New Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

18 12 2009

I have to be honest, I have a tendency to glaze over and switch off when people start harping on about carbon footprints, food miles and climate change. It’s not that I don’t care and it’s not that I don’t think that there is a real value in living in an environmentally friendly way – it’s just that I think I have the environmentalist’s version of compassion fatigue syndrome. For example, we all know that there are starving children in Africa all year round, yet I only seem to reach into my pocket for my wallet and a tissue to cry into when Children in Need time comes around. So it is with green issues – as selfish as it may sound, I think I need reminding from time to time of the realistic benefits, not only to the planet, but also to myself, of living green. Otherwise it’s too easy to ignore.

In my latest article for Our Green Earth, I look at the example set by one man called John Cossham. He may be a bit of an eco-extremist with his über-green ways, but reading his story made me feel guilty that one person can be doing so much while I am doing so little. Researching and writing the article was the reality check I needed, this month, to take stock of what I am doing or not doing or could be doing to reduce my carbon footprint. I’ll probably need another one in a month or two though…

New Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

[Edit 3rd December 2010: Sadly, Our Green Earth no longer exists but the owner has very kindly handed back copyright of my articles to me. Here, for your reading pleasure, are New Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint…]

New Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint

Using the Government’s “Act on CO2” website, I’ve just calculated my carbon footprint and discovered that I am responsible for the emission of 7.08 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. While there must be a significant margin for error using a crude (but well designed) tool such as the Carbon Calculator, this worries me. The average person in the UK has a carbon footprint of 4.35 tonnes per year, which puts mine well above the national average (1).

My carbon footprint

I was a little shocked that my carbon footprint was so high as I don’t own a car and use public transport every day. Having said that, my rented flat is very poorly insulated and I have a guilty pleasure: my love of foreign travel. I love exploring new countries and cultures and inevitably get there by plane. I took three short-haul return flights in the last year and dread to think of the CO2 emissions during my “career break” in 2007/8 when I visited 17 countries in 12 months! Do I feel guilty? Yes, although maybe not as much as I should do. Will I stop flying? Honestly? It’s unlikely. So what can I do to reduce my impact on the environment?

The Smallest Carbon Footprint in the UK

In my quest for answers, I came across the remarkable story of John Cossham, winner of an Oxfam competition to find the person in the UK with the lowest carbon footprint. Compared to my monstrous 7.08, John’s is just 0.45 (2). How on our green earth does he do it?

Big investment, big difference

John says, “Being green is about doing whatever you can; it’s not about wearing hair shirts or spending vast amounts of money”. Thank goodness for that! John has radiators in his home but says that he and his family haven’t used them for almost 5 years. Instead, they have invested in two smoke-free wood-burning stoves to heat the rooms of the house as well as to heat water for baths, washing-up and making tea. They regularly take logs and scrap wood out of skips to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, and of course as a free fuel. They also use the stoves to cook on, although they do have a gas hob. John would like a wood fired oven but, he says, “you have to be realistic” (2).

Healthy living

In addition to the wood stoves, John and his family use low-energy appliances, don’t own a mobile phone, always switch off plugs at the wall sockets and follow a vegetarian, almost vegan diet since, apparently, the meat and dairy industries add a “hidden carbon footprint” to our lifestyles. Healthy living, of which his veganism is a part, is also important to this eco-friendly family since healthcare costs the environment dear too. The vast resources used by the medical sector could be greatly reduced if people were healthier, and walking or cycling instead of using a car or even public transport is likely to increase the nation’s fitness as well as reduce our carbon footprint (2).

No excuses

Clearly, John Cossham is an extremist in the world of eco-warriors but the fact that one man is doing much whilst I am doing so little makes me feel somewhat ashamed. It would be so easy to reduce my carbon footprint, even a little, with a bit of effort. I’m guilty of leaving plugs switched on at the wall, leaving the TV on standby and, with the best intentions in the world, I always seem to forget my reusable bags when I go to the supermarket. I’ll be honest and say that I doubt I’ll be giving up the foreign holidays any time soon (unlike John who never flies and doesn’t believe that people should), however, he does say, “There is no secret to reducing your carbon footprint; people just need to look at the energy they use within their home, their diet, the transport they use and what they do in their community” (2).

