On our way to zero net emissions

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 3, 2019

In many avenues of my life, people are now discussing whether we should reduce our emissions and if so, how much they should reduce their emissions and what we will still permit ourselves to do (meat? flying? driving our gasoline car? buying some new stuff we would like but can also live without?). Academically, the question of the fair division of the remaining emissions, as well as the question whether we should frame this as a moral duty for inviduals or rather merely to those in power to change institutions, are part of the Fair Limits project that I’m directing. Politically, we’ve seen these questions discussed in newspapers, on blogs and on twitter, including penetrating comments such as this one by the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (who, according to Wikipedia, turns 16 today – happy birthday, Greta!):

Among friends too, more and more meat-lovers are turning into flexetarians or vegetarians for planetary reasons (and one of my nephews even went straight into veganism); some people consciously decide to travel by train, even if it is more expensive and takes longer; and most of the homeowners I know by now have solar panels on their roofs.

But is this enough? Or is this futile? If we are declining invitations to give papers, or telling our kids we will not travel for family holidays by plane for planetary reasons, are we masochists (assuming we would love to do those things and hence it constitutes a genuine sacrifice?) How should we go about making those decisions as individuals, households, colleagues?

In Climate Matters, John Broome argues that those of us who are not poor should make sure we have zero net emissions. We should strive to minimize the emissions we make, and offset those that we cannot avoid making (or for whatever reason are still making). The obvious worry about offsetting is that it allows us to have a clear conscience while committing to do things that, according to several accounts in climate ethics, are simply wrong. Then again, if one makes a serious effort to reduce emissions, wouldn’t it be unfair to demand from some of us to be Saints while others are not even bothering, saying that only structural solutions are worthwhile considering and/or that technology will save us and/or that this a matter for private decision-making and morality has nothing to do with it? I’m guessing that this is for many of us motivationally much more difficult. Perhaps another type of framing is needed?

So I have a set of questions I’m throwing on the table here: what do you think we should do, as persons and households? To what extent should we radically change our lifestyles and be willing to make changes that are (experienced as) sacrifices? Should we consider offsetting any emissions we make, so that our net emissions are zero? Or are all of these the wrong questions since there is no point in doing anything given that most scope for change lies in industries and regulation? Or is it rather the case that this last idea is merely a rationalisation for allowing ourselves to keep on polluting and overconsuming? And if you’ve taken measures, which ones have you been most pleased about, and which ones would you, in hindsight, not take again?



Megan Blomfield 01.03.19 at 11:39 am

I struggle with this question a lot. Individual lifestyle changes are a drop in the ocean and may be counterproductive if you think they leave you with clean hands and excuse you from trying to promote collective action. But lifestyle changes are going to be necessary, so taking them now could help to remove some friction and, when pursued along with others, can help build alternatives from the bottom up. I worry about offsetting because when done without care, it can shift the costs of your consumption onto others by increasing demands on land.


engels 01.03.19 at 11:49 am

On a previous thread there were concerns raised about UK bankers and professors who commute to mainland Europe by plane or Eurostar and won’t be able to do so after Brexit. I’d suggest that might not be a terrible thing.


Hidari 01.03.19 at 12:09 pm

More to the point, how should this impact our voting patterns? Climate change is the key issue of this generation (dwarfing Brexit in terms of its importance to the planet), and yet, while some people are apparently prepared to vote tactically (i.e. as single-issue voters) on Brexit, few are prepared to do the same for climate change.

And yet only radical and fundamental change to our socio-economic system can save us now. In other words, climate change is a planetary emergency and can only be solved on a planetary level: i.e. via supranational organisations (the WHO….what is climate change if not a health emergency?….the UN….the EU….and so on). Change by individuals, or even by individual nation-states, is simply not going to be enough.

There are politicians who realise this (at the moment, a tiny minority) and politicians who do not (most of ’em). There are political parties that recognise this (mostly on the so-called ‘radical’ left….although their views will be the mainstream soon enough) and political parties that do not (the majority of political parties in the ‘West’).
These ‘ratios’, so to speak, have to reverse (i.e. what is now the view of the ‘lunatic fringe’ has to become mainstream, and the views of ‘business as usual’ bunch have to become a minority view), and it has to happen in about 20 or 30 years time, if Western Civilisation as we have known it is to continue. This has to be a change in the zeitgeist as radical (or in many ways more radical) as that which happened, say, between 1925 and 1935 in the US, and between 1937 and 1947 in the UK, except it has to happen in most countries on planet Earth, and it has to be permanent.

This is primarily a political (not an economic) problem and it will have a political solution. Or not.


bob mcmanus 01.03.19 at 12:13 pm

it allows us to have a clear conscious conscience?


Hidari 01.03.19 at 12:18 pm

Just a reminder: ‘The (IPCC) report says that for limiting warming to below 1.5 C “global net human-caused emissions of CO2 would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.” Even just for limiting global warming to below 2 °C, CO2 emissions should decline by 25% until 2030 and by 100% until 2075.
Non-CO2 emissions should decline in more or less similar ways. This involves deep reductions in emissions of methane and black carbon: at least 35% of both by 2050, relative to 2010, to limit warming near 1.5 °C. Such measures could be undertaken in the energy sector and by reducing nitrous oxide and methane from agriculture, methane from the waste sector, and some other sources of black carbon and hydrofluorocarbons.
On timescales longer than tens of years, it may still be necessary to sustain net negative CO2 emissions and/or further reduce non-CO2 radiative forcing, in order to prevent further warming (due to Earth system feedbacks), reverse ocean acidification, and minimise sea level rise.’


To the best of my knowledge, no one has even suggested a way in which the necessary cuts can be accomplished via the so-called ‘free market’.


Shibboleth 01.03.19 at 12:32 pm

“Or are all of these the wrong questions since there is no point in doing anything given that most scope for change lies in industries and regulation?”

isn’t this the point? how do people conceive of their small actions within their own lives (veganism, flying less) linking up with more macro processes (industries, the aggregated lives of others)
How do people begin to have more agency?


Ingrid Robeyns 01.03.19 at 12:45 pm

thanks Bob @4, I’ll fix that.


bob mcmanus 01.03.19 at 12:58 pm

To be provocative: I live in a wooden single family in the suburbs, thereby reducing my relative energy footprint compared to urban dwellers.

Relevant fact: the carbon emissions/footprint in manufacturing a car exceeds the total carbon released in its lifetime of driving.

Cement and steel. Plastics.

It’s hard to get good numbers (and I welcome correction), because urbanists want to analyze energy maintenance costs after the multi-family is built and then compare to suburban maintenance costs. And steel production is getting more efficient. But not as energy efficient or as sustainable as living in wood.



Ingrid Robeyns 01.03.19 at 1:08 pm

Megan Blomfield #1, “I worry about offsetting because when done without care, it can shift the costs of your consumption onto others by increasing demands on land.” – can you explain this? I’ve always thought that the ‘golden label’ offsetting concerns things like buying the parts of energy-efficient stoves that are shipped to rural places where cooking takes place on open fires. The energy-efficient stoves are assembled by local people. Benefits are: (1) reduced emissions (much less wood is needed in order to cook, (2) much fewer health issues related to respiratory harm due to the previous ways of cooking, (3) positive effects on women’s agency who have to spend much less time going to search for wood.; (4) jobs for some local people who assemble the stoves.
In any case I take your point that one has to be very careful in looking at the details of what offsetting exactly entails.


Ingrid Robeyns 01.03.19 at 1:15 pm

Hidari #3, there is a paper by the political philosopher, Aaron Maltais, who makes the point that we only have the moral duty to vote “green”, i.e. for a party that will help to come up with the structural solution. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/whp/ev/2013/00000022/00000005/art00004
“Obligations to reduce one’s green house gas emissions appear to be difficult to justify prior to large-scale collective action because an individual’s emissions have virtually no impact on the environmental problem. However, I show that individuals’ emissions choices raise the question of whether or not they can be justified as fair use of what remains of a safe global emissions budget. This is true both before and after major mitigation efforts are in place. Nevertheless, it remains difficult to establish an obligation to reduce personal emissions because it appears unlikely that governments will in fact maintain safe emissions budgets. The result, I claim, is that under current conditions we lack outcome, fairness, promotional, virtue or duty based grounds for seeing personal emissions reductions as morally obligatory.”

I am just not sure I agree with the premise that what individuals do makes no difference at all. I am worried that this is a rationalisation of committing wrongs.


Murali 01.03.19 at 1:22 pm

Not flying makes a lot of sense for people in north america, uk, europe or even australia. For most professionals and academics in such places, while there are significant losses to professional opportunities, some reasonable professional life is still possible. Throughout the UK, people still travel by train to get to various conferences. A train ride to paris from london is about 2.5 hours. From paris to italy is about 11 hrs. From edinburgh to london is bout 4.5 hrs. All in all, that is a better part of a day spent travelling by train. By comparison, a plane trip inclusive of airport wait times consumes about half a day as well.

You can drive from seattle to florida in 14 hrs (I can’t see how long it would take by train, but I imagine that if such a train route existed, it would be significantly less). I don’t know that the carbon footprint of people who currently travel by plane would be reduced if they started driving instead, but even if it did, the increased difficulty is not so significant as to pose significant threats an academic career.

