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?