Shrinking Our Carbon Footprint
Nelufar gets an unpleasant surprise when she finds out how much carbon she’s personally responsible for emitting into the atmosphere. But even if we all work to reduce our carbon footprint, will it be enough to fix the climate crisis? Or does real change have to come from the top? Nelufar talks to environmental lawyer Michael Gerrard and activist with Extinction Rebellion.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
So the cycle hire we have in London is £2 to hire it, and it’s free for 30 minutes, and then it’s £2 for every 30 minutes after. So I’d better — I’d better get cycling!
[SOUND OF KEYPAD BEEPING]
NELUFAR: OK, and we’re off!
[JAUNTY JAZZ MUSIC]
NELUFAR: OK, car, car! You’re too close, you’re too close!
Cycling in London is not easy, and I’m just lucky that it’s really good weather today, ’cause if it’s rainy or miserable — oof! Minding the taxi, not to kill me! — then I really don’t fancy riding a bicycle.
NELUFAR: No, I’m not just taking you on a bike ride through the streets of London just so you can hear me risking my life and limb to get in my daily workout.
I’ve decided to see what it would be like to live one day in this city completely carbon neutral.
[SOUNDS OF NELUFAR OUT OF BREATH]
NELUFAR: It is a lot of hard work to be an eco-friendly, carbon neutral citizen!
NELUFAR: Certainly more work than I expected.
This is “Course Correction,” a podcast from Doha Debates. Each episode, we look at one big global problem…and meet the people who are actively working to fix it. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. And, this, if you hadn’t noticed, is planet Earth right now:
An intense heat wave across much of Europe is to peak today. It’s the second such heat wave in a month.
INDIAN MALE NEWSCASTER:
Well, if you believe the authorities, they say that the amount of rain that’s supposed to be spread out over a month is now happening within hours —
BRITISH MALE NEWSCASTER:
— increases by 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century, there could be fires of the kind we’re seeing in Australia in many other places. BBC science…
NELUFAR: Continent-sized fires. Astronomical temperatures. Devastating floods. Antarctica had a downright balmy summer.
You might remember when things like acid rain, the ozone hole, deforestation of the Amazon — these were the environmental issues of the moment. They all were, and still are, bad. But they don’t quite add up to, like, global existential crises.
Frankly, we’ve talked ourselves into thinking that we enlightened 21st century humans — we’ve solved many of these problems. But we’re dead wrong. Well — not dead yet.
In fact, in the last two years of the 2000s, we increased our global harmful emissions — not reduced them.
I’m going to repeat that for effect. We are hurtling faster than ever towards ecological collapse. We are not slowing down. The stakes couldn’t be any higher. There is an imminent threat that huge parts of the planet will become uninhabitable.
MAN WITH AMERICAN ACCENT:
…unprecedented heat waves, unprecedented precipitation inland, unprecedented melting of the Arctic and the Antarctic, intensified hurricanes, unprecedented wildfires…
NELUFAR: I’m going to be talking to a few different people about how we can all be responding to the climate crisis.
WOMAN WITH BRITISH ACCENT:
We’re still putting so many subsidies into fossil fuels, and as long as fossil fuels are the blood of globalization, we will destroy the planet. Soon. Like, very soon.
NELUFAR: One thing seems perfectly clear: It all comes down to our use of fossil fuels, and the carbon we release into the atmosphere to heat our homes, power our vehicles, drive our economies and even raise our food.
If we’re going to have any chance of survival at all, it’ll be because we each change how we live so that we shrink our carbon footprint and be as carbon neutral as possible. Of course, those with the most power have the biggest responsibility. So!
[BICYCLE BELL RINGS]
NELUFAR: I live in one of the most congested and busiest cities in the world. Go ahead, pedestrians. And getting on a bicycle instead of taking a ride share app like Uber is probably a really good move. I mean, yes, I’m a little scared because London roads can be dangerous for cyclists. But today I’m trying to do as much as I can to have a carbon neutral day. The Tube is electric, so that’s really efficient. Obviously there is no carbon dioxide or harmful emissions being emitted while I’m on the bicycle. And as soon as I get to the cafe, I’m going to sit down with a nice cup of coffee, and figure out what my daily and yearly CO2 emissions are. I think it’s going to be pretty good! I mean, I’ve changed the way I eat, the way I use plastic, all these sorts of things, to try and have an impact. So, fingers crossed.
OK, here we are!
