A low-carbon campaigner is visiting Shaftesbury to share his thoughts on tackling the climate emergency. Guardian and Independent writer Chris Goodall will explain how fashion and fast food consumers are making a difference. He has ideas on how to discourage unnecessary flying without penalising package holidaymakers, too.
Chris Goodall believes that we won’t achieve net-zero carbon status and remove as many carbon emissions as we produce unless there is a joined-up plan that covers almost every human activity. He has published the book, ‘What We Need To Do Now For A Zero-Carbon Future’. I asked him who he was referring to by the ‘we’ in his book’s title. “The majority of the responsibility lies with the people who have control of the big questions in life, such as which technologies to support and what taxation regime to put in place,” said Chris.
He says that private citizens can have little effect when working alone, but when they come together or their changed behavioural patterns are noticed by businesses who want to retain their custom, change can happen. “If they change their life to be part of the low-carbon revolution, that in itself will have virtually no effect. But we do lots of things in our life because they are right and not because they are effective,” he said.
Chris offers the separation of domestic waste as part of the recycling process as an example. “There’s no point in you doing it. It doesn’t have any observable effect but the fact that you do it means you have authority to ask other people whether they do it and for your local authority to be required to perform better on that,” he said. “Living a life that is low carbon is a prerequisite for being an active part of society that is going to change things.”
Chris says he would be the first to admit that this is an extremely deep problem. “If just a small number of people decided to change their lives and live better, it doesn’t look as if it’s going to have any effect. But every successful social movement in history has been started by people changing the ways they behave and beginning an influence on those around them. We all know what the UK is supposed to do. The answer to your question, the ‘we’ in the book, is supposed to be the UK as a whole. None of us can do it on our own.”
Around one-quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from food-production and a study by the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change estimates that 58% of those food emissions relate to food production involving animals. There are multiple reasons, including carbon-tackling forestry being felled for pasture and grazing land and livestock omitting methane gas. That’s why many climate change activists advocate eating less or no meat.
In the past three years, many fast food multiples have noticeably introduced plant-based menu items. Chris says although it can help make a difference and its welcomed, the introduction of meat-free options is simply because companies can see the money in it. “The only reason these chains are moving in what I think is the right direction is because they believe that is what their customers want,” said Chris. “There are some exceptions, but large companies will generally follow what they think are the market trends. The vegan movement is growing reasonably fast. The willingness to try out vegan food is growing. So it becomes possible for KFC to alter its menus. Over 50% of all of the processed food introduced into supermarkets last year used the word ‘vegan’ in their description. This mass movement started probably based on just two or three per cent of the population. A small percentage of people changing their way can influence large corporations to move in that direction.”
Chris says he has been a vegetarian for forty years and when he gave up meat people might have considered him odd, in those days. “It was equally difficult becoming vegetarian as it probably is to become a vegan now. It had the same connotation. It is someone who is, in some ways, abstracting themselves from society. You are putting yourself into a category that would allow people to write you off as eccentric,” he explained.
“The most difficult challenge the low carbon movement has is to become to be seen as mainstream, the obvious thing to do. It’s a lot closer to that than it was a year ago. We’re still not there. Just having five per cent of the population heavily engaged in this, which I suspect is the figure today, is not yet enough for the people who govern us to believe that they need to reform policy.”
Shaftesbury has recently held events to encourage people to recycle clothing. Chris’s book touches on the challenges of decarbonising the cotton manufacture processes. But, again, shoppers’ concerns are convincing retailers and manufacturers to change their ways.
“The fashionable end of the fashion industry, high-fashion, is moving at an astonishing pace towards reuse of fabric. It seems to be what successful, fashionable people do. The big dilemma is how to get a mainstream movement going which is seen by the rest of society as being basically ordinary, middle-class, middle England and not a bunch of hippy eccentrics. But, at the same time, not being dragged into compromise,” said Chris.
One of the messages in Chris’s book is that Britons need to fly less. “Until we get across the message that not flying is socially acceptable and you’re not becoming abstracted from society by deciding not to fly, we’re never going to make it influential because we will just be seen as a bunch of weirdo eccentrics,” he said.
I asked Chris whether his book offered solutions for making flying more sustainable, such as the use of synthetic and non-fossil fuels for planes. “The problem with aviation is that if we fly an aircraft across the Atlantic, the emissions from the engine with a water vapour means that the net impact on the climate is twice what it would be just from the carbon dioxide alone. We can’t just get rid of the problem of aviation by switching to fuel with zero-carbon,” he said.
Chris’ Shaftesbury talk is likely to touch on his vision for what he believes will be an effective and fairer tax regime. “Airlines have extraordinary exemptions from taxation. Wherever you are in the world, if you are running an airline, the fuel you are buying is exempt from any form of taxation. That’s inherently unfair. Everybody is competing against, what is in effect, a subsidised means of travel. Merely by putting a reasonable tax on aviation fuel, you begin to choke off demand,” he said.
“In my book, I say that for some people, flying is their job. They are forced to travel. For other people, it is, perhaps, their single luxury. They fly to Spain for a summer holiday. We need to make sure that the people whose flying is restricted are the people who can most afford to do that. I argue for what is now increasingly called a carbon dividend,” said Chris.
He explained that it is essentially a carbon tax. “It’s a tax on everything that generates CO2 and other greenhouse gases. That is then rebated in the single payment each year to each individual and society. The impact of any taxing of carbon would fall disproportionately on the wealthy and does not affect the living standards of the less well off,” he said.
I asked Chris if that concept for taxation, which would require significant administrative change, had been successfully introduced anywhere else in the world. “We have done it in the UK,” Chris said. “We imposed a tax, effectively, on the burning of coal in power stations. In the course of seven or eight years since that has been introduced, we have got rid of the burning of coal. Nobody, thirteen years ago, thought it was even conceivable. Some people have lost their jobs but vastly more people have gained jobs from the growth of the onshore and offshore wind industry.”
I asked Chris what message he wanted to communicate to his Shaftesbury audience. “There is no reason to be frightened of it or to believe that it is going to significantly affect our underlying standard of living. We can continue to have a prosperous, cultured, caring life, unaffected by the move to this transition. We have the technical means to do it all. It’s clear to me what is going to happen – be part of this, realise it is going to happen. Encourage others to believe it is probably a good thing. A properly managed energy transition can, importantly, remove some of the ghastly inequalities between the rich and the poor in this country,” Chris said.
Chris Goodall’s talk has been arranged by Planet Shaftesbury. It takes place at 7.30pm on Thursday, 27th February at Shaftesbury Town Hall. The event is free but as Chris commands quite a following, you are being advised to book in advance on the Eventbrite website.