Chris Goodall, 'How to lead a low carbon life: The Individual's Guide to Stopping Climate Change'

IssueSeptember 2007
Review by Gabriel Carlyle

The fundamental premise of this surprisingly gripping book is that “individuals rather than governments or companies are going to be the driving force behind reductions in greenhouse gases.”

Annual UK CO2 emissions amount to 12.5 tonnes per person, roughly half of which is generated by individuals running their houses, cars and taking transport. The other half is generated by activities such as agriculture, industry, and transporting goods. By a closely examining the emissions generated by heating houses, driving cars, etc. Goodhall shows how individuals can take action to halve their own personal emissions from 6 to 3 tonnes. Additional actions - including changing food-buying habits, lowering consumption and investing in renewable energy companies - are then supposed to “cancel out” the remaining emissions, bringing the individual's total to a “sustainable” 3 tonnes.

With chapter heading such as “household appliances” and “water heating and cooking”, it certainly sounds like a dull-read, but in fact much of the detail is fascinating. For example, a mere £3.5bn - well under the cost so far of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - would be enough to fund a national programme of cavity wall insulation, saving 12 million tonnes of emissions each year - slashing roughly 2% off UK emissions for what is, in relative terms, next to nothing.

Personally, I'm sceptical that a vanguard of carbon-cutters is going to force governments and corporations to tackle climate change. Indeed, the precedents Goodhall cites - free-range eggs and fair trade products - have had only limited uptake over long time-scales. Time is short and a massive international movement - including, but not confined to, consumer action - will be necessary to force change.

Moreover - as Goodhall himself acknowledges in an afterword - his “sustainable” 3 tonne target may, in actual fact, be much too high.

Nonetheless, every peace activist should buy, read, absorb and act on this book. As a recent report from the UN's Environment Programme pointed out, the conflict in Darfur has been driven by climate change and environmental degradation, and this is probably an ominous sign of things to come.

Until we start turning lights off, thermostats down and, above all, stop flying we are still in deep denial, and probably doing more to promote than prevent future wars. However, such changes must be just the first step towards integrating the peace movement into the growing movement to prevent ecological meltdown.

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