[SOUNDS OF NELUFAR OUT OF BREATH]
NELUFAR: My big mission for the day is to calculate my carbon footprint — how much fossil fuel my lifestyle consumes. But first, I’ve stopped for a bite to eat.
Because you can’t live carbon neutral if you don’t eat carbon neutral, so I’m visiting a Mexican place in town called Wahaca.
[LATIN GUITAR MUSIC AND VOCALS]
NELUFAR: God, it’s making me feel good about eating here! The UK’s first carbon neutral restaurant group.
The beauty of this place is — from the walls and the building materials that they have tried to source sustainably and responsibly, through to using the heat from their fridge and the freezer to heat the tap water — everything takes carbon neutrality and emissions into, into account. It’s amazing that they think this is a pulling point for consumers. I mean, it is why I’m here, and why I probably will be eating here, in Wahaca, a lot more.
NELUFAR: But of course, carbon neutral or not, people will only come back if the food is delicious.
NELUFAR: OK, I am absolutely stuffed, and I’ve had several dishes, all of them vegan, so I’m hoping that makes a big difference, because I haven’t had any red meat or dairy. All of those things are really CO2 inefficient and cause a lot of emissions. So the gorgeous broccoli, the nachos, the tacos, they all went down really well. And what’s amazing about this meal, and why it actually leaves a very, very sweet taste in my mouth is because the food that I haven’t managed to finish? Well, the restaurant converts that to biogas and liquid fertilizer, so I don’t even have to feel guilty for leaving a little bit behind.
NELUFAR: This is, this is one of the best challenges I’ve done yet, guys. I mean, frankly speaking, I’m a bit proud of myself. Can I get the check, please?
NELUFAR: OK, obviously I don’t choose the restaurant I eat at or the shops I go to visit on a daily basis based on their carbon neutrality. That would be difficult, and frankly speaking, boring. Like, I don’t want to eat the same Mexican food every day, three times a day, despite how delicious Mexican food is. Always with these challenges, the aim is to try my utmost to see what parts of this I can adopt and adapt into my day-to-day life.
NELUFAR: Now: Time to assess my carbon footprint.
[SLOW JAZZY SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: I have to tell you, there is no audio less riveting than a person sitting at a computer for three hours ticking off boxes. So I’ll spare you the drama, but here’s how it went:
Basically, I logged onto carbonfootprint.com, and fed the site with data: Where I live, how much electricity and gas I use. Obvious stuff, like how often I’m in cars and Ubers, how many buses and train journeys I’ve been on. What I eat, drink. Where I eat — out, or at home? You know, the usual stuff you’d think would have a CO2 footprint.
But there are somewhat less obvious categories. Like how much I put in certain financial institutions. How much clothing I buy, what my phone bill is.
It was going fine until I got to the part where I had to enter my plane trips. Full disclosure: I fly a ton for work. I flew quite a bit in the last year: Paris, Doha, Cape Town, the US.
This quiz took days to get the data and several cups of non-carbon neutral coffee to complete. I had to learn so many new things! If you buy new furniture, it grows your footprint! Decorating is something that is a big hobby of mine, and I’d bought tables and lamps and sofas.
NELUFAR: All right, the next button is the results page. OK! All right! Here…we…go!
Oh my…Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god, this is bad.
NELUFAR: The screen shows three things: your footprint, the country average, and the world target — where we each need to get, in order to start addressing the climate crisis.
My footprint looked like it barely fit on the computer monitor. It was way bigger than the average for the United Kingdom, and it made the world target almost invisible by comparison.
NELUFAR: This is bad. This is bad. “Your carbon footprint is 251.56 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. The average for the UK is 6.5. The average in Europe is 6.4, worldwide is 5.” And I’m supposed to be at 2 tonnes to combat climate change. I am off by orders of magnitude.
NELUFAR: Guys, even if I don’t take into account the flights I took for work, I’m still at 13.5 tonnes of CO2, which is more than double the UK average.
With numbers like this, what is even the point of occasionally riding a bike, or eating in carbon neutral restaurants? Fine, I can eat less, I can travel less, I can — what? Move less? Breathe less?
Is that really enough to combat the fires, enough to beat the heat waves, the droughts? Enough to deal with, with any of this?
AMERICAN MAN: No one is doing anywhere close to enough. What enough would mean would be a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. But the emissions in almost every country in the world continue to go up.
NELUFAR: Michael Gerrard has practiced environmental law for 40 years. He’s a professor at Columbia Law School in New York. He’s known as one of the leading environmental lawyers in the world. And for him, this work is personal.