By contrast, think about an academic career in Singapore. If I wanted to be an academic in Singapore (I’m Singaporean, my family and basically my entire social support structure is there), not taking a plane except in emergencies basically means not having access to any other decent academic departments. For my field, philosophy, the nearest decent departments are in australia, which are at least a week away by ship, but 8hrs by plane.

Not to mention, my current situation where I study and currently live in the UK but visit my family in Singapore a few times a year would not be possible at all. It takes 2 weeks to get from Singapore to UK by ship.

Also think about what it would mean if academics and professionals did not travel by plane except in emergencies. Let us make an exception to Singaporean academics and professionals and confine ourselves just to people in north america and europe. One of the ways in which academic and other professional departments (e.g. hospitals or sub departments in hospitals) in the global south improve is by collaborations, conferences and workshops involving professionals from the global north that are hosted in the global south. The NUS philosophy department would be a lot less vibrant department if it did not have lots of overseas academics flying in to give talks. My father, for instance, flies to india and indonesia a few times a year to conduct training sessions as well as develop emergency medicine training programs. I’m pretty sure my father is not the only one doing this. I would not be surprised if other professionals from the global north were also aiding the professional development in the global south.

Let’s also not forget whether global or even regional social/political organisations like the world health organisation, the world trade organisation, the asian society for transplantation, the UN etc would be possible without non-emergency air travel.

All but one of the things (the WTO) should be acceptable uses of air travel to even the most dyed in the wool socialist. Let’s go a bit further afield and look at things that socialists might have, let us say, mixed feelings about.

We can start with the crash in the tourist industries in the global south. From there we can note that along with the lack of certain kinds of professional development, a lot of business development that is currently taking place in the global south would not happen in the absence of non-emergency air-travel by people from the global north. Even in a post-capitalist world where employer and employee relations are far less exploitative, I cannot imagine how an improvement in production and production decisions in the global south could come about without a lot of frequent air travel from the global north to the global south and vice versa. A socialist future cannot be an autarkic future.

What are our leisure options in this more environmentally conscious world? We can’t go too far from home. We can’t buy that new gaming rig because it will consume lots of energy and thus produce lots of emissions. I suppose there are some activities without much consumption, but those are a niche taste. Perhaps if you are lucky enough to live near broadway or the london west end, there is the theatre. But since they won’t be flying around the world, the rest of us can at most only see recordings of those productions.

Temperatures will rise all we can do is figure out ways to deal with it.


Ingrid Robeyns 01.03.19 at 1:33 pm

On the structural/political solution: what would be the most efficient thing to do? Voting green is easy, perhaps too easy in countries in which there are actually several parties with a solid green profile. And the same objection can be made as some make towards reducing individual emissions: it only has a demonstrable effect if many others do the same.

So what else? Buying stocks from Shell and BP and pursuing shareholders activism? Standing for election? (which will not fit everyone’s personality, given how dirty some politics is and one has to have a mega-thick skin).


Zamfir 01.03.19 at 1:43 pm

For myself, I find that climate efforts go on the long list of Adult Responsibilities that I could be doing better. Raising the kids, doing my job and managing the household finances, healthier living, running the household, making home improvements, etc etc.

So there are some home-isolation projects that would make sense, but they compete for budget and time with a leaky shed and aging paintwork and some dodgy pipework. I regularly cook vegetarian meals, but I don’t have a full range of tried-and-proven vegetarian recipes that are tasty, quick, accessible for the kid. I am already happy if I put a varied and healthy range of meals on the table anyway. I would love to cycle more to work, but I struggle to find enough time. I could take the kids to their grandparents by train, but it’s an organizational pain compared to taking the car. Etc.

On the other side, I work in an energy-intensive industry, where even small changes would dwarf anything I can do at home. But the budget is always tight, and that’s frustrating. The company-level finances are clear enough – we can afford some photogenic Green projects for PR, we can do a limited amount of R&D to prepare for future CO2 costs. We could do more than we do, surely. But a serious step-change in CO2 emissions, starting now? That would bankrupt the company – unless our competition has to do the same.

That doesn’t help to motivate efforts at home, to be honest. It feels extremely symbolic.


oldster 01.03.19 at 1:44 pm

The effects of collective action, esp. governmental action, are so much greater than the effects of personal action, that I think the lifestyle choices should always be discussed after the political ones, and treated as an afterthought.

I don’t eat burgers. I don’t drive a huge car, or drive my little car often. I lead a pretty carbon-neutral life.

But what has led us into this horrible situation was not the fact that Americans ate burgers and drove huge cars, but the fact that they voted for Republicans who were owned by petro-oligarchs. What has led to our withdrawal from the Paris accord has nothing to do with lifestyle choices, and everything to do with votes. (Oh, and Russian interference, and a misogynistic FBI director, and a few other factors. But all of those had their causal impact through votes.)

If we had acted politically on climate change the way we acted on fluorocarbons and freon, we would not be here now.

Get out the vote, get better politicians, get them to do the right thing. Work to organize, work to lobby, work to elect good people.

If somebody needs to eat a burger to keep doing the hard work of making the collective action succeed, then they should eat the damn burger. The effect is trivial. Lifestyle change at the individual level is always trivial. Only collective, political action is going to save us.

And I’d say this to Greta, too: if you can be politically effective by giving speeches around the world, then give the damn speeches. Millions of people fly every day, and if you subtract yourself from that number then millions will still be flying — you will have made no real difference. But if your voice is politically effective in changing behavior at the voting booth and in the legislatures, then you have made a real difference.

Now, in my case, my voice is *not* politically effective, so the calculus is dead against my flying around the world to give speeches. I should stay off planes and eat my lentils. But this kid is different. My point is that you have to run the numbers. And the numbers say that collective action is paramount, and personal action is generally a distraction.


Ingrid Robeyns 01.03.19 at 1:49 pm

Murali @ 10, when I was a teenager/student living in Belgium, we never had holidays outside Europe, and always took the train/car to get to Spain or Italy. The immigrants from Morocco would gather each year early July, and drive with busses all the way down to Rabat – 2600 km and it took them two (perhaps 3?) days to get there. In the past, if one of your relatives moved to another continent, we would see them once a decade. Now, we want to see them annually or more often.
So it’s also a matter of our expectations having gone up on where we draw the line between ‘needs’ or ‘non-luxurary wants’ on the one hand, and ‘luxury wants’ on the other. Many things that were in the latter category 20 or 30 years ago, are now in the former category, and hence people feel entitled to them. I am not saying they should not be in that category, but then indeed we are giving up our attempts to bring down emissions until there are technological solutions to all of our types of consumption that lead to emissions now. It’s a possibility to only focus on adaptation, but I wonder whether the many deaths and suffering that climate change will bring is worth the price of us being able to keep on consuming the way we do.


Megan Blomfield 01.03.19 at 2:07 pm

Ingrid Robeyns #8, Sorry that wasn’t very clear. I was more thinking about offsetting schemes that involve tree-planting. Land is already scarce in many places, so whilst afforestation is a desirable climate policy in some respects, it can threaten existing land-use in very troubling ways. See e.g. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0743016714000692

Offsetting schemes like the one you mention won’t pose the same problem, but if they have all the co-benefits you describe, I wonder why not just do both (e.g. don’t take the flight and give the money to the scheme anyway).

Also, since we need to get to net-zero globally (not just individually), projects where you offset your emissions by merely reducing emissions elsewhere won’t take us all the way. So options like afforestation would have to be in the picture I think, and then the problem with demands on land arises again.

Like I said, these are questions that I struggle with, partly because I don’t have a good enough understanding of the science and the large-scale knock-on implications of policy choices. But I think that whilst reducing your emissions by reducing your consumption can often be predicted to have minimal negative side-effects, with offsetting it can be much harder to tell (partly because any negative side-effects are likely to fall elsewhere).


oldster 01.03.19 at 2:16 pm

Murali @10

“You can drive from seattle to florida in 14 hrs”

I assume this was just a typo? The real number is more like 45-50 hours of solid driving, so something like 4 – 5 days if you want to sleep enough to drive safely.

If you ask Google how long it will take by train, it denies that such a calculation is possible. That’s a failure of imagination on its part, since it will tell you that it takes 3 days to get from Seattle to Boston by rail, and a little over 1 day to get from Boston to Florida by rail. (Someone must teach Google about trains-itivity.)

But Google’s ignorance reflects a genuine fact about the US rail network: the US govt, at the behest of oligarchs in the oil and automotive industries, has never supported a passenger rail network. The state of the railroads in the US is a disgrace, and the failure is entirely one of collective action: there is nothing that an individual can do to create a rail network where it does not exist.

This does not change much in your larger point, except making it clearer that even in the US it can be hard to stay in physical contact with friends and professional colleagues.


