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Setting up a group to cut carbon together

Jamie Andrews

13th January, 2009

Oxfam ran a competition for low-carbon lifestyles in 2008 – and all three winners were part of the same DIY carbon rationing movement. Jamie Andrews finds out what’s behind the success of CRAGs, and asks why we all haven’t signed up to join the revolution

Utter the phrase ‘carbon rationing’ and the most likely reaction you’ll get is some awkward glances, or at best a concerned nod that conveys an understanding of how severe the problem of climate change is, but also how unlikely it is that our individual actions are going to be called to account any time soon. There is however a growing group of people that are starting to take it upon themselves to do something proactive on the issue.

Earlier this year, Oxfam ran a competition to find three people with the lowest carbon footprints according to the Government’s Act on CO² online carbon calculator. The prize was the chance to speak directly to environment secretary Hilary Benn about what action the Government is taking on climate change. What surprised the competition organisers was that all three winners were part of one little-known movement – Carbon-Rationing Action Groups.

Inspired by the writing of environmental guru Mayer Hillman in his book How We Can Save the Planet, the first Carbon-Rationing Action Group (CRAG) sprang up in late 2005. Following a big climate change march in London – approximately 10,000 people attended in December of that year – the idea was conceived in very simple terms on an online activists’ portal:

‘The idea is that we can’t blame politicians for not taking it up at a national or international level if we activists cannot demonstrate that it can work at local level.’

In contrast to a lot of political activism around climate change, the core idea behind CRAGs is that personal responsibility is key, and that lobbying government is only half of the solution. This is reflected in the carbon figures: approximately 40 per cent of the UK’s total footprint comes as a direct result of our individual behaviour (driving, flying and energy use in our homes), with the other 60 per cent accounted for by industry and the infrastructure that keeps our economy gobbling fossil fuels.

The initial idea sparked a lively debate: what amount should the ration be? How would individuals’ footprints be calculated? What levels of reduction were realistic, and how would participants be held to account? With these questions buzzing around, the nascent group of activists did what came naturally – they got active.

By August 2006, there were four groups with a total of 50 members. A small website launched in September 2006 has now grown into a vibrant forum and wiki-based site boasting more than 650 registered members. In addition to 24 active CRAGs across the UK, there are a number of international groups sprouting up, including a group in Maryland, USA, which won a slot on a national US news channel to promote the concept. The idea has evolved from its radical roots to become a movement that is now frequently described as ‘WeightWatchers for the energy-conscious’.

Choosing your own path

On a basic level, a CRAG consists of a number of people (usually around ten per group) who meet up regularly in their local community to account for and reduce their collective carbon footprint. A carbon accountant is appointed who gathers group data and calculates whether the group target is being hit or missed for a given period (usually six months). Members share tips about how to reduce their carbon, and to discuss sensitive issues such as the desire to travel by plane to see loved ones in far-flung countries. The carbon target differs from group to group, and some go as far as to impose a financial penalty on members that exceed their allowance.

CRAG members are keen to extol the benefits of reducing their footprints: more engagement with the local community by shopping locally; more exercise through increased cycling and walking; more money saved by slashed energy and fuel bills. David Bassendine, who has been an active CRAG member from the movement’s inception, explains how ‘CRAG-ing’ has changed his outlook on tackling climate change:

‘Being a CRAG member certainly helps you feel you are engaging with the problem on a level that’s under your control, and you are linking up with others doing so at the same time, so in that sense it alleviates a lot of the frustration. The difficulties of scaling up and inaction at the global level are still difficult to deal with, but I think that’s a question of personal mindset.

‘Being engaged in a community working towards similar goals means you are engaged to your full capacity; further action is outside your control, so you can’t justify being angry with yourself about it. Whatever frustration remains should be channelled towards trying to block those events and actions outside of your control.’

