ABC0² - Are you carbon literate?

How heavily do you tread on our planet's resources – what can you do to lighten your step? 

ON A BRIGHT, sunny morning, 14 professionals gather at a housing association headquarters in East Didsbury, on a mission to improve their literacy levels.

The professionals come from local government, the police, transport, telecoms and media firms across Greater Manchester. They are not here to learn their ABCs. This is carbon-literacy class, where students look at CO² emissions to better understand how they contribute, personally and professionally to climate change – and how to reduce that impact.

Great Places Housing has offered carbon-literacy training for five years. It expects to have trained all its 600 staff by next year. Once trained and certified carbon-literate, the Carbon Literacy Project encourages you to take your knowledge back to your workplace, to train others.

Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s five-year plan for the environment pledged to invest in carbon-literacy training as it works to become carbon-neutral by 2038. The region’s NGOs want GMCA to go further, launching a universal carbon-literacy programme for adults.

First off, the icebreaker. Climate-change bingo is a bingo card showing different actions that reduce our carbon footprint, from using a slow cooker to buying secondhand clothes. Our mission is to find someone in the room who admits to doing each action on the card and write their name down. First to cross out all nine actions wins – and you get to know everyone’s name.

Next up is climate-change snap, a collection of cut-outs, one pile featuring myths about climate change, the other featuring a rebuttal. Split into two teams, we compete to match each myth to its fact.

After that, we work in smaller groups to agree what a carbon footprint is and suggest ways each of us can reduce ours, at work and at home.


Carbon literacy is not new. The United Nations declared in the 1980s that people must understand how their personal and professional actions affect the environment. But it is back on the agenda, thanks to new urgency following last year’s IPCC report, as climate-change activists take to the streets and as organisations and governments declare a climate emergency.

So far, CLP has trained 10,000 individuals from 500 organisations. The training costs £99-£299 per head. The class ends with everyone pledging on paper to make one personal and one workplace or community-based change to reduce their carbon impact. You are certified carbon literate on fulfilling both pledges.

Fighting climate change is about more than environmental benefits, tutor Sarah McClelland tells the class. Cutting our carbon footprint – generating electricity from renewables, buying seasonal and local – brings benefits to energy and food security, public health, national security and economic growth.

Great Places Housing is working to decarbonise and improve energy efficiency across its properties. Manchester charity Open Kitchen runs its canteen, using food that would otherwise go to landfill. And yes, lunch is delicious.

After lunch comes the science bit, learning about the six types of gas that contribute to global warming, matching cards showing cows, volcanoes and vintage AirMax trainers to the gas they emit. The trainers – now discontinued – embed SF6 to cushion the soles.

Next, we discuss what global warming would look like at 2°C, 4°C and 6°C above pre-industrial levels. If we do nothing, the world is on a trajectory to heat up by 4°C by 2100.

We look at climate-change jargon and how we use language to shield ourselves against the devastating consequences – something that Greta Thunberg has worked hard to debunk. We then learn which countries emit most carbon – starting with the US, the UK coming in sixth, and with all the developing countries together making up quarter of the total.

Having scared ourselves witless, it’s time for some fun, ranking a series of random objects – a beefsteak, South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup, Biscuit the pet dog, an email, one Manchester-Hong Kong return flight, a banana and a pair of jeans – in descending order of emissions.

The one real surprise is Biscuit the dog, who generates shockingly high emissions, thanks to his diet of beef and car journeys to go walkies.

But then it’s back to the scary stuff, two teams discussing the links between global warming and extreme weather, and how flooding and droughts affect our lives.

Greater Manchester witnessed extreme flooding in 2015. Last summer’s heatwave brought wildfires to Saddleworth Moor and chaos to northwest towns, with tram and train lines buckling in the heat, people fainting on public transport and conservationists trucking in extra water to save dying saplings, planted to slow climate change.

We talk about how flood and drought affect our businesses and customers – whether that’s a higher risk of civil unrest during heatwaves, or the poorest households struggling most to recover from floods, or budgets spent on emergency measures taking money from existing commitments.

By now worried and depressed, we move on to solutions – the things we can change at home and at work. These include switching off lights and appliances, improving our insulation and switching to a green tariff. Greater Manchester Police has recently switched its electricity to renewable sources.

On a lighter note, we then list on post-it notes the things that make us happy – a list that may have included gin, holidays, chocolate and sex – and ponder how climate change is affecting each. Extreme heat and winter floods make it harder to visit loved-ones. Food becomes scarcer and more expensive.

Talk then turned to companies that make a difference, from Manchester’s carbon co-operatives that help households to improve their energy efficiency to the private sector, where companies like Holiday/Hilton are recycling mattresses and Ecotricity-owned football club Forest Green Rovers, which is vegan and solar powered.

That led on to a discussion about food miles, and a new game to match different produce with its natural season, including asparagus, apples, potatoes, strawberries, kale and carrots. A British strawberry eaten in season has a 50g carbon footprint. That rises to 1,800g for strawberries flown into the UK off-season. Worse still, we send a quarter of the strawberries we byu to landfill. We also looked at food choices, how potatoes compare well with lambchops

Classmates then looked at what contributes most to their own carbon footprint. Transport came out on top here, nearly everyone in the room travelling to work and for leisure by car. Foreign holidays also scored high, although several said they aim to limit travel to one return flight a year, to destinations no further than three-hours away.

Classmates debated what changes would have a high impact but might be difficult – having fewer children and which easier changes might have a high – going meat-free on Mondays – or small impact; switching to LED lights.

The day culminated with pledges. Each delegate, having spent a day talking about different aspetcs of life that contribute to carbon emissions agrees to make one personal and one professional change, to reduce their impact at home and at work. Personal pledges included going flexitarian, cycling to work instead of driving every day and turning down the thermostat at home.

Workplace and community pledges included finding out where pension funds are invested and how to reduce exposure to fossil fuels, having more Skype meetings instead of travelling to see people


By Phil Korbel of Cooler Projects, founder of the Carbon Literacy Project

How can I find out about carbon literacy training for myself?

The Carbon Literacy website exists as a 'how-to' guide for all aspects of carbon literacy training. The team can also answer most questions on the training and connect would-be trainers to existing ones in the project's trainer network.

What accreditation does carbon literacy training hold?

A brief evidence sheet is sent to the project for every learner. These are assessed by the project team and uniquely numbered certificates are sent to successful candidates.

How can I become a carbon literacy tutor?

If you have experience of delivering training the project is happy, in principle, for you to deliver carbon literacy. That said there are routes to qualifying as a carbon literacy facilitator, Trainer or Consultant. Details for these qualifications can be found in the trainer section of the Carbon Literacy Project website.

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