The case for Carbon Literacy

Antony Turner speaking at  SEE conference , Weisbaden, Germany April 2013

Antony Turner speaking at SEE conference, Weisbaden, Germany April 2013

Human induced climate change is claimed to be the greatest challenge of the 21st century. But man-made carbon emissions continue to rise - the 400ppm carbon milestone causes barely a ripple. At the same time the warnings from climate scientists get clearer and more focused. Despite bizarre weather increasing around the globe, business as usual is generally the order of the day.

I am intrigued as to why, in society at large, there is little grass roots support, no loud and clear call for action to address this issue.

The answer is of course that for most people climate change is too abstract and confusing to consider in their busy day to day lives. Complex eco-system interactions, strange timescales and decades-long time lags make this tough for people to get their head around. Throw in climate computer modelling and contradictory media reporting and it’s no wonder people are confused, or easily misled. Or simply consider their time better spent elsewhere.

An even less well understood but critical reason is that greenhouse gases, the primary cause of climate change, are invisible.

How can this societal inaction be changed? I believe a solution is to actively promote ‘carbon literacy’ – an ability to understand the carbon implications of actions at every scale in the landscape of our lives. We need to have a real sense of the carbon intensity of our energy, our transport options and the buildings that we live and work in.

In short we need to highlight the causes of climate change- greenhouse gases – rather than the difficult and always negative aspects of the effects.

We have been living, for the last thirty years, in an era of very cheap energy. That is now ending. There has been no real incentive to save energy as the fossil fuels have been abundant and inexpensive. That is now changing.

Carbon literacy, most importantly, will mean engaged and informed citizens who can then provide politicians with a clear mandate. Without that mandate policymakers are unwilling and unable to take the tough decisions in line with the carbon reduction pleas of the scientific community.

Some of the solutions involve bold policy decisions, some are high-tech, and the input of the average consumer will not be required. But many ways of minimising carbon emissions are low-tech, or may just require shifts in priorities and behaviour. House insulation is a good example of a low-tech and low-cost solution which can save unnecessary carbon emissions.

Other solutions will require behavioural changes. Will it be a good idea to choose a job fifty miles from home in a low-carbon world? Could current journeys be shared with others? And once the imperative for a low-carbon future becomes apparent, unimaginable business opportunities will appear that help consumers and businesses with the shift.

Maybe then ordinary people will start to make sense of the personal, local and global carbon stories that we hear but don’t listen to now.

A fundamental part of the solution to the climate challenge, according to Sir Nicholas Stern, is not technological – the technologies are available or being developed now. The key is to put a price on carbon emissions from fossil fuels. Virtually every thoughtful economist and politician agrees with this remedy, though how to put it in practice is another challenge.

But without carbon literacy the pricing of carbon emissions will, in my view, remain a pipe dream.