Ten Tips for Lessening your Environmental Impact

By making small changes gradually, a little extra effort could go a long way towards reducing our impact on our precious environment. Here are a few small ideas that I’ve discovered while surfing the net (on my energy-efficient laptop that I promise to switch off when I’m finished!)

  • Don’t send Christmas cards this year. Save paper, postage, transport miles and trees by sending e-cards or just calling your loved ones to wish them a Merry Christmas
  • One man’s trash is another’s treasure. Instead of throwing away unwanted furniture, toys, clothes, books and appliances and condemning them to landfill or incineration, why not join your local Freecycle group and give away your unwanted belongings. It’s amazing what people will take off your hands!
  • Keep carrier bags in your bag or coat pocket so you’re never unprepared for a shopping trip. At some shops you can even earn extra loyalty points for reusing bags, too.
  • When replacing household appliances, be sure to choose the most energy efficient models, an A or A+ rating is the best. You’ll save money on your bills too.
  • Energy is still being consumed when your appliances are on standby or when the plug switch is on. Get into the habit of switching off appliances when you leave a room and don’t leave things like mobile phones and iPods charging over night – an hour or two on charge is usually sufficient.
  • I have a friend who lives opposite a supermarket and yet drives there to do her weekly shop. Consider the environment and your health and walk or cycle short distances. For local journeys, support public transport and park and ride schemes.
  • Sign up with the Mailing Preference Service to stop receiving junk mail. Less waste, less annoying letters from credit card companies.
  • Investigate the insulation in your home. Even if you live in rented accommodation and don’t have any control over things like double glazing or loft insulation, simple changes like hanging thicker curtains, laying rugs over hard floors and using draft excluders can make a significant difference to your energy usage.
  • Don’t buy bottled water. Plastic bottles are a major source of waste as many still can’t be recycled. Tap water in the UK is perfectly safe to drink as it is, or you can buy an inexpensive filter to make it taste nicer.
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle. Sorting your household rubbish properly means that more can be recycled and less waste is land filled or incinerated. Reuse tubs and jars, or save them for a jam-making friend or Freecycler.


  1. Act on CO2,
  2. Southgate, S, How to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint, The Ecologist 39: 1, 2009

Christmas at work is quite fun

11 12 2009

Even though you’re still actually at work, which sucks a bit, Christmas time at work, albeit only my second Christmas here at BioMed Central, is actually quite fun. Firstly, the work slacks off a little bit. As peer reviewers and authors make themselves scarce, at least there’s nothing new coming in and we can get on with bringing the backlog down! This week, we’ve had a Christmas market in the cafe to raise money for our Charity of the Year, Computer Aid, which provides computing equipment to schools and universities in developing countries.

My department, together with the ScienceNow team and the Independent Journals team also went for our Christmas lunch at a pub near Chancery Lane. What a feast! I had a delicious parsnip soup to start followed by an enormous turkey breast roast and baked cheesecake (that I didn’t really need but somehow managed to eat anyway!). I’d highly recommend the Blue Anchor!

L-R: Me, Gaby, Guillaume, Jenny, and Nafisa on the floor

Lastly, we had our our work’s Christmas party last night (so forgive me if this post isn’s as perky or well written as usual!) – a “dress to impress” night of cocktails and dancing at the Barbican conservatory. A really impressive venue, if a little bit chilly out in the garden! We were treated to a free bar and nibbles as well as the cheesiest DJ ever, but a good time was had by all!

Green China

3 12 2009

At the tail end of my round-the-world trip in 2007/08, I was lucky enough to have visited Beijing while the city was host to the Olympic Games. What an incredible experience! Olympics aside, I visited some of Beijing’s must-see sights including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace and The Great Wall. The Olympic Games though – wow. The “Bird’s Nest” stadium had an incredible atmosphere and I also cheered on Team GB at two hockey games – though we lost both :(.

It wasn’t until I got home (having been away for a year with virtually no TV, don’t forget) that I heard about all the scandal surrounding the Chinese hosts. A pretty little girl singing at the opening ceremony was actually a dubbed stand-in because the real singer had bad teeth. Some of the fireworks were computer generated. The city’s slums had been baricaded so that visitors couldn’t see the “real” China. China gets a bit of a bad rep. In my latest blog post for Our Green Earth I discuss China’s attitude towards green politics and their impact on the environment.

