To give you some pointers on how to control your carbon footprint I'm talking this time to John Cossham. After this there are only three more episodes until Christmas. I know! Don’t miss my review of 2022 coming up on 21st December. It’s likely to be a long one, but hey, you should have plenty of time to enjoy it between the turkey and the mince pies and more turkey and more mince pies.
Before that there are two other interviews coming up. Next week I talk to Shubhi Sachan of the Material Library of India and the week after that it's the turn of Stacy Savage, the Texas Trash Talker. After Christmas we’ll hear from Peter Wang Hjemdahl of RePurpose and then Professor Steve Long of the University of Illinois talks about the RIPE project, the Realisation of Improved Photosynthetic Efficiency. He’s making plants more resilient in the face of the climate crisis. Paul Hughes is working on batteries for industrial and marine applications, Hank Dearden has a new angle on planting trees and Leonardo Zangrando is planning to sail round the world to encourage people to protect the oceans. That brings us to 1st February, when Clarke Murphy explains the need for sustainable leadership, and after that I have to own up to how well I’ve managed my carbon footprint in the previous three months.
To give you some pointers on how to control your carbon footprint I'm talking this time to John Cossham. And not just about being green and cutting carbon, but our wide-ranging discussions included population, changing the system, being vegan or vegetarian, the steady-state economy, doughnut economics, gross domestic happiness, tipping points and positive feedback, climate anxiety, near-term human extinction and why we should be doing good now – it's the right thing to do.
And never, ever give up hope.
Anthony: John, welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report.
John: Oh, it's nice to talk to you, Anthony.
Anthony: John, I've been talking to my listeners. I've been encouraging them to reduce their carbon footprint. Now, I thought I'd talk to you because you won prizes for that, haven't you? What did you actually do? What did you achieve?
John: Well, back in the mid '90s, I was a member of a carbon rationing action group, and a bunch of us used to get together and talk about carbon footprints and we used to measure our own carbon footprint using a variety of carbon calculators and I always came out very low. And then somebody came into the group and said, "Oh, Oxfam running a competition to find out who's got the lowest carbon footprint in the UK. John, why don't you enter?" So I did enter, and I was very surprised to win it, and I won it by a long chalk. The person who came second had double my carbon footprint. So obviously, my geeky adherence to living a deep green life had paid off by 2008 and I had a carbon footprint of under a 12th of the UK average.
Anthony: And what was that in terms of tons?
John: Well, the Act on CO2 government carbon calculator gave an average UK tonnage of six tons at that time. And I think that was just the stuff that people had control over rather than what the government does for us. And mine was 0.45 tons.
Anthony: Less than half a ton?
Anthony: As opposed to six. Yes. Well, that's quite incredible.
John: I've actually stopped measuring my carbon footprint because I've moved on in my life. I still have a low carbon lifestyle, but I don't put the emphasis on individual action as strongly as I used to. I still believe it to be really important and would encourage your listeners to cut their carbon footprint by every means possible. But there are bigger things that we can be doing.
Anthony: Right. Okay. Okay. But just before we go onto those, just tell me the things that you had to do in order to get your carbon footprint that low.
Cutting that Carbon Footprint
John: Well, bear in mind that I'm in my mid 50s and I've been a green since the mid 1980s. I went green when I was 18 and started working on being eco-friendly from when I was a teenager and then in my 20s and 30s and 40s, and so it's been a long journey. The main areas of our individual carbon footprint are in our home energy and heating. So get your electricity from a renewable source. I use Good Energy, and with heating, I use renewable heat from two smoke-free wood burners and solar panels on the roof. That's hot water panels. Since the 2008 win, I've put some photovoltaic panels on. So I generate some of my own electricity and there's a certain amount of insulation in this house. It's not as good as it could be. Having to use less heat by insulating your house is a good thing.
Food and Drink
Then there's food and drink. I happen to be vegetarian and fiscally vegan, so I don't buy any dairy products, but I do find them in the bin because I'm a freegan, so I'm not actually vegan. I think very carefully about what I eat. So I'm buying in season with as few packaging as possible, locally if possible. All vegetarian and vegan. Transport, I have a fantastic bicycle. I do not fly. I don't have a car. I use the train and the bus and very occasionally a taxi, and have about three private car journeys a year going out in the car with somebody.
Stop Buying Stuff
Consumer goods are a big part of your carbon footprint, so basically stop buying stuff, you don't need it. Stuff doesn't make you happy. And the biggest overall thing which actually is more difficult to control certainly at our age are kids.