Bill Benzon 01.03.19 at 2:20 pm

Um, err, Murali, I take your general point, but according to the following site the driving distance from Seattle to Orlando is over 3000 miles (5000 km) and would require 44 hours of non-stop driving:



engels 01.03.19 at 2:21 pm

Lifetime carbon budgets for all: if you’ve been flying a lot in the last couple of decades, now you have to stop. The rest of us may continue in moderation. (This might necessitate some changes to the current distribution of occupational roles, and income…)


Phil 01.03.19 at 3:23 pm

With very few exceptions, the effort any one person can exert and the impact they can have on the social world – and hence on the biosphere – is minuscule, compared to the glocal scale of the problem. The question then is whether lifestyle changes have a smaller or larger minuscule impact than other actions which might take the same or less effort. Add the dimension of time back in, and the question is whether lifestyle changes might even be less effective, in the longer term, than working collectively on the political mechanisms driving climate change – perhaps without any impact at all in the short term.

Lifestyle changes are often justified with the argument-ending statement that “it’s better than doing nothing”. The trouble is, this means two things, and it’s not obvious that they’re both equally true or equally applicable – indeed, I suspect that the intuitive force of the statement derives in part from the way its two meanings cover for each other. On one hand, it’s better consequentially to do something than to do nothing – but it may not be better to throw yourself into doing something today, tomorrow and the day after, at the expense of thinking strategically about how to make a difference longer-term. On the other, it’s better morally for me to be able to say that I’m doing something – but thinking seriously about the issues and how to remedy them is also ‘doing something’ in this sense, and (as I said) may be a more effective something than the daily grind of lifestyle changes.

Final point: nobody has any idea what the right answer is, or even whether there is a right answer – we’ve never saved a planet before. Whatever it is (if it exists), it’s likely to involve some big changes. But this in itself doesn’t settle the argument between politics and lifestyle: rousing millions of people to large-scale activism against climate change would be every bit as big a change as converting millions of people to veganism.


oldster 01.03.19 at 3:52 pm

I want to sign on to Phil’s final point in a way that partly retracts something I said earlier.

He’s right: we don’t know how to do this. And more generally, there is no easy recipe for being politically effective.

For all that I know, the most politically effective thing that Greta can do is not (as I said earlier) to fly around and give speeches, but rather to use social media to advertise her own personal life-style choices. And that will only work, in the long run, if she actually lives in accordance with the choices she advertises. So, maybe she should work on her life-style first. Provided, of course, that she then uses her life-style as a model for evangelizing more widely. Mute inglorious monks of pristine purity who never tell the world what they are doing, are not going to help anyone. But maybe her life-style will set an example that will lead to collective action — I certainly cannot rule it out.

To the extent that none of us knows what is most effective, it is good to have people trying lots of strategies. And it’s bad to have people like me saying, as I said earlier, “your strategy is wrong; do it my way.”

One of the lessons that the US left is very slow to learn is that a healthy progressive eco-sphere has many niches. We need yellers and screamers. We also need compromising pragmatists. We need people working on the inside. We need people pressuring them from the outside. We need maximalists who won’t settle, and we need incrementalists who will. Above all, we need less intra-left fighting over who is doing it wrong, because there are a lot of ways to do it right, and no one knows the one true way.


Chris Bertram 01.03.19 at 4:00 pm

My thought in relation to Phil’s point is very much of the “If you’re an egalitarian how come you’re so rich?” type. Given that effective action on climate change other than of the geoengineering kind is likely to involve coercively imposed restrictions on everyone’s lifestyle, the willingness of advocates of such restrictions to make changes themselves in advance of political success is likely to enhance their credibility with those they are calling on to accept sacrifices and their unwillingness is likely to make them look like phoneys, undermining the cause.


Glenn Mercer 01.03.19 at 4:23 pm

If, like me, you believe the world will NEVER be able to reduce emissions generations enough, you could:

1. live as you like
2. donate $1,000-$10,000 (depending on income) annually to researchers devoted to geo-engineering and carbon capture and other techniques for removing from the atmosphere the emissions we stubbornly insist on still creating.

I know my answer does not respond to the spirit of the question, but it is my honest answer as to how to solve the problem. And I do suspect that my answer will enrage or annoy most climate activists. Half because they think these ideas are dangerous or infeasible (and they may be!), and half because they think they are somehow “cheating,” and the planet can only be saved by noble sacrifices, not by smart spending. Sort of like bariatric surgery is “cheating” your way to weight loss. Email me for more ideas about what I’d do if I were king of the world (grin)….


W.T. Dore 01.03.19 at 5:02 pm

You can drive from seattle to florida in 14 hrs

Being generous, a drive from Seattle to Pensacola, FL is 2,725 miles. In 14 hours, that requires a sustained speed of 194 miles per hour.

You may be able to drive from Seattle to Florida, but not many others can.


Birdie 01.03.19 at 5:13 pm

What gets humans to the top of the Maslow hierarchy is healthy interpersonal relations, not Stuff or exotic vacations. If we ever collectively actually get that, many problems would be much more tractable.

Carbon offsets: appears to neglect that obtaining the money you spent has a carbon load attached to it, so seems like an exercise in virtue signaling. Donations for clean stoves for people who have to live near them, developing clean water sources and so on (dealing with the lower parts of the hierarchy) are excellent things to do on their own.


Phil 01.03.19 at 5:20 pm

Chris @21 – I can see the force of “if you’re not a vegan how can you tell me what to eat?”, but I don’t think “if you’re not a vegan how can you express any concerns about climate change?” is a knockdown objection, or that we should respect it if it’s raised. (At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, some egalitarians are rich – almost all of them, in global terms.)

But the point about lifestyle activism isn’t just about whether I think it’s incumbent on me to do it, or appropriate to find me wanting if I don’t do it. The question is whether it’s likely to be effective. Looking at the volume of plastic entering the oceans from the Ganges and the Indus, or the Chinese share of CO2 emissions, I wonder what on earth any action taken by citizens in Western Europe can do to affect that.


Marc Davidson 01.03.19 at 5:46 pm

Where are the Kantians here? Live according to those rules that you want to exist, not according to those rules that actually exist. Why wait for society to force you to fly less, eat less meat and buy renewable energy?
But also from a consequentialistic perspective, the whole idea that your individual lifestyle choices do not matter is flawed. The same reasoning can be held for political action. How much impact will your individual political acts have on the introduction of a global carbon tax? Very little. But why would it be necessary to have a discernable effect on the world as a whole as an individual? We know little about the relationship between emissions and climate damage. Perhaps it is linear, meaning that my emissions of 10 tonne per year will do about a 1000 Euro of damage each year irrespective of what others do. I am responsible for this damage irrespective of what others do. For comparison: if I pay for the education of one child, I will not solve the problem of all uneducated children around the globe. Is that a reason not to pay for the education of the one child?
So personally I experience a strong personal duty to refrain from those acts that I would not perform in my preferred world order. Offsetting will not reduce this duty: you cannot compensate what is bad by doing good. What we can do is offset our remaining emissions.


Omega Centauri 01.03.19 at 5:54 pm

I’ve made it a point to be well ahead of the needed change curve. Switched to LEDs when they were still $10/bulb when you could find internet closeouts. Put up solar in 2009. We have two EVs.
These all, in a small way help advance the state of the art, mainly because earlier demand increases help push technologies and supply chains up the learning curve and economy of scale curves.

Another way beyond politics, where we can help is by strategic investing. Aside from hoping to have enough voting power on say Exxon, you can somewhat directly invest in renewables. You can loan money to solar developers and earn interest WunderCapital, or invest money in YieldCos which own and operate large scale renewable power plants, and you can even earn a decent return doing so. Most of us have money saved for retirement. Changing the balance of what the economy as a whole invests in is key. Its not that the world isn’t investing in such technologies, but that we aren’t doing it at the needed scale. So apart from trying to change collective behavior, we can also incrementally effect this. One of my motivations to keep working beyond retirement age, is that I will have excess funds to do this with.


rjk 01.03.19 at 5:58 pm

Efficiency improvements – LED bulbs, modern refrigerators – ought to be adopted rapidly as they are developed. Sensible reductions in consumption of obviously offensive products – air travel, beef, Bitcoin mining rigs – gets us another few percentage points closer to the goal. Beyond that, things get weird, because just figuring out which reductions make sense, and coordinating people to make those reductions, is hard.

Serious reductions in consumption are possible, but it’s not obvious who will impose them. It is commonly held that nobody would vote for a government that promised to do it, although the last decade has shown us that people will vote for certain kinds of austerity if it’s presented as a necessity. Eco-austerity might become politically viable if it can be presented as simply unavoidable – and if we can make bailing out the banks unavoidable then this ought to be possible. The OP contains the beginning of the story that would make this seem so – to paraphrase Liam Byrne, “there’s no carbon left”.

A simple eco-austerity model would involve a combination of carbon taxes, high-ish consumption taxes (at 20% VAT, we’re already there in the UK), and subsidy of renewables. This would reliably increase the renewables in the energy mix, and could be ratcheted up over time.

However, economies of scale in solar production appear to be having very considerable effects on the price of solar panels, and if the trend continues then it might well dominate all other effects. Estimates put the fall in solar panel prices at 35% in 2018, the second-biggest ever fall. Given that these falls are produced by economies of scale, and that falls in price trigger greater demand, it is reasonable to expect the trend to continue. Solar is already cheaper than running existing coal plants in many parts of the US – that is, not just cheaper than building new coal plants, but cheaper than running the already-built ones. Wind power is falling in price less dramatically, but improved design and economies of scale help there too.