MICHAEL GERRARD: I was a kid growing up in Charleston, West Virginia, which is a town that is dominated by the chemical industry. So I grew up in a town that had a great deal of air pollution and water pollution. I decided to become an environmental lawyer.
NELUFAR: I called him up because I need a better grasp on what it is we’re actually doing about the climate crisis.
These big weather events and huge atmospheric changes are really hard to grasp in the abstract. What’s the impact on people?
MICHAEL: There are going to be extreme conditions that render some places unsuitable for people to live. And therefore, large numbers of people are going to have to migrate to someplace that is survivable.
NELUFAR: How large is “large”?
MICHAEL: We don’t really know, but there are estimates that go into the hundreds of millions of people by the latter part of the century. Some estimates are, are at one fewer zero, some estimates have one more zero. But the central estimates are in the hundreds of millions of people.
NELUFAR: However many zeroes it might end up being, it will affect us all over the world.
MICHAEL: There is tremendous concern about the loss of glacial ice melt in the Himalayas, and the prospect that this water supply, on which more than a billion people rely, is going to dry up.
NELUFAR: Is that billion with a “B”? A billion?
MICHAEL: Billion. And this is in the same region of the world, in India and Pakistan, that are highly vulnerable to sea level rise. And that could displace tens or hundreds of millions of people.
NELUFAR: And where will they go?
MICHAEL: The difficulty is that the politics of it — smaller amounts of migration, particularly from the global south, have led to extreme right-wing movements in, in developed countries. We saw that tens of thousands of people fleeing the Syrian civil war partly destabilized Europe and helped lead to Brexit.
NELUFAR: And there is evidence to suggest that the Syrian civil war was caused in part by climate change.
MICHAEL: Migration from South and Central America toward the United States led to right-wing movements and the rise of Donald Trump.
So one of the great fears is that the more forced migration we have, the more we will see these right-wing nativist movements arise as a way to keep out the people who are trying to get into these countries.
NELUFAR: It’s so interesting to me that you put it in those terms, because very rarely is the climate crisis, or what we’re doing to the planet, associated with real-life implications. Like xenophobic, reactionary governments taking power. But that’s exactly what’s going to happen, because from what I understand, the majority of people that are going to be affected are going to be brown and black people.
MICHAEL: One of the great ironies and tragedies of climate change is that the people who are least responsible for climate change are the greatest victims. The principle sources of climate change are over-consumption in the developed countries. But those are countries that have enough money to protect their citizens, and people can move or move to a higher elevation or do other things to protect themselves. The poorest countries, which have the lowest energy consumption, the lowest greenhouse gas emissions, are the places in the world that will be the greatest victims of climate change. It is a profound injustice.
NELUFAR: “A profound injustice,” says Michael. No doubt. When people lose their homes, how should we respond?
MICHAEL: The fair solution to mass migration is that each of the major developed countries of the world should accept within its borders a portion of those people displaced by climate change, roughly proportional to their contribution to the load of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So the United States is responsible for something like 23 percent of the greenhouse gases that are in the atmosphere. Therefore, the — a just solution would be for the United States to accept something like 23 percent of the people displaced by climate change. We have enough land, we have enough resources. The politics are completely impossible, at least at the moment.
NELUFAR: So what about just doing what needs to be done to stop climate change from happening in the first place? Or at least to stop it from getting worse?
There are all sorts of proposals for how we could limit fossil fuel consumption, most of which come down to making it way more expensive. But the economies of the world’s biggest carbon emitters — China, the US, Europe — they all run on fossil fuels. So making fossil fuels more expensive means slowing the economy. And in a competitive globalized economy, no government wants to be the first to do that.
MICHAEL: Right, a, a — something that we constantly hear in the U.S. is, “Why should we make sacrifices to reduce our emissions when the emissions from China and India are growing so rapidly, and they’re not obligated to reduce theirs?”
NELUFAR: I mean, that’s a good point.
MICHAEL: Well, it’s an argument that drives me crazy —
MICHAEL: — for several reasons. In the first place, our per capita emissions are so much higher than those of China and India. Secondly, we developed using, you know, taking advantage of those high emissions. That’s what made us rich. China in particular is leading the world in renewable energy, in nuclear energy, in electric vehicles. And the United States is picking up on renewables and electric vehicles, but not at the same pace as China. So I think it is profoundly unfair for the U.S. to use as an excuse the growing emissions from other countries, although we’ve been doing that for more than 20 years.
