Lessons for a low-carbon life

Two years ago Tom Gosling set out to reduce his family’s carbon footprint by half over 10 years. Here’s what he has learned

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Two years ago I posted an article entitled ‘A middle-class approach to decarbonisation’, outlining our commitment to reduce our family’s carbon footprint by half in 10 years. It started me off on a personal exploration that has brought about some significant lifestyle changes – and taught me something of the complexities of the wicked problem that is climate change.

Although it seems hard to give attention to anything that isn’t Covid-19 at this time, climate change will still be with us when we’re through all this. While some aspects of the lockdown-enforced behaviour change may endure and be helpful to the climate (all those flights to meetings suddenly seem less essential), governments’ desperation to get their economies moving again may act in the opposite direction. The timing of COP26 is therefore helpful, reminding us of the bigger task ahead.

I set out eight steps we intended to follow to reduce our carbon footprint. Here’s how we’ve got on in the two years since making the commitment.


Calculating our current footprint

This was more difficult to do than I had expected. It required a lot of work piecing together insights from different calculators

in order to get a fix on it. Although it was extremely enlightening, I’m pessimistic about how many people will go through the pain of

doing this. On the flip side, perhaps it isn’t necessary – the top five steps to reduce footprint are likely to be reasonably common across the population. Noting the general success of the public information campaign relating to COVID-19, you could envisage a simple message relating to carbon-footprint reduction:

  • Fly less
  • Eat less red meat and dairy
  • Insulate your home and turn down your thermostat
  • Buy experiences, not things
  • Make your next car electric.

The vested interests that would line up against some of these messages are obvious just from writing them down. But the current messages on climate are deeply confusing, including some that are at best second order and at worst counterproductive (for example, paper versus plastic bags for shopping). Agreeing on a simple set of first-order messages to promote change could be better than trying to develop ever more sophisticated footprint calculators.


Domestic heat and power

Here I feel we’ve had something of a success. I learned a lot about the complexities of domestic energy transition; in particular the fact that going electric cannot be an economy-wide answer, given the unmanageable peak energy demand that this would place on the grid on cold winter days. This issue also introduced me to the beauty of hybrid solutions during the energy transition. We now have a scoped plan for installing an air-source heat pump to provide our heating for most of the year. We’ll retain our existing gas boiler to provide hot water and also central heating on those particularly cold days when the heat pump is inefficient. This approach will cut our home energy footprint by 80% (based on my perhaps optimistic assessment that our electricity is carbon neutral because of our green energy provider and solar panels). At the same time, the solution could, in principle, scale up across the population, given the ability to switch to gas at times of peak electricity demand (this meets one of our core principles for any solution we adopt).

My main observation on this was how much of the running I had to make myself to get to this hybrid solution. Providers tend to want you to use the heat pump for heating and hot water, and to rip out your existing hot water system and boiler. The government’s Renewable Heat Incentive encourages this outcome, despite the fact that it is unsustainable at scale (because of the implied peak electricity demand in winter). On the one hand this demonstrates the power of government incentives; on the other, it shows how important it is to get them right.

But even now it’s not straightforward. We’re keeping the gas boiler because our 1930s home isn’t ideally suited to using an air-source heat pump for the coldest days of the year. And a heat pump might not adequately cope with the (probably excessive) hot water use of a house with three teenagers. Retrofitting underfloor heating is too big a job to take on, so we’ll need to go to the expense of upsizing our radiators to give enough heat output from water at 45-50 degrees, as opposed to 60-65 degrees. As a result, we need to house both a gas boiler and the internal workings of the heat pump (which take up nearly two boilers’ worth of space). In addition, we need a large heat-exchanger unit outside the house – but we’re not allowed to have this within a metre of our neighbours’ property. So, either we’ll need to have a large and unsightly unit at the back of our house visible from the garden, or we’ll need to get our neighbour’s agreement to have it down the side of the house and run the risks when we sell. This leads to the question: is it worth it? We’re still undecided, but our experience shows how formidable the challenge will be of reformatting home heating across the country.



Studying our footprint has impressed on us the need to ration our air travel, and we’ve implemented our rolling average budget of 1 tonne per year per person in our household. In effect, this means medium to long-haul travel at most once every three years. Current events have helped with this – for 2020, our air-travel footprint was zero! I also had some success at work in avoiding unnecessary air travel through challenging clients about whether remote solutions for my attendance could be sufficient. The Covid-19 experience will certainly accelerate this. I’ve now attended countless board meetings by video, and we’ve learned how to run conferences remotely, which can work surprisingly well.

It was instructive to investigate the carbonomics of electric cars. In my view, the calculus comes out firmly in their favour, but in general only for new cars rather than replacing existing stock. In part this is due to the embedded carbon cost of the new car, but it’s also because the car that we sell won’t be scrapped but will add, on average, 0.75 cars to the total stock, resulting in several thousand extra road miles.

Nonetheless, replacing even a serviceable petrol car with electric is probably broadly neutral from a carbon perspective and has a positive signalling effect – it encourages broader market and infrastructure change. Therefore, rather than waiting until we naturally next replace our cars (probably around eight to 10 years’ time), we’re planning to switch to electric for our second car (I know) now my daughter has passed her driving test. We can afford it, and it can help support the market for electric vehicles.


