider three areas: personal/community, professional and political, and each are discussed briefly below.

Personal and community

We all have a personal carbon footprint. In the UK, the average person’s annual carbon footprint is about 13 tonnes of CO2. However, everyone is an individual. For example, a freedom of information request to the UK Department for Transport showed that the 10% of the most frequent flyers in 2018 took more than 50% of the flights, while 48% of the population did not fly at all.

Why not try the WWF’s carbon footprint calculator to help understand your personal carbon footprint? It has a UK focus, so investigate calculators applicable to your own country if you are outside the UK, but it only takes five minutes. It will give you some tips on how to change your lifestyle.

Some of the results are not intuitive; for example, drinking cow’s milk every day may have a carbon footprint of 230 kg CO2 a year – two to four times the carbon footprint of a new mobile phone. However, in a UK context, the biggest positive impacts can be achieved by:

  • eating less meat and dairy, and eating all the food you buy
  • walking, running, cycling or using public transport in preference to driving a car
  • treating flying as a privilege to be used infrequently
  • operating and maintaining your home efficiently
  • keeping the things you own longer and repairing or recycling when you can.

Of course, what you can do as an individual depends on your own circumstances, health and income.
There are an increasing number of communities coming together to find better ways of living. For example, the  Transition movement that has been growing since 2005. There are also community solar groups, climate friendly groups and a range of similar groups striving for change by building grassroots networks. All these organisations help to support both community and individual action.

Professional

What you do professionally has the potential to reduce carbon emissions much more than you can do in your personal life, depending on your job. RSK works in the construction services area and has a huge opportunity – and responsibility – to reduce carbon emissions. For example, avoiding the embodied carbon footprint of, say, 2 m3 of concrete by good design or efficient construction has a similar carbon footprint to a short commute by petrol or diesel car for a whole year!

Political

What we as individuals can do in our personal and professional lives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in isolation is ultimately limited. Fundamental change is necessary in this climate emergency. If we do not achieve major reductions in carbon emissions by 2030, severe and unavoidable impacts are inevitable. The scale of transformation requires changes in how society operates, including fundamental reductions in fossil fuel use, while supporting and enabling a good standard of living and preserving the environment, which is broadly reflected by the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

However, incumbent industries, particularly the fossil fuel industries, have had a toxic impact on the political environment by using their ability to shape and suppress government action on climate change across the world. Campaigns by oil and coal companies against climate action in the US and Australia are perhaps the best known of these.

Building coalitions of individuals, communities and enlightened companies to level the playing field in the face of vested interests has the potential to do the most good in the long run.

We can all do our bit to support the radical change required, whether this is through our own personal actions, through working in our communities, facilitating change at work or supporting political change. What we choose to do depends on our individual circumstances. However, change is needed now to achieve a stable global climate and to support our common home.