In contrast to the isolated messages with which we are increasingly bombarded through the media – ‘Stop flying’; ‘Wash at 30°C’; ‘Pumped up tyres mean less CO²’ – the rigorous approach to carbon accounting taken by CRAGs means the options for living within a carbon budget are a lot clearer. By understanding a complete footprint, and taking actions that impact tangibly on its total, CRAG members are less daunted by the avalanche of information available on living sustainably.

‘CRAGs let individuals choose their own path to carbon reduction,’ another CRAG member, Guy Shrubsole, explains. ‘That flexibility is key to the group dynamic. For example, if one group member feels the need to take a flight for a particular reason then others in the group can effectively sanction it by ensuring that the group target is not exceeded. This is an important concept to explore given that climate change affects us all, no matter who is responsible for the carbon being released into the atmosphere. We’re trying to bridge the gap between green living and a clear understanding of global emissions reductions.’

On first glance, CRAGs look like a relatively straightforward carbon-reduction initiative for local communities to engage with, but scratching the surface reveals a clearly politicised membership base. Many early CRAG members started their groups with the specific aim of piloting a personal carbon trading system, and strong support is voiced for a policy that is described invariably as ‘progressive’, ‘redistributive’ and – in the words of Oxfam competition winner Anna Plodowski – ‘key to providing a basic level of social justice.'

‘I didn’t come to CRAGs as an environmentalist,’ says Anna. ‘While I’m obviously a citizen of the planet, I’m not too concerned about whether a species of plant survives or if birds can thrive in their natural habitats. I’m much more worried about the human race and how climate change is going to impact so massively on the billions of people who rely on a stable climate to survive. I believe an equitable distribution of allowable carbon emissions is crucial to social justice, and being part of a CRAG allows me to take an active role in that debate.’

A contract for convergence

Personal carbon trading as a national policy is echoed on the international stage by a concept called contraction and convergence – the idea that Western countries must reduce (contract) their emissions, while certain developing countries can be allowed to increase theirs until the world converges on a sustainable per capita footprint (between 1 and 2 two tonnes annually at current population levels). The steady reductions made by the CRAG movement are evident from the front-page of its website (www.carbonrationing.org.uk), where a graphic illustrates how the average footprint of a CRAG member drops by around 30 per cent after the first year of carbon accounting.

Delving deeper into the website uncovers a wealth of information, and it becomes clear that CRAGs are committed to exploring all areas of carbon reduction, and that the movement is just as much about exploring and asking questions as it is about answering them. Pages in the forum include a detailed discussion of how to account for green electricity, with much of the debate pre-empting Government moves to clear up the situation for consumers trying to decide on a renewable supplier. With one post on the ‘definition of zero carbon’ citing three peer-reviewed papers, you would be forgiven for thinking that CRAG members are professional researchers, but in fact it’s CRAGs themselves that have been the subject of a number of academic studies looking into carbon reduction and behavioural change.

Taking the wealth of knowledge gathered via CRAGs and creating something more solid is an idea that hasn’t escaped some group members. This summer saw the third Climate Camp take place at Kingsnorth, an example of passionate campaigning against certain government policies (in this case, plans for a new generation of coal-fired power stations). But while the majority of Climate Camp attendees are ‘activists’ in a more traditional sense, the CRAG contingent is keen to add a practical and constructive element to campaigning activities.

David Bassendine describes CRAGs as a complementary activity to conventional campaigning, but one that is a clear departure from the idea that all efforts should be focused on getting government to change.

‘CRAGs is a practical implementation of a well-researched policy – almost a series of mini-pilots,’ he says. ‘Whereas most other groups target certain public policies (e.g. no new coal), or seek to highlight government failings, very few are actually putting into action a coherent policy on the ground. We are testing it out and seeing how it works in practice. Both blocking strategies and positive demonstrations of the potential for change are needed to unlock this problem. Climate Camp has been pursuing that strategy well, by showing how a community can live using sustainable technologies as it is trying to block unsustainable ones.’