NELUFAR: I mean, that would be the definition of the pot calling the kettle black, if you know what I mean.
But there are companies, there are organizations, factories, conglomerates, hedge funds — not only nation states who are responsible for putting these emissions out on our behalf, the consumers. Must we stop growing? Do we have to rein in capitalism in order to save the environment?
It’s tempting to say that’s what has to happen. But the reality, as Michael sees it, is that we have to use the economic system we currently have, not just wait until there’s a consensus on how to change it. We simply cannot wait to take action on carbon emissions. We have the tools we need. It’s the political — and, yes, the personal — and I’m talking to myself here — willpower which we lack.
In 2015, 196 states came together in Paris to negotiate an agreement for each country to limit their own carbon emissions so that the global temperature would not rise more than 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. It was a massive triumph for international negotiation. And they did it! The countries set targets! And then, a year later, Donald Trump came to power in the U.S. and pulled out of the Paris Agreement, setting a precedent for other countries to pull out too.
MICHAEL: It’s a tragedy of global proportions that President Trump has abandoned that and is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. The final date of actual withdrawal happens to be the day after the 2020 presidential election. And if a different president is elected, he or she will unquestionably, immediately, announce that the U.S. will rejoin.
NELUFAR: It’s like a Hollywood movie, this. It’s a bit, it’s a bit tight isn’t it?
MICHAEL: It’s, it’s more than tight. I mean, the nature of the Paris Agreement is, it’s almost entirely voluntary, and countries may pull out if they want to. It’s really all a matter of domestic politics, and that, that’s a fundamental thing to say here: That what each country does is, is overwhelmingly a function of what that country and the people who run it and the people who elect them, if it’s a democracy, want to do.
When young people ask me, “What can I do to fight climate change? What’s the most effective thing I can do?” What I say is, “Go to a state like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Ohio and register voters, get people who will actually vote, and to make sure that the next election puts into power people who understand this problem and will do what’s necessary to fight it.”
NELUFAR: But in the end, where do you see to be the biggest possibility for solution and for a way forward? Is it in the courts? Is it by governments? Is it by individuals doing more? How can we solve this? How can we get through this?
MICHAEL: Well, the most important thing to be done is to move away from fossil fuels. That’s going to require a massive amount of construction of wind and solar and other renewable technologies, and of transmission and storage. And that construction creates tremendous economic opportunities, and opportunities for jobs. It’s already emerged as one of the greatest areas of job growth and economic growth in many parts of the world. And the greatest hope that I see is a continuation of that transformation of the world’s energy systems to a clean energy economy.
[PERCUSSIVE SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: Michael has written a book called Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization of the United States. Doesn’t sound like a thriller, but consider the stakes, and the potentially dark outcome if some or all of those pathways aren’t followed.
The book is like an instruction manual for how to clear legal roadblocks, to the expansion of electric vehicles, streamline the creation of energy-efficient new buildings, green roofs, things like that. And Michael has helped recruit more than a dozen law firms across the United States to draft model laws to show how all this might work.
But in this fight for the survival of our planet, Michael and others like him face strong and determined adversaries.
The government in Brazil is fast-tracking clear-cutting the Amazon. The administration in the U.S. is expanding drilling for oil and gas while dismantling existing clean air and water laws. It’s a race against the clock.
MICHAEL: Climate change is going to get worse regardless of what we do, but how much worse it gets is very much in our hands. There is a broad array of projections for sea level rise and heat and so forth, out to the end of the century. Where we are — whether we’re in the best case or the worst case of those scenarios depends on human actions and human choices.
[HAUNTING PERCUSSIVE MUSIC]
NELUFAR: So where does that leave me? If all these smart and powerful people are battling it out about our future, what difference do my choices make? Yeah, I can probably shop less or travel smarter, but will it make a difference? And is it really my responsibility, if my government gives subsidies and exemptions to the airline industry?
There is a huge, globalized economy: banks and oil companies and shipping networks and supply chains. The whole thing is predicated on the existence of a carbon-intensive economy. Those organizations are deeply invested in maintaining this status quo. Individual action means nothing unless we demand change to the systems that shape the global economy.
But then I remembered: We can organize. We can disrupt this status quo. I knew who I had to talk to. I knew there were people who were fighting on all our behalves for this kind of seismic and systemic change, and all I had to do was follow the sound of the protesters.
[SOUNDS OF PEOPLE CHANTING AND YELLING]
BRITISH WOMAN: This is such a global issue. Like, there’s only one option — either we do it, we do it well, we get it done — or we don’t live. Like, do you know what I mean? There’s only one way.
