Net Zero – Change Not Sacrifice

First off, I am largely dodging the conversation around the issues with the term “net zero.” To cut to the chase on this, yes, we are going to need to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere because we have already overshot many of the national budgets, placing a hugely unfair burden on the Global South. Let’s assume, however, that when we are referring to net zero here we are talking about getting our greenhouse gas emissions to zero like our lives depended on it – not a bad assumption, I think. 

The release of the latest IPCC report indicates that the climate crisis is caused by human activities and they make it plain this is “unequivocal.” The report stresses that urgent action is needed and that the effects of the climate crisis are here now and they are evident across the whole planet. A useful summary can be found here or a more detailed summary for policymakers here. It states that getting to 1.5 degrees of warming or even 2 degrees of warming will be extremely challenging and that we are headed for 1.5 degrees between now and 2040. However, there is hope. We need to cut greenhouse gas emissions drastically – in other words, we need to get to cut our emissions drastically and ASAP.

The response of those invested in maintaining the status quo has been to say that we cannot afford the measures needed to get to net zero. The Guardian reported that the UK treasury is blocking the budget for the agreed minimally-necessary UK green policies.  This is coming in the year when we are hosting COP 26, hoping to be world-leading in our response and bringing countries together to agree ambitious climate actions. As many have pointed out, the cost of measures to get to net zero are as nothing compared to the future costs of missing this opportunity to avert devastating climate change. This decade is likely our last chance to keep our planet habitable for humans. The current economic costs alone (year-on-year) of the effects of the climate emergency are breathtaking. This article from the IMF in 2019 talks of losses in the hundreds of billions in 2017 – some $140 billion of which were insured, but $200 billion were not. We also need to factor in the costs of mitigation (flood defences etc.), climate refugees, the increasing expense and difficulty of any late preventative measures and the possibility of troubling international instabilities brought about by the collapse of fossil fuels and water shortages. It is difficult to understand how governments and policymakers would leave this in the hands of fate, unless their interests are indeed incredibly short-term. The poorest in our global communities stand to be the worst affected, at least in the immediate future, but it is clear that this will to affect all sections of society. 

Spurred by frustration from the continuing obstructions and excuses from the powers that be, I enlisted my family in a protest of sorts – #SwitchOffSaturday. The objective was to switch off our screens and electrical devices and leave the car on the drive – in effect, taking personal measures to get to net zero for a day. (In the interests of full disclosure, we did use some lighting in the evening, did cooking and used the phone as a camera for the purposes of sharing our experiences).

It was a protest to say that net zero can often save money. We wanted to cast a vote for using less energy and fewer virgin resources (ideally none of the latter). That is clearly not something that the treasury wants to advocate in a growth economy that prides itself on a rosy GDP growth. However, there are so many benefits to investing in green jobs and to saving people money through measures such as properly insulated homes and lower energy bills. It was a protest asking that we offer people greater resilience in a rapidly changing future and a far fairer system that supports people of all backgrounds to live fulfilling lives, where their contribution is given the recognition it deserves.

I am under no illusions that one day of screen abstinence is going to have much of an impact on our personal carbon budgets, let alone change the world. The phones and screens account for around 4% of our electricity budget. So why would we do something that is ostensibly cutting our noses off to spite our face? Well, the personal electricity bill is not the full carbon picture. Invariably, we are using these devices to access the internet – streaming videos, accessing search engines, uploading photos and so on. According to How Bad are Bananas (Mike Berners-Lee), the phone electricity use accounts for 1% of the annual carbon footprint versus 22% from the networks and data centres. 

On top of this, we enter the land of marketing and sales through our screens – how much of our day is spent being convinced to make purchases or buying from online outlets? As we did not spend the day offline shopping in town instead, for one day only we were freed from the influences trying to make us buy things we did not need.  There is, of course, a risk that we just do more online shopping and internet surfing on Sunday. However, there are only so many hours in the day and we are committed to only buying what we need. Still, it is an important issue to be aware of.   