Here we have two slightly contrary trends: an austere approach to energy usage and consumption which treats energy as expensive and scarce, and what looks like the cheapest source of energy in human history coming on-line in the next decade. My guess is that the time it would take to build the eco-austerity movement is too great for it to have an impact – by the time it appears, solar + wind + batteries will provide cheaper energy than any fossil fuel equivalent for most of the world. Instead of trading off consumption for carbon reduction, we just focus on replacing the fossil fuels as fast as possible with relatively little disruption to average consumption levels.

The political battle that I’m expecting is the final rearguard action of the fossil fuel companies. They’ve been hugely effective in the US, capturing entire government departments and – through fracking – driving a series of technical and economic innovations that have kept US oil competitive. Among Trump’s tariffs is a 30% levy on imported solar panels from China (though, of course, this merely leaves them costing about what they did in 2017, due to the aforementioned price fall). My guess is that they have a few more tricks up their sleeves, and can hold back progress for years, if they’re allowed to. The question is how best to counteract this.

I’m a bit wary of my own logic here, but it would seem to me that the green movement has a new argument: that cheap solar is here if we want it, that it’s inexpensive, clean, and sustainable; that it will continue to improve; and that we won’t need to worry quite so much about cutting consumption any more, outside of industries that are inextricably linked to GHG emissions (beef, combustion engines). A decade or so of the current trend for solar panel prices and solar energy becomes properly abundant – so cheap that if we, as a society, want more consumption then we simply need to deploy more panels and more batteries. Weirdly, for all of the horrors that we’re expecting in the next few decades, the economic logic of solar seems to be promising us the greatest and most abundant energy economy we’ve ever had. It’s sufficiently far from how we normally think about things that I’m having a hard time believing it, but it would seem to be true.


john c. halasz 01.03.19 at 6:01 pm

bob @7:

The manufacture of an average auto uses 270 bn joules; 5000 gallons of gasoline contains 600 bn joules.

Murali @ 10:

“You can drive from seattle to florida in 14 hrs”

How? In a Delorean? That’s 2500 miles.


nastywoman 01.03.19 at 6:11 pm

”what do you think we should do, as persons and households”?

– make such a great point as Greta? –
(”influencing” a lot of other people to live as she does??) –

Or be part of the ”Fair Limits project” that you are involved in? –

Or finding any other way to reduce emissions?

The area (State) I’m currently mainly residing in -(run by a ”Green Government”)
is doing it by all kind of ”measures” and ”policies” – and nearly everybody here – happily follows (most of) the helpful examples – like mainly moving around by bicycle.

BUT coming back to Greta’s… could it be called ”eye-opening” point – we tried something completely else. Driving – NOT from Seattle to Florida – BUT from Montecito CA to New York – with a beautiful English Queen Anne piece of furniture from the 17th century – and we took 12 days doing that. AND already in Montecito – on Butterfly Beach – a group of Surfers and Firemen suggested to have Queen Anne as the next US President -(in order to get rid of ”the Moron” who currently is very, very ”bad” for the idea of ”zero emission”) – And when – at the Grand Canyon a group of older Ladies -(from Iowa) – told US – that they ”right away would vote for Queen Anne” – and two days later at Monument Valley a member of the Navajo Tribe chanted :
”Bring Rain Queen Anne!” –
we knew – that there are all kind of ways in order to get to ”zero emission”.


nastywoman 01.03.19 at 6:22 pm

”The question is whether it’s likely to be effective”.

The same (silly?) question was asked 40 years ago in ”the area” where I currently reside.

Looking not only ”at the volume of plastic or ”crap” – entering the biggest lake in the ”German-Swiss-Austrian Corner” – people -(like you?) – wondered ”what on earth any action taken by citizens in this area could do to affect that”?

And somehow – forty years later – the Lake Constance is one of the cleanest Lakes in the middle of Europe and provides fresh drinking water for most parts of Southern Germany.

And it all happened because ”the people” did take action!


Kinnikinnick 01.03.19 at 6:31 pm

We all seem to be imagining, and sacrificing for, a future that is, best case, broadly similar to the present but with pieces missing. No air travel, no meat, no high-end graphics cards.
I submit that for a cultural shift to gather real momentum, there needs to be some gusto to it. It is the new things we will invent together that will be seen in retrospect as being worth doing anyhow, even though in the present we can only see bleak issues of mere survival.
As Wes Jackson says, “we don’t really know how to live here yet.” This is our best chance to learn how.


engels 01.03.19 at 6:39 pm

the last decade has shown us that people will vote for certain kinds of austerity if it’s presented as a necessity. Eco-austerity might become politically viable if it can be presented as simply unavoidable – and if we can make bailing out the banks unavoidable then this ought to be possible.

Ever heard of the gilets jaunes?


Brett 01.03.19 at 6:56 pm

I don’t think flying will become “emergencies only”, but it will become different and probably more expensive. They’ll have to run them entirely on biofuels, maybe with some of the shorter flights and smaller planes running on electric power if battery technology improves.


bob mcmanus 01.03.19 at 6:59 pm

Oh, combining three recent inputs: 1) Marathoning a tv show about homesteading in Alaska, 2) noting this morning that four of the CEOs of major defense manufacturing firms are women, whoopee, 3) finishing up an old almost forgotten book of Wendy Brown, Manhood and Politics:

How about we each give up on all this great power and responsibility: stop trying to change the world, save the world, fix it all, repair, help, do the right things, control it, manipulate it, convince, persuade, make a difference. Put ourselves into difficult and dependent straits and let it happen or just try to locally survive without global damaging or ambitions. This is my plan, to be harmless and useless.


bob mcmanus 01.03.19 at 7:02 pm

Halasz: The manufacture of an average auto uses 270 bn joules;

No offense, I am always cautious of such figures, and require better breakdowns: does this assume steel and plastic etc as unexamined inputs and just measures the footprint of the assembly?


Dipper 01.03.19 at 7:20 pm

Michael Leibreichas always has this covered. Apparently Electric airplanes are a thing and scheduled electric flight are on their way. It will take a while to be able to ferry climate campaigners to their many international meetings in a carbon-neutral way, so until then I fully expect all climate conferences to be done over the internet, or at least multi-centred so participants can travel carbon-free.


Omega Centauri 01.03.19 at 7:32 pm

It really does seem to me too, that there is a substantial chance that once we reach mature renewables, that in fact energy will be cheap and its use guiltless. So the need for widespread personal sacrifice may not be necessary. Even for meat eaters, we may be on the verge of lab-grown artificial meat, so its at least within the realm of possibility that we will be able to mostly have our cake and eat it to. But of course that is decades away, in the meantime it will take some sacrifices to get there sooner rather than later, and sooner will mean less climate difficulties for our descendants, as well as for the other lifeforms on the planet.

Even air travel. There already are plans by a few companies more commercial electric air transport. These are mainly on hold pending hoped for improvements in batteries. It seems likely to me that within a couple of decades regional electric air transport will become a reality. With a few hops and recharge stops you might be able to go cross continent too. Although crossing oceans still doesn’t look very likely.

A big part of the necessary change is not greening the electricity supply, by transitioning our other energy consumption uses to rapidly greening electric. So space heating and water needs to move from burning stuff, to heat pumps – possibly augmented by solar heating. Similar changes to transport as well. Then we have to change industrial farming. Tractors and such machinery will have to be powered by electricity, as well as fertilizer production. I don’t think there is a substitute for high intensity farming, the amount of food produced per acre is an important measure of efficiency that we can’t lose sight of.

In any case, as I see it, its all doable. But, we have our work cut out for us if we are going to transition quickly enough.


Hidari 01.03.19 at 7:36 pm

Biofuels are not the climate change solution that we thought.


Apart from planes fuelled by ‘biofuels, (whose effect on climate change is ambiguous), the number of commercial airliners in the sky, as of now, that are actually green in any meaningful way, is zero.

This number has to go to 100% by 2050, or 2075 at the absolute latest.

How will this be achieved? No one has the faintest idea.

There is a simple solution to this problem, however, which is simply: don’t fly. Ever.

The idea of ‘revolutionary youth’ seems preposterous at the moment but how do you think young people will react when they discover that their ‘gap years’ and ‘years trekking round India’ or the ‘weekend in Amsterdam’ or even ‘travelling abroad to get a better job’ or ‘visiting the family in the ‘States’…..that this will all have to stop? Permanently? And that the older generation just lied and lied and lied about how it could all go on forever?

I think they are going to be rather miffed. Hope no one tells them that their iphones and tablets (made by, and powered by, fossil fuels, on the whole) will have to go too!



Anarcissie 01.03.19 at 7:55 pm

bob mcmanus 01.03.19 at 12:58 pm @ 7 —
I have read that even with all the energy waste that goes on in big cities, the average inhabitant of one uses less than half the energy the average inhabitant of the suburbs or exurbs does. So I am curious about your initial statement, not that it matters a whole lot. I suppose one could have a very clever house, but then there would be the driving and the deliveries and so forth.

