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What can individuals do to reduce their Carbon footprint ?

We know the world is facing existential global problems of climate change, environmental degradation, including extinction of species, non-sustainable industrial processes, non-sustainable agriculture, over-population, inequality, poverty and famine. Jared Diamond1, academic and award winning writer, believes the world may be in crisis, possibly at tipping point, confronted by these overwhelming problems. This article seeks to make suggestions how over dependence on fossil fuels and non-renewable resources might be ameliorated by individual action. Each person’s individual action through adopting small and simple changes to their life style can make a difference.

It is fair to say that despite that solutions to these global problems already being known, the technology existing, they have not yet have been addressed, sometimes through the lack of resources but mainly through the lack of political action. It is also fair to say that the scale of these problems necessitate huge international action to “save the planet” and that action needs to take place immediately.

It’s not all bad news

It is not all bad news, the UK Government has recently, June 2019, committed itself to legislation to cut greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by 2050 and to bring forward the target of eliminating both petrol and diesel cars by 2040. To reach the target gas boilers for home heating will have to be replaced by heat exchange technologies, less travel by cars other than electric vehicles, more walking, less meat and dairy consumption, and all this should lead to better public health and air quality.

There has been significant progress in the UK in using renewable energy, and  about 30% of UK energy now comes from renewable sources, up from 5.9% in 2010. This is good news for decarbonising the National Grid, and a very significant milestone has been passed  in 2019. So far this year there have been 1,096 hours of “coal free” electricity generation, and only 3.5% of British electricity from coal over the last 12 months, ironically, the longest period since 18822.

Globally, as it stands now, because Western Europe has “exported” most of its highly polluting manufacturing industries to the Third World, to China, Africa, India and South America where now the greatest efforts to reduce climate change must take place. These countries are set almost to double the size of their economies by 2030 and hence their carbon footprints, but that is not to say that they are simply doing nothing to reduce the associated impacts of growth. China, in particular, is making major investments to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels for power, investing in sustainable energy and transport. For instance it operate 98% of the world’s electric buses and the use of electric cars is growing massively but, because of the sheer size of the economy and the scale of the problems much, much more remains to be done.

We cannot just be overwhelmed by the size of the problem and simply do nothing. It is not just about “trade-off” of stop doing something and that is it, carbon footprint problem done and dusted. For instance, “I know air travel is highly polluting, must I give up al holidays abroad: do I sell the car, give up meat and so on?”. The answer is not entirely but yes, you can do something and make some changes to the way you live. Some potential changes are relatively easy while some changes are really difficult, disruptive and so inconveniencing that making the change may not happen.

[1] – Jared Diamond – Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change 2019.

[2] – ecopush blog – How can renewable energy help in the battle against climate change? May 2019

The General Statistics

Nearly 38.2 billion tons of CO2 was released into the atmosphere from burning of fossil fuels, coal and oil – (Nature 2012). The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the world’s volcanoes, both on land and undersea, generate about 200 million tons CO2 annually

The average car emits about six tons of CO2 each year. Burning one gallon of petrol creates 20 pounds of CO2.

The average short haul flight, based on a Boeing 737-400 averaging 780 km/hour, creates 90 Kg of CO2 per hour -(Wikipedia 2008). The average long haul flight, based on a Boeing 747-400, creates about the same amount of CO2 – (Carbon Independent 2015). This equates to about 101 gm of CO2 per passenger km, and because aviation CO2 is released into the upper atmosphere it is thought to have a greater greenhouse effect giving a UK estimate of ¼ metric ton CO2 equivalent per hour flying.

Agriculture is the third largest contributor to global emissions by sector, with methane accounting for just under half of total agricultural emissions, nitrous oxide for 36% and CO2 14 %. Digestion of organic materials by livestock is the largest source of agricultural emissions at 37% of the total and one way to reduce agricultural emissions is for people to minimize their consumption of meat and dairy products – (Worldwatch Institute 2013).

International Action

Climate change at a global level: The Paris Agreement 20163

The Agreement’s long-term goal is to hold the increase in global average temperature to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels; and to limit the increase to 1.5°C, which would substantially reduce the risks and effects of climate change. Also included were: –

  • To limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100.
  • To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years so they scale up to the challenge.
  • For rich countries to help poorer nations by providing “climate finance to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.