If you are a young person listening to this, the biggest thing you can do to cut your carbon footprint is don't have kids because children are a massive contributor to what we are responsible for.
Anthony: Now, that's very, very controversial, because somebody said the human race exists to propagate itself, so therefore you cannot say, do not have kids. I think I'd agree, do not have too many kids. And I believe that the population level, and this is a very significant day, isn't it? Because we are talking on the day when they announce we've got 8 billion people as world population. But at that time, we are also very close to replacement level, so therefore people are not producing more kids than-
John: There are two reasons why I recommend people don't have children, at least two reasons. But one of them is that it is recognised that by having children, you are adding, especially in the West, that we're adding a huge burden on the carbon footprint.
Anthony: There's a very controversial paper on that.
John: Remember, other people are going to continue having children.
Anthony: There's a very controversial paper on that, and I think it's a misrepresentation. I haven't got it in front of me, but I know when it came out I tried to interview the author and they wouldn't talk to me. So anyway, we're going to have to agree to differ on that.
John: That's fine.
Anthony: But my position is that children who exist, we've got to love and nurture them.
John: Oh, yes.
Anthony: And we cannot criticise people for having got kids. Others, I would encourage people to have no more than replacement, but, well...
John: I've written quite a lot on population quite recently because of the advent of the 8th billionth child. And I happened to actually work as a children's entertainer, and I love children. I want to give them the very best possible planet. And back in the '90s, I would talk about doing things for your grandchildren's grandchildren when I actually talked about sustainability, when I believed in it. The other thing that we can do to cut our carbon footprint is do everything you can to change the system, because as an individual, you have a certain impact, but as a group, together, we have far more impact. So I'm a supporter of Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and other nonviolent direct action ways of changing things. Insulate Britain.
Anthony: And have you actually taken part in any of that?
John: Say again?
Anthony: Have you actually taken part in any of those demonstrations?
John: Yes, I've taken part in Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in London and Manchester.
Anthony: Right. Well, you were saying when we started talking about carbon footprint that there are much more important things that we can do. Is this what you believe that we should change the system? Is that the important thing we need to do or other things?
Change the System
John: Yes. So there are ways that you can change the system with the, for instance, consumer goods when you consume only vegetarian food or vegan food or when you choose to buy something within A++ rating instead of something which is less efficient, or if you decide not to buy at all. Those are ways in which you can impact the system with your wallet by buying ethically or not buying at all. But I would say that the system, there's so many consumers out there that we need to lean on the system to change. And I'm into political action as well. I've stood for election 13 times in my local ward. I've never been elected in because first pass the post isn't kind to the green party.
Anthony: Okay. Okay, all right. Well, you're saying we should stop consuming, but look, don't we need economic growth? If we stop consuming, then the factories will close and people will lose their jobs. Surely, it's our duty to consume, to keep things going, to keep other people in work. Now, I'm being devil's advocate here. I'm not necessarily saying I believe that, but how would you answer that argument?
John: I'm not an economist, but I would ask people to look at something called steady state economy, which is a no growth economy. You might want to investigate Doughnut Economics, which is another way of reanalyzing and increasing economics.
Anthony: Yeah, that's Kate Raworth's book. Yeah, I’ll put a link to that.
John: Yeah. And so from my not very well educated perspective as a non-economist, I would say that the old adage is we can't continue to go for economic growth on a finite planet. It's just not sensible. It doesn't work.
Anthony: Well, you look at it from two points of view. If we are going to make more and more and more things and we are going to do that without actually using the circular economy, so therefore if we make more things, we're going to dig up more materials, grow more timber and so on and so on, then there certainly is a finite point where we're going to have to stop. But what do you think about the service industry? Because the service industry generally relies on people and people's labour. It doesn't rely so much on material inputs. And as long as we use our own abilities, then we can have economic growth, can't we?
Gross Domestic Happiness
John: I'm glad you've said that because I'm a big supporter of service industries. I think we need to move from consumption through to service and we need to look again at things like, again, I'm not a national politician, but I would say, "Why are we looking at things in gross domestic product when we should be looking at gross domestic happiness?" There are different ways of measuring wellbeing and how well a country is not just economic growth. I'm pretty anti-money. When I was in the '90s, I took part in a local currency scheme called Elect System, which wanted to replace national currency with local currency. So I've been interested in economics and how we can re-pass economics for the benefit of a sustainable society.
Anthony: Right. Well, let's look at the local level. Now, every local authority, your local authority has got either a climate emergency declaration or a net zero 2050 objective or both. In your experience, how are they actually following these through? Are they actually setting things in place? Is that somewhere where we ought to be going to hold people to account?
