Developing Carbon Literacy

Antony Turner

The most important task now facing human society is simple and clear – getting around a
billion people ‘carbon literate’ within five years. We need to move on from talking about
climate change - the story is told. If we carry on with ‘business as usual’ we will adversely
change the planet we live on within the lives of generations now being born. Humanity is in
for a rough ride unless we embed ‘carbon literacy’ in the DNA of the people and institutions
on the planet who emit more greenhouse gases than nature can absorb.

What is carbon literacy?
Every entity (person, organisation, community or country) needs to know the basic carbon
maths, how much they are individually responsible for, and what parts of their lives are the
highest emitting. This has not been possible up to now for one very simple reason – the
invisibility of the gas itself, and the invisibility of greenhouse gases in the landscape of our

The majority of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the activities and lifestyles of
the highest earners – around a billion people worldwide. This is not about blame or making
them feel bad – just a matter of education. In reality this can be relatively simple.

Why is carbon literacy essential?
There are several reasons – we don’t have much time, governments will need a mandate
from society at large, and most importantly human creativity needs to be unleashed for this
most massive challenge.

We don’t have much time
The emerging science is telling us we need to rapidly slow down the emission of greenhouse
gases to the atmosphere – every day we release around 80 million tonnes of invisible carbon
dioxide. We have a matter of a few years in which to hugely shift away from our dependence
on fossil fuels.

Political mandate
Another reason for societal carbon literacy is the need for political mandate. Policy measures
will have to be taken by governments around the world which may be unpopular unless
people genuinely understand the rationale behind the changes. We have been living, for the
last thirty years, in an era of very cheap energy. There has been no real incentive to save energy, or inhibit mass travel, as the fossil fuels have been abundant and inexpensive.

That is now changing, not just because oil supplies may be peaking, thus doubling the oil price in
the last year. Governments are recognising that carbon emissions themselves must be capped so carbon will in effect be priced – the market will start to incentivise a low-carbon future.

The need for creativity
The third and perhaps most important reason for carbon literacy is the need for creativity to
crack the problem. Climate change is unique as a ‘problem’ in that we are all involved.
Almost every person on the planet, to some degree, is contributing to the build-up of
greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We cannot just rely on governments and business to
deliver solutions.

Some of the solutions are high-tech, and the input of the average consumer will not be required. But many ways of minimising carbon emissions are low-tech, or may just require shifts in behaviour and thinking. House insulation is a good example of a low-tech solution which can save unnecessary carbon emissions – there are still a million homes in the UK which could have cavity walls insulated.

Once we get a carbon literate eye we see examples of unnecessary waste everywhere.

Other solutions will require behavioural changes. Will it be a good idea to choose a job fifty
miles from home in a low-carbon world? Could current journeys be shared with others? And
once the imperative for a low-carbon future becomes apparent, unimaginable business
opportunities will appear that help consumers and businesses with the shift.

How do we achieve carbon literacy?
The core of the problem is the invisibility of the greenhouse gases. We have cleaned up our
act locally – we don’t normally see black smoke coming from our chimneys and exhausts.
But CO2 is invisible, and the reality is that the ‘cleanest’ power stations, planes or cars still
emit huge quantities. It may not be possible to make the actual gases ‘visible’ but we can
make carbon visible in the transactions we undertake that have carbon emission

Schumacher College. Photo: William Thomas

Schumacher College. Photo: William Thomas