Diet and consumption

The big eye-opener for me in this process has been the impact of diet. Had I known this at the outset, I would have highlighted it as a step in its own right, as it is the closest thing you get to a free lunch in the area of climate change. Eating less red meat, and more vegan and vegetarian food (as well as wasting less) has significant and almost entirely beneficial impacts and no negative feedback loops. We have taken big steps towards this, although I have to confess that lockdown has set us back a bit. With dinner time providing one of the main things to look forward to, and with children’s spirits to lift, our meat consumption has drifted up again. But it remains lower than before Covid and is reducing again as some semblance of normality returns. My eldest daughter becoming vegetarian has added positively to our incentives.

Beyond diet, the carbon cost of broader consumption, which drives much of the UK’s exported carbon footprint, is also salutary. With consumption choices having an impact factor of up to 10x on carbon emissions, this broader dimension of our footprint cannot be ignored. The Covid-19 lockdown created (for the more fortunate of us) a unique experiment in doing without things we have come to consider essential. As we come out of this phase, we surely have an opportunity to assess which of these expenditures we wish to reinstate. The time when we are doing without them is the moment to reflect on the extent to which they are essential, enhance our fulfilment and life satisfaction, and support us in living our life in line with our most deeply held values and purpose. Wellbeing and climate considerations are both likely to point to more expenditure on experiences and time, and less on material possessions.



Offsetting remains a snake pit. Assessing the extent to which offsets are additional (in other words, would not have happened anyway), effective and immune from rebound effects (whereby efficiency actually leads to greater consumption) is incredibly hard. We do still offset but, to address the potential limitations of offsetting, we choose to offset 4x our footprint through different approaches:

  • Preservation and planting of trees through the Woodland Trust
  • Purchase and cancellation of EU Emissions Trading Credits
  • Support for indigenous Amazon communities to resist deforestation
  • Projects for clean cookers in the developing world.

By throwing enough at the wall, we’re hoping some sticks. This allows for 75% of the offset’s impact to be lost through lack of additionality, inefficiency and rebound effects. It results in an effective carbon price of £40-£50 per tonne, which seems more realistic than the absurdly low c. £10 retail value of offsets. But proving additionality remains a concern. Investigating this more is on my to-do list. So, offsetting seems to me to be part of an authentic attempt to reduce one’s carbon footprint, but cannot be used as an excuse for inaction.



Through my work at London Business School, I’ve become increasingly involved in questions of ESG investing and have written more fully on the topic elsewhere. I’ve concluded that the claims made for “sustainable investing” are vastly overblown, and naïve claims about the carbon-reduction impact of particular funds are misleading. This is what I have concluded on the possible ways to investing your money to do good:

  1. screening or divestment seems to be at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive;
  2. tilting away from ‘worse’ and towards ‘better’ companies in a given sector seems to have some benefits;
  3. funds that engage robustly on climate issues seem to have some impact;
  4. impact investing appears to have little effect, other than at the high-risk end of the spectrum with venture capital for moon-shot technologies
  5. ESG-integrated funds help to ensure that sustainability signals are more fully priced in markets, but will not push progress more rapidly than what is justified by financial value.

We’ve adopted a mix of 2, 3, and 5. The signalling matters. But at the same time, given the likely modest impact of sustainable investing, we’re not completely subjugating our investment strategy to these approaches.



I had some success last year in my final period at PwC in reducing unnecessary travel. I estimate that I saved two long-haul and several short-haul return flights by convincing clients that technology could enable my remote attendance at business meetings. I found the conversations surprisingly constructive, especially when framed in the context of footprint reduction.

Now that I’ve left PwC, I am looking at how I can deploy my skills in areas of work that directly support the development of solutions to climate problems. In this way, at least part of my work portfolio can make a direct contribution to meeting the climate challenge. My achievements so far are modest, but my work on responsible business and sustainable investment, as well as sharing my own personal experiences, are creating at least a tiny ripple in the pond.



Over the last year, I have found that behaviour change can lead to significant carbon savings. I’m confident we will halve our carbon footprint in 10 years, albeit from a very high baseline. But it has become equally clear that we will only achieve this as the result of putting significant research, time, money and effort into addressing the problem, coupled with a reduction in our standard of living (particularly in relation to travel). Given that we will probably only just attain our goal from such a high base, voluntary action seems unlikely to be a scalable solution. I am more convinced than ever that voluntary change by companies and citizens will only scratch the surface of what is required. Despite all the good work on ESG and sustainability, we’re barely bending the curve of carbon emissions via that channel. Large-scale state intervention is needed in terms of:

  • Product standards and regulation to encourage high levels of product efficiency
  • Carbon pricing to create economic incentives to optimise use of whatever carbon budget remains, and regulation on a sector-by-sector basis to change the carbon pathway of key industries
  • Allocation of public R&D investment to encourage the private sector to develop the new technologies, such as carbon capture and storage, which seem essential for any part of the solution
  • Public education.

The response to Covid-19 shows what can be done quickly when circumstances dictate. Perhaps there will be greater acceptance of the need for the state to set a framework for action in the face of an economy-wide crisis. But the virus is an immediate and present danger, while climate change burns slow. And while we have seen what is possible, there’s a risk the pandemic may lessen the appetite to act with similar decisiveness on climate change if it requires further sacrifice. While there are win-win solutions in cutting carbon, weaning ourselves off the black stuff will not be easy.

That’s why personal and public action on climate change remain so important, including making clear to your political representatives that it’s a crucial voting issue for you. Long-term, personal action alone cannot be the answer. But, if sufficiently widespread, it can create the context in which the necessary political change becomes achievable.

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