John: Indeed, we must hold people to account, but we are up against capitalism. Now, I'm an unashamed anti-capitalist. I don't believe that capitalism is a model that works, although I don't have a viable alternative, because I don't feel as if I'm a communist either. So we are up against consumer culture, we're up against people who want to make money and it's going to be very, very difficult to achieve the net zero. And I don't even necessarily agree with net zero, because net zero involves negative emission technologies, which have not been, they might have been invented and they work in the lab but they're not at scale yet anywhere nearby at scale.
Anthony: Yeah, I think there's a whole another podcast there. I think I agree with you. The net is the loophole that get out of jail free card. But we'll just have to look into that in more detail.
John: But certainly, if your local authority has got a net zero declaration or anything like that, then get involved and push and make your voice heard. This is something we can do to change the system over and above changing your own life.
Anthony: Right. We're recording this in the second week of COP 27. This is Tuesday, it finishes on Friday. Some people say this is the tipping point. They've been saying it almost since they started having COPs. Antonio Guterres has been interviewed. He is very, very serious, very concerned about the issues other people are saying. It's another talking shop. Environment secretary said that much I think. And our prime minister couldn't make up his mind whether he was going to go or not, because he didn't think it was that important. Is that because it's too late to do anything or is it just that, well, I think it's probably he doesn't understand the importance of it. But is it too late to do anything? Will COP 27 change things or are we at a stage where things are beyond a tipping point?
Not Too Late
John: It's not too late to do anything. There are still plenty of things that we can do, but we may very well have passed several tipping points and we may very well be too late. The evidence that I've got, I think that we're way past the ability to keep within one point plus, 1.5, 2 degrees, above pre-industrial levels. I think we won't be able to keep it to beyond two to within two degrees, partly because of something that is only just being beginning to be talked about, which is global dimming and aerosols. It's very, very frightening. When we stop using fossil fuels, which we have to otherwise we're going to cook, what happens is the aerosols drop out of the atmosphere and can give us a potential extra plus one degree at ground level. So as the air gets cleaner due to us knocking fossil fuels on the head, we actually get an additional one degree warming, or thereabouts. Now again, I'm not an expert, and I'm only reading what other experts have said.
Anthony: So these are the particles trapped in the atmosphere, which will no longer be there if we stop using sooty fuels. And they have been shielding us from some of the sun's heat.
John: Indeed. So it's never too late to do something. And I will explain why I continue being a deep green despite my views that we are heading to a very difficult place, a very scary place. But yeah, there are lots and lots of things that could take us way over 1.5 or 2. There are lots of tipping points which we won't know they've tipped until we look back and we can see the data. There are so many positive feedback loops, which could be triggered by the very sensitive climate that we have.
Anthony: Some people are very concerned about this. In fact, they're very, very scared. And I believe that you actually work with counselling some of these people to help them overcome the fears of what the world is going to be like. Can you tell us a bit about that and whether you think it is rational for people to be as afraid as some of them are?
John: Yes, I'm all for climate honesty. My take on it is that the more about climate change, the more scared you are and that it's it. If you bury your head in the sand and say, "I don't want to know,” you can probably live a happy life in ignorance. Whereas, if you start to research climate change, you realise what a massive, massive issue this is. Now, I'm not a professional counsellor, but I became aware of what at that time was called near term human extinction in about 2013. And I went through a real period of doomism and distress and grief about the lack of movement towards sustainability in 2013, 2014, 2015. And then I think with most grief, you work through it and you can get through to a period of acceptance. It can be quite quick. But when my mother was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, the shock was there for her for a few weeks. And then when it was confirmed, this is terminal, you have one year to live, she then really started living and she lived very vibrantly for the next few months before the brain tumour started to impact on her ability to live.
I watched her live in a colourful, vibrant way, enjoying things in a way that she hadn't done before. She was told she's going to die. Now, when we are told that human beings are either we are going to go extinct by some of the worst boomers or we are likely to go extinct by ordinary climate scientists, there's a possibility that we'll go extinct. Some of us then go, "Okay. Well, I'm going to die as an individual and our species might go, so let's get on with living and actually doing some good for people now." And I've surveyed people who believe in near term human extinction and there is no truth in the fact that doomers sit back on their haunches and do nothing and say, "Let the world burn." That is just not true. I've got a long list of things that I did in this survey in 2017 where people said that they were doing things despite believing in near term human extinction.
Anthony: So what things are they're doing? Are they going on a bucket list or are they doing things perhaps to protect their children?