While David makes a strong argument, going straight from a high-carbon lifestyle to using a compost toilet in a field in Kent is not for everyone. As the CRAG movement nears its three-year anniversary, key members are beginning to look at new strategies to help the movement grow and continue to flourish.

Get literate

On the one hand, easy-to-use websites such as the Carbon Account  have made the process of reporting and aggregating carbon data a lot easier (the group accountant can now simply log on to check progress), and lessons have been learned in how to create a healthy group dynamic from the outset. This has led to the idea of a spin-off movement: Carbon Clubs. Drawing more heavily on the WeightWatchers analogy, and toning down the need to set strict allowances with financial penalties, information packs will be sent out to start-up groups so they’re able quickly to pick up ideas about how to hold meetings and support each other in carbon-reduction activities.

For the committed hardcore, those who revel in getting to the heart of emissions data and policy proposals, the existing CRAG model leaves room for flexibility and creativity in exploring personal carbon trading and low carbon lifestyles. As a movement without any formal structure, however, beginning in the organic way it did, spreading key messages and liaising with other organisations is not easy. To address this, a more formal group may be set up.

Called the Carbon Literacy Foundation, the idea is to have a steering group capable of liaising with external organisations and ensuring that new and existing projects are resourced effectively. With such a wealth of information and valuable experiential research already gathered by the movement, it seems crucial that the know-how be shared and built upon. Oxfam was certainly impressed with its three winners’ ability to reel off information about carbon reduction and climate change legislation. Where ministers can usually readily dismiss lobbyists’ demands as a routine part of their job, confronting real people committed to carbon reduction and political change is not so easy.

When asked by one CRAG member what his carbon footprint was, Hilary Benn was able to muster a (no doubt well-briefed) answer of six tonnes. Who knows, maybe the next step is joining a CRAG?

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Life in a CRAG

The Act on CO² calculator used in the Oxfam competition measures direct emissions – domestic energy, transport and flights – and the UK average is 5-6 tonnes annually. The average CRAG footprint after one year’s membership is 3.3 tonnes (a ‘sustainable’ footprint is between 1 and 2 tonnes). Of the three Oxfam competition winners, carbon footprints ranged from 0.45 tonnes to 2.2 tonnes.

AT THE BOTTOM END OF THE SCALE IS JOHN COSSHAM WITH 0.45 TONNES/YEAR.

He lives in York with his wife and two boys (aged 9 and 11). Two clean-burning wood stoves (made by Clearview) are at the heart of John’s low footprint. They are used for heating the house and bathwater, and most cooking. John uses his bicycle trailer to collect wood for the stoves from places where it would otherwise go to waste. He estimates that they use approximately six tonnes of wood every year (about one large tree).

The gas hot water tank is used sometimes, as is the gas oven (about once a week), but the household bill is kept down to around £60/year. The annual electricity bill (from Good Energy) comes to around £225, the major usage being lights and the family’s two computers.

John doesn’t own a car or take any flights, relying on his bike and public transport. There is a compost toilet in the garden but only John uses it on a regular basis, with the rest of the family opting for the normal indoor toilet.

GLASGOW CRAG MEMBER KAT JONES HAD THE HIGHEST FOOTPRINT OF THE THREE WINNERS, COMING IN AT 2.2 TONNES/YEAR.

Kat lives in a small terraced house with her young family in Glasgow. Although her footprint is less than half that of the UK average, her lifestyle is not remarkably different than most city dwelling families.

The family is frugal with central heating: only two radiators are kept on, and wrapping up in blankets is preferred to heating bedrooms unnecessarily. The main family space is still kept cosy, and draft excluders are used to good effect. Extra insulation is being fitted in the loft. In terms of electricity, Kat emphasises what a difference electricity monitors (e.g. an OWL) make. Baked potatoes are now microwaved rather than oven-cooked for hours.

The family car was sold 18 months ago and isn’t missed (cycling as a family makes Kat feel community-spirited!). One flight is taken each year to see Kat’s Swiss husband’s family. This is what bumps her footprint over the other Oxfam winners.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2008

 

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