In regard to the general question, I live in an apartment in a big city; by preference I use a bicycle to get around and am a vegetarian (leading to a certain amount of genial derision), I use LED lighting; but I don’t imagine such practices do the slightest thing to reduce the predicted climate and other catastrophes. They’re not virtue, they’re just what I prefer. Thus I like bob mcmanus @ 33, second paragraph. To save the planet, or rather what we might call the anthroposphere, we would have to somehow put a definitive stop to capitalism, patriarchy, war, and imperialism, and for all the talk I don’t see much progress on those fronts at all.


Matt 01.03.19 at 8:17 pm

My thought in relation to Phil’s point is very much of the “If you’re an egalitarian how come you’re so rich?” type. Given that effective action on climate change other than of the geoengineering kind is likely to involve coercively imposed restrictions on everyone’s lifestyle, the willingness of advocates of such restrictions to make changes themselves in advance of political success is likely to enhance their credibility with those they are calling on to accept sacrifices and their unwillingness is likely to make them look like phoneys, undermining the cause.

That seems logical. But logical arguments, generally speaking, don’t seem to change opinions all that much.

What I’ve seen is that people who don’t want to cut emissions will cite phoneyism as a reason for inaction: “I’d believe I should do my part if Al Gore didn’t live in a mansion.” But they also seem to cite opposite examples to justify inaction: “I’d believe I should do my part if it didn’t mean living like Joe Poverty, eating beans and riding the bus.” Sometimes they don’t even pause to take a breath between the two contradictory arguments that “you have to be poor” and “you have to be rich” to slash emissions.

I’d want to see some empirical results about the benefits of making examples of one’s own lifestyle rather than trusting to logic. Maybe it would sway a fair proportion of people who aren’t yet on board with climate change. Or maybe it would make very little difference, if people are mostly starting with fixed conclusions and then mustering support for them.

(This isn’t just to justify my own extravagance. I drastically cut back on eating animal products some years ago for health reasons. I drive very little. My electricity comes from 97% carbon-free sources.)


Moz of Yarramulla 01.03.19 at 8:25 pm

Offsetting is more complex than so far discussed when we’re using the zero emissions context. The only legitimate offsets are from negative-emissions scenarios, like tree planting at the sequestration stage (ie, when they’re burying the trees before planting new ones). Anything else is “we shouldn’t do this at all, but I’m paying someone else to do it less”. That’s true regardless of the merits of the “do it less”.

Charles Stross’ blog has just seen an argument about whether “safer cars” count that works the same way: if I buy a car that is safer for the occupant(s) than other cars, but much more dangerous to those outside, is it really safer? Or is is just pushing the risk/problem onto others who have no choice and no ability to solve the problem?

In an emissions context we have the tiny problem that even renewably-powered electric cars are “lower emissions” not zero emissions, because their manufacture and maintenance still require fossil fuels. And they run on plastic tyres so they’re still dumping microplastics into the oceans which is another problem entirely. Sure, EV’s are dramatically less polluting and we can probably fit them into our budget, but currently we’re not even thinking in terms of a balanced budget.


Moz of Yarramulla 01.03.19 at 8:37 pm


the green movement has a new argument: that cheap solar is here if we want it, that it’s inexpensive, clean, and sustainable;

Yes, abundant renewable energy will change things, potentially dramatically. It would be awesome if some pie-in-the-sky thinktank was dreaming up ways to have an energy-intensive global society. But I fear that will be used as an excuse to wait for heaven rather than acting now. We see that with Brexit, the overwhelming consensus in the UK parliament is that the current deal is rubbish and that if they just wait a better deal will be found. Even though we all know, and they all know, that there is no consensus on what a better deal would look like. Abundant energy could easily mean “I’ll keep driving to the airport for frequent flights because one day soon everything will be powered by renewable synthetic fuels”.

I think it’s much better to focus on “do all the things”, because as some of us keep saying, most of the things we should do anyway. More efficient stoves, homes, transport blah blah all the things… they pay off independently of climate change, and the benefit is magnified by climate change.

I live in Sydney, Australia, where 35 degree days in the summer are normal. Not “hot summer normal”, just “it’s sunny so it’s 35 degrees”. Luckily we almost always get cool nights. Proper thermal design is necessary to make houses habitable… so a lot of people have to go out on hot days because the inside of their house is over 30 degrees even with air conditioning. Me? I have a $5000 coolstore/shedroom that’s sealed, insulated and has small double-glazed windows (a rare combination here – my house is not like that). On hot days 200W of air conditioning keeps that habitable. So we *can* do these things, and we benefit from them right now, but we don’t. How do we change? I dunno.


hix 01.03.19 at 8:56 pm

One would have to convince me that buying offsets works at all. If one had convinced me that it is very likely they do work, id suggest primarily donating lots of money for offset projects, since individual reductions can also be quite expensive, or hypocritical (if they are very profitable because of huge subsidies like solar panels often were in the past with limited positive co2 impact). I guess that even if i would think this is an indivual matter, id still conclude the best way to be responsible is makeing a large political campaign donation and just avoid extreme things.


Omega Centauri 01.03.19 at 9:00 pm

“’d want to see some empirical results about the benefits of making examples of one’s own lifestyle rather than trusting to logic. ”
I think this is a good point. I fear that bragging about heroic asceticism probably backfires, i.e.
the target was thinking of cutting back a little bit, but now thinks you are demanding huge sacrifice and decides he will have none of it. We need smart promotion for stuff that encompasses lifestyle changes, the full frontal assault method usually doesn’t work.

42: True about EVs. Five billion EVs for ten billion humans is probably too stressful on the environment.* But we do have emerging transport tech for shorter trips as well. Electric bicycles and scooters and so forth can and should be a significant part of sustainable commuting and general urban mobility. There are lots of issues involved with making this happen. The need for safe routes, and safe places to park such mini-vehicles will require a lot of local political activity.

* But, do note that EVs are projected to last longer than traditional cars (probably requiring a battery change). Once mature the amount of car manufacturing activity may well decrease as a result of the change to electric.


Ingrid Robeyns 01.03.19 at 9:18 pm

I liberated Sibboleth’s (#7) comment from the Spam folder, not sure why it ended up there… (I assure you we don’t decide that comments ending with the word “revolution” end up in the spam folder! :)
Anyway, this means all numbers from 6 onwards should be adjusted. A tiny bit annoying, but I’m sure we can figure that out.


Brett 01.03.19 at 9:55 pm

@39 Hidari

I should be clear – biofuels are probably the solution for air travel only, unless someone develops batteries with power density on part with kerosene. I don’t seriously think they’ll be practical for use in any other transportation sector, nor desirable.

As for 2075, that’s doable. The planes operating in 2075 will have all been built in the 2040s at the earliest, so we’ve got decades to put in place laws requiring them to be green.


SamChevre 01.03.19 at 9:55 pm

I would agree with Chris Bertram @21.

Here’s the thing, as someone who’s very confident global warming is real but not altogether convinced on currently-proposed responses. There are multiple cases, over the past 50 years, in many countries, of the following dynamic:
1) Elites propose solving a problem by some action that makes people in the top half of the income/wealth on average slightly poorer
2) Implement the proposed solution
3) The 90th percentile is slightly worse off, but positionally further ahead of the 50th percentile.

This dynamic is frequently noted in sociology: elites often prefer more eliteness to more wealth.

This dynamic is how you reconcile the two opposing critiques noted by Matt@41. If the elites are not willing to sacrifice in service of their stated ideals, and the sacrifices they recommend of non-elites make them look “like Joe Poverty,” it’s a reasonable suspicion that reinforcing elite privilege is part of the goal of this, the 75th austerity/anti-poverty program.

Someone like Greta (mentioned in the OP) goes a long way toward defusing that suspicion. “I’m willing to live like Joe Poverty to solve this problem” makes it look like the sacrifice will really be shared.


John Quiggin 01.03.19 at 10:42 pm

Teleconferencing is an underused alternative to physical travel. When I get speaking invitations in other states, I mostly offer to present by teleconference, unless I can combine the trip with a family visit I would make anyway.


Moz of Yarramulla 01.03.19 at 10:57 pm

Omega: the little electric scooters are apparently a bit of a revolution. People who wouldn’t walk places are using them rather than taxis because they’re faster and cheaper. There’s the problem of sharing the footpath with pedestrians (much of the point is that they’re faster than pedestrians), and some vandalism, but on the whole they seem to be a big step forward.

This article, for example: https://thespinoff.co.nz/auckland/26-11-2018/where-should-lime-scooters-go-on-the-little-road-of-course/


Moz of Yarramulla 01.03.19 at 11:07 pm

Matt@42: I think there’s a different way, you simply live a decent life but with dramatically lower emissions (and footprint in general). That’s what I try to do, and it does seem to affect at least some people. If I was more social I would influence more people, but that’s a sacrifice I’m not willing/able to make.

We do see it happen, but it’s very hard for world-visible figures to do it because generally their job is to be world-visible and the job imposes requirements. It’s very hard to be a non-flying pop star, for example.

So at a more local level there are quite a few public figures who live in sensible houses, drive EVs and try to avoid plane travel. More than a few are also (semi)vegetarian and use renewable electricity etc. Leading by example happens all over – as JQ alluded to above, if the professor telepresents, that makes it easier for the grad student to do the same.


