Carbon Budgets

The principles of effective budgeting are simple: if you can’t afford it, don’t buy it. If you have to go over your budget, know how you will get back to break even. If you have to make a reduction, everyone should contribute to managing the cuts. Those who start with the largest share, should make the largest cuts.

We all know that to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, we have to cut carbon emissions. To reach net zero by 2050, the government has set legally binding caps on the amount of greenhouse gases to be emitted in the UK over a series of five-year periods. This is referred to as the carbon budget.

The UK caps are reflected in local authority targets. Waverley Borough Council’s aim to reach net zero by 2050 requires a minimum year-on-year reduction in carbon emissions of 13.4%. Councillors have also set a more challenging, and arguably very necessary target to achieve net zero by 2030. This needs a 27% year-on-year reduction in carbon emissions. 

There is no point any of us hoping that someone else will make those reductions, so that we don’t have to. Equally, we need to get into the mindset that anyone who chooses to maintain a high carbon lifestyle is effectively seeing themselves as somehow more entitled to a greater share of the carbon budget than other people. This argument works globally as well as locally, and is a cause of climate injustice. 

An easy example to illustrate climate injustice is flying. If you take a return flight from London to New York, you will use roughly the same amount of the global carbon budget as the average person living in Ghana uses in one year. That is an injustice. The injustice is compounded further because Ghanaians suffer more through climate change than we do, despite their lower personal impact. Ghanaians are experiencing increased droughts, raised temperatures and extreme weather events. These are causing food and water insecurity.

We have a moral duty, as people with high carbon lifestyles, to lower significantly the amount of the carbon budget we claim for ourselves in the choices we make. Not least of these is in how we travel.

Switching from flying to train travel, for example, has a dramatic impact. Train journeys from London to places such as Edinburgh, Paris or Madrid use around 75% less of the carbon budget than flights to the same destinations.

Our choice of car is also crucial. Typically, if you choose to buy a new, small hatchback, you will use around 6 to 10 tonnes of the carbon budget in its manufacture. If you choose to buy a new, large SUV, you are claiming a whopping 35 tonnes of the carbon budget for yourself. Then, once you have bought a large vehicle, whether it is powered by petrol, diesel, hybrid or electricity, because of its size and weight, it will use about 14% more energy to drive than a smaller, medium sized, similarly powered car. We have to ask the (rhetorical) question. Is that fair?

When What Next? volunteers talk to people on the streets, we are often told that the UK is doing well in reducing carbon emissions and that other countries need to do more. It is true that carbon emissions in the UK are reducing and that arguably some other countries need to do more. However, that is no reason for us not to minimise, in line with national and Waverley targets, our personal consumption of the carbon budget.

We have to be realistic about what further damage the environment can sustain. We have to acknowledge that in the UK we use substantially more of the carbon budget than most countries whose populations suffer much more than we do from the impact of climate change. We have to act now and make responsible choices as individuals, as fellow Waverley residents, and as UK and global citizens.

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