PARIS, November 29 – The world’s nations gather in Poland from Monday to wrangle over a deal to slash greenhouse gases, but citizens with a climate conscience are already pondering what they can do to atone for their sins of emission.
Some folks have more atoning to do than others.
In terms of volume, emerging giants such as China and India are now massive contributors to global warming, ranking first and fourth respectively in 2007, according to an expert assessment issued in September.
But, in per-capita terms, nothing beats the Western lifestyle for carbon pollution.
The average American or Australian pumps out more than twice as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as a European or Japanese, and four times as much as someone in Africa or continental Asia, according to UN figures.
But a growing number of people in rich countries, say experts, are starting to take the task of tackling climate change personally.
"I am completely convinced that there are going to be enough people demanding green products that we will see ways to reduce emissions," said Susan Solomon, a leading scientist in the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
"The bottom line is that people care and are getting engaged."
Climate-aware consumers lay down insulation in the attic, install double-glazed windows, select energy efficient refrigerators or washing machines, even if this means paying a premium.
Many look for labels from green group such as the WWF certifying everyday products as eco-friendly.
Or they may switch to organic foods grown without the use of manufactured — and carbon-intensive — chemicals.
And they eschew out-of-season fruits, flowers and vegetables that have been flown to their countries from half-way round the world.
Green guilt can also be assuaged by a dizzying array of carbon offsets.
These are schemes whereby one invests enough in a mitigation project — say, reforestation in the Amazon — to compensate for the CO2 pollution from that 20-hour round holiday trip to Bora Bora or the Maldives.
A New Zealand company began marketing Climate Change Chocolate in the United States this year through the Whole Foods supermarket chain, with 55 cents from every sale set aside in carbon offsets to pay for 60.4 kilos, equal to the average American’s daily carbon output.
The amount funneled into such schemes topped 42 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2007 — triple the amount in 2006 — and could reach 1.4 billion tonnes per year by 2020, according to web tracker Ecosystem Marketplace.
The fast-growing industry in offsets has its critics.
Augustin Fragniere of the University of Lausanne of Switzerland described the business as a potential "fools’ market", noting a wide discrepancy in methods to calculate and compensate for carbon.
Pollution estimates for a plane trip from Paris to New York varied by a factor of three, he said.
And despite its success, offset carbon is just tiny compared to the 10 billion tonnes of gas that spewed into the atmosphere in 2007.
Instead of tightening the belt by half a notch, ditching the carbon-heavy lifestyle is needed, say some.
"This is something that the IPCC was afraid to say, but now we have said it," noted Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, which co-won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.
Asked by AFP earlier this year what individual actions would be most effective in braking global warming, Pachauri answered without missing a beat: "Become a vegetarian. Meat is a very carbon-intensive commodity."
About 13 kilos of feed grain are needed to produce a kilo (two pounds) of beef, he pointed out. And the clearing of tropical forests to raise livestock destroys part of a natural sponge than soaks up CO2 from the atmosphere.
Pachauri ticked off other carbon-curbing lifestyle changes, including riding the tube or a bike instead of driving cars, and turning down the thermostat in winter.
And as for that South Pacific dream holiday, maybe a camping trip closer to home would do instead.