Michael Connolly 01.04.19 at 2:02 am

Murali @11 – According to Mapquest, it takes not 14, but 44 hours 36 minutes to drive the 3,135 miles from 5 Broad Street, Seattle to Orlando, Florida, which is in the center of Florida. Were you thinking of some other place called “Florida?” (From here in Boston, MA, I think you might make it to Orlando in 14 hours if you drove 80 miles an hour and never stopped. But Seattle? There’s a continent between the two….)


b9n10nt 01.04.19 at 3:43 am

I thinking the support of alternative communities that scale individual choices to combust less should-could be a major wedge issue for lefties to pull liberals. Like, do u want brother Jonny to sign u for the army or the farm?

That’s a winning left wing contiibution to the platform, no?

Re: the political/individual dichtotomy casually asserting itself as obvious, individual choices have to scale, and it may well be that a social infrastructure must gain momentum to manifest the public policy. Or something.

Basically, I think low-consumption communities of all political stripes have all sorts of positive externalities beyond the primary necessity of climate considerations


faustusnotes 01.04.19 at 5:03 am

Most of our required changes are not possible through individual action. Once the electricity supply system is renewable, then I don’t need to ration electricity; until it is no amount of personal sacrifice will make a dent in our emissions. Similarly, unless I decide not to engage in any aspect of the modern economy, I can’t “choose” products that were shipped with green shipping. Once the entire cargo fleet is nuclear, not such a problem.

The one big area where personal choices matter is meat. We can’t reduce the amount of meat the world eats without individually eating less meat.

Eating less meat is a good thing but I would like to point out (as someone who was vegetarian for about 15 years and vegan for about 7) that veganism is not healthy, and almost everyone who does it for a long period ends up stopping due to poor health. It leads to vitamin B12 deficiency, protein deficiency, and can also make you overweight. Eventually some of these problems may be solved by factory meat, but for now it’s not a great health option. Since vegetarianism is not an ethical improvement on eating meat, and has much more limited environmental problems, the best short-term (and also most socially acceptable option) is to simply massively reduce the amount of meat we eat. This can be achieved through collective rather than individual action. The entire food industry as it is presently constructed is a curse on humanity in millions of ways, and reforming it comprehensively would improve health, the environment, workers’ rights and political instability. You won’t fix that by eating organic – we need politicians willing to take on agribusiness.

So yes, eat less meat! But to properly solve these problems, we need to take on agribusiness, and we need to do it soon before the entire planet is fat, afflicted with antibiotic-resistant diseases, and boiling.


Kien 01.04.19 at 5:40 am

I had always understood that mitigating carbon emissions need not mean that anyone has to accept a lower standard of living (although growth might be lower); all we need is for governments to work together to pursue policies to delink carbon emissions from growth.

I also understand that it is economically feasible for wealthy nations to provide subsidised financing to encourage “clean infrastructure” (eg, solar farms vs coal generators).

On the ethics, I would agree that the wealthy among us have greater responsibility than the less welloff. The idea of common but differentiated responsibility seems right.


Hidari 01.04.19 at 8:18 am

If anyone cares, here’s a paper that looks at the last time the world faced an equivalent crisis World War 2


This is true, and really rams home the point that when the chips were down both the British and the Americans ditched all the nonsense about the so-called ‘free’ market, and planned their economy, because a planed economy is the only kind of economy that can function efficiently in this kind of situation (i.e. where there are specific quantitative goals that must be reached within a specific time period).

Remember we have to make serious progress on this problem within the next 12 years. So, the ‘seven sisters’ have to be nationalised, and shut down. The world’s coal plants have to be nationalised and shut down. Gasoline/petrol driven cars have to be banned. Flights have to be severely rationed. The machine, in other words has to stop. Consumptionism has to be stopped via a ration card system, as per WW2. The wars have to stop (the US military is a major carbon emitter, and this cannot be mitigated).


To repeat, this is wholly and completely incompatible with the workings of the ‘free’ market as we have known it since 1981, and, for most of us, since 1950 (in the UK).


reason 01.04.19 at 8:54 am

I’m a bit amazed that people are assuming there is nothing in between trains and heavier than air aircraft. What about lighter than air aircraft with (or without) space elevators.

I’m also rather aghast at the suggestion that we should ignore frugalism because energy will be so cheap. No it won’t be – remember we utilitize the easiest to use resources first (and there is a substantial investment cost). And the quicker we reduce the carbon cost of current energy the smaller the problem we face.

But that brings me to another point. Shouldn’t we be reexamining our whole relationship to time?


Adam Roberts 01.04.19 at 8:55 am

Ten minutes on statistica.com tells me that (2017 figures) something like 4 billion people fly a year (some people fly often in a year and others never fly, that’s not 4 billion separate individuals of course). That’s about 250 million tonnes, dead weight. That’s a lot; but then again air freight moves 14 billion tonnes annually, give or take; and since a tonne of freight takes the same energy to move through the air as a tonne of people, the pollution-ratio of those numbers is rather striking. Indeed, bc freight is less picky than people, freight carriers tend to fly considerably older and much less fuel efficient planes: A300s, MD11s even DC10s.

I take the force of the ‘let’s be vegan’ argument. I really do. It’s just that, as a Brit, to have full environmental benefit it means eating lots of turnips, spuds and curly kale, and cutting out all the rice and fancier veg that make the diet bearable.


reason 01.04.19 at 9:03 am

Another thing I think I should add to the pot is that prioritizing economic security is necessary to achieve a political solution. People’s own ability to avoid bankruptcy trumps all global considerations (as somebody mentioned in relation to an individual firm). Many people will be employed in firms, occupations or even regions that will have to suffer. I think this is often underestimated (look at the support Trump got for promising to support the coal industry for example). Specialization has been a great boon to mankind but sometimes it is a deadly trap for many people.


John Quiggin 01.04.19 at 9:35 am

Most of the environmental benefits of veganism can be obtained just by switching from ruminants to chicken.

I can’t find it now, but I read an article by an “ethical” vegan (seeking to minimise animal death/suffering) starting from this observation and criticising vegans who use the CO2 argument. Key point is that replacing beef with chicken implies many chickens per cow, each suffering more than cattle do.


Faustusnotes 01.04.19 at 10:40 am

I agree with Hidari. We can’t tax our way out of a problem of this magnitude, and economists who think we can don’t understand the nature of the problem. We don’t have time for the invisible hand of the market to put a thumb on the scales. And in particular we need two economies- the us and China – to act radically now.

That’s not going to happen, so we are screwed.


engels 01.04.19 at 10:41 am

I would agree that the wealthy among us have greater responsibility than the less welloff. The idea of common but differentiated responsibility seems right.

In 2014, the United States had a carbon footprint of 11.5 acres per capita, compared to the global average of 3.6 acres per capita.


=> estimated lifetime emissions based on life expectancy: USA: 920 (le 80); world: 259 (le 72)

If you’re an average middle-aged, middle-class American you could go zero-carbon today and you’ve still contributed far more to the problem than the average person who makes no changes will in their lifetime.


Zamfir 01.04.19 at 11:25 am

Adam says: “That’s a lot; but then again air freight moves 14 billion tonnes annually, give or take; and since a tonne of freight takes the same energy to move through the air as a tonne of people, the pollution-ratio of those numbers is rather striking.”

That’s not quite true – since people are bulky, a freighter aircraft typically carries much more tonnes of freight than a passenger aircraft carries tonnes of passenger. Per tonne-mile, freight consumes several times less fuel.

For example:
A 777-F (dedicated freighter) carries up to 100 tonnes of freight
The similar 777-200 carries 300 passengers, or about 30 tonnes of people (including clothes and luggage). It will have longer range than a fully loaded freighter, because a large part of the lift capacity is used to carry more fuel at take-off.

On top of that, a passenger 777-200 will typically carry 10 to 20 tonnes of belly freight on the same trip as the passengers. The same goes for most long-distance passenger planes. In fact, more than half of all air cargo is carried as belly freight in passenger planes. That makes it difficult to do an apples-to apples comparison on the relative fuel use.


engels 01.04.19 at 12:05 pm

…which I guess is similar to Greta Thunberg’s point, except instead of ‘older generations’ I’d say ‘the rich + the managerial-educational complex, especially in America’.


Collin Street 01.04.19 at 12:29 pm

What about lighter than air aircraft

The drag of the lift envelope kills it: hindenburg carried ninety people and ten tonnes of cargo at about a kilogram of fuel a kilometre… at 120km/hr, about as fast as a medium-speed train.

A comparable jet would only use three times as much fuel to go six times faster. Normally power to overcome drag varies with the fourth power of velocity, which limits how much faster you can push lighter-than-air, but fixed-wing aircraft that fly faster can use lower-drag lower-lift foils, leading to energy savings as they go faster. I mean, “three times as much energy” isn’t ideal, but that you don’t have to carry food for a week and cooks means that the real-world cost probably favours the jet.


bob mcmanus 01.04.19 at 2:24 pm

To me, the signal event of 2018 was when the most admired woman in America flaunted her $6000 boots on national tv. The ascending classes, the rising factions, those who control the Democratic Party let forth a huge collective squee.

Ain’t gonna be no reduction in consumption for those who have been living on bread and water for generations. It’s their turn to party. So some version of Macronism will continue, austerity and punishment for the white working class in flyover country and a shopping spree for deserving coastals and UMC minorities.