Green China – Its Impact on the Environment

[Edit 3rd December 2010: Sadly, Our Green Earth no longer exists but the owner has very kindly handed back copyright of my articles to me. Here, for your reading pleasure, is Green China…]

Green China – Its Impact on the Environment

Despite there being, allegedly, “ten million bicycles in Beijing”, China is one of the world’s biggest producers of greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. Since the once introverted communist government adopted the mantra “to spend is patriotic” (1), factory exports have increased astronomically and Chinese citizens now find themselves with greater freedom of choice and increased spending power.

More Pound For Your Yuan

An article I recently read in The Times newspaper reported that Chinese visitors to London – Britain now being an “approved destination” – spend an average of £780 across the capital’s three main shopping streets (Oxford St, Regent St and Bond St) in the duration of a typical length holiday – an increase of 21% on the year before (1).

Social Responsibility

However, let’s not be fooled into thinking that all Chinese people are getting richer and that the economic boom has been entirely good for the country as a whole. An increasing gross domestic product (GDP) brings with it an increasing responsibility to the people and to the environment. China is now the world’s fastest growing economy, yet this growth has created environmental problems that China has oft been accused of ignoring and knowingly exacerbating.

China’s Giant Carbon Footprint

According to the Chinese division of Greenpeace, in 2007 China was responsible for 38% of the world’s total coal output. This huge consumption of fossil fuels, which are used to generate 70% of China’s electricity, combined with the increase in car use, not only contributes to the ultimate extinction of these non-renewable resources, but has also resulted in a carbon footprint to the tune of more than 6 billion tons of CO2 per year. This in turn has led to shocking statistics such as the fact that 400,000 people die prematurely in China every year as a result of diseases related to air pollution, and of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 16 of these are in China (2).

Something In The Water

It’s not just the air that suffers from serious pollution in China. Intensive farming and inadequate irrigation has meant that now, 85% of China’s waterways are suffering from eutrophication due to agricultural run-off. This renders the water unsafe to drink, depletes fish stocks essential to local fishing economies and reduces biodiversity. More than 90 million people in China do not have access to potable water, and 40% of those who do, do not have water that meets basic health and hygiene guidelines (2).

Looking forward

China has earned its critics when it has made claims in the past to accept the responsibility that they have for the environment. When the air quality of the capital city of Beijing was improved in the run up to the 2008 Olympic Games for example, many thought that this was a token effort to simply look good on the world’s stage. However, recent reports suggest that the Chinese government really is starting to look towards making amends for the past and are beginning to realise their role in the environmental play.

Copenhagen Carbon Intensity Pledge

Ahead of the climate summit in Copenhagen to be held in December 2009, China has already led the way by pledging to reduce its carbon intensity by 40-45% by 2020. Carbon intensity is the amount of carbon released per unit of currency of economic activity – in other words, the amount of carbon released per dollar (or yuan, in China’s case!) earned. The statistically savvy will spot that given the rapid rate of economic growth, this does not in fact mean that China will reduce its overall carbon emissions. If China adheres to their plan, they will actually be releasing up to 108% more carbon than they do now, but they will slow the rate of growth of carbon emissions (3).

Looking On The Bright Side

Looking on the bright side, this equates to a saving of more than 4 gigatons of carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere to wreak even greater havoc with the ozone layer if carbon emissions continued to match GDP growth .

Green China?

Sceptics may scoff at these so-called targets, but China is certainly more active in reducing their ecological footprint than they have been historically. To cite some examples, the public transport system in China is slowly but surely developing and is helping to reduce carbon emissions from personal vehicle use (2). Unsustainable logging is also being challenged by foreign governments and companies alike – leading the way is the hardware retailer B&Q who has recently pledged not to sell wood products in China that come from unsustainable or illegal sources (2).

Political Relations

Perhaps the greatest change that China has made in recent times is their increasing openness to the experience of other countries. Collaborations between Western and Chinese academic institutions, for example, have increased the quantity and quality of scientific research, notably research looking at the scope for renewable energy use in China.

Scientific Research

Research teams from Harvard and Beijing have suggested that wind-generated electricity has the potential to reduce China’s coal use by up to 23% (4), and China’s biggest electricity provider, Huaneng Group, have also been in talks with Australian research organisations to develop carbon-capture technology to reduce the impact of coal-fired power stations (5). Political relations between East and West are gradually improving and the influence of the more ecologically aware organisations will certainly prove a great benefit not only to China, but to the world at large.