It is not just about carbon budgets or financial costs either. It is about the human price we are paying for this lifestyle.

What did we learn from a day offline?

Anyone with kids in Western society is likely to be waging a constant battle with their conscience over screen time. First television channels and now phones, tablets, video games and 24 hour streaming of videos provide endless entertainment for children and, let’s face it, they are a sometimes very useful source of childcare whilst we juggle housework, homeworking and the ever-increasing need for “me time” to recover from the work, housework, bickering kids, worries about a burning planet etc. So, you will not be surprised to learn that we had some resistance to the #SwitchOffSaturday challenge! 24 hours without any screen time is a big ask, but it also made us acutely aware that watching videos is unhealthy in large quantities and quite possibly addictive.

We also noticed that we had to spend quality, undistracted time together – there is no hiding behind a guise of busyness and no mercy for failure to provide substitute entertainment. Full confession: how many of us glance at our phones and work emails during time with our families? Switching off meant being fully present and having to be pretty creative in finding ways to keep everyone amused. The highlight of the day was a walk and picnic by the river. Several dragonflies darted around and we watched as a fished leapt out of the water, almost catching one. As we walked, we talked in a way that is hard indoors with all the distractions and nagging piles of washing.

We played lots of board and card games as a family. It was the first time in a while that we had had a day at home when one or other of us adults did not spend some of the time working. Invariably, the appeal of the board games waned, so we had to come up with new ideas – enter the enormous box of eco toilet rolls! Who knew that the humble bog roll had so many uses? We started with Bombs Away Bowling – trying to knock down a toilet roll pyramid with, you guessed it, another paper-wrapped tube of bum fun! Then we set up a maze – originally intended for a remote-controlled robot, but this plan was thwarted by his electronic nature and, ashamedly more so, by our inability to find the remote in the over-stuffed toy cupboard. So, we went old-school and guided blindfolded humans safely through without collision.

Crazy games apart, we also took some time to write to an 11 year-old pen-friend in Malawi. We reflected on how she would be spending her day – most likely helping with the family crops and livestock. Certainly not playing video games or messing around with toilet rolls. In fact, according to How Bad Are Bananas, the average Malawian person has a carbon footprint of just 0.2 tonnes CO2 equivalent versus the average Briton with 13 tonnes CO2 equivalent. It is not lost on us that the crops that our Malawian friend is helping to harvest are at serious risk from climate change and far more imminently so than any risks to our livelihoods or food supply here. Nor should we forget the privilege we have to be able to choose how to spend our Saturday or our enormous access to leisure and entertainment.

It is not helpful, though, to approach this problem from the mindset of making sacrifices even in the face of such global injustices or the pressing need to address increasing wildfires, floods and drought. No YouTube ad will be able to sell sacrifice to the masses, however compelling the argument and, in reality, it is not sacrifice from the masses that is needed – it is change. What we learned from #SwitchOffSaturday is that we started the day feeling the loss of the familiar things that we are choosing to release, but we regained a quality of life and a healthier way of living. We got to use skills and abilities – ones that lie dormant when we can consume whatever the internet has to serve up. We got to think for ourselves, forge new paths and build relationships that are complex and non-linear. We lived fully in the moment and not anaesthetised to so much of our experience – not always easy or pretty, but very much alive.

The path we choose may be to work in ways where the true value of things is recognised – often that means acknowledging a value that is far more than we can economically afford. How much should it cost to own a patch of land for all eternity? What should we really pay someone who cleans up vomit and faeces and holds a dying hand? How much should it cost to prematurely end 40000 lives in the UK through air pollution or to burn the Amazonian lungs of the planet? Who chooses to work more than 60 hours a week to buy their boss an extension on their house or to pay for a billionaire’s chance to experience a few brief moments as Buzz Aldrin? The true value of an economy and system to deliver net zero surely outweighs the short-term costs.

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