So Sanders and Warren can just forget it. It will likely be a ticket of Harris and “I married a billionaire” Beto and over by April.

And Trump will get a second term. Just as this comment will be condemned as whatever bigotry, so will the causes of the further swan dive into fascism be blamed on the rednecks. And the coastals will continue to prosper.


Z 01.04.19 at 3:22 pm

what do you think we should do, as persons and households? [S]hould we radically change our lifestyles [or is there] no point in doing anything given that most scope for change lies in industries and regulation?

I’m always a bit puzzled by the implicit opposition between a personal level and a structural level with scarcely a mention of any intermediate ones, whereas it seems to me it is at this intermediate level that “persons and households” can achieve the most the quickest in the current situation. To be very concrete, take meat consumption. Vastly reducing your own is a great idea, sure. Campaigning and organizing for a national win of a political party with an agricultural policy which is ecologically sensible is a great idea, sure. I fully encourage anyone to do both, but the former has a tiny impact, the latter is at the moment a long shot in most countries I’m familiar with.

On the other hand, campaigning and organizing for vastly reducing the meat consumption of say the communal canteen of your workplace and/or the school your children go to has (probably) a much higher chance of success and while the impact of success remains small, it now ranges in the hundreds of people (the thousands if you can sway the municipal authorities), not in the single digit as in the case of a strictly personal change. Same goes for waste management, water consumption, public transportation and several other ecological (and, of course, social) issues.

Now, the kind of work that this requires is very far from being glamorous and few people find it intellectually satisfying strictly speaking: it means going to every municipal board meeting and month after month, year after year, restating your case only to hear the same unjustified “no”, while the rest of the year you are knocking on the doors of your neighbors and writing them letters. But exactly because very few people actually do this, the rate of success is very high, in my own experience. And when you fail, at least you get to see exactly who is opposed, and why, in a way that I personally find far more illuminating than abstract debates between candidates for national elective positions (if only because elected representatives cannot be expected to be better than the people who elected them).

There is an added benefit, it seems to me: doing that kind of work, especially in its organizing and confrontational component, is a very good cure against overthinking whether such or such abstract evaluation of the situation is “merely a rationalisation for allowing ourselves to keep on polluting and overconsuming.”


robo_friend 01.04.19 at 4:51 pm

I agree with Z @ 65 and Omega Centuri @ 28 on the importance of individual action within your local community to get some additional scale on our actions.

Omega put it especially well – we as individuals can help support innovations that make it easier to live a more carbon-neutral life whether in building stock, transport, or diet. My partner and I have shifted toward a lower meat diet, and it’s been made much easier by living in NYC with a great variety of veggie-heavy cuisines and groceries. By frequenting those restaurants and foods, hopefully we’re swelling the trend toward eating great new food without meat (or using new meat substitutes like the Impossible burger, etc.) and keeping those restaurants around to show others that vegetarian diets are possible without feeling any sense of sacrifice.

This is how changes in individual lifestyles spread, with the slow person-to-person spread of new insights. And I believe the changes are likely to hold better if they are more gradual and freely chosen.


engels 01.04.19 at 5:01 pm

It would be nice to know why my comments keep being silently deleted or embargoed until the discussion has moved on without them… I apologise if I offended Chris on the previous thread but two of the last handful of comments that were approved were people addressing themselves to me who had no way of knowing that I was being prevented from responding to them. And on this thread I can’t see any reason for it.


engels 01.04.19 at 5:14 pm

They’ve appeared now (and apologies for the multiple comments). I’ve just realised my calculation above is nonsensical but I believe the point could be made properly by someone who wasn’t hungover…


steven t johnson 01.04.19 at 7:20 pm

I’m sorry, most of this sounds like the social discipline designed for a decaying society. Taking meat away from the maws of the mob? Keeping the rabble locked up at home?


Interguru 01.04.19 at 7:22 pm

The climate model is correct but irrelevant. Our globalized system is so fragile that it will come crashing down, commerce will come to a grinding halt and fossil fuel burning will be greatly reduced or cease. Among the black swans circling overhead are:
Nuclear War
A solar flare that brings down the electric grid
A pandemic
A financial crash, that cannot be bailed out.

The results will not be pleasant. The whole world will become a mashup of Venezuela, South Sudan, and Syria.


Matt 01.04.19 at 7:46 pm

I think there’s a different way, you simply live a decent life but with dramatically lower emissions (and footprint in general). That’s what I try to do, and it does seem to affect at least some people.

That’s laudable. It’s worth trying.

I may not have expressed myself clearly enough in the previous comment. I’m curious about what share of people who currently resist emissions-reductions will actually change their minds seeing living “good examples” to follow, vs. those who merely claim that they need better examples before they will change. The latter fraction will just muster another reason to justify climate inaction because their premises always followed from their conclusions rather than the other way around.

You may be setting yourself up for disappointment on climate progress if you think that a logical approach to winning climate allies will be effective. It can be effective if most people against climate action have objections that, once addressed, will turn them into allies. It can’t be effective if they’re just dead-set against climate action regardless and keep tossing out “reasons” as chaff.


engels 01.04.19 at 10:04 pm

Maybe I’m showing my age but I was sure the Cohen argument was ethical, not strategic. If you believe we are collectively, immorally wrecking the planet by eg flying multiple times per year, and need to be coercively prevented from doing so, how can you justify voluntarily choosing to fly multiple times per year?


Nam Nguyen 01.04.19 at 10:05 pm

bob mcmanus 01.03.19 at 7:02 pm

Halasz: The manufacture of an average auto uses 270 bn joules;

No offense, I am always cautious of such figures, and require better breakdowns: does this assume steel and plastic etc as unexamined inputs and just measures the footprint of the assembly?

Not the same source as Halasz, but in the same order of magnitude (~100 bn joules):

https://www.osti.gov/biblio/898530 “The vehicle cycle for each vehicle type and material composition includes the following processes: raw material recovery and extraction, material processing and fabrication, vehicle component production, vehicle assembly, and vehicle disposal and recycling. Currently, the model does not include energy use and emissions from transportation of raw and processed materials for each process step.”


engels 01.05.19 at 12:23 pm

(Claiming ‘it makes no difference’ is fatuous: 1.5 increase is better than 2 and will save real people from concrete harms. The same is true 1.499999999 vs 1.5 or whatever.


Andrew Crabtree 01.05.19 at 9:33 pm

Thanks Ingrid, Firstly I don’t think there is a carbon budget. Climate change is already here. Carbon budgets related to 1.5 or 2 degrees work on the assumption that a greater number of people will negatively be affected which goes against the moral intuition of everybody being of value. IPCC budgets (now 1.5) are aimed at a 66% chance of avoiding going beyond 1.5 degrees so if you like Russian Roulette you’ve got a 33% chance. Would you take it?

A round trip London to New York will go beyond a 2 degree budget in itself no matter what else you do. Can you justify this on grounds that others cannot reasonably reject?

Responsibility lies everywhere. Ought implies can and different people/institutions can do different things e.g. our municipality supplies district heating and financially enabled us to change from oil to district heating resulting in a significant reduction in CO2e emissions. But we cannot install the district heating network and make it available by ourselves. But given that it is there we have a responsibility to swap.

The paradox: The Maldives gets 28% of its income from tourism and will perhaps become uninhabitable at 1.5 degrees. Should we have a conference there?


e.a.f. 01.05.19 at 11:45 pm

making drastic changes, they rarely last, just like dieting doesn’t work well. small changes can make a difference. You do what you can. Now it might be better if India got with the agenda, but they won’t. We who live in the first world, have the ability to make changes. . To fly or not to fly on vacation. that’s a first world problem, but regardless its still a problem. We can ask ourselves can I have an experience closer to home which will bring me just as much joy? if the answer is yes, stay closer to home. However, if its always been your dream to go, where ever, then go. We are not in this to be martyors.
There are simple ways to help the environment, buy a new car only when you need one, every 15 yrs or so. (some of us live in rural areas where you can’t get along without them–think Canada) T.V.s, kept mine for 18 years. cell phones, replaced when they die and can’t be repaired. Our G-7 countries purchase, electronics as if our lives depended upon it.
There are a lot of ethical questions to ask ourselves. when we travel to these “resorts” do we think about what impact they have on the enviorment in these areas? Some will argue they provide jobs. However, at what cost to the environment.

I don’t count carbon whatevers, its just as simple as deciding to purchase local and less. Repairing things–gives a handyperson a job.