  1. Leitch, L and Fletcher, H, Chinese big spenders have London’s luxury goods in their sights, The Times, 28th November 2009
  2. Greenpeace, The low-down on China’s environment
  3. Watts, J, China means business with first-ever carbon emissions targets, The Guardian, 27th November 2009,
  4. McElroy, MB, Lu, X, Nielsen, CP and Wang, Y, Potential for wind-generated electricity in China, Science 325: 1378 – 1380, 2009
  5. Fenn, J, China grapples with a burning question, Science 325: 1646, 2009

Deep Sea Scientific Discoveries

2 12 2009

One of my great passions in life is Scuba diving. I’m obsessed. I can’t afford to do it too often, but when I do, I’m in my element. I first started Scuba diving in 2007, when I was a teacher working at Cranbrook School. My colleague Tony and I took a group of Lower Sixth students to Honduras for two weeks in order to take part in conservation projects with Operation Wallacea. We spent one week in the Honduran cloudforest doing some hardcore trekking to survey the jungle, and the other week was spent on a desert island – a real desert island where only scientists are allowed to go – sleeping in tents on the beach and learning to Scuba dive to take part in reef ecology surveys.

At first, I hated Scuba diving. I was scared about breathing underwater, couldn’t take my mask off for fear of getting salt in my eyes, and when we had to learn the skill of taking our buoyancy devices on and off, I panicked. I gradually got used to it though and became so enthralled with the corals and marine life under the waves that I forgot my fears and was soon hooked. Scuba diving really is amazing (and it probably helped that I learnt in an unspoilt part of the Carribean sea!) – if you’ve never done it, then please do!

Not long after the trip to Honduras, I left my job and went off gallavanting around the world for a year. I took every opportunity I could to dive some more and have now racked up 40+ dives as well as working my way up from completely unqualified to Rescue Diver (which is one step below the first professional dive qualiffication – I’ll get there though!). I’ve dived in New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and Turkey and it’s my mission to one day get to the Red Sea where I’ve heard that the colours are *amazing*.

Anyway, I digress. My love of Scuba and having fairly recently returned from Turkey where I took my first sub-aqua dip in the Mediterranean, prompted me to write the following article for Our Green Earth about recent discoveries of new species of underwater life. The pictures are coooool.

Deep Sea Scientific Discoveries

[Edit 3rd December 2010: Sadly, Our Green Earth no longer exists but the owner has very kindly handed back copyright of my articles to me. Here, for your reading pleasure, is Deep Sea Scientific Discoveries…]

Deep Sea Scientific Discoveries

There’s an adage that we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the depths of the ocean. This may well be true, but marine biologists, oceanographers and other scientists are working hard to rectify this gap in our knowledge. In November 2009, a group of researchers working on the Census of Marine Life released some of their findings for this year. The 10-year project won’t in fact be completed until some time in 2010, but their extensive research so far has revealed more than 17,500 species – many of which previously undiscovered – that live in the deep sea (1).

Alvin and the Scientists

Beneath the first few hundred metres of the sea’s surface waters, the environment is cold, dark and under intense pressure and so was generally thought of as being a pretty inhospitable place for organisms to live. This assumption led scientists to believe that very few organisms could survive this extreme habitat. In 1977 however, a team of researchers from several institutions across the US, headed up by Dr. John Corliss, descended to more than 2000m underwater in a submersible craft called Alvin and made a startling discovery (2).

Black smokers

Corliss and his team uncovered the presence of hydrothermal vents in the seabed; volcanic fissures in the ocean floor where hot water, rich in chemicals, bursts through to mix with the cold, deep water. It had already been guessed that such volcanic activity might exist under the sea, but until Alvin’s voyage to the Galapagos Rift, nobody had ever seen it (2). Furthermore, these hydrothermal vents, or “black smokers” – so called because of the plumes of dark “smoke” rising up from the vents (water rich in iron oxides) – appeared to support life.


Plants make their own food by harnessing the energy in sunlight to convert inorganic carbon (CO2) into sugars during the process of photosynthesis. Anyone who has ever Scuba dived down to 20 or 30 metres will know that even at these relatively shallow depths, the wavelengths of visible light are lost (the so-called “red shift” phenomenon) so that everything seems to appear more and more blue. Descend a few more metres and you would find that the ocean becomes pitch black. Therefore, in the deep ocean, photosynthesis is not an option and plants and algae cannot survive. In hydrothermal vents however, certain primary producing bacteria exist that are described as chemolithoautotrophic; they are able to produce their own food by using the energy from chemical reactions derived from the chemicals emitted by the vent (3).

