UK Carbon-Reduction Activists in a Quiet “Riot for Austerity”

While Americans are just waking up to the idea that they might have to do something about climate change, small groups of self-styled carbon-reduction activists in the United Kingdom are taking personal accountability for their emissions to the next level, as reported in the Observer of London.

Heeding the call of environmental activist George Monbiot to "riot for austerity" and be the first generation "to ask for less rather than more," members of the groups called carbon reduction action groups, or CRAGs, are setting strict goals for personal emissions, and, in some cases, paying a penalty for going over the limit. The reckoning of the costs, done at group meetings, is sometimes uncomfortable.

The process of setting up a group can be difficult as members try to grapple with their carbon impact and agree on how great a change they are prepared to make in their lifestyles. This is particularly tough for those who have already done the easy things, such as changing to a green electricity tariff and installing low-energy light bulbs.

"We’re already seeing Kyoto-type negotiations in miniature in the groups," Ross says, referring to the global agreement for industrialised countries to curb greenhouse gas emissions. "It underlines how difficult it will be on all [political] levels to cut emissions if we can’t get 10 people to agree across a table."

One over-emitter admits his environmental profligacy, which included living in a drafty house, will oblige him to pay £120 (about $240) into the group’s carbon fund, but says he has no problem forking over the cash.

The formation of the CRAGs comes against a background of growing mainstream awareness of personal "carbon footprints" in the UK. Last week, the behemoth supermarket chain Tesco announced it will begin labeling products for their carbon costs the same way it does for nutritional information. Retailer Marks & Spencer has announced a huge new environmental initiative. Communications giant BT has pledged to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent in the next nine years. And the liberal Guardian newspaper even has a standing section on Ethical Living that runs peppy articles on ways to reduce personal environmental impact, like following a "Low-Carbon Diet." 

Meanwhile, here in the US, it’s big news when a company like Wal-Mart gets behind energy-saving lightbulbs. And the idea of asking for less rather than more? Isn’t that…un-American or something?

  • P

    Their individual efforts are admirable and perhaps a political statement but it should be understood that reducing global warming is a systemic problem that requires governmental action. Unless they simply reject wholesale much of the technology of the last century they are not in very good position to determine if the products they buy adhere to sustainable practices or not.

    For instance, information regarding the amount of recylced content of a product or the amount of energy that went into its creation are simply not available to individuals. I recognize their actions as a political statement but it also seems to reinforce the notion that whether or not to live a sustainable lifestyle is a matter of individual preference not public policy.

  • Everyone is going to have te reduce everything. That is undeniable, and it has to happen quickly. These individuals are just doing what they are going to be forced to do at some point, and they are the vanguard for the new ways humans will have to live in the 21st Century.
    There examples will be useful knowledge and gives them great credibility in the debate over what exactly need to be done to fight global warming.

    Its also worth noting here that the industrialized nations has a 0.6% drop in oil use in 2006. That has not happened in over 20 years. So maybe individual behavior is starting to add up?There certaqinly hasn’t been any goverment action that would explain the 0.6% drop.

    great post Sarah.

  • P

    Well, aside for record warm temperatures and reduced need for heating oil I would account the drop in consumption due to the relatively higher prices of fuel not any particular increase of ecological awareness in Europeans and Americans over the course of the year.
    I think this helps demonstrate my point that systemic solutions (like the carbon tax) are the solution.

  • There was a bigger overall increase in the price of oil in both 2004 and 2005, so I do not think the price can adequately explain the reduction in use.
    It’s most likely a combination of factors, with increasingly green activities possibly (hopefully) playing a role.

    A Carbon Tax would be a huge step – but it alone is not enough. Society has to fundamentally alter the way it thinks about the environment – and itself. Too many people equate personal success with consumption. What does “the good life” mean to the average American? Its a culture of wastefulness and decadence – this is what need to change. We cannot legislate a change in thinking, can we?

  • P

    “We cannot legislate a change in thinking, can we?”

    Jason, in the 1800’s it may have been an admirable step of for a family to take but the creation of a one-building sewer system would not have solved the sanitation crises of the era. Even if the ‘movement’ (no pun intended) had included a large percentage of the community it is not likely that a city like New York would have acheived it’s goals of reducing water borne disease. It was only the governmental and corporate recognition that a collective solution was vital to the future of the city that produced the systemic answer required.

    Like I’ve said, I don’t really mean to belittle the individual efforts of those who recognize the problem before others. However, in my opinion the solution lies in another direction.

    I’m sorry for the nitpicky argument- I’ll try not to be a downer for the rest of the day.

  • Hey P and Jason —

    Your debate is a bit maddening, ’cause you’re both right on the big picture. Can I help with a few of the details?

    P is right that we need the carbon tax (hey, I’m half of the team behind the new Carbon Tax Center, scroll down a bit to view). And J is right that the London CRAG activists are a kind of vanguard.

    But P: the carbon tax will also help bring about the needed change in both individual and political consciousness. It will (I believe) help usher in a different, more ecologically-aware prioritization of “wants” and “needs” — from the macro level of cities over suburbs, to the individual level of, say, canoeing over jet-skiing.

    And J: Increases in prices take a little time to open up choices and affect behavior, which is why 06 showed the drop in use even though the price rises were higher in 04 and 05.

    Guys, the personal and the political, the individual and the collective, all feed off of each other. Let’s cheer for both!

  • P

    Thanks Komanoff- I can’t help myself:
    I blog, therefore I annoy.

  • Like the “Slate/Treehugger Green Challenge.” How much good does it do if people who are already conserving shave off another twenty percent of their consumption? Who knows, they missed it by a long shot.
    http://www.slate.com/id/2156389/

  • Clarence

    Charlie that was excellent. You should get a tv show in resolving disputes!

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