In order to avoid dangerous climate change, scientists say that the average temperature of the Earth should not increase by more than 2°C or 3.6°F. To do that we need to dramatically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, and soon.
Greenhouse gas emissions are usually measured in terms of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. The carbon footprint of an activity or thing means the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions produced in doing the activity or making the thing and, if you’re calculating it properly, storing, transporting, and ultimately getting rid of the thing.
Emissions are produced by many activities, but mostly by burning energy, farming animals, and industrial processes such as making cement. Growing plants absorb carbon dioxide, so cutting down rainforest also affects the balance.
Whenever you use energy or buy stuff you cause greenhouse gases to be produced.
UN statistics put the UK emissions at 9.4 tonnes per person per year, but if we take into account international travel and importing it is more likely to be around 11 tonnes. The global average is 5 tonnes. To achieve the necessary reductions, this has to go down to about 2 tonnes per person per year.
Some point to China, India, and other developing countries, and say that they should be doing their bit. Well yes, China has the biggest carbon footprint of any country, and the average emissions at 7 tonnes per person per year is now higher than the EU average. But about 20% are emitted in producing goods for the western market, and China is actively setting targets for reducing total emissions. India could do better, but let’s not take our eye off the ball of our own responsibilities.
In the UK, we as individuals are not directly responsible for the whole 11 tonnes. Some of these are in the workplace, some industrial activity, some are due to local and national government activity like road-building and maintenance.
But the sum total of economic activity is the result of individual human’s decisions and actions, so we still have influence over these other emissions. Some of this influence is indirectly via our voices. We can encourage better practices in our workplaces, and better government policies. And some of this influence is indirectly via our actions. If we drove less, there would be fewer cars on the roads. If we bought less stuff, there would be fewer lorries on the roads. And hence there would need to be less road-building and maintenance. And of course, if we bought less stuff, there would be lower emissions from manufacturing, storage and transport.
Home is where the heart is
About 3 to 4 tonnes of our 11 tonnes are used in the home for space heating, water heating, cooking, lighting and other appliances. Most of the suggested actions below are common sense. You can go a lot further if you want to.
- In the winter, wear a sweater and see if you can turn the thermostat down a bit. Health professionals reckon on 21°C or 70°F in your living room and 18°C or 64°F elsewhere.
- Improve your insulation, which will also improve your overall comfort as well as reduce your heating bills. Get more loft insulation, cavity wall or solid insulation, and draughtproofing.
- If you can, switch to a low carbon energy source. This means no more coal or oil or electricity generated from coal, oil or gas. Instead, it means electricity from low carbon sources (see next), wood fuel or gas. If your boiler needs replacing, buy an efficient model.
- In the summer, turn down your air conditioning. You don’t need to feel cold in your car, and if you have aircon at home, you might be able to switch it off entirely if you open your windows at night and close windows and southerly-facing curtains during the day.
Getting into hot water:
- If you have a hot water tank, is it properly lagged or are you wasting energy?
- A bath is nice occasionally, but showers use much less water and energy. Beware of power showers, which can be incredibly wasteful!
- Have you thought about getting solar panels for water heating?
Everything including the kitchen sink:
- Microwaves are more efficient than hobs for heating, but much better to think about where your food comes from – see below.
- Don’t overfill the kettle, but boil only the water you need. It means less time to wait for that cuppa too!
- Your kitchen appliances guzzle energy, but efficiency is improving all the time. When you need to replace your fridgefreezer, washing machine, dishwasher, etc, try and go for quality and the most efficient in terms of energy and water. It will save in the long run.
- Using a dishwasher may be more efficient than washing up by hand, but not if you was or rinse everything in hot water before you put it in the washer!
- Wash clothes at 30°C – they still come out clean – and think about whether you need to use (or even buy) a dryer, especially when the sun is shining.
Tripping the light fantastic:
- Turn the lights off when you’re not in the room. This goes for teenagers too!
- Replace ordinary light bulbs with efficient alternatives. LEDs have the reputation of producing cold light, but they’re getting better and better, and use a fraction of the electricity compared with halogen bulbs.
- Turn off TVs, computers, etc overnight, instead of leaving them on standby.
- Do you really need to buy that gadget or that new version? You don’t have to take any notice of advertising. If you really really do need a replacement, try to buy efficient model. Greenpeace have a good guide.
- Have you thought about getting solar panels for generating your own electricity?
In fact, have you thought of switching your electricity and gas supply to a greener energy company?