Climate change at UK level:Committee on Climate Change 20183 – a progress report

The report seeks progress in the reduction of UK emissions of greenhouse gases within 7 main areas: Economy-wide progress, Power, Buildings, Industry, Transport, Agriculture and land use, land-use change and forestry, Waste, and Fluorinated gases – (F-gases). It has 4 clear messages: –

  1. Support the simple, low-cost options;
  2. Commit to effective regulation and strict enforcement;
  3. End the chopping and changing of policy
  4. Act now to keep long-term options open

Progress4

Since 1990 emission have fallen by 43% and 3% in 2017, but the progress across the 8 defined sectors is variable. In the past ten years, as emissions in power and industry have

reduced, transport has become the largest emitting sector of the UK economy, accounting for 28% of UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. Between 2012 and 2017 emissions fell

[3] – The Paris Agreement 2016 (Accord de Paris)under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, covers greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance.

[4] – Reducing UK emissions 2018 Progress Report to Parliament: Committee on Climate Change June 2018.

Approximately from power by 55%, waste 23%, industry by 10%, agriculture by 3%, buildings by 2%, F-gases by 1%, but transport rose by 4%. In October 2017, the UK Government launched the Clean Growth Strategy (CGS)5, fulfilling its legal obligation to set out policies and proposals to enable the carbon budgets set by Parliament to be met: –

  • Phasing out the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040.
  • Upgrading as many homes as possible to Energy Performance Certificate band C by 2035, including all rented and fuel-poor homes by 2030.
  • Phasing out installation of high-carbon fossil fuel heating in homes and businesses off the gas grid during the 2020s.
  • Improving the route to market for renewable technologies and progressing discussions with developers of new nuclear power, with a view to reaching 85% of UK generation from low-carbon sources in 2032.
  • Improving business energy efficiency by at least 20% by 2030, including through an Industrial Energy Efficiency Scheme and changes to building regulations and standards.
  • To publish a plan to limit UK aviation emissions to the level at around 2005 levels in 2050.
  • Plant 11 million trees in England between 2017 and 2022 (equivalent to over 2,000 hectares per annum).
  • Deploying carbon capture use and storage at scale in the UK in the 2030s.

The Government has launched its Strategy, it has legislated on certain aspects and it now need to formulate the policies and provide the funding to to deliver and cut emissions to zero by 2050. Much of actual action to deliver the Government’s renewable energy depends on increasing the proportion of electricity generated by nuclear power. The massive capital cost of nuclear power plants, raw materials, safe disposal of waste, the danger of malfunction, security, the decade plus time frames for planning and development, complex political and environmental considerations make the future of nuclear power and therefore the possibility of achieving the targets uncertain. The replacement of Sizewell B for instance is en-mired in escalating costs and political problems, and proposals for a £16 billion plant in Wales and another in Cumbria have been scrapped2.

To summarise where we are now in the UK, the risks of failure to deliver existing policy commitments are high and low-cost opportunities to reduce emissions such as home insulation, business energy efficiency and tree planting are being missed.

What can I do?

These massive global problems but can I contribute to stabilising global warming? Can I reduce my carbon footprint by changes to the way I live and can this be achieved without radically reducing my life style? For instance, must I never eat meat, never fly, or drive a car, grow all my own food, because these may prove so difficult, disruptive so inconveniencing that making the change may be impossible to sustain and, therefore just won’t happen. Yes you can! It is a balance between the relative ease of undertaking any action and its efficacy and by doing the simple things now work toward reducing your carbon footprint from the more complex and harder actions.

The 10-tonne lifestyle 6

Mike Berners-Lee (academic and consultant) proposes a “10-tonne lifestyle” target of causing no more than 10 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year for each person living in the

most polluting developed world. For the average American or Australian and, that’s a reduction of around two-thirds from the current level of average footprint of about 30 tonnes of CO2e per year, taken from a number of studies. People living in the Third World generally produce much less than this and the current global average is more like 4 tonnes.

A year of 10-tonne living means equals 833 kg CO2e per month, or 27.4 kg CO2e per day. No-one is saying it’s easy or you have to do it, it is about your life style and a question of your values. The table sets out examples of the carbon footprint impacts of some common activities and includes some which give reductions. For some, achieving a 10-tonne lifestyle may be difficult if not impossible, but everyone should try.

