Written by David Darler
Posted on April 3 2020
Today I read the report Carbon emissions from fossil fuels could fall by 2.5bn tonnes in 2020 (the Guardian, 12 April 2020, J. Ambrose). I was disappointed to discover that 2.5 billion tonnes, a record fall, is equivalent to only 5% of global carbon emissions. To put this in context, according to the IPCC report Global warming of 1.5°C (2019), we would need to find another 2.5 billion tonnes of savings next year, and every year after that until 2040, in order to have a chance of keeping global warming 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (it is already at approximately 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels).
Every year. For the next twenty years. Our currently projected reductions for 2020 are only the first step, a fact which is confirmed by the atmospheric carbon dioxide level measured daily at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which continues to increase at exactly the same rate as before the economic recession caused by Covid-19, i.e. about 3 ppm per year (current measurement: 416.33 ppm). If you are concerned about the climate, and feel that you have already sacrificed a lot of your luxuries in the last weeks, consider that we, collectively, not only need to keep this up for the rest of the year, but somehow maintain this rate of carbon austerity until today´s undergraduates reach middle age. This is the scale of the collective task facing us.
Reductions of carbon emissions must be led by falls in demand, not supply, a fairly obvious observation but one which is rarely acknowledged by mainstream climate movements.
The Covid-19 experience has at least helped us to draw a link between theory and reality. It has also shown that reductions of carbon emissions must be led by falls in demand, not supply, a fairly obvious observation but one which is rarely acknowledged by mainstream climate movements. This means that the easiest way, probably the only way, for citizens to force coal, oil and gas companies to reduce production is to stop buying products derived from fossil fuels. We must do this, because if we don´t, production will continue to match rising levels of consumption. It is quite absurd to expect national governments to simultaneously force producers and consumers to reduce their activities through legislation, a process which takes years even when the political will to make it happen exists, which it doesn´t.
The following is a quote from The Road to Wigan Pier (George Orwell, 1937):
“Our civilization, pace Chesterton, is founded on coal, more completely than one realizes until one stops to think about it. The machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world the coal miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy caryatid upon whose shoulders nearly everything that is not grimy is supported. For this reason the actual process by which coal is extracted is well worth watching, if you get the chance and are willing to take the trouble.”
Our modern civilization is founded on oil. All of the luxuries, prosperity and security we enjoy as wealthy European citizens are derived from the manufacture of oil products. It is worth remembering this when we villainize oil company executives, investors and labourers for supplying the commodity that our modern way of life depends on. I wonder if oil company executives think that we are ungrateful. This contradiction between our demands of corporate and government power and the demands we place on ourselves needs to be addressed urgently. Dealing with climate change is hard, it is going to be painful, as many are starting to notice, and this is just the beginning.
A general boycott of all unnecessary goods and services is a prerequisite for tackling climate change. It is the first step in a long line of transformations that we will have to make, as the CO2 emissions data demonstrates. Climate movements must acknowledge this, and demand consumption strikes and economic boycotts en masse. This is necessary for three reasons. Firstly, for practical reasons, otherwise there is no realistic path to keeping global warming below catastrophic levels. Secondly, for reasons of justice, because we should not demand from others burdens which we are not prepared to accept for ourselves. And thirdly, because it sends a message to governments that we as consumers will not accept a return to the old modes of economic activity, and force policymakers to consider more realistic alternatives.