NELUFAR: Talia Chain is a dear friend of mine who’s part of Extinction Rebellion, a global activist group. The point is in the name: Climate change is an emergency that threatens our survival as a species.
Extinction Rebellion, or XR, advocate for drastic measures to stop the economic and social actors that keep us warming the planet.
TALIA CHAIN: I went to a talk, the Extinction Rebellion talk “Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It,” and I was just, I guess shocked out of my apathy. And yeah, a bunch of other Jewish, young Jewish people felt the same way, and we got together and we were like, “We should create a little affinity group, XR Jews.”
NELUFAR: On this afternoon, the XR groups have camped out in London’s oldest financial district at Bank Station in the area known as the City of London Corporation.
This was big. And London has rarely seen anything like it. XR protesters of every stripe and color: Doctors for XR, vegans of XR, truck drivers of XR, they were all out on a two-week demonstration. I could hear brass bands playing, see people covered in fake blood in “die ins” and feel the focus of everyone there.
Talia and I huddle in a corner coffee shop while police helicopters hover overhead. She’s here to demand Extinction Rebellion’s three goals: to get governments to tell the truth about the climate crisis, to get the planet carbon neutral by 2025 and set up civic assemblies to figure out how to do that.
TALIA: I’d say my most important thing when thinking about any of these things is thinking about my money. I have money. Who is going to get it? When I give that money to somebody else, who gets my money? And that’s how I think about food, that’s how I think about clothes. You know, it is really hard to do that with every single time — like you want to buy something and the only place you can get it is Amazon Prime. Like I’m no saint. But it’s just — that plays a huge part in what I decide to do. ’Cause I feel like in some ways my money is my power, like I should be spending that in the best possible way. I don’t want to give my money to people who enslave people and who destroy the world.
NELUFAR: Within minutes of talking to her I feel empowered and more forgiving of myself. We all need a Talia in our life.
TALIA: If people were funding the right things, like if there was way more money invested into eco energy sources, wind, solar, whatever, we would have so much better ways of moving things around. Like I was just talking to somebody the other day about airplanes that could — or kind of air vehicles — that could be carbon neutral and how long those blueprints have been around, but like no interest. Because why bother. We’re still putting so many subsidies into fossil fuels, and as long as fossil fuels are the blood of globalization we will destroy the planet. Soon. Like, very soon.
NELUFAR: I’m squirming in my seat at this point, wondering if she can see the 252 tonnes of CO2 emissions I am personally responsible for.
I start to tell Talia about things Michael Gerrard said about the profound injustice that is baked into the climate crisis right now. It seems as though, unlike the people who run a lot of international businesses or powerful governments, these protestors understand that a crisis in one part of the world is a crisis for the whole world. That we’re not competing — we’re all in this together.
TALIA: Especially talking about climate catastrophes, like we always say, like, you know, Bangladesh is going to be underwater, people in the global south. Like when, when we’re talking about all the world’s on fire, like — their fire’s been burning for a long time, they are suffering seriously already from climate catastrophe. And just turning ourselves inwards and being like, “We’re only going to grow what we eat in this little area because we all have money and blah blah blah and we’re fine over here.” That’s — it’s just not OK.
[SLOW SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: What I wanted to understand was how my carbon footprint contributes. And we can and should do a lot to lower our carbon footprint as individuals. But there is a limit to how much impact those personal changes have. So much is beyond our power because governments and institutions and industries don’t give us the information to make a choice about whether or not to use fossil fuels.
We can’t exactly lower our own carbon footprint when the owner of our apartment building, say, chooses to heat it with natural gas, rather than electricity or wind power. Or if the retirement account my employer invests in on my behalf buys shares in petrol companies.
I’ll give environmental lawyer Michael Gerrard the last say.
MICHAEL: There are all kinds of things individuals can do, but I think the biggest issues, the most important issues, are the issues that are made by the governments. And that requires citizens to not only vote, but vote with their feet and their voices and their pens — do everything that they possibly can to get their governments to move in the right direction.
[MIDTEMPO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR: That’s our show today. And now I want to hear from you. How are you shrinking your carbon footprint? How are you using your feet to demand change?
Tweet us at @DohaDebates and me personally at @nelufar.
“Course Correction” is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. A special thank you to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. If you like what you hear, rate and review the show, please! It helps other people find us. Join us for the next episode of “Course Correction” wherever you get your podcasts.