John: No. I asked them, are you involved in activism or campaigning? I only want answers from people who are absolutely sure that humans are going to go extinct soon. And there were people involved in LGBTQ rights, animal rights and welfare. There are people who are politically active in political parties, mainstream politics, counselling people in distress, wildlife conservation and biodiversity, human rights, reducing fossil fuels and carbon emissions, local activism and campaigns, regional and international activism, issues in media and communication, trying to combat the misinformation there, arts and creativity, spirituality, faith and religion, regenerative and organic agriculture and food, teaching children how to grow food. These are people who believe we’re going to go extinct. And there were 300 people, 333 people answered my survey in 2017 saying that even though they thought we were going to hell in a hand cart, they were doing these things. They were active.
One quote, "I protest because time is short and no one will listen, so I do it just to stay sane." That's a nice little quote. I am not focused on the outcome and it feels like the right thing to do. 10% of the survey participants said it feels like the right thing to do. So these are doomers getting on with making a better world regardless of any outcome. And I encourage people, take note of the evidence and keep on trying to make a better world. Because even if humans go, other organisms are going to be around for a lot longer and they deserve a habitable planet surely.
Anthony: Well, yes, I suppose so. Looking at our government and other governments for that matter, but looking specifically at our government, do you think they've got it? Do you think they understand the issues? Do you think that they're playing it down because they don't want to upset people? What hope have we got for them from them?
John: Actually, I'm not a big fan of our government as I'm sure we can probably imagine, but after my 2008 Oxfam climate carbon footprint competition win, my prize was to go and spend a day with government because the government then, the Labour government was looking at introducing the world's first climate change act. So we spent about four hours, the top three people or bottom three people, whatever you want to call it, spent three or four hours with a gentleman called Hilary Benn, who's an MP for Leeds. And he was the head of Defra. And I thought that I would be teaching him about climate change, but he was very, very well informed. And he said, back in 2008, "What we need to do is we need to stop people flying. We need to cut car use by 90%. We need to make meat a luxury that people have just a few times a year." And this is the only way that we're going to stop a climate catastrophe.
But if I tell people that I'm going to cut their car use by 90% and stop them flying, I will not get voted in again. He didn't actually tell us he was working on the Climate Change Act, but he was very keen on finding out what we did to achieve such low carbon footprints and why. And he was very well informed. So people won't vote for the strict emissions standards that need, we need to stop consuming, we need to stop flying, we need to stop eating meat. But most people don't want to do that. And this is why I don't have any hope because human nature of wanting to consume and gather and all that stuff and explore is diametrically opposed to us having any hope of keeping under two degrees, three degrees or whatever.
Anthony: Well, I'm sorry to hear you who say that you haven't got any hope. So we're all coming to an end, aren't we? And as we come to an end of our conversation-
Anthony: ... let's talk about... Sorry.
John: There are still things we can hope. I hope that people can love each other. I hope that people can help each other. I hope that we can look after animals. I hope that there is some success with some of the solutions like mirrors for Earth's energy rebalancing, the mirror project. That's great. We could just put mirrors around everything and help reduce the amount of heat being absorbed by the earth. So I think that although it's scary what we're facing, we need to focus on adaptation and we need to focus on solutions like rewilding and looking after the planet and looking after each other and do whatever we can to make a better world. Knowing that it might not work, knowing that we might go, our species might end.
Anthony: So the people that you surveyed, even though you might see that we have the writing on the wall, as you might say, you're not going to give up?
John: No, I'm an optimist. I'm so lucky to be alive. I'm having a great life. I'm living a very low carbon life and having a good time. Let's do everything we can whilst we're alive to cut our carbon and to force governments and corporations to cut their footprint. Do it nonviolently, do it knowing that you are in the right.
Anthony: John, thank you for sharing those ideas with us at the Sustainable Futures Report. It's very interesting.
John: Thank you. I do hope you can use that.
Well I certainly have used that and I hope you found it interesting. John Cossham, deep green and carbon footprint specialist.
A couple of links for you: Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics is well worth a read and available from all good bookshops, https://www.kateraworth.com/about/ and I also mentioned the carbon footprint calculator which I've been using so there is a link to that as well on the Sustainable Futures Report website. https://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx
That’s it for another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. If you haven't become a patron yet you can find all the details at patreon.com/SFR and you can join all those good people who help me keep this podcast independent and ad free.
Thank you for listening. Before I go let me remind you that next week’s episode is an interview with Shubhi Sachan, from the Material Library of India. Don't miss it. Don’t miss the Texas Trash Talker the following week and my Review of 2022 on 21st December.
I’m Anthony Day,
That was the Sustainable Futures Report
Bye for now.