Transport miles per person have increased hugely as our lives have become more fragmented. Flying and single-occupancy cars produce the most carbon emissions. In cities, walking, cycling and public transport are generally much happier and healthier alternatives. Rural areas are a bit more difficult, but lift-shares might be possible, or a wiggly bus scheme!
The daily grind:
- If you’re thinking about moving home or work, live near work or work near home. Or share the school run or lifts to work.
- Try walking or cycling to school or work. It’s good exercise and gets you a bit nearer nature too. That applies to nipping out for the paper and a pint of milk too.
- Do you need to travel to that meeting? Face-to-face is good, but sometimes Skype or teleconferences work just as well and save time and money too.
- Stop driving to the gym! Go for walks, explore your local area. Set up a running group with your neighbours. Join a green gym.
We’re all going on a summer holiday:
- Devon is fabulous. Reduce the stress of getting to the airport and have a ‘staycation’ instead.
- If you don’t want to stay in your own house, you could look into swapping.
- Think of the journey as part of the holiday. Go by train and use seat61.com to plan your trip, or walk a long-distance route.
Stuff and nonsense
Food, glorious food:
- Don’t stuff yourself silly, use your LOAF! That stands for local, organic, animal friendly, fairtrade.
- Find out where the food you put into your body comes from. Warning: this can be an eye-opener! Rebecca Hosking’s film A Farm for the Future shows how much oil is used in modern food production, storage and transport.
- Instead of buying processed and packaged food from far afield, buy lovely fresh food from local farmers. You can even meet the producres at farmers’ markets. Devon is great!
- Although, having said that, fairtrade bananas are not necessarily bad.
- Meat production is a very inefficient means of supplying nutrition. Consider eating less meat, for example having a meat-free Monday, or going vegetarian or vegan entirely. Vegetarian food is more interesting than meat anyway, and cooking is fun!
- Grow your own. Getting your hands dirty is fun, especially if you are guerilla gardening and growing food in public spaces!
All things considered:
- Reduce, reuse and recycle. It takes a lot less energy to recycle aluminium cans than to produce aluminium from scratch.
- Did I mention not paying attention to adverts, and not buying so much stuff!
- If you do need to buy stuff, buy good quality stuff that will last and save you money in the long run. Buy stuff from recycled materials. Avoid packaging.
- You don’t need to be a dedicated follower of fashion. The charity shops in Exeter are pretty good for clothes. Think of it as ‘vintage M&S’.
- Freecycle or sell the stuff you don’t want any more. Someone might.
- Share stuff. Not everyone on your street needs their own private lawnmower sitting in their sheds 99% of the time.
Money money money:
- The big banks don’t really care whether your money is invested in fossil fuels, weapons manufacture, tobacco or betting. They are more interested in big bonuses and making money. And yet, ethical banks often do better for their customers, especially when times are hard. Some banks and building society avoid investing in ‘bad things’. Some actively seek to invest in ‘good things’ like low-carbon technology.
- So think about switching your current account to a building society or the Co-op. Triodos have only business current accounts at the moment, but will be introducing personal accounts next year.
- And think about switching your savings and pension too. There’s more information about ethical investment on the Ethical Consumer site.
Did you know… The carbon footprint of the Iraq war has been estimated to be 250-600 million tonnes? Modern warfare burns massive amounts of energy and has other terrible effects on the environment, so the human costs are often indirect as well as direct. Peace-building and demonstrating against war is becoming ever more vital and urgent.
Most of our energy comes from extracting fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas. Did you know… If we burnt all of the fossil fuels we are planning to extract, we would blow our carbon budget five times over. So we need to keep it in the ground, which means using less energy, no coal, no fracking, and shifting to zero carbon energy – that is, renewable energy from the sun, wind, river, wave, tide, ground and woodland. The UK has one of the best onshore and offshore renewables resources in the world. We could be world leaders if we tried, but the government and the media are in thrall to the big energy companies.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Use your voice. March for the climate. Add your name to petitions. Write to your local council responsible for planning and transport.
Governments met in Paris in December 2015 to come to an agreement on the climate, that is, who will commit to what reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and your MP all have influence in different ways on how the UK will set its targets and take action to reduce emissions. The policies of the current Conservative Government have so far taken us in the wrong direction. Write to them.
With a little help from our friends
Talk to your friends. Keep track of when and where “Particulart: Up in the Air” pop-ups happen, and encourage them to come and see the exhibition.
Set up a local group to encourage each other in saving the planet. Join an existing low-carbon or Transition group. It’s easier together.
There are a lot more ideas online. Just be mindful of Google’s carbon footprint!