Yes, countries need to do things very quickly or there won’t a decent place left to live in the world. Our grandchildren won’t see old age. We used to think we’d nuke the world into oblivion, but at the rate things are going, I’d suggest we’re going to pollute ourselves out of existence.


e.a.f. 01.06.19 at 12:00 am

Murali, at 11. You write, its takes 14 hours to drive from Seattle to Florida. No it doesn’t. You have to drive across the U.S.A. That will take several days. I haven’t done it, but driving across Canada, to get from Vancouver to Toronto is a 4 day trip, and you’re driving flat out. To get from Pennsylvania, U.S.A. to British Columbia, Canada is a 3 day drive, flat out, stopping only to sleep–friend did it.
Europe has a great train system as it would seem Japan and China do. North American not so much. In Canada its very difficult to get across Canada by train and very, very expensive. its cheap to fly. Given some of the distances, in Canada, we need vehicles in rural areas and using electric vehicles simply won’t work. I’d consider it dangerous, getting stuck some where with no electricity. Hybrids would be much better.
India would certainly benefit from a better electrical grid, so people could use electrical car and get rid of the little gas engines which pollute everywhere. Reducing populations are also a great way to reduce your environmental foot print. No kids. As soon as we convince some countries that is the way to go, we’ll be further again. When I was a kid, there were approx. 3 Billion people on earth. Its more than doubled in my life time. My contribution to the environment. didn’t have kids.


john c. halasz 01.06.19 at 12:34 am

My favorite case among the various bits of learned ignorance on display in this thread is Murali’s apparent contention @ 11 that philosophizing requires jet-travel. That’s the sort of claim that Diogenes of Sinope would have richly appreciated.


bad Jim 01.06.19 at 7:13 am

I really, really don’t like this sort of argument. Am I virtuous or negligent? OMG, I forgot to have children! Give me a cookie!

Look, I’ve got an electric car, an all-electric house, and even so my energy use is so minimal that solar panels don’t pencil out as a profitable proposition. This last month was an exception, with a brother, a niece and a nephew visiting, cooking and cranking up the thermostats, accustomed as all three are to tropical climes. For this I will do penance, writing a check to Southern California Edison.

If there’s any value to this argument, which I doubt, it’s experimenting with alternatives, finding the easy fixes, comfortable accommodations. Dietary changes are not in that category, their health-enhancing effects notwithstanding.

Sinning less is not generally appealing. SUV’s have largely replaced sedans. People are practical. The only useful option is to change their incentives.


engels 01.06.19 at 11:09 am

Sinning less is not generally appealing. SUV’s have largely replaced sedans. People are practical. The only useful option is to change their incentives.

You are Milton Friedman and I claim my $5


Layman 01.06.19 at 8:26 pm

bad Jim: “Look, I’ve got an electric car, an all-electric house, and even so my energy use is so minimal that solar panels don’t pencil out as a profitable proposition.”

Really? I bought a 10.5kWh system in 2007, and it paid for itself in about 6 years. If I’d had an electric car, it would have paid for itself more quickly than that.


Omega Centauri 01.06.19 at 9:10 pm

I’d like to offer some praise for bad Jim @82. Firstly for standing up to the purity scolds. He has obviously been trying, and from his description is far below the carbon emissions trajectory that we want/need the average citizen of an advanced economy to be on. We want to encourage more to take a similar path, rather than promote an ideal that few will be able to meet.

He is way above the transportation transition curve curve too, having an electric car in these early days. Maybe one or two percent in California have taken that step so far, and as I mentioned before the overall effect of early movers can extend far beyond their direct emissions savings. He also shows some wisdom in evaluating whether solar makes sense for him, -he’s not going to do it just to satisfy an emotion desire to be seen as green. There are many cases like his, where a greater carbon impact could be had at lower cost elsewhere, possibly even by helping someone else to pursue a more cost effective change. We don’t have unlimited resources to spend on this transition, and we need to use them wisely.


Doug Alder 01.06.19 at 9:34 pm

Without a wholesale change in the economic basis of western society we are doomed. Capitalism is based on non-stop growth and constant growth means extracting finite resources. Globally carbon emissions are not going d0wn they are still increasing. Nearly 3% in 2018 and they will keep going up. There is not the political will in the west to force a change to the economic system, and the top 1% who benefit from current economics essentially control the politicians.


Paul 01.06.19 at 10:44 pm

Seems simple enough to me.

1) Our collective impact on the world is already far advanced on a catastrophic path.
2) Within that impact, on any dimension, each of us as individuals or households taken in a purely fictional isolation has a trivial impact, whether positive or negative.
3) That characteristic modern conceptual illusion of isolation contrasts with an increasingly clear-cut reality, which is pervasively interdependent causality.
4) In this context, we each need to do our best to reduce the collective impact by all means available. This means:
– our own material consumption choices (eating less/no meat and dairy, flying less/not at all, choosing low-/zero-carbon transportation options, smaller/collective/energy-efficient housing, refraining from conspicuous consumption, etc.)
– influencing the consumption choices of others (by example/persuasion/network effects/formal movements)
– overt political action (voting for green parties and candidates, civil disobedience, acting locally to make changes in school cafeterias, pushing for more egalitarian arrangements that leave people room to build and maintain those social bonds and prevent market-based “solutions” from pushing those worse off into the arms of the extreme right, etc.), and
– rebuilding the day-to-day networks of face-to-face social bonds that so much material consumption is aimed at acting as a poor substitute for.

You may not be able to do all of these things, but you do your best to shift around your habits in a way that takes the unprecedentedly vast challenge of worldwide ecological crisis seriously. Where’s the puzzle?

(Re: point 3: Human sociality has its own characteristic rapid forms of social interdependence. For whatever reason, in the context of ecological crisis this interdependence is often viewed only in terms of its negative/limiting/problem-creating potential. As if people would/could only ever influence each other to do more damaging things, never the opposite… Homo malus malus?)


bad Jim 01.07.19 at 7:42 am

Omega Centauri, I’m blushing so furiously that I needed to check the thermostat to remind myself I turned it down. (This may seem obscure to those unused to radiant heating.) Layman, good for you! I think I need to explain.

First, here’s a link to California ISO, real-time tracking of supply and demand, a delight for any amateur energy enthusiast. In the dead of winter the dreaded duck curve is not immediately evident, but summer months can be reviewed with a couple of clicks.

In short, we already have an oversupply of solar power in spring and early summer. The excess is such that we pay neighboring states to absorb it, or simply curtail it. Those in the know tell us that it’s nothing to worry about, that too much power is a good problem to have. The graphs suggest to me that the best time to charge my car is mid-morning, when the grid is consuming the least carbon, rather than the middle of the night, when demand is least but mostly supplied by fossil fuels.

One thing is that my electricity provider pays top dollar for solar power, so it would prefer me to buy the cheap stuff. This may change at some point; at places like Utility Dive electric cars are discussed as “dispatchable load”, as though they could participate in a continuous auction, which may happen someday. The other thing is that, although my electricity provider pays top dollar for any solar power I could generate from my south-facing not quite optimally sloped roof, it’s only a credit against my usage, which I do my best to minimize.

So I’m a hypocrite, privately virtuous but deprecating private virtue. See The Americanization of Emily. Not every little thing we do helps. After every family visit I have to go through the recycling bin to pick out things that don’t belong. There’s a naive faith that all plastic can be recycled: look, it has a number on it! Nope, nope, nope.


engels 01.07.19 at 10:27 am

Barber said most of the bookings were for a month or two, but he had arranged a year-long break for a 45-year-old billionaire who had sold his startup and wanted “some time to reconnect with this family”. The trip cost well in excess of £1m. The family visited 65 countries – from Mauritius to Bhutan, Antarctica and Greenland. “The guy was burnt out,” Barber said. “He wanted to see the world, get back to basics a bit and most importantly see more of his kids, who he hadn’t seen so much of when he was working to sell his company.” A team of agents helped arrange the trip for the billionaire, including applying for visas and fixing up local guides in each country. Flights were the one thing Barber’s team did not need to worry about, as the family’s pilot flew them on their private jet. Specialist travel agents catering to the wealthy arrange trips such as snow leopard spotting in India. Included on the family’s itinerary was tracking snow leopards in Ladakh, north-west India. “They really wanted to see them, but didn’t want to wait there for 10 days and not actually see a snow leopard,” Barber said. So his firm hired a team of local spotters and a helicopter to whisk the family from their luxury encampment the minute the elusive big cats were spotted.



reason 01.07.19 at 1:29 pm

I think it got lost in the rush, but I made a point that nobody seems to have picked up on, and engels last post is sort of apposite.

“Shouldn’t we be reexamining our whole relationship to time?”

I meant it. We have gone a long time now going faster and faster (especially going through our resource endowment, faster and faster), and research suggests we are much happier when we slow down, in fact when we lose all sense of time completely. Lots of people say things like – no worries we have enough oil to last another 50 years (it only took several hundred million years to accumulate). Isn’t time of the essence?


steven t johnson 01.07.19 at 3:05 pm

One of the upsides to markets in electric power is where bids from high-income areas are lumped in with bids from low-income areas, so the price will be appropriately punitive (aka rationing) for low-income areas. And, as a bonus, low-income energy producers will have their power funneled to high-income areas!

I’ve heard the argument that nothing in the world will change until people change their hearts. It usually comes from Christians convinced original sin in the hearts of sinners causes all the bad things. The assumption that choosing an electric car is touchstone of virtue requires the assumption that the transportation needs and options are also individual choice.


Andrew Norris 01.07.19 at 11:28 pm


“the impact they can have on the social world – and hence on the biosphere – is minuscule, compared to the glocal scale of the problem.”

Love it – every new word is a cause of celebration.

A first step towards zero emissions is condensed vocabulary, especially on the glocal level.


engels 01.08.19 at 10:34 pm

Act glocal, think lobal.

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