Carbon polluting item CO2 equivalent per year How many days of a 10 tonne year
Driving 10,000 miles/yr based on the average car consuming about 33 miles/gal. 7.18 tonnes 258 days
Walking instead of driving short trips (25% of trips are less than a mile) makes a saving 1.79 tonnes saving 64 days saving
Cycling 10 km each way each day to work 150kg saving 5 days saving
24 hour return flight. (e.g. London-Hong Kong) 3.4 tonnes (per return flight) 124 days (3 trips = 10 tones)
2 night stay in a standard UK hotel with air conditioning, sheets and towels changed each day, full English breakfast and dinner with imported ingredients. 120kg 4 days
Using a computer every work day 9 to 6.00pm, plus 2 hours at home and at weekends (about 3070 hours/yr), plus about 500kg for average desk top electricity, servers and network. 141 tonnes 52 days
Large cheese burger eaten twice a month. 60 kg 2 days
1 kg of steak 27 kg 1 day
1kg of lamb 39.3 kg 1¼ days
1 litre of milk 282 g ¼ day
1 pair of Levi jeans 33.4 kg 1 day
Cotton t-shirt 15 kg ½ day
Pair of trainers 14 kg ½ day

[5] – BEIS (2018) 2017 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Provisional Figures; BEIS (2018) 2016 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Final Figures.

[6] – How Bad Are Bananas?: The carbon footprint of everything: Mike Berners-Lee 2010

[7] – There Is No Planet B: A Handbook for the Make or Break Years: mike Berners-Lee 2019

SIMPLE WAYS OF REDUCING YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT

This is not a comprehensive list, but sets out a number of “easy wins”. You can do more and adopt more complex means of reducing your impact.

Food

Food forms 20% of the average person’s carbon food-print and from amalgamation of food writers’ view: –

  • eating what you buy (e.g., saving leftovers and keeping things in the fridge) leads to a 25% reduction
  • reducing meat and dairy consumption a 25% reduction
  • eating produce in season, avoiding hothouses and air freight a 10% reduction
  • avoiding excessive packaging and recycling a 6% reduction.
  • cooking using less energy (use a pan lid where possible and turn off power asp) a 5% reduction

Travel

Walk or cycle more and use public transport. Use electric or carbon neutral cars, which use synthetic fuels.

Home heating

Turn down the central heating 1 degree or more and perhaps put on a sweater. For use of electricity use energy saving technologies such as smart plugs. Use green energy. Use LED lighting as incandescent lights which waste 90 percent of their energy as heat. Insulate the loft, and insulate walls (more complex and expensive) and double/triple glaze.

Waste, wrapping and plastic

Reduce your food waste and compost if possible. Try and avoid purchases being “over wrapped”, particularly if in plastic and try to leave the excess wrapping in the shop.

The issue of waste recycling is now a “cause celebre” of national and international importance and how best individuals can reduce then amount of unnecessary wrapping. Similarly, the question of single use plastic.

Clothing

Extending the average life of clothes by just three months per item would lead to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste.  85% of fast fashion ends up in landfills and as most comes from the Third World, China and Bangladesh, it is shipped using highly polluting of fossil fuels. In 2015, the clothing industry was responsible for 1.750 million tonnes of CO2 emissions (source Pulse of Fashion report). The production of clothing is very water demanding as it takes 10 to 0,000 litres of water to make 1 kilo of cotton, equivalent to a pair of jeans and a shirt (source Wrap report 2017 Instead, buy quality clothing that will last.

Plant a tree

A tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of CO2 per year and can sequester 1 ton of CO2 by the time it reaches 40 years old: that is about 2 2kg/yr or 455 kg in the same period. Taking an average figures for the average person, planting about 1000 trees year would off-set their annual carbon footprint: less depending on where they live and the individual life style.

Use Green Energy

Changing your energy provider, to one focusing on green energy (and offsetting gas use). This makes sure you use energy from renewable sources. Additionally it creates a clear market demand for such providers, which in turn drives investment and development of cleaner energy sources. Use smart plugs to source electricity at the lowest tariff, optimal generation time and to suit your life style and values.

YOUR VIEWS

At Ecopush we really value your views and ideas on reducing peoples’ carbon footprint and on ways of doing this, so let us know.

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