Deep sea ecosystems

Whereas organisms on land consume plants as the basis of their energy requirements, strange tube worms, grazing crabs and eerie jellyfish-like creatures living in hydrothermal vent areas have evolved to feed on these chemolithoautotrophic bacteria, and higher organisms such as a variety of species of fish, feed on them in turn. More recent research has uncovered more communities of weird and wonderful animals living in other types of deep-sea habitats including cold-seeps found around the edges of continental plates, where chemical-rich waters ooze from the sea bed; underwater mountains, or seamounts that support a vast diversity of isolated organisms; even creatures that feed on pockets of crude oil or the slow-decomposing carcasses of whales that drift to the bottom of the ocean (4).

Some highlights from the 2009 Census findings

It would be beyond the scope of this article to describe each of the species identified between the 344 researchers from 34 countries working on 5 different Census of Marine Life projects, but here are a few highlights.

Worms having a whale of a time

A research team working on the Census of Diversity of Abyssal Marine Life (CeDAMar) project in the Antarctic Ocean identified a new species of Osedax worm 500m underwater. These worms have adapted to life without light by utilising whale bone for their energy requirements and are not only restricted to the Antarctic; 17 species in total have been recorded in waters as far apart as Sweden, California and Japan (1).

Dumbo octopods

The Mid Atlantic Ridge Ecosystem Project (MAR-ECO) have discovered 9 new species of an octopod organism nicknamed “Dumbo” (Grimpoteuthis sp.) because of the ear-like fins which “flap” like the ears of Dumbo the Disney elephant. These octopus-like creatures were found abundantly in waters 1000-3000 metres deep. A “jumbo Dumbo” was even spotted that was estimated to be up to 2 metres long (1).

A bed of cucumbers

Because of the seemingly lack of diverse features of abyssal expanses of deep sea bottom mud, the ocean floor has historically been thought of as something of a black hole unable to support life. Modern research suggests that in fact, mud on the seabed is teeming with small creatures, and in some areas studied, approximately 99% of species found were new to science. A surprising find was the rich biodiversity of yellowish-green sea cucumbers living at great depth in this apparently bland landscape (1).

Mysteries of the deep

A researcher heavily involved with the Census projects, Dr. David Billet of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre said, “The distribution of species in the deep sea is full of mysteries” (1). As a keen Scuba diver, discoveries like these at the bottom of the sea, which use state of the art technology and highly innovative research methods, sends excited shivers down my spine. I, like many others, are fascinated by “what lies beneath” and wait impatiently for the mysteries to be unravelled – with not a little jealousy that it’s not me in that submersible craft!

Knowledge is power

However, unlocking the mysteries of the deep brings with it great responsibilities. Increasingly, we cannot plead ignorance to our planet’s plight as we learn more and more about its secrets. Billet’s colleague, Robert S. Carney, puts it very well when he says, “The abyss has long been viewed as a desert. Worse, it was viewed as a wasteland where few to no environmental impacts could be of any concern. “Mine it, drill it, dispose into it, or fish it – what could possibly be impacted?” And, if there is an impact, the abyss is vast and best yet, hidden from sight. [But the] Census of Marine Life deep realm scientists see and are concerned” (1).


  1. Press release of the Census of Marine Life, From the edge of darkness into the black abyss: marine scientists census 17,500+ species and counting, November 2009
  2. Corliss, JB, Dymond, J, Gordon, LI, Edmond, JM, von Herzen, RP, Ballard, RD, Green, K, Williams, D, Bainbridge, A, Crane, K and van Andel, TJ, Submarine thermal springs on the Galapagos Rift, Science 203: 4385, 1979
  3. Zhou, H, Li, J, Peng, X, Meng, J, Wang, F and Ai, Y, Microbial diversity of a sulphide black smoker in Main Endeavour hydrothermal vent field, Juan de Fuca ridge, Journal of Microbiology 47: 3, pp. 235-247, 2009
  4. Shrope, M and Pickrell, J, Instant expert: Mysteries of the deep sea, New Scientist, 2006

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